Arche and Apeiron in Early Presocratic Philosophy
February 24, 2016
Metaphysical speculation began, long before it was so named, among the presocratic Greeks as an enquiry into cosmology and first principles from two utterly disparate perspectives. The first of these, propounded by Herakleitos, noted the incessant flux (panta rhei) which characterises phenomena; the second, advanced by his contemporary Parmenides, taught the doctrine of a single immutable substance. These rivalling perspectives endure to this day: they announce one of the basic themes on which metaphysics since then has strung up an immense set of variations.
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We may supposed it to have emerged from debate on candidates for the ‘Urstoff’ or primeval substance; and it is perhaps permissible to suppose lively exchanges on the virtues and demerits of sundry elements, culminating in a shock of recognition by Anaximandros that none of these substances, being determinate, qualified and hence failed to satisfy empirical as well as theoretical criteria. The apeiron, initially perhaps merely a device to evade commitment to untenable propositions, proved itself in the long run a truly metaphysical conception with ramifications that have resisted erosion by time. Yet our first duty is to note that it proved indigestible to Greek Philosphy for the aforesaid reasons, to which insistence on form as the fundamental criterion of being must be added. Indeed it is dubious whether the man himself was altogether aware of the problems raised by his conception; and hence the idea of the apeiron — this notion of a formless, homogeneous, all-pervading, incorruptible and morally neutral substance — stood for all Greek philosophy as a signpost at a corner of its domain, pointing to an incognisant reality into which one may not transgress.
This does not, by any means, tarnish the profound genius of the man who proposed it; and it is only fair to mention that modern cosmology is (paradoxically) cut from the same cloth. However, this must be laid to the account of a changed temper of philosophical inquiry.
As to its meaning, we may begin with ‘unlimited’, which cannot be too far off the mark, because peras, its root, means ‘boundary’. But if it were as simple as that, we would not have a metaphysical problem on our hands. When the concept recurs in the work of Anaxagoras, there is a shift towards something more concretely apprehensible, if only by negation:
“By apeira he (Anaxagoras)...