I am a self taught Philosophy student, without any formal training in Philosophy. So, please bear with me if my question seems to be pretty basic or meaningless.

In the book Looking at Philosophy by Donald Palmer, Thales argued that the basic element for the creation of everything in the universe is water. On page 17, there is a statement by Anaximander, while refuting the above Thales argument and talking about unity behind the apparent plurality of things and disguised Oneness,

...that if all things were water, then long ago everything would have returned to water.

How should I understand this argument? My confusion is that if above argument holds then can I say, "if all things were atoms, then long ago everything would have returned to atoms"?

My second question also refers to page 17, that Aristotle paraphrases the Anaximander's argument about observable objects were really just water in various states of agitation as below,

If ultimate reality were something specific like water, the other elements would be annihilated by it. For the different elements have contrariety with one another....If one of them were unlimited the others would have ceased to exist by now.

How the above statement can be inferred? I may argue that the process of annihilation might be still going on, who knows? Also as said in the statement ceased to exist by now cannot be defined to a particular time.

Book link: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1425095.Looking_at_Philosophy

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE! I edited out some portions of the text that are not directly related to the content. I hope you're fine with that - if not, you can roll back the edit. Apart from that, it may be a good idea to provide a bit more context for these two quotes - a paragraph or so. Context is always import to determine the meaning of a sentence.
    – user2953
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 9:25
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    @Keelan Thanks for editing the mistakes, but I think I should still include the first sentence, which says that I am new to philosophy, so that the readers will know my level of understanding. Also, providing the context will make the question much longer, hence I think the reference to the book and page numbers will be sufficient.
    – Brainy
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 9:31
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    Sure, go ahead. I would still advise you to include more context though, since not everyone has the book.
    – user2953
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 9:38
  • Please give the original reference to Anaximander and to Aristotle. Thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 9:51
  • @jowehler I am not aware of the original references for these statements. I just read them in the Donald Palmer's book as stated above.
    – Brainy
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 10:03

2 Answers 2


The reference to Anaximander is the famous fragment A9 = B1:

it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but some different, boundless nature, from which all the heavens arise and the kosmoi within them; out of those things whence is the generation for existing things, into these again does their destruction take place, according to what must needs be; for they make amends and give reparation to one another for their offense, according to the ordinance of time

kosmoi = plural of kosmos

As you see Anaximander makes his claim in a juridical context. I would like to refer to two interpretations:

1) Internet encyclopedia of philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/anaximan/#SH3a

2) Charles Kahn: Anaximander and the origins of Greek cosmology. 1960. Free download from https://archive.org/details/anaximanderorigi00kahn (Note. It takes some time) You can start with page 166ff.

The paraphrase from Aristoteles probably refers to Aristotle: Physics. Book III, Chap. 5, 204b 25ff:

for there are some people who make this the infinite, and not air or water, in order that the other elements may not be annihilated by the element which is infinite. They have contrariety with each other-air is cold, water moist, fire hot; if one were infinite, the others by now would have ceased to be. As it is, they say, the infinite is different from them and is their source.

It is impossible, however, that there should be such a body; not because it is infinite on that point a general proof can be given which applies equally to all, air, water, or anything else-but simply because there is, as a matter of fact, no such sensible body, alongside the so-called elements. Everything can be resolved into the elements of which it is composed. Hence the body in question would have been present in our world here, alongside air and fire and earth and water: but nothing of the kind is observed.


Given the very fragmentary record of what the presocratics wrote and discussed it's obviously going to be a problematic venture attempting to reconstruct their arguments in detail.

In Patricia Cornfords Pre-Socratic Reader we're told that they are ancient reports that Anaximander was a follower of Thales; and Thales was known for introducing water as the first principle (arche) of things; this explains why water is mentioned in your first quote.

Anaximader argued (we don't know why, and it's unlikely to be solely him - presumably there were other followers of Thales) that this single principle has specificity (it has form); and nor is there a principle of change; he makes

the originating stuff of the universe something indefinite or boundless [it lacks form]; (apeiron in Greek, later the word can mean infinite); this indefinite stuff is moving, directive of other things, and eternal; this it qualifies as divine.


The apeiron gives rise to something productive of hot and cold

This is his principle of change, a contrary; Aristotle for example wrote in his Physics that all philosophers agreed that contraries are the principles of change; and this presumably because of the argument in your second quoted paragraph; which is that one infinite element will eliminate all the rest; these elements are finite, whereas the apeiron is infinite.


The hot takes the form of fire, the origin of the sun and other heavenly bodies; and the cold is a dark mist that can be transformed into air and earth.

Note here the later parallels with Empedocles theory of the four elements; and that form has been applied to the formless - the apeiron.


Anaximander postulates substantial opposites (the hot and cold) that act on one another; and in turn generate stuff for the sensible world...with the mention of justice and retribution he affirms there are law like forces guaranteeing the orderly processes of change between opposites.

It's this, by the way that Hegel draws on for his own cosmology in his Logic; his onto-logic; thinking of the laws of nature as a logic of things; of ontologies (note too the consonance between the concept, law of nature and justice).

  • I agree with you, but my confusion still exists. I have edited my question to make it more clear, can you please go through it once again. Thanks in advance.
    – Brainy
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 15:33
  • Well, the first quote looks like its a fragment of an argument rather than the whole of one; so your confusion there is understandable. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 5:31
  • One suggestion and which is consistent with Aristotle understanding of Thales, is that from water arose all things, but then they were no longer water; they were something else - a man, a mountain or a tree; this is different from the atomists who supposed all things at all times are made of atoms; but their form, or configuration was different for different things. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 5:34
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    Anaximander might be suggesting then that though water isn't as specific as a man or a mountain (or even a mountain-man); it isn't the least specific thing; the least specific thing would have to be that which lacks any specificity itself, ie it lacks all form; and thus the formless - the apeiron. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 5:36
  • But as I said earlier this is speculative but consistent with the textual evidence; the actual argument can't be properly reconstructed, as the textual record is fragmentary for the pre-socratics. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 5:38

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