Protreptikos, Vol. 1, no. 2, a publication of Introduction to Philosophy
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Philosophy and Principles

First Things and Starting Points


A principle is something primary that helps in explaining phenomena. A principle can be some existing factor in nature (principles of nature and being, or it can be a logical proposition or judgement (principles of reason)that is a starting point of a valid argumentation. The principles of reason cannot be proven, since in order to prove anything you need to have a starting point, and a starting point is a principle. It is impossible for a proof or demonstration to go on forever (regressus ad infinitum -- infinite regress!). Although you cannot prove the validity of a principle, it can be demonstrated indirectly, by showing that if you accept the opposite, the result is an untenable absurdity. This method is called reductio ad absurdum.
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The First Principles of Reason

Discovery of First Principles

The first principles are discovered in reality by the natural light of the intellect. Aristotle and Thomas taught that the very first thing that the intellect understands in experience is being. At the beginning of our life of experience, the first proposition our mind forms might be expressed as "There is something!", which implies all that is stated in the first principles above. This pre-scientific knowledge of first principles is sometimes called common sense. Aristotle called this direct grasp of principles NOUS (mind, understanding), and Thomas Aquinas called it intelligentia primorum principiorum or intellectus primorum principiorum.
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The First Principles of Nature

At the beginning of his Metaphysics, Aristotle recounts the beginnings of philosophy in Greece and her colonies. Althought the earliest philosophers came upt with many incomplete answers, they all prepared the way for the full development of philosophy by Aristotle. The early philosophers searched for a first factor that would explain reality such as it appears to us. Such a first factor was called ARCHE, later rendered in latin as PRINCIPIUM, coming into English as principle. The early Greek philosophers are known as the pre-Socratics (those who came before Socrates), because Socrates was the first man to reflect on the method of philosophy, and the first to develop philosophy as a distinct kind of knowledge. Only when philosophers began to reflect on method was it possible for the natural sciences to develop in a critical manner. next page previous page

Matter as a principle

Many of the earliest philosophers looked for a material cause for reality. They observed that while individual things come into being and perish, the stuff of which they are made persists. The Greeks were interested in the problem of change in nature, while the problem of the very existence of the world at all only arose as a major preoccupation of philosophers when philosophers of the Jewish, Moslem and Christian world were also aware of the religious account of Creation in the book of Genesis. next page previous page

Water and Life

Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC) speculated that all things were ultimately composed of water, since water could take on many forms: solid, liquid and gas. Also, everywhere we see that water is necessary for life. He further speculated that all material is endowed with latent life, and this position is called hylezoism (from hyle which means matter, originally "lumber", and zoe, life). Thales also said that all things are full of gods, which suggests that a merely mechanistic explanation of nature is not enough. next page previous page

Air, the Infinite, Fire, Atoms

Anaximines (588-524) taught that air was the basic element. Anaximander (610-547) taught that the boundless (apeiron) is the ultimate element. Heraclitus of Ephesus (around 500 BC) taught that fire is the basic element. In various way, many of the early Greek philosophers held that the present state of nature arose by chance out of primordial elements. Democritus of Abdera (470-361 BC) , representative of the school of atomism, taught that reality is made up of full being and the void. Being is divided into indivisible and indestructible units called atoms (atomos -- indivisible thing). These philosophers, and the atomists in particular, resorted to mechanistic explanations of reality. next page previous page

Anaxagoras and Mind as Cause

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC) went a step beyond merely mechanistic explanations. He taught that at the beginning all things were mixed into a homogeneous matter, which was spinning in a vortex. For the things of the visible world to arise out of the vortex, the action of an intellect or mind (nous) is necessary. Nature could not arise just by chance, but some intelligent being had to organize it. Also, he suggested that there had to be an end purpose (telos), since anything that acts, acts according to a plan or purpose. next page previous page

Pythagoras: Numbers and Forms

Pythagoras of Samos (572-500 BC) was the founder of a religious and philosophical organization that held political power for a time in Magna Graecia, the Greek colony in southern Sicily. The Pythagoreans looked beyond the world as it appears to the senses in search of an explanation for the order of the universe. Numbers are the hidden principle of the measure and harmony of the visible world. The beauty and order that appear to the senses is based on mathematical relations, as musical harmony is based on numeric ratios. They extended this idea to all of nature, and siad that all the heavenly bodies must be organized by some harmonic mathematical principle. They considered the universe as a cosmos. Kosmos means an order or arrangement, and this suggests that the world is ordered according to an intellectual principle. They went further, however, and taught that numbers were really existing things, apart from material things. next page previous page

Changing World and Permanent Knowledge

Other early philosophers tackled the question of how lasting knowledge is possible in a world in which everything changes. Heraclitus of Ephesus said that all things are constantly changing, constantly in flux, so there is no permanent subject of change. You cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes and nothing remains -- panta rhei kai ouden menei. Behind all change is a mysterious intelligibility, the logos or meaning. If things are constantly changing, then nothing is knowlable in a rational way, only in a mysterious kind of intuition. His philosophy of change also taught that the conflict of opposites was a prinicple of reality. Conflict is the father of all things polemos pater panton. Parmenides (b. 540 BC) argued that change is an illusion. The senses may tell us that things change, but that only means that the senses deceive us, and sense knowledge is the way of fools. The intellect tells us that all that exists is being, and that being is not divided into being and non-being. Being is one and unchanging. next page previous page

Plato and the Ideas

Plato (427-347) tried to solve the puzzle of change and knowledge by saying that visible things participate in unchanging ideas, which are the true reality. He recognized that we can possess scientific knowledge that was always true, that was self-evident, based on real definitions. Such stable knowledge could not be based merely on things that are constantly changing, so it must be based on ideas that exist independently of individual things. If you know what life is, for example, you know the idea of life, and that idea has an existence of its own. In some mysterious way, individual material things participate in the reality of ideas, somewhat like shadows depend on real objects. Plato taught that our knowledge of ideas was within us from another lifetime, when we had existed in a higher world without a body. A teacher only awakens the dormant memory of that world of ideas. next page previous page

Aristotle: Potency and Act

Aristotle resolved the problem of permanence and change by introducing the factors of potency and act, which appear as matter and form. Act means full and perfect existence, as if the most perfect action of a thing is just to be what it is. Potency means what a thing can be, but is not yet in actuality. The real things of nature are composed of these two factors. They are in act, because they really exist. But their existence is incomplete, because they are subject to change, and so they have a potency to certain kinds of changes. The Greek word for act is energeia, and the word for potency is dynamis. next page previous page

Matter and Potency -- Form and Actuality

Aristotle conceived of matter as pure potency. The term for matter is hyle, which originally meant lumber, wood as a building material. Matter by itself is nothing. Matter is always tied to some particular form of existence. The term for form is morphe. The stuff of any material being can become the stuff of any other material thing if it goes through enough changes. If that is so, then the stuff considered by itself does not have any permanent form. Considered in this way, it is called first matter or prime matter. Can such matter have its own existence? No, matter always exists under some form; it is always part of something. If we think of matter as some raw material ready at hand for constructing something, then we are thinking of secondary matter, matter already under some form, that can receive a limited number of new forms. In this sense, it is secondary matter. Forms are intelligible, they are what our mind grasps in some way when we understand things. But forms normally don't exist except in a composition with matter. Aristotle's doctrine of form and matter (hylemorphism) respects the reality of the material world, but also recognizes an intelligible order within the world. next page previous page

The Four Causes

Aristotle drew from the attempts of all his predecessors, and learned from their mistakes. There are different ways of answering the question of why things are as they are. These ways of answering correspond to four basic kinds of causes. Aristotle taught that there are four basic kinds of causes: next page previous page

Primary and Secondary Causes

In each of the four causes, you can have causes which are more or less primary, in time or in importance. In material causes, the ultimate material is called first or prime matter, matter conceived without form. Matter such as it is here and now, already formed and able to receive new form, is called secondary matter. In efficient causes there are ultimate causes, as the architect is the man who originally causes a building, and instrumental causes, such as the workmen and their tools. In form cause, the primary form is the substantial form, what the thing is in its essence, and accidental or secondary forms, the features that come and go while the subject remains relatively one and the same. In final causes, the ultimate cause is the goal or end that lies most distant in the future, while the various goals or ends (ways or means) that are sought along the way are secondary causes. next page previous page

Privation: A Principle of Nature, but not a Cause

Besides the four causes, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas add another principle of nature, called "privation", which is the absence of a given form in something capable of possessing it. For example, the absence of the power of sight in an animal is a privation, whereas the absence of the power of sight in a rock is a simple absence. Privation is not a cause, but a necessary condition for change. For example, in order to be carved into a statue, the wood must be in an uncarved state, lacking the form of the statue. Yet, we do not say that the absence or privation of a form is alone sufficent for causing the reception of a form, so privation is not considered a cause. In ethics, privation refers to some quality that should be in a person, but is absent, and such privation is an evil. Go back to Introduction to Philosophy Go to very top of document previous page