Monday, April 28, 2008

Anaxagoras' Apophthegmatik?

This morning in the PhD seminar we were thinking about the presentation of Democritus in Aristotle Met. Γ 5. But this was one of the little passages which struck me as requiring a bit more thought. It’s not about Democritus at all but Anaxagoras:

Ἀναξαγόρου δὲ καὶ ἀπόφθεγμα μνημονεύεται πρὸς τῶν ἑταίρων τινάς, ὅτι τοιαῦτ’ αὐτοῖς ἔσται τὰ ὄντα οἷα ἂν ὑπολάβωσιν.
Arist. Met. 1009b25–8

There is also related a saying of Anaxagoras to his friends that things will be for them just as they conceive.

For Aristotle this is further evidence of a general trend in early philosophy for mistakenly believing that all appearances or opinions are equally true, a trend which he sees as eventually resulting in the unfortunate consequence that these otherwise serious thinkers turn out to say that one and the same thing can simultaneously be F and not-F or that two contradictory opinions or perceptions can be simultaneously true.

My question is: Why think this bit of Anaxagoras has anything to do with that set of epistemological and metaphysical questions? What puzzled me initially was the future tense: ἔσται. If the sense is broadly epistemological then this would have to be generalising: ‘things will (sc. always) be as you take them to be’. But the sense would surely just as well be satisfied with a plain present. On the other hand, DielsKranz include it as DK 59 A 28, the first of the section: ‘Apophthegmatik’, and that seems to me to be also quite possible; perhaps it even makes better sense of the future tense. Encountered outside of the Aristotelian frame, this little saying might easily be taken to be an exhortation to the power of positive or optimistic thinking: ‘Things will turn out as you think...’ Of course, if that’s right, then Aristotle has either misunderstood or else has wilfully included here in his catalogue of early assertions of this general view something he knows well is not absolutely apposite. Lanza’s note in his 1966 edition of Anaxagoras thinks this is intolerable (ad A 28, p. 37–8) on the grounds that (i) this would imply there was some kind of Anaxagorean ethical view, which is otherwise unattested and (ii) Aristotle would not be guilty of such ‘una voluntaria grave improprietà’. I’m not sure about either reason. Cherniss, who is cited with disapproval by Lanza, is predictably quite happy with finding Aristotle so guilty and can comfortably say that A 28 is a bit of Anaxagorean moralising. I don’t think there are easy answers to Aristotle’s propriety or otherwise, but it is certainly clear that in this passage he is on the look out for any sign in his predecessors of passages that point in the general direction of the thesis he’s proposing. And I am also not so sure of Lanza’s (i). First, a good case could be made for there being a moral or teleological aspect to Anaxagoras’ cosmology. I don't think I've made up my mind about that yet. But certainly, there are other snippets of moralising here and there ascribed to Anaxagoras, and some are found even in Aristotle himself (see DK 59 A 30 = EN 1141b3ff. and 1179a13, EE 1215b6ff, 1216a11, indeed all of the ‘Apophthegmatik’). Now, these may be meagre pickings, but I’ve no reason to doubt that Anaxagoras was also interested in matters ethical, broadly conceived.