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   Vol. 68/No. 24           June 28, 2004  
Materialism: a scientific view of the world
(Books of the Month column)
Below are excerpts from The Origins of Materialism by George Novack, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for June. The book explains the first giant steps taken by ancient scientists and scholars—particularly those in early Greek society—toward understanding the world and society in scientific terms.

The excerpts are taken from the chapter titled, “The Milesian Contributions to Materialism.” The Milesian School was a current among fifth and sixth century B.C. Greek philosophers. They developed pioneering views that began to challenge prevailing beliefs in magic and mythology.

George Novack joined the communist movement in 1933 and was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party until his death in 1992. Copyright © 1965 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


Our information about most Greek thinkers, and especially the earlier ones, is very scanty. The accounts of their lives, works and ideas are intermingled with legends. The extant texts are fragmentary, distorted, contradictory and, even with the most correct methods, lend themselves to divergent interpretations.

Nevertheless, the unanimous testimony of antiquity is that the Milesians founded the first school of philosophy and placed it on a materialist basis. These two facts are organically connected. It is essential to understand why the birth of philosophy was likewise the beginning of the materialist view of the world. The position of the pioneer philosophers was determined by the nature of their opposition. The first form of philosophical thought necessarily had to be materialist in its content because it was implicitly directed against the dominant religious ideas and magical methods, constituted a critical opposition to them, and became the only solid alternative to them.

The method they introduced of explaining the formation of the world and its developments was the imperishable achievement of the Milesians. Instead of resorting to the gods as the creators and promoters of phenomena, they looked for the causes of things in the interconnections of events within nature and the interactions of natural elements alone.

Whereas the religous-minded spun narratives of what supposedly happened, the Milesian thinkers tried to single out from the welter of events around them in nature the decisive factors which brought things into being and made them what they are. This procedure of searching for the explanation of things in the recurrences of nature and the laws of their movement, instead of in the actions and impulses of divine powers, was scientific in principle and rational in method.

In addition to their method of investigation, the Milesians made other important contributions to the materialist treasury.

One concerned the concept of matter itself. The Milesians did not arrive at any general idea of matter; that was a later ideological development. But they initiated the train of speculation which culminated in the definition of the category of matter.

The Milesians were compelled to consider the problem of matter and its nature by the very starting point, momentum and direction of their thought. If the gods are rejected as the authors of events, then what in the world is the original source of all things? Aristotle, to whom we owe much of our information about their ideas, described the materialist conclusions of the Milesians in these words: “ Most of the first philosophers thought the principle of all things was in the form of matter alone; for that out of which all things are and from which, as the first, they come into being, and into which, at the last, they pass away…this, they say is the element and the principle of things.”

The lineage of Milesian thinkers was constituted by Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Hecataeus. Although their mode of reasoning was the same, these various members of the Milesian school gave somewhat different answers to the question of what the specific form of matter was, what “the element and the principle of things” was. Thales singled out water as the primary substance from which all else was derived and to which it returns.

There are many conjectures why Thales took water as the primary stuff of nature, the essential reality of all other phenomena. Aristotle said that Thales saw the essential part played by water in nourishing life so that the hot element could come from it, since what is alive has heat. Water is also the essence of seeds. Aristotle also suggests that Thales might have been carrying forward the primacy that Greek and Egyptian mythology accorded water.

Later scholars have argued that Thales chose the moist element because of his special studies of climatic conditions. Water not only assumed such different forms as ice, liquid, and vapor but to the Greeks mist, wind, animal breath and life were all intermingled and identified. Whether meteorology, botany or biology, the phenomenon of evaporation, the germination of plants or the origin of life most inspired Thales, the reasons for his decision are not so important as the fact that he singled out a purely natural, physically observable element and used its properties and powers as the exclusive means of explaining reality.

Anaximander, his follower, took a step forward in developing the conception of matter. He objected to the notion of Thales that everything is essentially a form of water. He held that the primary substance could not be any specific element like water, or air, or fire. Aristotle sets forth his reasoning as follows: “ They are in opposition one to another—air is cold, water moist and fire hot, and therefore, if anyone of them is infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time.” That is, one of the elements would have swallowed up all the others.

Anaximander taught that there must be something more primitive than any of these elements from which these warring opposites had separated out, to which they are attached, and into which they pass away. He called this substratum the boundless, the non-limited, the infinite. This non-limited was material and therefore perceptible but out of reach. It was apparently meant to designate the original stock of matter from which everything is derived. Anaximander had put his finger on the general category of matter, and especially on the inexhaustible creativity of matter which manifests itself in numberless forms but cannot be fixed or exclusively identified with any one of its determinations.  
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