3 Key Ideas in Anaximander’s Theory of Nature

Anaximander was one of the first philosophers to write about the underlying nature of reality. What was Anaximander's theory of nature?

Feb 22, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

facts about anaximander theory of nature


How is life created? What is its relationship to the environment? What are the most basic building blocks of the universe? This article investigates the answers to these questions, which together comprise Anaximander’s theory of nature. We begin by overviewing what little we know about Anaximander the man, who he associated with and how we have come to know of his work. Then Anaximander’s theory of life and its relationship to its environment is set out, and some of the more general elements of Anaximander’s approach to science are derived from this.


Lastly, Anaximander’s theory of the base element of the universe – that which he calls ‘the unlimited’ – is explained, and one possible interpretation is given. Anaximander was the second of three philosophers – often deemed the very first three philosophers – who lived in Miletus, a city in modern day Turkey. He was the second great philosopher of the Milesian school, after Thales but before Anaximenes and Pythagoras.


Anaximander: The First Philosophical Writer

A painting of Anaximander by Pietro Bellotti, c. 1700, via Wikimedia Commons.


Thales, who believed that the basic substance of the world was water, is often credited as being the first person to gesture towards the existence of the field of inquiry we call philosophy. However, it is Anaximander who seems to have written the first philosophical treatise, entitled ‘Concerning Nature’, and the twelve words of this work are the earliest words of philosophy that have been passed down to us.


Little is known about his life, and what we hear from later sources should largely be distrusted. It is from others that we learn most of what we know about Anaximander’s work, and we cannot vouch for their trustworthiness either. We should, at least, be glad that many of our sources are not Anaximander’s direct philosophical opponents, and yet wrote at a time close enough to that in which Anaximander lived that obvious falsehood, misappropriation, or manipulation would likely have been transparent.

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A study from nature by William Stanley Haseltine, between 1835 and 1900, via the Met Museum.


Although almost nothing of his work survives, we have a good idea of its intended scope. It was exceptionally ambitious, beginning as it did with a theory of the creation of the universe, and proceeding to cover almost every area of science, including the entire scope of human life.


Anaximander’s work is marked both by the tendency to see any boundary between any part of human nature as largely artificial or a convenience, and the tendency towards an extraordinary degree of faith in how much one human being can understand of the world at large. On the face of it, this might seem like an insane assumption, and yet it is an unspoken assumption of so much philosophy since Anaximander.


Perhaps philosophers, at least those who are inclined towards self-awareness, know this to be insane, but also believe that it is invaluable to philosophy, which is worth doing even as it falls short of this goal. As Barnes puts it, “Anaximenes, Xenophanes, and even Heraclitus; Empedocles and Anaxagoras and the Atomists: all worked and wrote in the grand tradition of Anaximander: other men are specialists, their specialism was omniscience.”


1. Anaximander’s Theory on Life and Its Environment 

Nature morte au panier de prunes, pêches, cassis et pivoines by Marguerite Jacqueline, c.1900, via Art Enchères.


When we turn to Anaximander’s theory of human life, and how human beings came to be, we find something that bears a striking resemblance to our present, Darwinian understanding of evolution. The following comes from Pseudo-Plutarch:


“And again, [Anaximander] says that in the beginning men were born from creatures of a different sort, because the other animals quickly manage to feed themselves, but man alone requires a long period of nursing; hence had he been like that in the beginning too, he would never have survived.”


This theory could, perhaps, be understood in light of another thesis of Anaximander’s, this time recorded by Aristotle:


“At first, they say, the whole area around the earth was moist, and as it was dried by the sun the part which vaporized made the winds and the turnings of the sun and the moon, while what was left is the sea; that is why they think that the sea is becoming smaller as it dries out, and that in the end it will at some time all be dry.”


Nature morte by Didier Descouens, between 1630 and 1705, via Musée d’art et d’histoire de Narbonne.


It is difficult to resist the temptation to draw a connection between these two hypotheses. According to Jonathan Barnes, we might imagine Anaximander to do so in the following way:


“The earth is gradually drying out from an originally water-logged condition. The first living creatures, then, will have been of a fishy variety, to whom a watery environment was congenial. Only later, as the earth dried, will land animals have developed from those aquatic aboriginals. And man, in particular, must have had a peculiar sort of ancestor, given the weak and dependent nature of the human infant.”


It is important not, especially with respects to the second hypothesis, not to focus on how true the conclusion itself might be, but rather what kind of approach to nature it indicates.


Often, what we seem to be looking for when we examine Greek philosophy with something like an evaluative or appreciative eye are the seeds of modern science. Yet we can reverse this, and instead consider how far modern science participates in something beyond science, some more general approach to that begins in Ancient Greece and re-emerges periodically thereafter. Once we establish this, we can start to pose interesting questions. For instance, what would science look like by the lights of some different approach?


2. Anaximander’s Theory on Evolution 

Nature forging a baby by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose. Bruges, c.1490-c.1500. from Wikimedia Commons.


It is worth saying that Anaximander’s approach to the emergence of human life and its relationship to the world at large seems to get an awful lot right. He doesn’t conceive of animal life as fixed in its present form, but rather as capable of (indeed, bound to) change.


Equally, he sees no reason to draw an absolute distinction between humans and animals, at least not on the grounds of their origins. In this respect, Anaximander is far ahead of the approach to man and nature we find in other ancient sources, like the Old Testament.


The Power of Love in the Three Elements by Benjamin West, 1809, via the Met Museum.


Moreover, well into the 20th century, scientists tended to conceive of our climate as inherently stable, and liable to rigorous self-correction. Anaximander knew better than to accept this comforting fallacy. He believed that the way life is has much to do with the climate it inhabits, and so it would make perfect sense to connect any theory of the emergence of life with the history of the world’s geography.


Indeed, Anaximander’s synoptic vision – his tendency to draw connections, to synthesize, to think of the world as an intelligible whole – might be seen as the most important part of his intellectual legacy.


3. The Unlimited: Anaximander’s Apeiron

The Four Elements by Abraham Janssens, 17th century, via the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.


The earliest Greek philosophers were deeply preoccupied with the idea that there must be one kind of substance that formed the basic material for everything else. Anaximander’s contribution to the debate concerning what kind of substance this might be is extremely intriguing, given that he answers the question with something that is more of a concept than a substance.


Whereas Thales, for instance, offers ‘water’ as the basic substance, Anaximander instead claims that “the unlimited (apeiron) is both principle (archê) and element (stoicheion) of the things that exist.” This is, incidentally, the very first sentence of written philosophy that we know of. It’s quite a good one too, and bears some analysis.


Jonathan Barnes attempts to understand it in light of another claim attributed by Anaximander, namely that, “it is clear that, having observed the change of the four elements into one another, he did not think fit to make any one of these an underlying stuff, but something else apart from these”.


Abundance and the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel and Henrick de Clerck, c.1606, via Museo del Prado.


He renders one possible interpretation of this argument in the following, four stage scheme:


Argument (A) is turns on the phenomenon of ‘elemental change’, and runs as follows: (1) Each so-called ‘elemental’ stuff can change into one or more of the other ‘elemental’ stuffs. (2) If a stuff S1 can change into another stuff, S2, then neither S1 nor S2 underlies all change. (3) If S is the stuff of all things, then S underlies all change. (4) The stuff of all things is not one of the ‘elemental’ stuffs.”


What would it take for this argument to be true? For one thing, we should have to conceive of stuff as something which underlies all material in a stable way, rather than possessing the quality of complete fluidity such that this base material can wholly transform into any element. To be the ‘principle’ of change as well as its element is, in a certain sense, to be a cause; to be the reason why a certain change happens.


However, we might observe that although we instinctively separate causes from effects,  it is conceivable that the cause of some change can participate in it entirely, or be entirely subsumed by it, whilst nonetheless causing the change to happen.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.