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Anaxagoras of Clazomenae

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was a philosopher who taught in Athens about 2,500 years ago. He is credited1Daniel E. Gershenson and Daniel A. Greenberg, Anaxagoras and the Birth of Scientific Method, page 2. Blaisdell Publishing, New York 1964. with strongly influencing the development of scientific method. He wrote about cosmology and physics, but only scraps of his work survive today. Even so, here is an revealing fragment that has endured.

An icon indicating a quotation.… the mixture of all things: of the moist and the dry, of the warm and the cold, of the bright and the dark … and generally, of seeds infinite in quantity, in no way like each other. 2Felix M. Cleve, The Philosophy of Anaxagoras, page 4. King’s Crown Press, Columbia University, New York 1949.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae is depicted holding a globe with his foot on a cippus on this ancient coin.
Anaxagoras holding a globe with his foot on a cippus. Electrum coin, Ionian people ~300 BCE.

This fragment presents Anaxagoras’ ideas in a succinct poetic form. He is concerned with sensation, and he selects a few for special attention. We call these perceptions Anaxagorean sensations. The passage suggests several conventions for a descriptive method that is deeply woven into Western thought and science. Explicitly examining these traditions gives us a deeper understanding of physics.

Narrative Conventions from Anaxagoras

  • Anaxagorean sensations are perfectly distinct, he says that they are “in no way like each other”. This is a very early statement comparable to Pauli’s exclusion principle. And it is a logical requirement for making mathematical descriptions.
  • Anaxagorean sensations are characterized as, “the warm and the cold”, or “the bright and the dark”, etc. This is the historical basis for using binary descriptions.
  • Anaxagorean sensations are objectified as σπερμάτων or “seeds”.7Gregory Vlastos, The Physical Theory of Anaxagoras. The Philosphical Review, Volume LIX Number 1, 1950.
  • “All things” are a “mixture” of these seeds.

Thus Anaxagoras established some fundamental requirements for making categorical distinctions, and for discussing them in a logical style. Next we take a closer look at these elementary particles that he posits, the conceptual seeds of Western physics.

1Daniel E. Gershenson and Daniel A. Greenberg, Anaxagoras and the Birth of Scientific Method, page 2. Blaisdell Publishing, New York 1964.
2Felix M. Cleve, The Philosophy of Anaxagoras, page 4. King’s Crown Press, Columbia University, New York 1949.
3Patricia Curd, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, page 19. University of Toronto Press, Toronto 2007.
4Arthur Fairbanks, The First Philosophers of Greece, page 237. K. Paul, Trench, Trubner and Company, London 1898.
5John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, page 283. Adam and Charles Black Publishers, London 1892.
6David Sider, The Fragments of Anaxagoras, second edition, page 102. Academia Verlag, Sankt Agustin 2005.
7Gregory Vlastos, The Physical Theory of Anaxagoras. The Philosphical Review, Volume LIX Number 1, 1950.