Elemental Varieties in the Presocratics and Beyond

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Publication Date

January 2021

Publication Title

Brill's Companion to the Reception of Presocratic Natural Philosophy in Later Classical Thought

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A number of influential ancient theories of matter, formulated roughly over the span of a century, go beyond positing elements or quasi-elementary simple stuffs as well as their countless mixtures. They also involve substances—forms of air, forms of fire etc.—which occupy a zone largely intermediary between simple elements and mixtures: not just pure and simple air or earth etc., but dry and static air, the thickest water, the strongest fire, forms of earth that are soluble, and so on. They rarely command much attention, but generally demonstrate an explanatory prowess which, I think, deserves our scrutiny. The goal of this chapter is twofold. (a) It highlights the importance of the forms of simple bodies in several ancient theories of matter, an importance not always fully appreciated in recent scholarship. The chapter is divided into three main sections: Diogenes of Apollonia – with some observations on Anaximenes; early Hippocratic works, with emphasis on Regimen; later, especially Aristotle’s, treatments of forms of elements and non-elementary simple bodies. (b) This chapter is also intended to mark a broad historical trajectory and to trace probable influences. The overall nature of the varieties of water, earth etc. at the heart of the theories explored here, as well as their functions (e.g., accounting for material dispositions like solubility or for higher order dispositions like perceptiveness) and, in some cases, the inferential methods and the technical terminology used—all of these, I think, point to continuity in the history of this idea. The claims and the arguments that express conceptions of elementary stuffs are often the nexus between cosmologies and ontological theories, and, therefore, can offer an especially profitable angle for the study of several ancient philosophical doctrines.