The First Philosophy Debate Ever

In previous work, I traced the history of the concept of universal assessments (overall judgements of the world) in German philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.  But this week while listening to the lecture series “The Story of Psychology” by Todd Daniel, I realized that UAs go back way WAY further than I thought.

But I am skeptical of me.

Since studying UAs, I’ve started seeing them everywhere.  I’m currently reading through all of my childhood Calvin & Hobbes books and finding tons.  For example, here’s a strip from It’s a Magical World (the title itself a UA) the last image of which is the cover of another of Watterson’s books:


As I go through life talking to people, watching movies, and reading books, I find myself constantly writing down UAs and a new universal assessment is growing in me faster than bamboo.  It says “there’s UAs (subset of treasure) everywhere.”  But the mark of a mediocre theorist is that they form the UA that there theory explains everything all the time.

So I’m skeptical.  I might be seeing things.  But I think I’ve made an important connection: the first debate in philosophy was over universal assessments.

In most survey history books, western philosophy begins in Athens, where Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, Aristotle tutored a young Alexander of Macedon, Alex conquered the known world becoming “Great,” and Greek culture spread and dominated. The focus of these early thinkers was on how one should live.  But, outside philosophy students, many do not realize that this focus on people and society was a somewhat new topic in philosophy and represented a transition away from a prior discussion among an eclectic group now called the Pre-socratics.

These guys are overlooked for good reasons.  We know very little about them, they left behind scant literature — fragments really, and, instead of being part of a single story based in the important city of Athens, they lived in far-flung parts of the greek-speaking world.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all that we don’t talk alot about the Pre-socratics is because their major topic of conversation, and most of the conclusions they draw, strike us as silly/irrelevant.  But their not.  This week I have been thinking about the possibility that philosophy was birthed out of a desire to use reason to form UAs.

“What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos.”  — Donald Palmer in Looking at Philosophy, 2001, p. 11

Really?  The first inkling of philosophy as we know it was about characterizing existence as a whole?  To investigate, I created the following short summary of all the major Pre-socratics and all their big ideas.  These are not just their UA-related ideas.  Rather, all their big ideas seem to be UAs.  Its nuts!

Step back: the reason I thought of UAs in the first place is that I observed humans may at times treat existence as one big fat object and our relationship to that object could be both causally independent and connected to our relationship with individual objects within the universe.  It turns out that when we emerged from the cave of pre-history, we sought first to understand the wide world as one object, and only later to turn our attention to individual objects within it (after UAs, I believe the other three components of worldview are the self, others, and nature) when our initial project failed.

Locating UAs even bigger font.001

If you really want to understand how UAs fit in with other big concepts, here is Figure 1 (from my thesis) entitled “Locating Universal Assessments.”  The diagram categorizes belief types in order to visualize where UAs fit. Schemas are the largest subset; they consist of beliefs regarding any number of objects and object types, some of which can be composite. For example, a schema regarding New York City apartments might incorporate specific schemas about component parts, such as New York City bedrooms and balconies. Because the world is an exceptionally large composite object, worldview is a schema with a large number of sub-schemas regarding component parts, the four most important of which are assumed to be the self, other people, the natural world, and existence as a whole (UAs). Also, please note that because worldviews are comprehensive, no complete examples can be provided. Nonetheless, religions, historical narratives, and moral philosophies are examples of traditions or voices that can at times effectively describe much of a worldview or its major components.

Thales of Miletus, the first ever western philosopher (about 580 BC), lived on the coast of what today is Turkey.  He argued that the universe is characterized by change.  However, there is also an underlying unity, which he conjectured might be water because it is the element that is most conducive to change.  He writes, “the first principle and basic nature of all things is water” (Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 1966, p. 44).  For Thales, water is literally the underlying element of everything, but it is the foundation of everything because of its more abstract qualities — because, like all things, water changes and yet remains the same.   This conceptual blending of material and its associated poetic qualities is common among the Pre-socratics.  Thus their pursuit of UAs had a quasi-scientific feel to them.

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus

Anaximander of Miletus, a student of Thales, thought that there was something bigger and better than water underlying the four elements which he called “the boundless.”  It was unlimited, unspecific, and sought balance.  Creation itself was an imbalance that would eventually “correct” itself in the destruction of all things.  In my original thesis, I  identified “the world is declining/improving” as one of 13 UAs likely conducive to the ‘good life’ (explored non-academically in the recent post “Once upon a time there was a universe…“).  Anaximander put forth a story of  existence: everything is doomed to devolve back to “the boundless.”

Anaximenes (545 BC) and others thought “the boundless” was a useless concept — to abstact– and instead put forth air as the element underlying all things.  Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes constitute the major thinkers of the Milesian school and sought simple understandings that made sense of the universe’s complexity (Palmer, 2001).  In so doing they established a UA most of us believe to this day: the simpler answer is probably more reflective of the true nature of existence (Ockham’s Razor).   Sadly, when Persia conquered Miletus in 494 BC the Milesian school ended.

Pythagoras (572-500 BC) of Samos (island in the Aegean) thought that, instead of a physical substance, all things are numerical in nature and the universe functions according to laws and principles that is ultimately understandable and expressible through mathematics.  For example, he is attributed to have discovered the pythagorean theorem which we all learned in middle school when finding the lenghts of the sides of triangles:


Who would have thought that the relationships between sides of triangles were so mathematically exact?  The discovery of this theorm is likely an early example of how a specific UA led to a positive outcome, in this case advances in geometry.  (Throughout history, if the reflections of the great scientists themselves are to be believed, the belief in universal orderliness and comprehensibility seems to aid, and even drive, scientific advancement.)

Pythagoras also thought that the universe was saturated by music so loud we cannot hear it.  It was produced by the movement (the idea was that all movement produced sound) of the biggest things he knew about: the 10 planets.  Usually, humans can only hear everyday sounds of individual objects.  However, sometimes we can transcend the particular and hear the universe’s vast harmonious song — the music of the spheres.  His views implies several UAs such as “the world is beautiful” and, in the case of his emphasis on mathematics, “the world is comprehensible.”  Both of these UAs I identified in my thesis as key for the development of the ‘good life.’  Another might be, “the world is interconnected.”  Pythagoras and the Dalai Lama would have gotten along I think.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (470 BC) thought fire was the basis of all things.  But his understanding was more figurative.  He thought everything was characterized by unceasing change, flux, creation, and destruction.  He writes, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (Wheelwright, p. 70) and “you cannot step into the same river twice” (Ring, p. 70).  The only thing that does not change is that everything changes.  The river is different the moment you step out of it.  However, this change is governed by logos, a logic, that makes the universe less than chaotic.  In this, Heraclitus’ views can be captured in several different UAs, two of which were part of my original 13: the world is malleable/unchangeable and the world is comprehensible/incomprehensible.  Another might be “the world is bad.”  Heraclitus often bemoaned how the state of the world is constantly becoming foreign.  In other words, one can never come home.  All is unfamiliar.

Heraclitus was often called the "Dark One" because his thoughts were depressing.  Cough...his UAs may lead to certain life outcomes.  : )

Heraclitus was often called the “Dark One” because his thoughts were depressing. COUGH (UAs may lead to certain life outcomes).

Parmenides (515-440 BC) was the anti-Herclitus.  He said that change is completely illusory.  In fact, “you cannot step into the same river once” because you can’t do anything at all.    Only truths and concepts exist.  They are uncreated, indestructible, eternal, and indivisible — one big Being.  There is no such thing as nothing.  There is only being.  This is similar to Aristotle’s idea, “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Zeno of Elea (490 BCE) agreed with Parmenides and came up with a series of paradoxes (Zeno’s Paradoxes) to show that change was illusory.  The universe, it turns out, is fixed (a UA) and cannot be truly comprehended via the senses but through the mind (another UA that I would call a universal policy assessment which concerns how the universe should be best dealt with).


Achilles and a tortoise are racing.  Achilles, being the great warrior, gives the tortoise a head start. But, to catch up, Achilles must get to where the toroise used to be, at which point the tortoise will have moved on.  But he can only ever get to where the tortoise used to be.  Thus, Achilles can never catch up. The fact that we see fast runners overtaking slower runners just means that the senses can’t be trusted.

Zeno and Parmenides convinced many and people started to question the UA assumption that all philosophers had held.  Is the universe not reducible to one thing?  If it was reducible, change seemed likely to be illusory.  So they gave it up, monism faded, and they started composing theories that assumed the universe was composed of multiple things.

Empedocles of Acragas (440 BC…and keep in mind that all these dates are quasi bullshit) was the first pluralist.  He thought that all four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were irreducible and two forces (love and strife) moved them around.  In fact, from these UAs emerged an idea of evolution over 2,200 years before Darwin: strife and love produced all kinds of crazy creatures and mutations with three arms, four eyes, etc., “and those that could survive, did survive” (Palmer, 2001).  Empedocles put forth the UA that as a result of the cosmic war between love and strife much in the universe was left to chance.  Aristotle would later reject this notion, saying that the universe was not so characterized by randomness.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC), another pluralist, said that the world is not in some mythic struggle.  Instead, like Pythagoras, he asserted that everything is ordered according to mind and rational law (I’ve stopped noting UAs cause I feel like they all are).  These laws govern the behavior of “infinite seeds” that can be ordered in different ways to create different things.  Mind can also inhabit some of these seed constructions, which is the case with the human body.

Leucippus and Democritus (460-370 BC) were known as the atomists and they built on Anaxagoras’ idea of ‘infinite seeds.’  They said that these seeds, called “atomons,” cannot be split.  Each was a little piece of Parmedian Being (indivisible, indestructible, eternals, etc.) and the motions of these little atomons determined reality.  The universe, they thought, was fixed and deterministic.  There was no space for free will.

At this point, the pre-socratics had worn down tradition and created, on balance, confusion and uncertainty about the true reality of the universe.  In this void stepped the Sophists, who embraced the confusion, used reason to argue their points, and hired out their intellectual abilities to aid whoever could pay (they were often lawyers actually).  I’ll mention five Sophists.  First, Protagoras (490-422 BC), perhaps the most famous sophist, argued that man is the measure of all things.  Human customs, traditions, and even closely held beliefs such as UAs, were subject to expediency.  The universe should be interpreted according to the needs of humans, and that there is no ‘truth’ out there to understand except what is helpful for people.  You might say his UA is “whatever works.”  Second, Gorgias (483-375 BC) wanted to replace philosophy with rhetoric.  He argued for three truths:

  1. There is nothing.
  2. If there were anything, no one could know it.
  3. If anyone did know it, no would could communicate it.

He “proved” these points not to convince people of their truthfulness, but to convince people that searching for truth is a stupid enterprise.  If these idiotic statements can be proven, anything can.  Third, Thrasymachus argued that “justice is always in the interest of the stronger” or might makes right.  Fourth, Callicles claimed that traditional morality was the masses’ way of constraining the strong.  Therefore, the strong should throw off their shackles.  Finally, Critias, a famous tyrant, argued that fear of nonexistent gods should be used to control the masses.  (Its incredible how these ideas mirror Nietzsche’s Will to Power, nihilism, and the road to postmodernity.)  The result of the UA discussion of the pre-socratics was subjectivism, skepticism, and nihilism.  There was also a turn from the nature of the universe, which seemed out of reach, towards more immediate human concerns.  At least that might be graspable.

In this dark philosophical climate steps Socrates, who started talking constructively about what it meant to be a good person, have a good life, and live in a good society.  He talked about understanding the self (the unexamined life is not worth living) and others (Plato’s Republic).

As he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Even as he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Aristotle would also start the process of cataloguing and understanding other objects in the universe–not the forest but at least the trees.  These objects (the self, others, and nature) were tackled, it seems, only after philosophers had failed in courting their first love: understanding existence as a whole.  Of the four components of worldview, they wanted UAs first, and spent over 200 years in nearly exclusively UA-focused debate.

Of course, UAs continued to be debated.  Plato would argue that endurable and perfect ideas are the true reality and the world is a copy of it (his theory of forms, allegory of the cave, etc.) and Aristotle would argue that the world is as diverse as it appears.  And these UAs mattered: they led to different practical approaches in understanding the world (different policies towards existence are universal policy assessments).  Plato advocated for more thinking and Aristotle wanted more observation (major oversimplification of course).

But, at least for the next few hundred years, UAs became less and less important as a topic, though I can’t say much more at present.  I am now in a process, a side project, of rediscovering the history of philosophy via this UA lens and finding it fascinating.  I had no idea that understanding nature of the universe as a whole was our first philosophical pursuit and that we only moved on when we failed to find satisfying answers to the UA question.

I’ll end with this: should we ask their question again?  Unlike the sophists,  I do not believe that the universe must remain an utter mystery.  If anything I’m quite pumped to try to understand the true nature of the universe again.  Though we don’t know much, we certainly know more than we did 2,500 years ago.  (Perhaps that is how Descartes felt about his modern project.)

However, for the next few years, I’ve decided to be just Aristotle with a dash of sophism.  I want to observe and understand what UAs we hold and how they affect our lives.   This does not mean that I have given up on the truth of the matter.  Rather, thoroughly rigorous empirical research is Act I.

Act II: The Return to the Pre-socratics – what is the true nature of the universe?  Give me a decade or so and I’ll get to it.


About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

One response to “The First Philosophy Debate Ever

  • -whit

    Just a heads up Jer, if your body is half as stacked as Socrates’ is in your 70s odds-on I’ll likewise be burnt-amber-toga-ing-it-up while you too mumble your last blast of bullshit. BTW TLDR

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