21 September 2005

Nature = The Non-Supernatural

An astute review in BMCR of Gerard Naddaf, The Greek Concept of Nature (see it here) contains , however, the following curious passage, noteworthy relative to some previous discussions on this blog:

GN's survey of these different pre-Socratic thinkers is undertaken in part to illustrate several general theses. First, GN believes that Anaximander's i(stori/a peri\ fu/sewj initiates a tradition of inquiry which is, on the one hand, a continuation of mythopoetic authors, in that pre-Socratic accounts of nature include a three part schema discernible in works like Hesiod's Theogony, namely a cosmogony (or account of the origins of the universe), an anthropogony (an account of the origins of humanity), and a politogony (an account of the origins of society); but on the other hand, pre-Socratic accounts of nature depart from such mythopoetic accounts in that they locate such explanations within human time and make use of naturalistic causal explanations, whereas earlier accounts had located their explanations in illo tempore and made use of supernatural elements as causes.
Okay, so what was distinctive about presocratic accounts of nature, in contrast with mythopoeic accounts, was that they involved naturalistic explanations, and didn't appeal to anything non- or super-natural. That helps.


Thornton said...

Hi M.,

No fair: at the least give Naddaf (and my representation of his point) credit for explaining the difference between Anaximander et al. and Hesiod with respect to the temporal orientations of their accounts (i.e., the former describe events which take place in time, the latter outside of human time).

I don't think that's a tautology!

Michael Pakaluk said...


The point about time is indeed well taken.

And I don't see your sentence as exceptional. Not a few explanations of 'naturalism', for instance, have a similar form.

The post was intended to be directed at all of us, myself included, not your review: Can we be more precise about sets the Ionians apart?


GF-A said...

I wonder whether the apparent tautology "nature = the non-supernatural" might not only be non-tautologous for the presocratics, but they might actually consider it false.

If we take seriously (i) Thales' "All things are full of gods," (ii) the testimonia that indicate Anaximander and Anaximenes thought the apeiron and air were divine, and (iii) Empedocles' identifying the four roots of things with four members of the pantheon, then it seems like nature might not be non-supernatual.

One likely response to the above paragraph, which shows up in the BMCR review, is that while the gods still appeared in the Presocratic accounts of the world, they are no longer the 'real causes' at work, and thus are not functioning as explanatory factors. (Like 'Jupiter' in modern astronomy: the name of the divinity is used as a tag for something that is explicitly considered non-divine.) I do not find this response thoroughly convincing, for it seems to me that the divinity invoked by the presocratics does play (or at least could be playing) some explanatory role: for example, how does Empedocles explain his claim that the 4 roots are eternal? It seems to be that their divinity could be seen as the cause of that: the gods are immortal. Similarly with the other Presocratics -- it appears that everything we are familiar with in our everyday lives changes and is born and dies, but their accounts of the universe include entities that do not undergo such alterations. By making the fundamental stuff(s) divine, they can explain why they behave so differently from the familiar objects of the everyday world.