Anaximander and the Ordering of Time: Metaphysics Viewed from the Margins of History

By Lucas, George | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Anaximander and the Ordering of Time: Metaphysics Viewed from the Margins of History


Lucas, George, The Review of Metaphysics


Out of the Boundless [aperion] the World arises from whatever is the genesis of the things that are; into this [Boundless] they must pass away according to Necessity, for they must pay the penalty and make atonement to one another for their injustice according to the Ordering of Time. (1)

The theme of the 2016 annual meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America (MSA), from which the selection of essays in this special issue of The Review of Metaphysics is drawn, was "Thinking with the Presocratics: History, Myth, and Metaphysics." This conference subtitle was intended to call attention to some connections between myth and history, on one hand, and metaphysical reflection on the other.

This paper is based on the presidential address I delivered at the 2016 MSA meeting. With Anaximander's brief and famously cryptic fragment on being, boundlessness, injustice, and order of time as an interpretive guidepost, I seek here to highlight and to reflect on the significance of some of those connections, and in the process, to demonstrate what I believe metaphysics to be, and what it will require for its future practice.

I proceed in four parts: (1) a brief discussion of the wider theme of the annual meeting itself; followed by (2) a panegyric on the history of philosophy from its margins; then (3) a short reflection on the longstanding quest for unmediated experience; and finally (4) concluding thoughts on Anaximander's denunciation of the injustice inherent in the flux of experience. Each segment aims to flesh out an underlying notion of metaphysical thinking itself as consisting fundamentally of an engagement with, and redemption of, historical experience.

History, Myth, and Metaphysics. First, let me say a bit more about the main theme of the 2016 MSA meeting, and why for its title I chose the preposition "with" in particular, instead of the more conventional "about." I chose this deliberately in order to emphasize a way of doing philosophy that is grounded in its history and in the contributions of its predecessors, without limiting it merely to discourse about that history and those predecessors--at least, not exclusively. Thinking about the Presocratics, for example, is what eminent scholars like Phillip Wheelright, Kirk and Raven, and W. K. C. Guthrie do. (2) Some eminent philosophers do not value that kind of historical scholarship. When W. V. A. Quine offered his condescending distinction between those who are themselves philosophers, and others who merely examine its history, I think he had this distinction, and such scholars, in mind. (3) Quine mistakenly believed, however, these were the only two options possible, and furthermore, that only the first constituted genuine, original knowledge rather than merely mucking about in the past.

Quine apparently did not envision the possibility of a third alternative, in which philosophers, authentically engaged in doing philosophy, pursue their philosophical inquiries primarily through engaging with its history. (4) It is this distinction, between thinking about, and thinking with, that I especially hoped that the MSA membership would highlight during our meeting as a way of doing philosophy, and particularly, of engaging in metaphysical reflection. Heidegger asserted that philosophy was the human enterprise of "called" thinking--namely, allowing the thing(s) to be thought about to call forth or elicit the activity of thinking as an openness toward being. (5) Yet Hannah Arendt asserted that "thinking itself is dangerous," and accused both Heidegger (her mentor) and Adolf Eichmann (her most famous research subject) of having failed to think. This lapse was the essence of the banality of evil. (6)

It is with such rich resonances in mind that I hoped to call upon the MSA membership to think with the Presocratics, specifically about history, myth, and metaphysics. Parmenides, as Eva Brann reminds us in her brilliant essay, (7) claimed in his Proem that "thinking" (Nous/noein) and "being" (Esti/To Eon) were one and the same, (8) thus demonstrating that logic (Quine's first love) and metaphysics are finally inseparable. …

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