10 - Mind Over Mixture: Anaxagoras

Posted on 16 January 2011

Peter discusses Anaxagoras, focusing on his theory of universal mixture ("everything is in everything") and the role played by mind in Anaxagoras' cosmos.


Further Reading

D.W. Graham, “The Postulates of Anaxagoras,” Apeiron 27 (1994), 77-121.

W. Mann, “Anaxagoras and the Homoiomere,” Phronesis 25 (1980), 228-49.

M. Schofield, An Essay on Anaxagoras (Cambridge: 1980).

G. Vlastos, “The Physical Theory of Anaxagoras,” in Philosophical Review, 59 (1950), 31-57.

Stanford Encyclopedia: Anaxagoras


Luke Cash 28 September 2011

I found it very interesting when you got into talking about teleology around minute five of that podcast, when you were criticizing Socrate's supposed approach to Anaxagoras' work. Would you say that Anaxagoras actually concerned himself with teleology?

Peter Adamson 1 October 2011

In reply to by Luke Cash

Hi Luke,

Thanks for your comments, I'm working on replying to them now! This is a tricky one. I think that the reason given by Socrates about why Anaxagoras should be interested in teleology is perhaps a reason to think he actually was: the talk of Mind, which suggests that the physical processes he describes are somehow being steered. On the other hand this later period of Pre-Socratic philosophy is distinctive in denying teleology -- think of Empedocles' "evolutionary" theory or, of course, the atomists. Maybe Socrates (or rather Plato) is right to say there is a tension in Anaxagoras' account here.


Brandon 6 April 2012

Anaxagoras theory of the mind steering everything seems to call forth the idea of a power - in this case the mind - that is the reason for creation, and courses through us all. Though Socrates may have been a bit turned off by Anaxagoras' interest in physical process, we can find that Anaxagoras took his philosophy of the mind as the creator and finding proof for it the physical world around him. It is hard to doubt that Socrates, from coming into contact with Anaxagoras, comes to create his philosophy of forms, his love of the "good", and in many ways his creation of what comes to be the Christian god - the mind, the creator, the one that is, as Anaxagoras says, "above everything else."

I would like to mention that this podcast has brought to light a period of philosophy that I was ignorant of in many ways and now find that it is indeed the foundation upon which our principal western philosophers seem to rest upon. I also find it interesting that once we have our first philosopher, Thales, we are already beginning to abandon "the gods", and move to a more simplified and central figure. "God", the mind, whatever it may be called, these philosophers seem driven to move towards a principal, SINGLE reason/foundation for creation to be founded upon. Taking this into light, do you think polytheism to be an aspect of culture from an earlier intellectual period, when nature, the wilderness and barbarism were still the leading forces of the times? What truly attributes to the fall of "the gods"?

Once again Professor Adamson, this has been a wonderful podcast. I find it one of the treasures of the internet, allowing me to have conversation and discourse with these great philosophers, their ideas, and to have at your behest a wonderful analysis of these great thinkers. With great joy to look I forward to the rest of your podcasts - wonderful!

Thanks very much for the encouraging comments about the podcast! Regarding your question about monotheism, I would largely agree that ancient philosophers tended towards a more single-principle explanation of the universe -- albeit that sometimes this took materialist forms, as in the Stoics. But there is a major caveat: late ancient Platonists go for a single first principle (the One) but integrate many divine beings into the system produced by that principle. I don't think there was any inevitability that monotheism should win out, and we should also remember that in other cultures religious systems that from a European perspective would be called "polytheistic" (e.g. Hinduism) have continued in conditions that were far from barbaric!

TD 15 March 2014

Mixing water and wine?

This involves mixing the unmixed to created the unmixed, for nothing can exists in a mixed state since all is the same (everything) and yet it is a higher state of mixture that truly does mix.

Matt 22 January 2015

Are your titles always s cringeworthy? I love this podcast, by the way.

Thanks! If there are titles that aren't cringeworthy that just means I couldn't come up with one.

Ray Liikanen 9 November 2016

Socrates dismissed Anaxagoras on the grounds explained in the "Phaedo", mentioning that Anaagoras's explanation amounted to the same thing as explaining that he--Socrates--chose to be where he was (imprisoned) because his physical constitution is made up of bones and sinews etc., that move, and these explain the reason why he is where he is.  This completely fails to account for the real reason for Socrates being imprisoned and that's to be found in Socrates's mind.  He chose to accept the penalty imposed on him.  The issue is not what makes the world the best possible place, but the issue is 'causation.'  What is the cause for the world's being?  Leibniz puts the question:  "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  It is this same question that lies at the heart of Scorates's dismissal of Anaxagoras.  This point seems lost in the discussion on Anaxagoras.

Peter Adamson 10 November 2016

In reply to by Ray Liikanen

Yes, definitely. I do discuss this in the episode on the Phaedo, so stay tuned and you'll get to it.

Permapoesis 11 July 2017

There are traces of Anaxagoras' everything in the world is for the best idea with (much later) Leibniz's "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” as paradied by Voltaire's philosopher Pangloss in his novel Candide. I'm so enjoying this series and how my patchy understanding of thought is being increasingly glued by the resin of your research and voice, Peter. Thank you! This is a chance to see or at least sense intellectual succession, which is otherwise murled or laboured over by the entanglements of history and everyday life. This series is like a giant philosophical compost, building layer upon layer the slow formation of patriarchal (and reified) culture, and the long descent into abstraction, institutionalism and ecological destruction. I'm in! Patrick

Thanks, I'm glad you find the series helpful! That idea that the universe is maximally well designed or the best of all possible worlds is going to come up a lot in the series; perhaps surprisingly it is already denied sometimes by medieval thinkers, like Aquinas who says that the world will always be infinitely worse than God so that it cannot ever meaningfully be said to be "best possible."

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