Being and Motion

Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes

For some time now, my brother and I have been converging on a research program exploring the “problem of universals,” he from psychology and I from philosophy. With both of us out of school, and stay-at-home guidelines still in effect due to COVID-19, it seemed a perfect opportunity to start a reading group of two and work through some materials that are of mutual interest to us.

We begin with the Presocratics. I read Robin Waterfield’s collection for the first time in 2016, but what really struck me in returning to the earliest of them, the Milesians—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes—is the originary, irreducible pair of “being” and “motion” (which I place in quotation marks “to serve as a precaution,” as Derrida would say) that is present—albeit in different configurations—in each of their thought.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle remarks that the “original seekers after knowledge recognized only first principles of the material kind as the first principles of all things … Thales, who was the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that water is the first principle.”1 Aristotle clarifies this point with an additional comment: “the source of anything is the first principle of that thing.”2 So, then, insofar as water is the first principle of all that is, it is from water that all things arise. This does not seem all that strange to Aristotle, since, he remarks, the “poets made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation, and claimed that the gods took their oath upon the water—the river Styx.”3 Thales’ theory is a logical progression from the tales of the poets.

It is in On the Soul, however, that Aristotle draws out the second member of our pair, consequently locating in Thales the thought that places a dual at the origin of things. “Thales too … apparently took the soul to be a principle of movement … Some say that the universe is shot through with soul, which is perhaps why Thales too thought that all things were full of gods.”4 This is a remarkable passage. If soul is the first principle of movement, soul is thus the source of movement, a source that ‘some say’ permeates the universe. In other words, for Thales (at least in Aristotle’s reporting), movement is intrinsic to the fabric of the real, which is itself constituted by water, but neither is reducible to the other, insofar as each are a first principle in themselves.

Waterfield also finds this point remarkable, commenting in a footnote in the introduction to the Milesians that “Aristotle complained at Metaphysics 988b that the Milesians took motion for granted, rather than explaining how it first arose … It was only after Parmenides that thinkers felt that motion had to be accounted for.”5 But what if this is not a ‘taking for granted’ but a genuine philosophical intuition? I do not want to ascribe too much significance to these fragments and testimonials, but in the five year interim between readings, other thinkers I have worked through cause these passages to present themselves to my eyes as ‘shot through’ with a newfound meaning. Certainly, there is being, but there is also motion.

Let us draw another of our Milesians into the fold. In his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, Simplicius writes of Anaximander that he “said that the first principle and element of existing things was the boundless [apeiron]; it was he who originally introduced this name for the first principle” (or as Waterfield clarifies in an endnote, “It was he who originally introduced this word arkhē [first principle]” itself).6 Simplicius continues: “He says that it is not water or any of the other so-called elements, but something different from them, something boundless by nature, which is the source of all the heavens and the worlds in them … It is clear that, having noticed how the four elements change into one another, he decided not to make any of them the underlying thing, but something else beside them; and so he has creation take place not as a result of any of the elements undergoing qualitative change, but as a result of the opposites being separated off by means of motion, which is eternal.”7 Here, then, we see the originary dual come into clearer relief: being (the boundless) together with motion.

But what is most fascinating about Anaximander is the additional term that he introduces: the opposites. Here, in approximately 570 BC, Anaximander intuits a formal structure of the real much like that which Gilbert Simondon elaborates in his L’individuation à la lumière des notions de Forme et d’Information (1958). Specifically, in the first part of Simondon’s introduction to part two of L’individuation, a section titled in English “The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis,”8 we see a remarkable parallel with this Presocratic thinker.

Simondon wants to get beyond both the “substantialist” (or Atomist) and “hylomorphic” (or Aristotelian) theories of being, contending that both “give[] an ontological privilege to the constituted individual,” which does “not plac[e] the individual into the system of reality in which the individuation occurs.”9 We cannot have a concept of the individual without a concept of individuation, and yet this is precisely what the substantialist and hylomorphic paths do, taking the individual as given. But for Simondon, “to account for the genesis of the individual with its definitive characteristics, one must suppose the existence of a first term, the principle, which contains that which will explain why the individual is an individual, and which will account for its ecceity [thisness].”10 Quite remarkably, we see the consequence of the Parmenidean paradigm, which takes being as given while denying the significance of motion, a consequence to which Simondon is responding. The Milesian intuition needs to be recovered, that of the originary dual (however it may be configured).

The individual, for Simondon, is a “relative reality,” a “certain phase of being that supposes a preindividual reality.”11 He continues, arguing that individuation “must therefore be considered as a partial and relative resolution that occurs in a system that contains potentials and encloses a certain incompatibility in relation to itself—an incompatibility made of forces of tension as well as of the impossibility of an interaction between the extreme terms of the dimensions.”12 This is where the resonance with Anaximander becomes sensible. The individual, individuated reality, is neither necessary nor foundational but a consequence of a principle, the principle of individuation. This ontogenesis that we are calling individuation “designate[s] the character of becoming of being, that by which being becomes, insofar as it is, as being.”13 There is no conflict between being and becoming because “becoming is a dimension of being corresponding to a capacity of being to fall out of phase with itself, that is, to resolve itself by dephasing itself.”14 In Simondon, the Milesian dual is recast with the resources of twentieth century science, so also clarifying the organization of this dual. This is not a Manichean duality, a reversible equality of terms, but an asymmetric and inequitable pairing of nevertheless complementary terms, being and motion, being and becoming, the preindividual and its dephasing. Motion is not a figment of the imagination, but an ‘eternal’ capacity or function of being, that by which individuals come to be.

In Anaximander, there is the boundless and there is motion whereby the opposites are separated, made distinct. Simondon gives us a different framework for understanding the same system:

Pre-individual being is being in which there is no phase; the being in which individuation occurs is that in which a resolution appears through the division of being into phases. This division of being into phases is becoming. Becoming is not a framework in which being exists, it is a dimension of being, a mode of resolution of an initial incompatibility that is rich in potentials. Individuation corresponds to the appearance of phases in being that are the phases of being. It is not a consequence placed at the edge of becoming and isolated; it is this operation itself in the process of accomplishing itself. It can only be understood on the basis of the initial supersaturation of being—without becoming and homogeneous—that then structures itself and becomes, bringing forth individual and environment, according to becoming, which is a resolution of the initial tensions and a conservation of these tensions in the form of structure.15

Though Simondon does not cite Anaximander, he precisely identifies the gap in ancient knowledge that led to the Parmenidean paradigm and the dismissal of motion:

Individuation has not been able to be adequately thought and described because previously only one form of equilibrium was known—stable equilibrium. Metastable equilibrium was not known; being was implicitly supposed to be in a state of stable equilibrium. However, stable equilibrium excludes becoming, because it corresponds to the lowest possible level of potential energy; it is the equilibrium that is reached in a system when all of the possible transformations have been realized and no more force exists. All the potentials have been actualized, and the system having reached its lowest energy level can no longer transform itself. Antiquity knew only instability and stability, movement and rest; they had no clear and objective idea of metastability. In order to define metastability, the notions of order, potential energy in a system, and the notion of an increase in entropy must be used. In this way, it is possible to define this metastable state of being—which is very different from stable equilibrium and from rest—that Antiquity could not use to find the principle of individuation, because no clear paradigm of physics existed to help them understand how to use it.16

In Anaximander, we see a loose intuition of this system state. His boundless contains opposites that exist in a system of tension until they are individuated by eternal motion. But as Simondon makes clear, it is no wonder that the thinkers that followed discarded this intuition. Indeed, in the later testimonials, we see how the boundless itself is posited to protect against the destruction of all things that would inevitably arise from the principle of becoming in a framework without the requisite abstract tools.

“Some make the underlying stuff single,” writes Aristotle in his Physics, while others “claim that the one contains oppositions.”17 This “one” is an “extra body over and above the elements, which acts as the source of the elements … Those who suggest that the infinite is not air or water, but this extra body, do so because they want to avoid everything being destroyed by an infinite element. For the elements are related by mutual opposition … and so if any one of them were infinite, the others would have been destroyed by now.”18 Through these contortions, we see an attempt by the ancients to intuit the physical realities that modern science makes available to Simondon. How can there be many things, and yet all things are, that is, participate in being as being, coming to be through becoming? With the physics available to those asking such questions in antiquity, there are no easy answers. But for Simondon, we can approach such questions (which we can organize under the heading “physical individuation,” the being of the many) through the framework of “the resolution of a metastable system, starting from a system state like that of supercooling or supersaturation, which governs at the genesis of crystals.” Simondon continues:

One can also suppose that reality, in itself, is primitively like the supersaturated solution and even more completely so in the preindividual regime, where it is more than unity and more than identity, capable of expressing itself as a wave or as a particle, as matter or energy, because every operation, and every relation within an operation, are an individuation that divides, or dephases, the preindividual being, while at the same time correlating extreme values and the orders of magnitude that were primitively without mediation.19

This framework resolves the issues in Anaximander’s system which gave rise to the Parmenidean paradigm, while also addressing Aristotle’s concerns with Presocratic theories of being that led to his own hylomorphic conclusions. Individuation, for Simondon, is quite clearly “not the meeting of pre-existing form and matter that exist as previously constituted, separate terms, but a resolution springing from a metastable system that is filled with potentials: form, matter and energy pre-exist in the system.”20

There is much more of interest in Simondon, even in this short excerpt to which we have been referring here. But sadly, as I have already indicated above, Anaximander’s insight was not taken up by those who followed him, and so the distance between Simondon and the ancients, which he himself indicates, begins to grow. For Anaximenes, the third of our Milesians, Simplicius reports that the “underlying nature is not boundless, but specific.”21 This specific (individuated) underlying nature is “air,” which “manifests in different forms in different things” through a process of “rarefaction and condensation,” which is to say, a process of motion.22 Indeed, for Anaximenes too, “motion [is] eternal,” and it is motion that is “the cause of change as well,” but already it is clear that the individuation is taken as given, rather than being posited as a distinct principle equiprimordial with air.23 We see, then, how the powerful abstraction Anaximander deploys is lost. The boundless is replaced with a boundless thing (air), and all things are reduced by motion (rarefaction and condensation) to it, rather than being opposites in a state of preindividual tension that are then “separated off” by the individuation.

Anaximenes’s reduction causes further problems, too, as relayed by Aëtius in his Opinions: “Just as in us, he [Anaximenes] says, soul, which is air, holds us together, so the whole universe is surrounded by wind and air (he uses ‘wind’ and ‘air’ as synonyms).”24 Motion is not an equal member in the originary dual, and as such, in Anaximenes, this dual itself dissolves. Air (being) is soul (motion). Though this might seem, on the surface, to approximate Simondon’s sense of becoming as a “dimension” of being, if we were to perform such an equation of terms we would inadvertently permit the reversibility of the individuation, so positioning becoming (individuation) as secondary to being (the preindividual), and as such merely an effect, an apparition, unreal.25 The Milesian intuition—there is being and there is motion—is already, at this third stage, evaporating.

It will be a long while before we return to Simondon in his entirety, but I hope in laying this groundwork to establish some parameters for my own particular interest in this research program, and to mount, at this early stage, an assault on the Parmenidean closure, the fortress of being, preempting much of the struggle with which the philosophy we will soon be covering concerns itself.


  1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b6-32, in The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford, UK: Oxford World Classics, 2000), 12. 

  2. Aristotle, Metaphysics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 12. 

  3. Aristotle, Metaphysics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 13. 

  4. Aristotle, On the Soul, 405a19-21, 411a7-9, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 13. 

  5. Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 10. 

  6. Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 14, and Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 315. 

  7. Simplicius, Commentary, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 14. 

  8. Gilbert Simondon, “The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis,” trans. Gregory Flanders, Parrhesia 7 (2009), 4-16. 

  9. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 4. 

  10. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 4. 

  11. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 5. 

  12. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 5. 

  13. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 5. 

  14. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 6. 

  15. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 6. 

  16. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 6. 

  17. Aristotle, Physics, 187a12-23, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 15. 

  18. Aristotle, Phyiscs, 204b22-0, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 15. 

  19. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 6. 

  20. Simondon, “Problem of Ontogenesis,” 7. 

  21. Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 17. 

  22. Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 17-18. 

  23. Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 18. 

  24. Aëtius, Opinions, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 18. Emphasis added. 

  25. Now, certainly, Simplicius does state that in Anaximander’s thought “existing things die back into” the boundless. But the difference between “die” and “rarefy” is, I think, important. “Die” implies something of the entropic irreversibility that is key to Simondon’s individuation, while “rarefaction” is formally convertible with “condensation.” The fact that the testimonials discussing Anaximander’s system are more concerned with the nonexhaustion of the boundless by existing things, and its distinction from existing things as a result, while the testimonials discussing Anaximenes’s system take up the mechanical question of how, in fact, air might become such disparate things as fire and stone, is telling. 

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