The Story of Space: Presocratic Roots

This article is the first in a series on the history of concepts of space in Western Philosophy, a series is meant to double as a theme-focused introduction to the History of Philosophy. In this article we find the precursors to Plato’s naming of space as chora in the Timaeus in the work of the very first philosophers of the Western tradition.

From the Unlimited to the Void

The chief question of Presocratic philosophy is: What is everything made out of? Is everything made of the same stuff that is constantly taking on different forms, or is it made up of many and different elements intermingling?

Thales (624–546 BC), the first philosopher in the Western tradition, observes that all living things are moist, and posits that moisture is the underlying root for all things. But his contemporary Anaximander of Miletos (610–546 BC) observes that fire could never come from water since water extinguishes or kills fire, and argues that opposites cannot give rise to each other. Neither water nor any of the other elements can serve as the origin for all that is, since they all have opposites, but the source of being must be:

“…some other aperion [unlimited] nature, from which come into being all the heavens and the worlds in them. And the source of coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens, according to necessity (kreon); for they pay the penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time” (1).

Anaximander’s apeiron translates as unlimited, without bounds, or more broadly as indefinite. With the “a-” alpha-privative meaning “not,” and the Greek peros meaning “limit” or “boundary,” a-peiron’s grammar of negation reflects its ontological structure — we can only know of it indirectly, thought it’s effects. It cannot be directly perceived through the senses, but only through a speculative logic that says: because opposites cannot give rise to each other, some other “nature,” not limited by an opposite, must give rise to the elements and underlie all the changes we experience in the natural world.

The classical example of this change is the cyclical turning of the seasons: when the hot and dry of Summer gives way to the wet and cold of Winter, then somewhere in the dead of Winter, this course is reversed as the wet and cold begins to be overtaken again by the hot and dry.

Seasonal cycles are depicted as agonistic play between elemental opposites, mediated by Necessity, a deity figure that goes back to orphic cults and is depicted in Hesiod’s Theogony:

“According to Anaximander’s account, the opposition (animosity or strife) between elements is mediated by kreon-necessity, a cosmic judge that determines how far one element (e.g., fire) must give way in order to pay for its encroachment upon its opposite (e.g., water); and at another time, its opposite must also pay a penalty and give way. Thus, seasonal cycles are established by necessity, imposing order upon the cosmos through the limit of time. The imposition of limit is here crucial, for to come into existence means to come to be limited in time, through necessity” (2).

Justice hangs in the balance of power between the elements, and Necessity ensures this cosmic order. This means that there is order and meaning in the universe. We live in a moral universe where order abides in spite of all the chaos.

Before Anaximander’s apeiron, change is imagined as being within a closed system — things that exist in nature break down and become other things, and change is the transformation of the elements from one state of being to another. But with the apeiron, the debate takes a new turn because the introduction of the unlimited implies that everything that is comes from something that is not — that is, from some sort of “not being” or “no thing.” The aperion has no existence in the material world, and yet, it is the source and origin for our world. There is an “outside” to Being, such that what is can come into, and pass out of, existence. When something is destroyed, it it not simply transformed but it ceases to be. Not simple transformation, but absolute birth and death is the way of beings.

… how can something, much less everything, come from nothing?

For some philosophers, like Parmenides (c. 515–450 B.C.), this is an absurd proposition. In his brilliant poem “On Being” he argues, quite logically, that what is is, and what is not can in no way be. Reason, the arbiter of what we can know, tell us that Being is One, indivisible, continuous and without gaps. Here is a small but relevant part of his poem:

“Come now, and I will tell you … the only ways of enquiry that are to be thought of. The one, that [it] is and that it is impossible for [it] not to be, is the Path of Persuasion (for she attends upon Truth); the other, that [it] is not and that it is needful (kreon esti) that [it] not be, that I declare to you is an altogether indiscernible track: for you could not know what is not — that cannot be done — nor indicate it” (3).

The same reason that told us that there must be an unlimited tells us that what is not can not be, and is therefore unknowable. To many, this seems like the final word on the matter, for how can something, much less everything, come from nothing?

This denial is taken to heart by the Atomists (c.460 to 370 B.C.)at the end of the Presocratic period. Their theory that everything is made of atoms colliding in a void (how they get to this is an interesting story for another time) offers a plausible compromise between those who followed Parmenides and others who might have followed Heraclitus or the pluralist Empedocles. What is not is renamed as “the void,” and unlike the aperion with Necessity at it’s helm, the void is hollowed out, empty, inertia. (4) The void is also minified and contained within the cosmos. In the Atomist scenario, atoms do not come into and out of existence but only move and change inside the void. In sum, Atomism denies absolute birth and death — and therefore the existence of an external reality — but re-asserts the need for non-being as void.



(1) Fr.110; The Presocratic Philosophers a Critical History with a Selection of Texts, Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, Cambridge University Press, 1983; 117–118; henceforth KRS.

(2) “On Necessity: A Primer For Interpreting chora in Plato’s Timaeus,” Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy 16 [2]:233–245 [2012].

(3) Fr.2; KRS, 244–245.

(4) Without Necessity, they have a heck of a time explaining motion, one reason why Aristotle will later take this up.




Phenomenology, Existentialism, Feminism, Poststructuralism & Critical Theory. #publicphilosophy or bust

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Phenomenology, Existentialism, Feminism, Poststructuralism & Critical Theory. #publicphilosophy or bust