Motion as Principle – Kinesis and Cosmology in Presocratic Philosophy – Robert Müller

Nearly every existing literary source of presocratic philosophy deals with the phenomenon of motion in some way, sometimes as a central problem of the cosmology, sometimes rather casually. Problems in interpretation of presocratic philosophy caused by this phenomenon and its use in the cosmology were often approached with a rather aristotelian or physical understanding of motion itself, especially for the process of „kinesis“. The biggest impact on this interpretation was made by Aristoteles in the „Metaphysics“, where he attested his predecessors good will but insuffucient ability to deal with the aspects of motion in a proper intellectual way on different occasions. However, various scholars have shown in recent years that Aristoteles did not fully understand the ideas of the presocratic philosophers, which led to numerous mistakes and misunderstandings in his books. His dealing with motion is based on one of these misunderstandings and therefore ought to be re-examined from a neutral, non-aristotelian viewpoint.

A closer look at the texts reveals that different kinds of motion with individual properties were already described in ancient greek thought long before Aristoteles.
Considering this, a re-evaluation of these ideas, not from an aristotelian, but a first-hand perspective based on the text themselves is all the more important.

I will show in my presentation that certain problems within the philosophical systems themselves have arisen purely as a result of this anachronical account on motion in an exclusive physical way. Identifying and understanding these problems allows us to take a new approach to the phenomenon of motion in ancient greek philosophy, ultimately giving us a clearer and more thorough understanding of the first philosophers’ thoughts.

Especially the concept of „kinesis“ differs greatly from the definition of physical motion as we understand it today and seems to have a rather metaphysical aspect to it. I will trace this hypothesis through different texts and show its importance and position in each particular philosophical system. In doing this I hope to prove that different types of motion were considered in ancient greek philosophical thought. These different types had a great impact on the development of philosophy in general: the formation and organization of matter in a cosmology can not be thought in greek philosophy without asking the question of motion and how this motion has to be imagined.

In this context the metaphysical aspect of motion refers to its close connection to the act of creation of matter: this kind of motion always has an aspect of creation and organization, as I will show by going through the different loci in the greek texts where each particular philosopher refers to kinesis: Anaximenes mentions the difference between change and motion, while Anaximanders „Apeiron“ can only be thought of as the root of everything when it is in everlasting motion. Parmenides opens a whole new aspect of the question of motion when dealing with the Be, which can only exist as a „Be“ when it is not in motion, while Empedocles shows us that being in motion but at the same time „akineto“ is not impossible in greek thought either. Anaxagoras ́ system in turn is based primarily on the two different processes of circummotion and „kinesis“ itself, as he states that the beginning of the circummotion is a „kinesis“.

Especially taking into account Parmenides ́ thoughts on the „Be“ and the question of motion allows for interesting interpretations to be made when dealing with this text, in which the aspect of motion is handled in a very complex and multilayered way.

All of these examples show that the translation of „kinesis“ into „motion“ without taking into consideration the different images of motion in ancient greek thought can lead to unnecessary complications in our understanding of ancient greek philosophy. At the same time they show that the question of motion, especially of „kinesis“, forms a central aspect of the new ideas on matter that these scholars brought to life.

Furthermore, I will trace this aspect of motion in other literary genres as well to show that it was not only a concern of natural philosophers, but for intellectual thinkers in ancient greece in general in that time. For example, we can find a very similar interpretation of motion in the work of Thucydides, who had a close connection to Anaxagoras, at least according to ancient sources. Combining these two intellectual outcomes of the 5th and 6th century BC provides us with a deeper understanding of the ideascape of this time period, since Thucydides too seems to adapt different aspects of philosophical thought on motion when he mentions it in his „History of the Peloponnesian War“: there he connects „kinesis“ with emotions, psychological aspects like fear and insecurity, as well as an aspect of different changes occuring in armies and societes such as revolutions and civil strife.

To make my point clear I will follow three steps in my argumentation: first of all I shall examine different texts of the presocratics, focussing on their use of „kinesis“ and how it differs from other forms of motion mentioned in the systems and cosmologies, namely in Anaximander, Anaxmines, Parmenides, Empedocles and Anaxagoras. Secondly, I will highlight the similarity between uses of „kinesis“ in philosophical texts and those in various passages in Thucydides, while also pointing out possible differences and explaining their consequences for the understanding of Thucydides as a „philosophical historian“. In the third and final step I will explain the possible consequences of my interpretation and translation of „kinesis“ on further research on presocratic philosophy and other literary genres such as historiography. I will then underline the importance of multi-perspective and cross-genre research on ancient sources to trace and understand possible intellectual discourses in ancient sources that don’t correspond with modern genres and scientific fields, therefore making it necessary to develop new ways of interpreting sources of ancient greek thought and ideas, as well as our research on them.