Anaxagoras- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (8)

Today we have another short post, this time about Anaxagoras. Russell asserts his main importance as being the person who first introduced philosophy to Athens. He was a student of Anaximenes, and in his later life he was an influence on Socrates.

He was born in Clazomenae, a costal town of Ionia, around 500 BCE. He lived in Athens from 462 – 432 BCE, the golden age. It is believed that he was brought to Athens by Pericles, who wished to introduce Athens to the finest minds and ideas around. Pericles knew the fame of Ionian science, and wanted the ideas to permeate Athenian educational institutions and society.


Anaxagoras believed in the four elements, which we saw posited by Empedocles. He believed that everything contained a portion of each element. The deciding factor of what an individual substance was was the element which was dominant. Fire, for example, was so because fire was the dominant element.

He also believed that everything was infinitely divisible. What he believed about atoms is unclear, and it’s not clear whether he had a position on what would happen if something was divided to the smallest amounts, rendering something with an equal amount of each element. We will understand ideas like this tomorrow when we learn about the Atomists though.

He believed in the doctrine of opposites, which we saw in the chapter on Heraclitus. Everything, he asserted, contains its opposite- good contains bad, black contains white, and so forth. Anaxagoras had one exception to this doctrine, and it was he who first presented the idea. That exception was Mind.


This was understood to be a substance in the same way as the elements. It has no opposite, however, and doesn’t combine with the other four elements. It doesn’t permeate all objects, only those which are sentient, and therefore capable of supporting it.

He believed that Mind was the same in all creatures. The reason that humans seemed to be so much more intelligent than animals was merely that they were more physically capable. Humans have hands and opposable thumbs, which allows mind to interact more easily with the world.

Aristotle and Plato both criticised Anaxagoras for his theory of mind because he never developed it to any useful extent. He had a wholly mechanical explanation of life, and merely used the idea of mind to explain anything which his mechanical theory of life couldn’t.


He had very little to say about religion whatsoever. It is believed that he was an atheist. He posited Mind, but discussed it in enough detail for us to appreciate that it was distinct from Soul, something which he never supported. Being mechanical and having no mental characteristics different from animals means that we couldn’t have been special in the eyes of the Gods.

He taught much about the universe. He further advanced science on eclipses and traveling light, for example. He also claimed that the sun and stars were burning fires, but we couldn’t feel the heat because of how far away they were.

This caused people to distrust him, and these teachings eventually landed him in prison. Socrates would later be imprisoned for similar charges. Pericles helped Anaxagoras escape prison, and after 432 BCE he fled back to Ionia to set up his own school.

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