The Ionian science of nature


Author: R.G. Collingwood

Source: Collingwood, R.G., 1945, The Idea of Nature, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 29-30.


The Ionian philosophers of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. devoted so much attention to cosmological problems that Aristotle, who is by far our most important authority for the history of early Greek thought, refers to them in a body as ______ [Greek word], theorists of nature. According to Aristotle, the characteristic of this Ionian cosmology is the fact that whenever its devotees ask the question: ‘What is nature?’ they at once convert it into the question: ‘What are things made of?’ or ‘What is the original, unchanging substance which underlies all the changes of the natural world with which we are acquainted?’

            People who could ask this question must have already settled in their mind a large number of preliminary points; and if a whole school of thinkers; whose work extends over the best part of a century, could agree in asking the same question the preliminary points must have been very settled. I will mention three of them.


1. That there are natural things: in other words, that among the things with which we are acquainted some, no doubt, are ‘artificial’, that is, the products of ‘skill’ on the part of human or other animals, but others are ‘natural’, the contradictory of ‘artificial’, things that happen or exist of themselves and not because someone has made or produced them.


2. That ‘natural’ things constitute a ‘single world of nature’: in other words, that the things which happen or exist of themselves have in common not only the negative characteristic of not having been produced by ‘skill’ but certain positive characteristics as well, so that it is possible to make statements about them which apply not merely to certain selected groups of them but to all of them together.

            These two points are indispensable presuppositions of any ‘science of nature’. The Greeks had worked them out, through what processes of inquiry or reflection we do not know at all, and with what amount of help from Mesopotamians and Egyptians and other non-Greek peoples we know only very slightly, by the seventh century B.C.


3. That what is common to all natural things is being made of a single ‘substance’ or material. This was the special or peculiar presupposition of Ionian physics; and the school of Miletus may be regarded as a group of thinkers who made it their special business to take this as their ‘working hypothesis’ and see what could be made of it: asking in particular the question: ‘That being so, what can we say about this single substance?’ They did not consciously treat it as a ‘working hypothesis’: it cannot be doubted that they accepted it as an absolute and unquestioned presupposition of all their thinking; but the historian of thought, looking back on their achievement, cannot fail to see that what they really did was to test this idea of a single universal substance and to find it wanting.