What is everything made from?

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell via Unsplash.


Ancient Greek Philosophy was said to be founded in the 4th Century BC; with the first Philosopher believed to be Thales of Miletus. Around this time, a key Philosophical discussion was what formed the basis of all matter. Such a question is categorised now in the field of Aristotelian Philosophy and is referred to as the “Arche” (often referred as “Arkhe.”)

Information on the Arche

Most Ancient Philosophers thought that there was a first principle (arche) which forms the basis for all future things. This principle will always persist: but can change qualities over any given period of time. They propose that nature is always preserved, and as a result there is no coming to be or passing of the arche: instead the principles always exists and solely change characteristics.

By example, when water changes to ice, the basic basis of H20 remains constant; even If the qualities change. This example is analogous to the first principle: all things are made from it, despite differing qualities.

Overall, Philosophers agree that there exists a singular natural substance from which all things come to be; but disagree on the specifics of such a substance.

I will now explore 2 differing proposals of such a substance, before prompting discussion.

Solution 1 – Thales’ on Water.  (Note that Thales’ proposal is subject to numerous readings, this discussion focuses on Aristotle’s.)

See “Origins of Life View” or “Primeval Life View” for further interpretations.

Thales’ solution emerges from his stipulation that “all things are from water,” which draws from his observation that nature and the nurture of all things is moist. As a result, Thales’ believes that it is Water that is the arche: meaning it is the matter of everything (this being known as material monism.) Similar to our prior example of h20, water appears adaptable in qualities whilst also preserving something underlying it.

In today’s modern scientific society, it appears evident that this is false. But at the time, this proposal was widely followed. Empirical evidence for this stems from the belief that life, like the birth of a tadpole, requires water to biologically form. Whilst life requires water to survive.

Was Thales correct? Does water form the elements which make up the things we see and experience?

Solution 2  – Anaximander on the Apeiron

Anaximander, student of Thales’ strongly rejected claims on water. He follows the supposition that it is wrong to attribute the arche to one of the 4 elements, given that all are reducible to each other. Given that this would entail that any single element (fire, or air by example) could be the first principle.

Instead, Anaximander attributes this principle to the Apeiron (meaning  indefinite, boundless or infinite.)                                                                                                 

On this account,  there exists a temporally and spatially infinite substance that has and always will exist. It is forever in eternal motion, and when it becomes unbalanced; causes powers (such as hot or cold,) which then leads to the 4 elements. These elements then form the basis for all things that exist.

This means that all things, including you and me; are reducible to the apeiron – and, according to Anaximander; all things that die or decay then revert back to it. This allows for the apeiron to be temporally infinite, and seems intuitively true – given there are beliefs that when we die we give back to nature, to continue the cycle of life.

But is the proposal of the apeiron true?

It seems that Anaximander’s refutation of one of the elements being the arche holds true: given that later  philosophers such as Anaximanes proposes that the arche is air. It seems there is no reason to favour the element of air over water : given that water is reducible to air (so is arguably it’s underlying element.)

But is it true that there exists an infinite substance that forms the basis for all elements?       It is important to note that it is widely disputed what is meant by the Apeiron, however my explanation of the substance stems from interpretations undergone by Aristotle.

Other scholarly reading’s underpin the apeiron as that which cannot be experienced. If that is the case, then how can we confidently and objectively accept it, or reject it?


What do you think? Is the Apeiron a strong theory, or does something else exist which everything is made from?

Thank you for taking the time to engage with me,

Feel free to leave the answers to my questions below in the “comments section,” or tweet me : @theapeironblog

Jon Hawkins.

Photo by Yong Chuan.                                                                    

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