Anaxagoras’ Mind, and Birds

Anaxagoras says the world is comprised of innumerable seeds of all things, which are grouped into various proportions, these proportions determining each thing’s identity, by a whirlwind controlled by Mind. Aristotle’s own theory of the intellect is influenced by this Anaxagorean imagery, as he equates “controlled” with “known,” and Anaxagoras’ seeds with his own notion of potency (matter). 

Anaxagoras believes the cosmos, qua knowable world, is forever expanding, as Mind draws new beings out of the whirl, i.e., brings form to new collections and proportions of the innumerable seeds. Aristotle’s criticism of this view, with which he has some sympathy, is essentially the same criticism Socrates explains in the Phaedo, namely that Anaxagoras provides only a mechanistic (materialist) account of Mind’s relation to the seed mixture, leaving unexplained — to use a Socratic formulation — how this or that particular act of configuration is good. Or, to say the same thing in Aristotelian terms, Anaxagoras does not explain why Mind should draw this, rather than that, proportion out of the formless seed mixture.

As with all materialist accounts of being and motion, in other words, Anaxagoras cannot explain the relation he intuits between Mind and world, because his theory has no place for rationally guided desire, which is to say goal-directedness, purpose.

If, for example, beings arise from the seed mixture through the controlling act of Mind, then Anaxagoras ought to be able to explain the place and meaning of birds, perhaps the beings most indicative of the metaphor of the cosmic whirl. For birds are visible life, which is to say enmattered soul, borne aloft on winds, and soaring toward the heavens effortlessly. When they alight upon the Earth, they remind the melancholic of himself and of his material limits. They are, so to speak, Mind’s obscure image of itself.

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