Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
136. Biology 138. The Pythagorean School

From Chapter VI., Anaxagoras of Klazomenai

137. Perception
In these scanty notices we seem to see traces of a polemical attitude towards Empedokles, and the same may be observed in what we are told of the theory of perception adopted by Anaxagoras, especially in the view that perception is of contraries.76 The account which Theophrastos gives of this77 is as follows:

But Anaxagoras says that perception is produced by opposites; for like things cannot be effected by like. He attempts to give a detailed enumeration of the particular senses. We see by means of the image in the pupil; but no image is cast upon what is of the same colour, but only on what is different. With most living creatures things are of a different colour to the pupil by day, though with some this is so by night, and these are accordingly keen-sighted at that time. Speaking generally, however, night is more of the same colour with the eyes than day. And an image is cast on the pupil by day, because light is a concomitant cause of the image, and because the prevailing colour casts an image more readily upon its opposite.78

It is in the same way that touch and taste discern their objects. That which is just as warm or just as cold as we are neither warms us nor cools us by its contact; and, in the same way, we do not apprehend the sweet and the sour by means of themselves. We know cold by warm, fresh by salt, and sweet by sour, in virtue of our deficiency in each; for all these are in us to begin with. And we smell and hear in the same manner; the former by means of the accompanying respiration, the latter by the sound penetrating to the brain, for the bone which surrounds this is hollow, and it is upon it that the sound falls.79

And all sensation implies pain, a view which would seem to be the consequence of the first assumption, for all unlike things produce pain by their contact. And this pain is made perceptible by the long continuance or by the excess of a sensation. Brilliant colours and excessive noises produce pain, and we cannot dwell long on the same things. The larger animals are the more sensitive, and, generally, sensation is proportionate to the size of the organs of sense. Those animals which have large, pure, and bright eyes, see large objects and from a great distance, and contrariwise.80

And it is the same with hearing. Large animals can hear great and distant sounds, while less sounds pass unperceived; small animals perceive small sounds and those near at hand.81 It is the same too with smell. Rarefied air has more smell; for, when air is heated and rarefied, it smells. A large animal when it breathes draws in the condensed air along with the rarefied, while a small one draws in the rarefied by itself ; so the large one perceives more. For smell is better perceived when it is near than when it is far by reason of its being more condensed, while when dispersed it is weak. But, roughly speaking, large animals do not perceive a rarefied smell, nor small animals a condensed one.82

This theory marks in some respects an advance on that of Empedokles. It was a happy thought of Anaxagoras to make sensation depend upon irritatian by opposites, and to connect it with pain. Many modern theories are based upon a similar idea.

That Anaxagoras regarded the senses as incapable of reaching the truth of things is shown by the fragments preserved by Sextus. But we must not, for all that, turn him into a sceptic. The saying preserved by Aristotle83 that "things are as we suppose them to be," has no value at all as evidence. It comes from some collection of apophthegms, not from the treatise of Anaxagoras himself; and it had, as likely as not, a moral application. He did say (fr. 21) that "the weakness of our senses prevents our discerning the truth," but this meant simply that we do not see the "portions" of everything which are in everything; for instance, the portions of black which are in the white. Our senses simply show us the portions that prevail. He also said that the things which are seen give us the power of seeing the invisible, which is the very opposite of scepticism (fr. 21a).

Burnet's Notes


76. Beare, p. 37.

77. Theophr. De sense, 27 sqq. (Dox. p. 507).

78. Beare, p. 38.

79. Beare, p. 208.

80. Beare, p. 209.

81. Ibid. p. 103.

82. Ibid. p. 137.

83. Met. Δ, 5. 1009 b 25 (R. P. 161 a).

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