What Is Arkhe, What Does Arkhe Problem Mean?

What Is Arkhe, What Does Arkhe Problem Mean?

July 1, 2021 Off By Felso

The question of what is an arkhe is a question that will help explain the philosophical debates, also known as the arkhe problem. Arche is a word used by the pre-Socratic ancient Greek philosophers who lived on the west coast of our country to mean “foundation”, “main substance”.

Our thinking has always needed a generalization and abstraction in the face of the countless and diverse phenomena, processes and objects of reality, and the search for a unifying and integrating principle has continued throughout the history of philosophy and thought behind all this chaotic multiplicity.

We have not failed to place an integral, abstract fundamental principle at the foundation of the phenomena of the empirical, experiential world. Anatolian Greeks in Antiquity began their intellectual effort by searching for a first cause.

It has been thought as follows: If the being continues its existence as such, it must have a first and unchangeable cause above the pleasures of the gods. How did the world come into existence? How did plants, animals and humans come into being? What is the beginning, root, source of all these beings?

Such questions are the questions of arkhe search efforts.


“What is the first matter (arkhe)?” This question can be considered as the first question of philosophy. “What is Arche?” The answers given by the ancient philosophers to the question can be listed as follows:

For Thales, arkhe is “water”,
Anaximenes accepted “air” as the first cause,
Anaximander called the first cause “apeiron (infinite, infinite)”,
For Democritus, the first cause of existence is “atom”,
Heraclitus argued that existence consists of “fire”,
In Empedocles’ philosophy, arkhe is a multiple structure: “earth, air, water and fire”.
For Thales, arkhe is water.

The first philosopher to use this word in a philosophical sense in known history is Thales. Thales accepted the arche of everything as “water”. According to him, water is the one that maintains its existence unchanged in everything that changes. It is the unity at the root of the multiplicity in the universe. The fact that water is ice when it cools and steam when it warms up shows that water exists in different forms in all beings.

Using the word Thales in the meanings of “main substance”, “first source”, “source”, he talks about the effort to bring back to nature and a source that does not require supernatural explanations within the developments in nature. Thus, Thales is considered the pioneer of scientific thought.

For Anaximander, arkhe is apeiron.

According to Anaximander, the first cause must be unlimited in quantity and indeterminate in quality. It cannot be a physical substance like water. Arche; a non-sensuous being is an abstract principle. This first cause, which is infinite, is apeiron. Apeiron is the foundation of all beings. From the apeiron first emerged the opposite of hot and cold. All beings are made up of the contrasts created by these two situations.

For Anaximenes, arkhe is air.

Like Anaximenes, Anaximandros and Thales, he dealt with the problem of arkhe. Arkhe is air in Anaximenes. Air is concrete as in Thales, but infinity as in Anaximander. He said, “The soul, which is air, is the air that sustains the world and the universe, just as it sustains the body.” says. Air, by its condensation and sparseness, allows other beings to form.


In Empedocles, the arkhe consists of four main substances: water, earth, air and fire. He says that there must be an external force that moves these main materials, which cannot be reduced to anything other than itself and are immobile. This power is love and hate. Substances do not change, but they come together in different proportions to create different beings. Love is the unifying principle, hate is the separating principle.

For Empedocles, arkhe is the four elements.

According to Democritus, arkhe is the last piece left when matter is divided down to the smallest building block and cannot be divided anymore. He calls this piece an atom. Atoms are infinite, unchanging, void and occupying space. Atoms moving in the vacuum combine in unlimited shapes as a result of their pressure to form beings. Combining atoms is birth, separating from each other is death.

Democritus is the pioneer of the atomic idea.
The Arkhe Problem in Metaphysical Idealism

Metaphysical idealist philosophy is also based on this first (arkhe) idea. According to religious thought, which is the most obvious and clear form of metaphysics, this first is God.

For the pre-Socratic natural philosophers, the arkhe is the material principle of the world. However, it is difficult to say that the pre-Socratic natural philosophers understood from arkhe a fundamental substance that was so solid, coherent, that it expanded and formed the whole world. Rather than matter, we are faced with an abstraction, a material category.

From this point of view, Thales’s determinations that everything comes from water, or Anaximenes, that the arche of everything is air, or Democritus’s that atoms or empty space should be the basic principle of the world (reality), is the chemical element of the world. It doesn’t mean they tell us anything about their physical characteristics.