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Physis

Greek philosophic term of the week:
Physis - “Nature”, from verb phynai (aorist pass. inf.), “to grow, to be begotten or born”. When we speak of Nature, we actually use the Latinized version of the Greek word physis, from which we also derive the word “physics”. As is happens, physis is one of the most important terms in Greek philosophy and theology, and one of the most contentious - as we can readily tell from the various connotations that the word “Nature” now evokes in the English language. This, in fact, is a fair reflection of the various competing schools of thought which have fought for supremacy over the last few centuries.

Thus, all at once, Nature can be meant to express something which is separate from what is specifically human (i.e. the environment vs. the human world, its inventions, and conventions - it’s nomoi), an all-encompassing totality of which humanity forms a part (i.e. the Greek “to pan”, or “holon” [whole, as in holistic]), or the essence which is proper to something (e.g. human nature, or the nature of a cat, or the nature of atoms). These various contentions actually found their first factions in Ancient Greece, in the generation of Parmenides and Heraclitus - and they’ve only been reproduced in the post-Renaissance philosophy which has structured modern languages and concepts.

In it’s original formulation, Physis designated what we would call the process of growth of things. When Greek philosophers - first in ancient Ionia then later throughout Magna Graecia - first turned their attention to the problem of processes, they were the able to distinguish that all processes involving finite things involve three aspects - a beginning (arche), a middle (the growth, becoming, or unfolding proper), and an end (telos). Though, logically, a proper understanding of the Physis of anything would need at least to address all three aspects, for decades different philosophers tended to chase down and focus on one, and come to, e.g. the first two meanings listed above. It would take Plato, Aristotle (and reputably, Socrates), to bring the question of Physis fully to the point of investigating all three, and from there, investigating all the questions which arise from there (e.g. all study of human nature, of society understood as “the soul writ large”, and of the processes of the visible cosmos).

Physics and modern cosmology, as it so happens, mainly focus on the question of natural beginnings - thus happily continuing the work of the Ionian philosophers, aka. the physiologoi.

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