Saturday, January 14, 2023

Thales, the first philosopher - what is philosophy, anyways?

He [Thales of Miletus] held that the original substance of all things is water, and that the world is animate and full of deities.  They say he discovered the seasons of the year, and divided the day into 365 days.  (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 12, tr. Pamela Mensch)

My received history of philosophy begins with the beginning of that first sentence.  Thales deduces or imagines, sometime in the early 6th century BCE, that all things are made of water, really, when you think about it.  Heraclitus will argue: No, fire; Anaximenes says: No, air.   Anaximander, a student of Thales, picks as the basis of existence “the limitless” or “the indefinite,” an interesting swerve.  Maybe we are made of a mix of things, the four elements, say, or the more abstract microscopic atoms claimed by Democritus

Democritus in some sense got it right, sometimes uncannily right, but his system was as much an imaginative creation as anyone else’s.  Reading the early Greeks, I am witnessing not just the birth of philosophy but a step towards the invention of science, but without the scientific method, or any other method.  Water, fire, a mix: how can I tell which theory is correct?  Or, to ask the question that the scientific method can answer, how can I tell which are wrong?  The tools of philosophy do not have any better answers.

And how is any of this cosmogonizing different than what Hesiod does in Theogony?

Now sound out the holy stock

    of the everlasting immortals

who came into being out of Gaia

  and starry Ouranos

and gloomy Night, whom Pontos, the salt sea,

  brought to maturity (129, tr. Richmond Lattimore)

These stories can be enjoyed literally, but they are also blatantly allegories, attempts to answer the same questions Thales is working on.  Water and air and fire have proper names, that’s all.

The great conceptual innovation of Thales is linguistic, literary.  He removes the names, and removes the allegory.  Philosophy is what we call that.  “[H]e was the first, as some say, to reason about nature” (11) writes Diogenes Laertius, which is preposterous in a sense, but that “some” includes Aristotle who, two hundred years later, was the first writer to get serious about the history of philosophy, mostly in Metaphysics.  Thales is the first philosopher because Aristotle thinks he is.

Given how strong my sense was that “Water if the origin of all things” was the idea that was the origin of all ideas, it has been a genuine shock to discover that the idea of Thales is first found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics where it is likely misinterpreted as not.  The horrifying details are in The Presocratic Philosophers (Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 2nd ed., pp. 89-91).  We’ll never know the truth.

I have included a 17th century print, borrowed from Wikipedia and the Rijksmuseum, of Thales by Jacob de Gheyn III showing Thales doing his thing, somewhat anachronistically.  At some point people no longer wanted images from Thales, but not at that point.


  1. The great conceptual innovation of Thales is linguistic, literary. He removes the names, and removes the allegory. Philosophy is what we call that. 

    This is brilliant, and makes me glad you decided to take this swerve into philosophy (I was a little sad you'd forsaken literature proprement dit for the time being). Which reminds me: your "an interesting swerve" brings to mind that prototypically philosophical term clinamen,
    which has become a terminally annoying term in this ever-changing world in which we live in.

  2. Good, you saw my little nod to Lucretius, using the good old Germanic word.

  3. I agree, that's a canny take on how myth became philosophy. I've always maintained that one function of early religion was to fill the role science would later have. My philosopher wife likes to remind me that philosophy is not a science, and retains a lot of the moral intentions of religion. She's an agnostic Kierkegaardian.

    I'm going to change my signature line at work to include "speaking under the inclination of my existence."

  4. The 6th century BCE is a strange period where proto-science and proto-philosophy overlap. Every philosopher has to have an opinion about whether the moon emits light or reflects it, or how lightning or earthquakes work, given that now you cannot just say "Zeus or Poseidon make them." Reading the Presocratics, I have definitely tired of fanciful theories about the weather.

    One move, almost logical, following the rise of philosophy is to push it back towards religion. Pythagoras seems to have been some kind of mystic, founding a cult that lasted a thousand years. He was not the only one. I may write a bit about this on Friday.

  5. Just ran across this snarky passage from Epictetus (Discourses, 1.26.15–18):

    The first step, then, towards philosophizing, is having a sense of how one’s executive faculty is doing: when a person knows it’s sickly, he won’t set it to big things. Now, some folks not strong enough to swallow a bite haunt the marketplace and throw themselves into consuming whole systems: So they puke it all up again, or can’t digest it – and then come the gripes and runs and fevers. Should’ve considered whether they could handle it. While it’s easy (in theory) to refute someone who doesn’t know, in real life, no one turns himself in for cross-examination (elenchos), and we hate those who interrogate us – but, as Socrates used to say, don’t live an unexamined life.

  6. It was an age of system-building. Much of it must have been pretty thin stuff.