Philosophy begins: Why Thales?

The standard claim is that philosophy begins with Thales.

When I teach this to my students, it’s a hard sell, for here are the founding texts in philosophy — ascribed to Thales by Aristotle:

thales-bust-50x60“The first principle and basic nature of all things is water.”

and

“All things are full of gods.”

You can imagine how impressed my students are.

Clearly, some interpretation is necessary. Why do historians of philosophy get worked up over these lines?

To see their significance, let’s set a context by going back to the worldview of the awesomely great Homer. I’ll do this context-setting in the next post in this sequence, and the meantime will give us a chance to brush up on The Iliad, which I want to use as our pre-philosophy-worldview contrast object.

Focus on this question: Why did Hector die?

7 thoughts on “Philosophy begins: Why Thales?

  • September 30, 2009 at 12:28 pm
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    I think it’s more accurate to say that REASON was discovered and invented around 575 BC in Miletus with Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. People for the first time began to deliberately and carefully think about things — such as the universe and life — without primary reference to emotion, hormonal drives, or instincts. They just used cold isolated thought and pure logic.

    Pure thought applied to the physical world became known as SCIENCE, while pure thought about the mental world became known as PHILOSOPHY. Before that, all we had from wise elders were loose metaphorical stories and very brief aphorisms or “wisdom texts.”

    So tell all your students, Stephen, that it was GREAT to have pure reason finally come into human life — even if the earliest pure thinkers and rational speculators were strange and poor in quality!

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  • September 30, 2009 at 3:45 pm
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    Legend has it that Thales, when he was looking at the stars, fell into a well. A woman who was passing by told him something like ‘you, philosophers, always looking at the stars and not knowing where you’re walking into’.
    ; )

  • October 1, 2009 at 8:34 am
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    Love that story, Federico. Captures a lot of stereotypes about philosophers, yes?

  • October 1, 2009 at 3:40 pm
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    Reason certainly is key here, KZ. I will say something about that shortly when we focus directly on Thales again. But it’s tricky, as clearly Homer, for example, was reasoning about the world too, and it’s not clear that “isolated” thought and “pure” logic are the best adjectives here. More to come on this important set of issues.

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