Why Philosophy Begins with 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.”


“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. So brush up on The Iliad, which I want to use as our pre-philosophy-worldview contrast object.

Homer’s World: The Death of Hector

homer_british_museum-100x126Homer is thought to have lived 800s-700s BCE, a century or two before Thales (born around 624 BCE). Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are magnificent expressions of archaic Greek culture and of incalculable importance to the Greek way of thinking about human life and its place in the universe.

I want to focus on one major event in The Iliad to illustrate a pre-philosophical, yet sophisticated, view of reality.

Why did Hector die?

We can imagine his father Priam in anguish, asking this question. And his wife doing the same. And his son later when he grows up.

Hector died because Achilles killed him.

AchillesWhy did Achilles kill him? The broad context is that the Greeks were at war with the Trojans. The specific context is that Achilles wanted revenge for Patroclus’ death. In each case, we can trace back a causal chain.

On the broad context: Why were the Greeks and Trojans fighting? Because Paris and Helen fell in love, Menelaus became a vengeful cuckold, Agamemnon had great ambition for power, Achilles wanted glory, and so on. In Homer’s world we have key motivations that drive human action — Love, Revenge, Power, Glory — played out through these key representative individuals.

On the specific context: Why did Patroclus get killed? Because he was a young man who wanted to prove himself, Achilles was sulking in his tent, Agamemnon had stolen a girl, and so on.

So far all of this is naturalistic explanation in terms of human agency. In a complicated interplay, human desire and motivation and action and reaction cause major events like the Trojan War and specific events like the death of Hector.

But Homer’s story is more complicated, because the gods are also an important part of the causal matrix.

As the great battle between Achilles and Hector is looming, Homer turns our attention to the gods and goddesses, all of whom are watching with great interest. Zeus sees Achilles chasing Hector, and he is torn between love for Hector and admiration for Achilles. Whom should he favor? Zeus finds the tension unbearable and calls upon the others for advice:

“Come you immortals, think this through. Decide.
Either we pluck the man from death and save his life
or strike him down at last, here at Achilles’ hands” (22:206-209)

Athena protests, and Zeus agrees with her that Hector should die, telling her:

Do as your own impulse bids you. Hold back no more.”
So he launched Athena already poised for action —
down the goddess swept from Olympus’ craggy peaks. (22: 200-223)

ajaxdefendsshipsAthena then tricks Hector by impersonating his brother Deiphobus, causing Hector to stop running and allowing Achilles to catch him and kill him.

Homeric Metaphysics

What then are the metaphysical lessons of Homer’s world?

First, naturalistic human agency alone does not cause events on earth. The gods and goddesses are active participants, and their desires, decisions, and actions are important: Zeus could have decided differently, Athena could have switched her affections, and, consequently, Hector’s fate and the outcome of the Trojan War could have been very different.

Second and closely related: In Homer’s world, the supernatural are the more powerful and important causal force. If the gods decide against something, it will not happen. And if the gods decide something will happen, it will. Human agency is a lesser power.

A third theme in Homer is that the gods and goddesses are often whimsical and divided among themselves. Zeus is often driven by his changeable passions. He gets into quarrels with Athena and the others. There is, consequently, no stable and predictable causal order in the natural world. (There is a notion of Fate operative in Homer, but it’s not consistent and its role is not clear — at least not to me.)

zeusA fourth point worth mentioning concerns ethics in Homer’s world: humans worship the gods not because they are moral but because they are powerful. The gods are far from morally admirable and given to a wide range of vices and foibles. So what is the source and purpose of justice and other morally important realities? Concepts of right and wrong are not foreign to the gods, but the gods are not ethically clear or consistent, either in word or deed. And since humans are also not ethically clear or consistent, the place of morality in the universe is at best tenuous. Amoral power seems to rule both the natural realm and beyond.

Abstractly put, we have five implicit metaphysical and ethical theses in Homer’s worldview:

* Supernatural causation is part of the explanation for natural events.
* Supernatural causation is more powerful than natural causation.
* The supernatural is personal.
* Consequently, supernatural causation is sometimes whimsical and so inconsistent and so makes long range prediction unreliable.
* Consequently, ethics is a matter mostly of power — revere gods and kings not because they’re just but because they’re powerful.

thales-bust-50x60Now we’re ready for the revolution initiated by Thales (ca. 624 – ca. 546 BCE).

What if we denied some or all of those five points? What would our account of the world look like?

Philosophy Begins: Thales’ Revolution

Let’s label the five abstracted Homeric themes as follows:

homer_british_museum-50x63H1. Supernatural causation is part of the explanation for natural events.
H2. Supernatural causation is more powerful than natural causation.
H3. The supernatural is personal.
H4. Consequently, supernatural causation is sometimes whimsical and so inconsistent and so makes long range prediction unreliable.
H5. Consequently, ethics is a matter mostly of power — revere gods and kings not because they’re just but because they’re powerful.

Now let’s return to Thales and the birth of a new worldview:

thales-100x128“The first principle and basic nature of all things is water.”

Thales’ first principle is water. If it is water, then it is not the gods. The gods have become at most secondary, so we have at least an implicit challenge to H2.

Also, the basic nature of all things is water. Water is a natural phenomenon, not a supernatural one, so we have at least an implicit denial of H1.

Why water? No doubt Thales has observed the weather cycle, the flowing of rain into streams and eventually to the sea, the critical importance of water to all living things, that water can be transformed from liquid to solid and back and from liquid to gas and back — and that it does so with a regularity. It’s not that nobody had noticed regularities in nature before Thales. But if water is the first principle of all of things, then all of reality is regular. So we have at least an implicit challenge to H4.

We are well on our way to thinking of nature as a self-contained, self-governing, regular physical system of cause and effect.

It’s also clear that Thales’ statement is based on observations of transformations from liquid to gas to solids, and so on. So he is not basing his views on traditional stories handed down through the ages. And he is offering an explanatory hypothesis for those observations. Observation integrated with explanation is a hallmark of a naturalist, philosophical approach.

Subsequent Presocratics argued with Thales. (By contrast, who would ever argue with Homer?) Anaximenes held that fire was a better first-principle candidate than water, as did Heraclitus. Anaximander (my favorite Presocratic) held that having only one basic state of being, whether water or fire, was too reductionist, and so proposed that water, air, earth, and fire were in a cyclical transformation in and out of a “boundless” state. And others entered the fray.

The Presocratics are now using reason in a different way. It’s not clear that they are self-conscious about the new method of thinking. But they are no longer thinking in Homeric principles — and the new thinkers very quickly become incredulous and scornful when the Homeric and other stories are taken as more than fanciful literature. Hecataeus of Miletus (550-489), who died 19 years before the birth of Socrates, is representative:

“What I write here is the account of what I considered to be true. For the stories of the Greeks are numerous and, in my opinion, ridiculous.”

A new way of thinking has begun. Philosophy and the sciences have been launched and flourish quickly.

As for H5 and the development of a philosophical approach to ethics, that story is worth another article, and it involves the innovations of Hesiod and other giants.

* * *

[More of my posts on Intellectual History. The above post connects three posts first published here in 2009.]

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Is Republishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf the Correct Decision? [new The Good Life column]

The opening of my latest column at EveryJoe:

“German authorities will allow the republication of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, after decades of censorship.

“Decent people can argue that the book is too dangerous to be published. But the fact is that Mein Kampf is too dangerous not to be published.

“The great fear is that Hitler’s ideas are not dead and that his book could trigger another horribly pathological social movement. Nationalism and socialism still appeal to many, and combinations of the two ideologies attract new adherents every day in Europe and around the world. (See “The Revival of Nazism in Europe — It’s Not Just Racism.”)

Mein Kampf is available in many editions, in many languages and online. So the furor over its republication is about the Germans in particular: Can they handle it? …” [Read more here.]


Last week’s column: Why Humans are Born Fit for Freedom (Part I).

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World War I casualty numbers and some questions

As spring arrived exactly one century ago in 1915, the world’s leading nations geared up for the second year of The Great War.

This will be the year of U-Boat campaigns, including the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania, the first use of poison gas, the increasingly effective use of airplanes and the “Fokker Scourge,” Italy’s entering the war on the side of the Allies, brutal trench warfare, and the Gallipoli campaign.

Via Richard Koenigsberg, here is Matthew White’s table summarizing a large body of data about casualties for the war as a whole:


Beyond the depressingly huge numbers, some details in the numbers raise questions in my mind:

1. Note the casualty rates for the seven countries that mobilized more than four million troops each (Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and the United States). Four of them are in the 65-90% range, two of them are in the 35-40% range, and one is an outlier at 8.2%. Why? Because the USA entered the war later? Because of different fighting strategies?

2. Note the ratio of Wounded to Killed for most countries. Typically the Wounded:Killed ratio is 2:1 or 3:1. Except for Romania, whose ratio is reversed and is almost 1:3. Why?

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Aristotle at Pixar Animation Studios

aristotle-bustA striking quotation about Aristotle’s Poetics and its contemporary relevance.

Pixar Animation Studios is one the great technical and financial successes in the movie industry. Early in its development, two individuals who were to be instrumental to that success, John Lasseter and Pete Docter, knew that story-telling and not just techical wizardry was essential to great movie-making.

“Seeking insight, Lasseter and Docter attended a three-day seminar in Los Angeles given by screenwriting guru Robert McKee. They came back to Point Richmond as true believers in McKee’s principles, grounded in Aristotle’s Poetics.pixar-animation-studios High among these was McKee’s doctrine that a protagonist and his story become interesting only as much as the forces arrayed against him make him interesting; character emerges most realistically and compellingly from the choices that the protagonist makes in reaction to his problems. A McKee seminar resounded with the master’s observations about story structure and how it related to the progression of the hero’s problems and his responses to those problems. McKee’s teachings became the law of the land at Pixar.”

Aristotle: Still the master, 2,350 years later.

Source: David A. Price, The Pixar Touch (Vintage, 2009), p. 127.

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Vivemos realmente em um mundo de recursos escassos? Não


Você provavelmente já ouviu as más notícias: supostamente, os recursos naturais estão acabando. Como resultado, surge a questão: você continuará a utilizar recursos de forma egoísta — ou você está disposto a se sacrificar? Possivelmente, você (como individuo) é uma pessoa abnegada, contudo, qual é a probabilidade de que a maioria das outras pessoas desista de seu estilo de vida consumista pelo bem da humanidade? Novamente, você é questionado: não deveríamos dar mais poderes aos governos para que tomem as decisões difíceis em nome das gerações futuras?

As boas notícias, todavia, são que as más notícias são quase sempre falsas — e uma relíquia do pensamento pré-moderno. Mas a crença de que vivemos em um mundo de recursos escassos é ainda muito comum e perigosa, já que nos prepara para medidas desesperadas. Nós devemos, alguns sugerem, recorrer à ética do bote salva-vidas ou:

  1. Reduzir a população ou
  2. Impor regulação do controle de natalidade ou,
  3. Extinção humana voluntária ou
  4. Necessitamos racionar o acesso a recursos com pouca oferta, de forma que somente o essencial seja produzido e somente os mais merecedores os possam consumir.

Estamos divididos entre os pessimistas (que estão convencidos de que o fim está próximo) e os otimistas (que veem um presente e um futuro de abundância).doomsday-prepping-300x300

Uma forma de tratar a alegação de recursos escassos é por meio da análise específica de recursos-chave: alimento, água, área habitável, madeira, ferro, petróleo, gás natural, bauxita e assim por diante. Eles são escassos?

Comece pela sua própria casa. Provavelmente, têm água corrente e refrigerador abastecido. Se você ficar com pouco alimento, há uma mercearia próxima. Mesmo se você vive em uma cidade moderna construída no meio do deserto — como Phoenix, Arizona — alimento e água são abundantes. (Quando foi a última vez que uma mercearia de Phoenix deixou de fornecer pão, carne, vegetais, água — deixando os arizonenses com fome e sede?) Mesmo nas vizinhanças pobres, a altura e peso médios estão aumentando, um sinal de melhor nutrição e disponibilidade de alimento. A produção aumentou dramaticamente, e alimento é agora tão abundante que temos as pessoas mais gordinhas da história.

E não somente nos países ricos. A produção de alimentos ao redor do mundo cresceu, em parte graças a gigantes como Norman Borlaug, e as taxas de pobreza ao redor do mundo caíram vertiginosamente.

Petróleo e gás? As reservas de petróleo estimadas são suficientes para séculos, e as reservas de gás natural podem ser ainda maiores. Se os preços subirem, outras reservas se tornarão economicamente viáveis; e com o refinamento das tecnologias, mais petróleo e gás podem ser explorados, e mais substitutos sintéticos podem ser desenvolvidos.

O que dizer de minerais e metais? Aqui seguem alguns números que primeiramente ouvi do economista George Reisman: o centro da Terra está a 6.371km da superfície, enquanto a mina mais profunda do mundo está a 3.9km. Considere também que mais de 99% de todas as minas da história humana têm sido em terra, mas 71% da Terra é coberta por água.

Ou considere energia em grande escala. Três séculos atrás, os recursos energéticos totais disponíveis relacionavam-se à força muscular, madeira, vento e água que poderíamos obter. Mas os avanços científicos e tecnológicos nos anos 1700 nos permitiram explorar o poder do carvão. Então, o estoque de energia disponível aumentou — todos os músculos, madeira, vento e água estavam ainda disponíveis, mais todo o carvão do mundo. Nos anos 1800, mais avanços nos permitem extrair energia do petróleo. A quantidade de energia disponível aumentou novamente — todos os músculos, madeira, carvão, etc., mais todo o petróleo do mundo. Adicione o gás natural dos anos 1900, junto aos materiais radioativos como o urânio. E, é claro, o Sol emite grandes quantidades de energia em nosso sistema diariamente, e continuamos a desenvolver tecnologias de ponta que nos ajudaram a aproveita-la.oil_rig.98212623-deepwater-horizon1-1024x1024

O ponto é que o estoque líquido de recursos enérgicos em grande escala está aumentando, e esse aumento é potencialmente infinito.

Os recursos da Terra são limitados, mas aqueles limites são os limites da Terra e os limites de nossas habilidades. E não existem limites conhecidos às nossas habilidades — humanos não são meros coletores de uma oferta fixa de recursos; nós somos descobridores e criadores de uma oferta potencialmente ilimitada de recursos. Esse foi o argumento ainda pouco apreciado do economista Julian Simon sobre o recurso derradeiro: a inteligência.

Nós somos espertos, e nossa reflexão sobre recursos deve levar em conta o poder transformador das revoluções científica e industrial — e as revoluções política e econômica que concederam a milhões a liberdade de pensamento, descoberta e ação pelo uso do conhecimento, rendendo inovações. A escassez de recursos não é um problema para as nações modernas livres e racionais.

Apesar de um grande número de estatísticas positivas, o pensamento de escassez é profundamente enraizado na mente de muitos. Diz Frederick Taylor, o pai da gestão científica: “nós podemos ver nossas florestas desaparecerem, nosso potencial hídrico ser desperdiçado, e nosso solo sendo carregado pelas enchentes até o mar; e o fim do nosso carvão e do nosso ferro está à vista”. Essa passagem é do livro The Principles of Scientific Managementpublicado em 1911. Um século depois, quantos dos pessimistas atuais ainda estão entoando as mesmas lamúrias de Taylor?

Então, considere outro recurso para efeito de argumentação: madeira. Dependendo de onde você mora, os recursos florestais são abundantes ou potencialmente escassos. Europeus têm cortado árvores por milênios, mas o continente possui quantidades significativamente maiores de árvores hoje que há um século. Na América do Norte, a produção de madeira aumentou muito enquanto as taxas de reflorestamento permaneceram constantes no século passado, tanto no Canadá como nos Estados Unidos.deforestation_in_the_amazon.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale

Por outro lado, o desmatamento pode ser um problema nas nações em desenvolvimento, onde metade do desmatamento é causado pela agricultura de subsistência. A agricultura de subsistência é um fenômeno dos países mais pobres do mundo, nos quais as pessoas fazem o que podem para tirar seu sustento da terra. Dessa forma, o desmatamento nos países pobres pode somente ser um problema porque a história mostra que as nações se tornam prósperas, melhoram seus hábitos como os europeus e os americanos o fizeram. Eles passam a focar no longo prazo; eles poupam e reinvestem mais; e desenvolvem formas mais criativas para solução de problemas.

Então, as nações desenvolvidas podem continuar a evoluir? É claro que essa é uma questão em aberto, e a resposta depende da política. Nações relativamente livres tornam-se prósperas, e nações relativamente não livres tornam-se ou permanecem pobres. Isso quer dizer, a escassez de recursos não é um problema natural, mas uma função de políticas ruins. (Note, por exemplo, que muitos lugares que são naturalmente bem dotados de recursos naturais — como a Romênia, Nigéria e Venezuela — regularmente experimentam escassez de recursos)

Nós somos a primeira de poucas gerações na história a experimentar a abundância. O pessimismo tem uma longa história, e sem dúvida muitos permanecerão presos ao pensamento de soma-zero.

Mas o otimismo é o novo realismo — baseado na capacidade de seres humanos livres desenvolverem a ciência, a tecnologia e a riqueza para resolver os problemas de escassez. Nós não estamos nem perto de alcançarmos o limite de nosso potencial.

* * *

hicks-stephen-2013“Vivemos realmente em um mundo de recursos escassos? Não” Por Stephen Hicks. Tradução de Matheus Pacini. Revisão de Russ Silva. Artigo Original no “The Good Life”. Visite EveryJoe.com para ler os últimos artigos de Stephen Hicks.

Stephen Hicks é o autor do livro Explicando o Pós Modernismo e Nietzsche and the Nazis.

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Kostyło on school failure’s independence of political change

P.Kostylo (2)A interesting and disturbing article by Professor Piotr Kostyło on “School failure and its interpretations” [pdf], published in Kultura Pedagogiczna out of the University of Warsaw. Kostyło is a professor of philosophy of education at the University of Kazimierz Wielki.

Kostyło’s analysis is disturbing because it suggests that Poland’s change from communism to liberal democracy has not improved its school failure rate. Here is his abstract:

“The author sketches the history of a longitudinal study on student failure in Poland conducted by a Polish educational sociologist, Zbigniew Kwieciński et al. Simultaneously, he provides a philosophical review of the study which took nearly three decades, starting in the early 1970s continuing through the fall of communism in Poland and the advent of liberal democracy. The findings of the longitudinal study are striking. They suggest that changes in the political system, in social and economic factors, in educational ideals and policies accompanied by different dominant philosophical paradigms, had no major effect in redressing school failure, or in reducing the numbers of socially excluded pupils. Having critically reviewed the research, its findings, philosophical interpretations, as well as the evolution of Kwieciński’s views, the author highlights the significance of the role of the teacher in the complex dynamics of educational practice.Zbigniew-Kwieciński He argues a case for substantial teacher responsibility, and for greater moral responsibility for the student. In this paper I present a concise history and a philosophical review of an important body of research on failure in Polish schools from the early 1970s until the late 1990s. The research was carried out over this period by Zbigniew Kwieciński, a Polish sociologist of education, and his team. The research period covered different stages of recent Polish history: from the last years of communism, through the transformation period, until the beginning of liberal democracy. The most striking point in the research was that, in spite of the many social, political and cultural changes over the three decades, the numbers of pupils socially excluded because of underperformance or failure remained stable. Significant change was evident, not in students’ achievements, but in the dynamics of school selections, as well as in the philosophical interpretations brought to bear by the researchers in their analyses of failure.”

The full essay is here.

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Driver’s education and the government-schooling debates

In preparation for a conference, I’m re-reading E. G. West’s classic Education and the State, which plunges into the current and historical debates over private and government education.

West-EandSSuppose, for the sake of argument, that we grant that the government has obligation to protect children and that growing up ignorant is one of the things the government should protect children against. What policy follows from that?

West gives us a range of options. The government could:

1. Make education compulsory.
2. Make schooling compulsory, whether provided by private or government schools.
3. Make government schooling compulsory.

In our current intellectual context, we sometimes assume quickly that if the government has an obligation with respect to children’s education then it must itself provide that education.

West then introduces an intriguing analogy — to how we handle driver’s education.

Suppose we grant that the government has an obligation to protect drivers, so it should ensure that all drivers are knowledgeable and skilled. Perhaps it will issue licenses certifying those who have demonstrated enough knowledge and skill.

But how should drivers acquire the necessary skills? Does it follow that:

3. The government should operate driving schools in every locality, or mandate courses in driving within existing government schools?
2. Mandate that driver-candidates must take formal driving lessons, whether provided by private driving schools or government ones?
1. Leave it up to the driver-candidate to acquire the knowledge and skills however he or she chooses: by taking formal lessons, by being taught by mom or dad, by starting with tractors on the farm or simulations in video games, or by any number of other methods?

Can we say, as a matter of moral or political principle, which of options 1-3 is preferable? Can we say, as a matter of empirical data, which of options 1-3 will be more effective at producing knowledgeable and skilled drivers? West-EandIR

Source: E. G. West, Education and the State (1965; third edition 1994), p. 10.

I also recommend West’s Education and the Industrial Revolution (1975/2001), which argues that the revolution in manufacturing and the push for universal literacy and other forms of education were of a piece culturally in England, Scotland, and Wales from 1760-1840.

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Rak’s review of Nietzsche and the Nazis

In the Polish journal Żydzi a konserwatyzm, Joanna Rak reviews Nietzsche and the Nazis.

Information about other editions and translations of Nietzsche and the Nazis.

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