#2 The Pre-Socratic Philosophy of Thales of Miletus

Introduction to Philosophy #2

1. Background

The first European philosopher that we consider, was born in 625 in the city of Milétus, a prosperous commercial center on the shores of the Mediterranean. That city was the harbor of Sardes, that had trade connections with Babylon and Egypt. The mature religious wisdom of Asia and Egypt is part of the background of the birth of Greek philosophy.

In the ancient world Thales was considered to be one of the seven Sages. Wisdom and science are connected in his thought. Or rather, wisdom begins to develop as a form of knowledge. This emancipation from the fetters of mythology can be considered the birth of philosophy.

In early Greek philosophy this new philosophical knowledge is always connected with a knowledge from experience and bound by the usefulness of its application. Philosophy was the first step in the direction of a purely theoretical science, that transcended this experiential knowledge.

Thales acquainted himself with the geometric knowledge of the Egyptians and the astronomic knowledge of the Babylonians. By making use of this Babylonian insight, Thales was able to predict the eclipse of 585. When it happened, a battle was raging between the Lydians and the Medes. The sudden unexpected darkness, made them end the war. It is important to note that Thales did not understand the cause of the eclipse; in that sense there was no science involved. However it does show that Thales had a keen interest in the regularity of natural phenomena.

There are many other examples of Thales’s understanding of natural science. But he was also interested in politics, and that actually got him the title of Sage and even Lawgiver.

#2. Science and wisdom

The philosophy of Thales has been referred to as cosmology. It is certainly true that transcended the mythological notions of the structure of the visible world. Obviously Thales is most concerned with the phenomena of visible nature. But he also goes beyond any naturalist theory. He is not trying to answer the What? but rather, the Why? He is concerned with the true essence of the world, with the question: what holds the world together?

In trying to deal with this question about the essence of the world, the facts of change and mortality form a basic mystery. Thales finds himself in a world that demonstrates both eternal sameness and changeability in time. The forces of creation and decay continue to amaze him. Especially in the area of natural life this contradiction is intense.

It is interesting to consider that the word fysis, nature in Greek, means something like the “power of growth”, life. It reflects the idea that even the mineral nature has within itself the principle of life. Aristotle tells us that Thales considered magnetism to be evidence of that. The movements of iron particles under the influence of the magnet resemble life. There is some similarity between such phenomena within mineral nature – their various inexplicable movements – and the movements of life-forms.

Now this is in a primitive form a scientific approach. A natural phenomenon, in this case magnetic attraction, is compared to other phenomena; the specific nature of this similarity is expressed as some kind of coherence or connection; and this coherence is then understood as a necessary connection, i.e. a law.

Thales for that reason sees life as the concept that expresses both the changeability of natural phenomena in general and the inner and eternal unity of the world. The basic premise of his philosophy then is to find the order, and eternal unity of the diversity of changeable phenomena. There must be some ground that underlies all change. Thales considered the creative force of life to be this ground.

The phenomenon in nature that most clearly represents and expresses this creative force is water. That is the reason that the philosophy of Thales is most often expressed as this simple statement: everything is (or originates in) water. The force of water is the creative force in nature. There can be no life without water, the life of plants is dependent on moisture, the sperm of animals and human beings is moist, the food of animals and humans is moist, and the blood that sustains life is a moisture. Water evaporates and returns to earth as rain, and in that cycle there is both an eternal order as well as change. There is the invisibility of the evaporation and the visibility of the rain. There is the rain covering the earth, and there is the invisible power that makes plants grow.

Most writers seem to think that Thales came up with this idea of water, simply because the sea was so important for his hometown. Or people try to understand his philosophy as derived from the mythical figure of Oceanus. The sea could be the mother and the cradle of everything that lives. But Thales does not talk about the principle of water like that. Water in a way dies with evaporation, but that is an illusion. Water returns and is suddenly present in a drop of dew on a flower.

The concept of water as used by Thales is not identical to any singular phenomenon, nor is it a concept of natural sciences in any modern sense, but it is also not a “primordial matter”. If we consider water as a phenomenon, it is actually the same as any other phenomenon. Water can be here and not there; it can be now and not before. It is therefore simply a phenomenon.

However, water does have this very peculiar characteristic, that it can be solid as ice, liquid as streaming water and gaseous as vapor. There is some privileged connection between the phenomenon of water in its three modes of being and water as the principle of life.

However, though it seems so self-evident, that is not the way Thales talks about water. If he had considered water to be something like a primordial matter, he would have had to separate matter and mind. But that kind of abstract separation, that sets the material world apart from thought, is not yet present.

Furthermore, Thales is interested in the movement of water, not in the “matter” or substance of water. That makes it unlikely that he considered water to be some kind of primordial matter. Water is to Thales the immediate revelation and visibility of the creative force of life. As a principle it has mystic elements. The creative force lives in water just as life lives in the blood, or the soul in our breath. Water is life in action, it functions as the carrier of life.

As we said before, Thales does not yet distinguish between matter and life. The order of the world’s life is also in the mineral nature, where our senses cannot detect the living nature things. We need to keep in mind that all our modern distinctions between life and the lifeless, matter and thought, phenomenon and essence have not yet been developed in this early stage of philosophy. The changeability of natural phenomena is not an illusion, behind which there is an eternal and unchangeable essence of things. The essence is within the phenomena; the phenomena reveal the essence. And yet they are not different from each other.

3. Creation and destruction

The movement of changeable things is the revelation of the one and single principle that gives order to everything. How can we now understand birth and death, creation and destruction within this order of things?

According to Aristotle, Thales theorized that everything comes into existence out of water and everything is destroyed by turning into water again. The law of nature is this constant change from water into something and from something into water. The beginning and end of this change is what the world truly or essentially is. The forms in between are nothing but the metamorphoses of one and the same element of water.

This means that ultimately nothing comes into being and nothing is destroyed. Everything just changes in appearance.

Therefore Thales also thought that the earth originated out of water, just as fire and stone. Possibly this judgment was supported by a popular view in Egypt, that the Delta of the Nile was formed by the sun, that sucked water out of the river. The dry land then appeared as a consequence of the action of fire.

Why is this way of thinking a formal philosophy? The grandeur of Thales is first of all the fact that the access to the truth of the world is not given by perception and experience, but by thought alone. And secondly, that this truth of the world is one single idea, in which the diversity of phenomena is combined with a single notion of the essence. And thirdly that even though this essence is found in what is unchangeable, this unchangeable is however considered to be a principle of diversity and movement, i.e. life. Thales’s worldview is not static but dynamic.

We must say however that in this philosophy there is a confusion of beginning and principle. Water is to Thales both the essence out of which everything comes to being and it is the principle of metamorphoses, change that involves form and shape. The concept of change has a material content. What can be seen and is therefore created, becomes the creative power. It is Aristotle that within Greek philosophy ultimately made a distinction between matter and form, the indeterminate and the determinant.

The concept of water should have been distinguished from the phenomenon of water. For Thales the flowing water makes itself invisible as vapor and yet becomes fire and stone. And yet all of these are forms of the same life force. The concept of water is an eternal becoming and change; yet this eternal change is nothing but an eternal being. Neither being nor becoming are adequately understood.

4. Hegel’s view on Thales

According to Hegel Thales is the beginning of the history of philosophy. In his “Lectures on the History of Philosophy” he tells the anecdote of Thales who was looking at the stars so intently, that he walked right into a pit in the ground. A kitchen help saw what happened and started to mock him. How could a man who understood the things of heaven, be unable to notice what was just before his feet? Hegel wrote this interesting comment:

“People laugh at something like that, but philosophers are unable to affirm their reasoning. People do not understand, that philosophers laugh about them, even though they cannot fall into the pit, because every single one of them is already in there – because they do not look at higher things.”

For Hegel it is important that reality is now being understood as concept. The world is posited as a singular universal, water as a principle of movement. If however water is considered to be something that is effective in reality – and for that reason we call it an element – it is important to consider other such effective universals. Water cannot be the single one. Nevertheless water is to Thales thinking not only a universal of sensory perception, but also a speculative universal. To be a true universal, i.e. to be a true concept, all elements of the immediate experience should be removed. Thales did not accomplish that. 

The movement of water, taken as a concept, is life. And in that sense the realm of our experience is transcended. Thales now entered into this peculiar battle between the perceivable universal of water, and the true universal of the concept of water. The concept of water is itself without form, and just a singular essence. The perceivable universal however is a contradiction to its own concept, because it always has a form – solid or liquid, fire or stone, the various lifeforms. Whereas the concept is form-less. It is an abstract thought. 

The attempt to identify the universal of experience with the universal as concept is the ultimate failure of his philosophy. The history of philosophy begins with the understanding that the truth or the essence of the world can only be one single idea. 

With Thales a movement of thought begins that stretches beyond sensory experience. That is characteristic of all philosophy. It implies the understanding that no particular existence is true in and for itself. It implies the affirmation that the one substance out of which everything comes into being, is not just something accidental or external. The substance that stands at the origin is also the substance that continues to determine the being of everything that it has brought forth. This is true philosophy, Hegel says.

The separation of the absolute and the finite, the insight that only one idea can be the full truth and the notion that the single and simple cause of the universe lends to the world as a whole a particular character – all of that belongs to the nature of philosophy as such. It is, in short, the discovery of the primacy of thought over experience.

But even though Thayles in principle discovered the primacy of thinking, this principle of life-water is still determined by his natural experience and the phenomena of flowing, evaporating and solidifying water. Right at the beginning of the history of philosophy, we nevertheless find several discoveries that will determine philosophy throughout its history and to the present day. Two of them stand out: 

1. The whole of nature should be expressed in the concept of a singular essence

2. We need to understand the idea of a principle – water as the single substance of experience, water as the single concept of thought.

5. Summary

The study of Thales has helped us to understand the nature of philosophy in general somewhat better. We now know why it is important to transcend the world of experience. That gives us a clue as to the nature of metaphysics.

We now know that philosophy ultimately is concerned with the one single principle that does not explain the world theoretically, but conceptualizes or understands the world as a unified order.

We now know that there is a difference between material causality and metaphysical causality, because with Thales the concept of water is considered to be life, which is another word for everything that is, and not just for a single phenomenon.

Thales is not talking about the effective reality of a single perceived object, but the speaks about the inner ground of being. That is also the beauty of the concept of the physis – not yet distinguished from metaphysics – that is implicit in the philosophy of Thales.

We also found that the distinction between the unchangeable and the changeable is a basic problem for Thales, and it is still the same with us. A prime example of this is the attempt by the natural sciences to combine gravity, quantum mechanics and electromagnetism into the so-called unified theory.

It is a basic human instinct to surmise, that the order in the physical world is an indication of a singular causality.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.