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#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.

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The first part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right deals with property and contract. Of course these concepts had already been treated in the tradition of the so-called “natural law” from Hobbes to Kant. In that tradition the foundation of the social order was some kind of natural property in human beings, or the arbitrary decisions of state rulers. Hegel sides with that part of this tradition that tries to find the foundation in the human subjectivity, but his interpretation of that subjectivity was totally different. Especially Hegel criticizes the concept of freedom that is assumed here. It is his goal not to simply discard this tradition, but to take it to another level. The meaning of freedom in this tradition is now considered from the perspective of a concept of freedom that transcends that tradition. Natural law is a valid understanding of human liberty, but only up to a point.

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Idea, Concept and Reality (1)

What Hegel means with the Idea must be clearly distinguished from the Concept, without separating both of them completely. The Idea is the Concept and the reality of the Concept, that is, the unity of both. Although concept and idea are used interchangeably, we must say that the concept as such is not the idea yet. Only when we see the concept as present in its own reality, the concept as it is itself set in unity with its reality, we speak of Idea. Continue reading

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Hegel’s Understanding of Philosophy

What is the task of philosophy? How does Hegel describe this task?

A brief description goes as as follows: the task of philosophy is to understand what is, because what is, is reasonable, and is reason itself.

What people imagine as the boundary between the self-conscious mind and the rational reality is usually an abstract term, an assumption without foundation or understanding. The self-conscious mind is defined by this opposition between consciousness and  the external reality. Two separate realities that in a miraculous way go together in human knowledge. The true reasonable insight, however, is that philosophyis about the reconciliation of the concept with reality. By recognizing the inner unity of human reason as a self-conscious spirit on the one hand, and the same reason as objective reality on the other, philosophy comes to its full development.

The assumption of this boundary or gap between spirit and reality is motivated by our daily consciousness. After all, the human spirit is also feeling and contemplating and has as its object sensory and imagined images. In the same manner the practical spirit as free will, has certain goals as objects. In all of these cases there is a distinction or contrast between the form of the mind and its objects. This contrast is also necessary at this level of spiritual development. It is in the understanding of thinking, the highest in the equality of man, that thinking itself is made into an object. This is how the human spirit ultimately comes to itself itself. After all, the beginning and the principle of the human spirit is thinking.

In the first stage of this “thinking of thinking” the spirit as finite reason (Verstand, intellect) becomes entangled in contradictions. Contradictions that are not yet understood as such, but remain trapped in the form in which they exist only as a reference to reality. It is the finite reason that loses itself in this domain of  contradictions.

When thinking does not shy away from these contradictions, but remains true to itself, it comes to a victory over finite intellectual thinking. In thinking itself, the solution to these contradictions is unlocked. The result of intellectual thinking without this urge to move beyond it, would only be skepticism. However, true philosophy is the victory over this intellectual skepticism that sees the simple contradiction as the highest result.

Thinking that has moved beyond this skepticism and has rid itself of the intellectual contradictions is the Idea, the Spirit, or mind or the absolute. The philosophy of the Idea is essentially System. After all, the truth is concrete. (Concrete as from the ;latin concrescere, growing together.) That is to say, it is a totality that unfolds in itself, bringing everything together in a unity that makes distinctions that do not stand side by side, but differ from one another as organic growth phases of the whole.

The true philosophical system contains all the special principles in themselves in an organic development. Generally speaking, a philosophical system is defined as an attempt to understand the world on the basis of a limited principle that is distinct from others. So one can develop an empirical or idealistic system, or a sceptical or metaphysical system. True philosophy, as Hegel sees it, includes all these particular principles within itself and determines their mutual relationship.

All the stipulations that we have given up to now of philosophy have at most the value of a provisional anticipation of the real concept of philosophy. Only the totality of the systematic development and unfolding of the Idea is the real concept of philosophy. Only the whole of philosophy is the concept of philosophy. In anticipation of this whole, it may be said that the Idea is thinking that is identical to being. That it is the activity to set oneself against itself in order to be so for oneself, and in this respect, in its other being with itself. This suggests the general classification of philosophy:

  • The concept of the Idea in itself and for itself is carried out in the Science of Logic.
  • The Idea as an opposite reality or the Idea in her being different is carried out in Natural Philosophy.
  • The Idea as in returning from being different – being with oneself in the other of itself – is the Philosophy of the Spirit.

The philosophy of nature is not a science of something other than the Idea. Nature is the Idea, but then as being in itself, and becoming for itself. Nature is the Idea in the form of the externality of the concept. Now that is not an absolute determination, but a fleeting moment. The philosophy of nature not only comprehends nature, but also undergoes a transition to a higher method of understanding. In this view of the three sciences that make up philosophy, it seems that these sciences exist side by side, while in reality they are three different stages of growth of one and the same science. Logic moves itself tot externalization in Nature, in which the Spirit moves back toward itself to ultimately express itself as philosophy proper.

(Free rendition of the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, Encyclopedia par. 11, 14 Zusatz, and par 18.)

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The Third Step in Hegel’s Method: the Speculative Moment

What have we found so far of Hegel’s method? Human finite rationality gives us an almost infinite series of specific thoughts, which we express in language and combine into sentences and propositions. Propositions may have truth claims connected to them. Dialectics, the second element in philosophical method, brings out the inner negation that makes these thoughts determined and distinct from each other. If dialectics can be the inner or immanent transition of a thought into its opposite and not an arbitrary and merely subjective application of the power of negation, the multiplicity of our thoughts gets a true connectedness. Our thoughts turn out to be elements within a whole; philosophy is a system, and method is the way this system is built up, the way in which concepts and propositions are being connected. According to Hegel this dialectic of our thoughts corresponds to a real dialectic in reality. Logic and metaphysics are two sides of the same coin.

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The Second Step: The Power of Negation

Dialectics is the observation how any concept turns into its opposite when we simply allow it to explain itself, when we make explicit all that is already contained in it implicitly. Determinations of the mind, ideas, concepts, thoughts, move beyond themselves, become negated and elevated – sublated – into “higher” concepts in the sense that the result of this movement is a concept that contains both the former and its negation. The resulting concept in a dialectical movement is said to be more concrete, richer in contents. The initial concept can then be said to be more implicit and abstract. The initial concept of Abstract  Being, e.g., implicitly contains “nothing” which is expressing the complete lack of determinacy, and the resulting concept of  becoming expresses the continuous transition of being into nothing and vice versa. (The dialectics of being and nothing actually shows the power of the mind in its capacity to negate and abstract. That capacity also shows the complete openness of the human intellect for the whole of reality.) So there is a process going on. A needs non-A, B equals A and non-A, which needs non-B etc.  Continue reading

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The First Step – Rationality and Dialectics

Let’s try again. Let’s try to figure out what makes Hegel’s method both so enticing and so difficult at times.

We need to understand that Hegel differentiates between three components of his method. First we have rational thought or Verstandesdenken. The second is dialectics, and the third is the speculative moment. Let’s consider the first, rational thought. It is the capacity of the mind to abstract and separate, to distinguish one thought from the other, to order thoughts into propositions and arguments and to construct fixed determinations. Whatever was in the mind in a state of confusion and without determinacy, is analyzed and becomes clear and distinct. It has to be, because in the Cartesian tradition only what is “clare et distincte percipitur”, that is: what is clear and distinct in the mind, can be true.

The mind is primarily the power of  abstraction, because the mind takes a series of determinations out of their concrete context and posits them as independent. That process of abstraction is governed only by the principle of abstract or formal identity. This is how we get the categories, thoughts that are taken from the concrete context in which they have a concrete meaning, and now are posited independently, as something that has identity with itself, without thinking about these concrete contexts any longer. I can abstract “substance” from my concrete experience of perceived objects. I can abstract “being”, thing, object, quantity, property, etc. Mathematics is the result of this abstracting rationality, but so is metaphysics. Culture as in art and even religion are impossible without this fundamental activity of abstraction, that is the basic function of our mind.

Hegel does not simply ignore human rationality to jump into some kind of metaphysical intuition, as Schelling tried to do. The importance of human rationality is nowhere described with more reverence than in Hegel’s philosophy. The human mind is the principle behind both nature and culture. Everything that is, is governed by this principle: it has to be distinguished from everything else and it has to have an identity with itself, some independence in its being – at least to some degree. Nature is a rational order, culture and religion are rational orders.  Rationality is also the principle behind human society. It has an order in which a multiplicity of functions have become distinguished in professions and classes that are connected in such a way that society can function as a whole. Nationalist fervor, subjective political persuasions or group sentiments and allegions do not ground a society, only a social rationality does that.

Art too, is the product van human rationality. The beauty of a work of art depnds on the expression of its shapes and inner structures in a articulate fashion. Art without explanation is meaningless. Again the identity of a work of art can be articulated only when we distinguish it from other works of art, pinpoint its position within art history and abstract it as an object out of the context in which it is found. Yet, in principle, both in art and religion, we also see the possibility of moving beyond human rationality. As Hegel will demonstrate, the distinctions and oppositions that are so characteristic of human rational thought, are overcome in these two spheres of the Absolute Spirit. 


Of course, in the history of philosophy it has been said many times, that human rationality is finite and prone to error. Kant had argued that human reason had the possibility to move beyond the limits of experience. Whenever it did, it ran into contradictions. The doctrine of these contradictions or antinomies was called ” dialectics”! In it the illusions were unmasked that human reason would hold, if it did not put itself under the discipline of experience. 

To Hegel this meant that dialectics, i.e. running into contradictions, was just part of the nature of rationality. Every determination of thought, is a contradiction. Not just those thoughts that we judge to be beyond experience, like “god”. Every determination is a negation,as Spinoza said.  Basically this is the discovery of scepticism. Every thought or opinion or statement can be contradicted.  The sceptic then draws the conclusion that truth is impossible. A more mature scepticism however tries to understand the nature of reality with the aid of the contradictory, conflicted way our rationality has to operate. Everything that is, is determined by an inner contradiction. Nothing has a quiet, unmovable identity with itself. The finite reality is shaped by negativity from the inside out. Human beings e.g. are living creatures and they are mortal. Our mortality is not something that is added unto our essence during our life. Mortality is essential to all living beings. We are therefore negatively determined, from the inside out, by our mortality. The mortality that is the contradiction of our being alive is at the same time essential to the whole idea of living. 

The basic idea of Hegel’s dialectics is now this: it is the process in which finite rational thoughts become their own contradictions, their opposites. That is different from a philosophy that remains grounded in finite rationality. In such a philosophy we find only positive declarations  concerning the outward connections between positive statements. Our finite reason makes such connections from the outside and after these thoughts themselves have been fully formed. Dialectic thought however goes into the process in which a category of the mind, a Verstandesbestimmung, moves to its opposite from within, driven by its inner negativity. When we understand fully what was implicitly part of the meaning of a thought, e.g. Being, we become aware of the fact that the transition into its opposite has already taken place. No subjective intervention on our part is necessary to move from being into nothing. If you refrain from external reasoning – that is drawing from other principles, statements or categories that are now used as assumptions -if you just make explicit what is contained in a thought, you become aware of the fact that any content will necessarily, because of its finite nature, bring forth its opposite, its other, and that its contradiction actually expresses its own implicit conditions and limitations. 

(To be continued. Next time we will talk about the different meanings of negation in Hegel.)

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