The ancient Greek philosopher Thales was born in Miletus, in Greek Ionia. Aristotle the major source of Thales’ philosophy and science identified Thales as the first person to investigate the basic principles, for in the sixth century he broke away from explaining the natural phenomena through myths and adopted rational means of explaining it.
In explaining the totality of all things, Thales described one primary material substance as the elemental foundation of all things, for he believed that there must be some natural substance either one or more than one from which other things come into being while it is preserved, and he postulated that this primary principle is water. Being an astronomer on the other hand he was believed to have predicted an eclipse in 585BC.
It is therefore the purpose of this essay to critically evaluate Thales’ metaphysics in the context of aim, content and method of philosophy then proceed to clearly underscore his unique contribution to the development of philosophy. To begin with, as pointed out earlier on, Thales was the first philosopher to ask questions about the structure and nature of the cosmos as a whole and is known to be the founder of philosophy of physis which is the study of the totality of reality. Being the first philosopher, he affirmed the existence of a unique principle and cause of all things that exist.
He said this principle is water because it is wholly from water that life itself comes from and into which it dissolves, he also declared that the earth rest on water getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist and that heat itself is generated from moisture and kept alive by it, and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things. He got his notion from this fact and from the fact that seeds of all things have a moist nature and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things (Guthrie, 1978: 55).
By saying principle Thales meant the reality that remains identically the same throughput the changes in its characteristics and it continues to exist unchanged throughout the process of the generation of everything (Presocratics, 1995: 42). However, despite postulating that water is a principle, he also had two other propositions which came down from his verbatim and these were “magnet possesses the soul” because it is capable of moving things like iron, and that “all things are full of goods”.
In saying this Thales implicitly implied that his water principle is the source, sustainer and font of all things and that he used the gods in his assertion for the people’s easy understanding of it (Radhakrishnan, 1953: 28). Having looked at a number of Thales’ assertions and their meanings, it is necessary that we clarify the aim of Thales as regards to philosophy. On this point Aristotle states that philosophy has a purely theoretical character, that is, it is contemplation, and that it simply seeks truth for its own sake.
Philosophy is not sought because of any advantage that is extrinsic to it, but it is sought just for itself (Reale, 1978: 17). Therefore in this sense, as Thales was explaining the principle of all things he did not benefit any wealth from it and this is why he was mocked for his poverty, insinuating that his philosophy was of no practical use to him (Presocratics, 1995: 45). Since philosophy does not bake bread nor fix gadgets but rather aims primarily at knowledge, we then see that Thales without any practical benefits tries to find the origin of all things just for philosophy’s own sake.
With respect to content, philosophy wanted to explain the totality of all things, that is, the whole of reality without the exclusion of any part or aspect of it, thus distinguishing itself structurally from the special sciences that instead are limited to explaining particular sections of reality, groups of particular things or particular phenomena. In trying to explain the whole of reality the first philosophers were asking the question, what is the principle of all things? (Reale, 1978: 17).
Thales in responding to this question in accordance to the content of philosophy, he said water is the principle, for him, he did not necessarily consider the importance of water in life but the thought which most likely must have struck Thales’ mind are those which link water with the idea of life. Hence he observes that food and semen always contain moisture and that the very warmth of life is damp warmth. Furthermore, the composition of all things is moist and that seeds of all things have a moist nature and that water is the origin of moist.
Therefore the explanation of water being the principle of things is what is contained in the content of Thales’ philosophy. Finally, on the aspect of method, philosophy wanted to explain the totality which is its object in a strictly rational manner. What is of value in philosophy is its rational arguments, its rational purpose or simply its logos. It is not enough for philosophy to confirm and find out the data derived from experience on a factual level, philosophy must go beyond the facts and experience in order to discover the reasons, the cause and the principle (Reale, 1978: 17).
Therefore, Thales with a minimum amount of factual information was able by reasoning to devise an ingenious hypothesis to account for diverse things as gaseous liquid and solid characteristics of the earth, for he believed that all objects are variations of one basic ingredient-water, for water, if heated becomes steam, thus all entities which are gaseous, in its natural state is liquid, and all things which flow must be made up of it and finally, if cooled sufficiently becomes solid (Popkin, 2006: 336).
Having looked at a number of things concerning the principle of Thales, we now have to look at a number of contributions which Thales brought forth to the development of philosophy. Firstly, he is believed to have paved way for materialism in metaphysics, which is simply the view that reality is essentially material, and the materialist held that reality is made up of indivisible material particles which move around in a void and combined together to form all the different kinds of things to be found in the world.
In this bold speculation the materialist or atomist in particular were following in the footsteps of earlier thinkers (one of them being Thales) who had posited the key idea that underlying the apparent diversity of the world we inhabit, there is a fundamental unit. Therefore Thales is the man who is credited with being the first philosopher and he believed that this unity consisted in the fact that everything comes from or was in some sense made of water (Horner, 2000: 19).
Through Thales we have also experienced the transition from explaining natural phenomena through myths to rational and scientific explanation of the origin of nature. At first when explaining the origin of all things, people in Greece referred to a poem called Theogony, written by Hessiod about 725BC. The Theogony contained myths of the gods and speculates in part about the origin and the order of the universe (Audi, 1995: 595). However, with the coming of Thales, the origin of all things was explained systematically using the method of reasoning.
The other contribution of Thales to philosophy is that he began the study of cosmology which is branch of metaphysics. Cosmology is a theory of the process of reality and it deals with the science of ultimate reality as a whole. The study analyses and explains the nature of elements of which reality as a whole is underpinned and it establishes whether there are principles that may give us a fuller explanation of the nature of existence (Audi, 1995: 595).
In this sense then, we see that Thales gives an account of his principle in line with cosmology, the branch of metaphysics, this therefore entails that Thales started cosmology as he was the first philosopher. Lastly, on the contributions, Thales was the first philosopher to devote himself to the study and the investigation of nature; he is generally regarded as the first who taught the Greeks the investigation of nature.
Although, he had many predecessors as Theophrastus has remarked, he surpassed them all to such a degree that they are forgotten, he is as well considered to be one of the seven wise men to undertake the study of natural philosophy for he declared water to be the beginning and the end of all things (Presocratics; 1995, 42). However, despite an articulate explanation on the reasoning of Thales, his method is likely to be criticized, for the one cause that the reasoning process behind his conclusion that water is the first material principle is unknown, so that it becomes a matter of conjecture.
Aristotle had no means of knowing the reasons which led Thales to make his statement and when he ascribes a possible line of thought, to him it makes no secret of the fact that he was guessing (Guthrie, 1978: 54). And when we compare the reasoning of Thales to that of other Milesians like Anaximander, Thales’ reasoning is put to the spotlight that he was just guessing because in Anaximander we clearly see that his thinking goes beyond experience, confirming that he was really contemplating rather than just guessing as Aristotle had put it.
Another weakness of his explanation of a single principle that was the cause of all reality, is that he never explained the process into which water goes through to become a component of all things more specifically a thing like fire. Other philosophers like Anaximenes, who said the principle is air, explained that through the process of rarefaction air produces fire and when the air condenses through condensation, it gives origin to wind, the clouds, the water, the earth, rocks and other things.
This kind of explanation is what was lacking in the philosophy of Thales. In conclusion, Thales of Miletus was one of the first Greek philosophers to seek natural causes for natural phenomena. He traveled widely throughout Egypt and the Middle East and became famous for predicting a solar eclipse that occurred in 585 BC. At a time when people regarded eclipses as ominous, inexplicable, and frightening events, his prediction marked the start of rationalism, a belief that the universe can be explained by reason alone.
Rationalism remains the hallmark of science to this day. BIBLIOGRAPHY Audi, R. (1992). Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, New York. Guthrie, A. (1978). A history of Greek Philosophy. Vol 1. Cambridge University Press, Britain. Radhakrishnan, S. (1953). History of Philosophy, Eastern and Western. Vol 2. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London. Reale, G. A. (1987). History of Ancient Philosophy From the Origins to Socrates. State University of New York, New York.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 22 November 2016
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