Classical Western Philosophy Early Greek Philosopher: Thales for Competitive Exams

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Early Greek Philosopher: Thales

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  • Thales of Miletus was a pre-Socratic philosopher, astronomer, geographer and mathematician.
  • He hailed from a place called Miletus in Ionia, Asia Minor.
  • He was named amongst the seven sages of Greece.
  • Thales is also regarded as the “First philosopher” or the “Father of Philosophy.”
  • Pre-Socratic period marks the rise of Greek philosophy. This period includes some of the most influential philosophers, such as, Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, etc.

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Water as the Arche

  • According to Thales, water is the first principle.
  • The universe is fundamentally water. In other words, water is the principle of everything- everything comes from and returns back to water.
  • Water is present in all the three states, namely, vapours, liquid and solid.
  • When water is heated, it assumes the form of vapour, when cooled, it becomes solid, lastly, when allowed to flow in its natural form, it is liquid. Hence, water exists in all the different three forms.
  • It is for this reason; water is said to be the fundamental stuff of the universe.
  • In other words, water is arche. Arche is a Greek word which means, “beginning, first cause, or origin.”
  • According to the biologist and philosopher, Aristotle, Thales chose water to the the ultimate principle of the universe or the ultimate stuff because of two reasons;
    • Food which nourishes us and helps us grow is always wet in nature.
    • All generating seeds are wet. This is what leads them to grow into trees and plants.
  • In other words, these two points refer to the concept of growth, development and nourishment. Without water, none of these are possible. This is mentioned in Aristotle՚s work, Metaphysics.
  • According to Thales, water is the ultimate source of the universe and he believed Earth to be a disc which floats on water.

Thales as a Scientific Thinker

  • Thales was also a scientific thinker; he gave birth to the scientific way of thinking.
  • Thales paved the path for scientific thinking in philosophy by leaving aside mythology to explain the course of world or universe to explaining phenomena and natural objects via science.
  • For example, he took water to be the first cause of the universe.
  • In other words, one single substance: water is the ultimate principle.
  • According to Herodotus, Thales predicted the eclipse which took place in 585 B. C.
  • He also described the position of Ursa Minor and believed that constellation can be useful in navigation while at sea.
  • According to Bertrand Russell, Thales was a scientific thinker for two reasons;
  • he discovered how to calculate the distance of a ship at sea with the help of observations taken at two points.
  • he also discovered to calculate the height of a tree or a pyramid from the length of its shadow.
  • Russell writes about this in this work, Wisdom of the West.
  • He explained the universe via natural phenomena by using rational, scientific hypotheses.
  • For example, he believed that earthquakes were not a result of God՚s supernatural whims, rather, he hypothesised that Earth floats on water and when Earth is rocked by high waves, earthquakes occur.
  • A lot of criticism has been pointed towards Thales՚ scientific thinking and philosophy for being crude in nature and for being an undeveloped or incomplete philosophy.
  • Yet, it is important to note that he laid down the foundation of scientific world-view.
  • He is hence regarded as a naturalist philosopher, and not a theocentric philosopher.
  • He believed in hylozoism, according to him, matter has life.
  • According to Aristotle, in his work, De Anima, he writes, Thales believed that magnet is something living in nature for it attracts things towards itself.
  • He also believed that all things are full of gods.
  • Hence, matter has life and it contains souls.






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