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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


THALES

(c. 620 — 545? B.C.)

 

MATERIALISM

Thales of Miletus is said to have predicted an eclipse in 585 B.C. and to have made a contribution to the development of navigational techniques.

 

COSMOLOGY/ PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[1] He is known mainly for his claim that "Everything is made of water". By this he means that water is the single common material stuff or 'cause' underlying change and difference [a] in the natural world. He said this probably because we can see water everywhere: in rain, rivers, and the sea. On hot days it evaporates; when it is sufficiently cold it becomes a solid (ice). He also believed the Earth floats on water [see Aristotle, On the Heavens, B13, 294a]. Aristotle [Metaphysics, A3, 983b] suggested that Thales would have been aware of the importance of water for life. Thales claimed further that 'Magnets have souls" [Aristotle, On the Soul A2, 405a] and that "All things are full of gods" [ibid. A5, 411a]. In Greek "to have a soul (psuche)" means to be alive; so Thales' argument probably went like this: living things produce movement; magnets can move both themselves and other things; therefore magnets are alive. He may have thought of gods as forces which can initiate movement.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Thales is important because he was the first to move beyond purely mythopoeic thinking to ask the questions whether underlying the multiplicity of things and changes in the world there is common principle or 'stuff'. His claims seem to suggest (1) there is a regularity in the universe (or cosmos — the Greek word means 'order'); (2) it is possible through observation and rational thought for man to gain some understanding of it and the fundamental principle.

It might be said that in singling out water and talking of magnets having souls Thales is actually supposing that there are two principles — the one material and the other spiritual. However, it is unlikely that at this early stage philosophers would have thought in terms of a matter-spirit distinction; and to find a definition of a living thing we today would in general look for more than just the ability to initiate motion. It is therefore perhaps more reasonable to interpret both Thales' primary element and his reference to forces in materialist terms.

 

 

READING

G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, ch. II.

R. D. McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates, ch. 5.

 

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Thales

 

[1a] Common 'stuff', principle or 'material cause' underlying real change and multiplicity — water

Anaximander

Anaximenes

Heraclitus

Plato

Aristotle

[1a]

[1a]

[1a c 1g]

[5a]

[6a 9b]