The story of Thales:
We tend to tell history
as a narrative, and we draw threads between historical characters to make them into a story that contains unity and direction or motivation. At the beginning of Western philosophy, Thales says that everything is water
, and this too is the start of a story. To understand his statement, and to understand Thales the philosopher we need some intuition of the problem he was trying to solve. Our first guess would be that he wanted to know what everything is
. This particular question may suit his answer
, but it ignores his place
as the father of philosophy. Here is the story
1. The problem of matter.
Thales was the first to wonder about substance; he was the first to ask "so what is everything actually made of?" The old myths Thales grew up with talked about things changing, but they didn't explain what everything was. Thales suggested that everything is water, because all life depends on water, and the world is full of life.
Anaximander was a student of Thales. He was taught by Thales that everything is water, but was bothered by one major problem: the theory doesn't account for why things are so completely different, for example water is heavy and cools while fire is light and burns. Anaximander overcame this by ingeniously positing a prior substance out of which different qualities (like hot and cold) could be manifest. He called this original substance apeiron which is Greek for boundless.
Anaximander had a student of his own, Anaximenes, who saw a problem with his teacher's solution, in particular that it created a new substance which we can never know. What Anaximenes needed was a way for an underlying substance to both be of this world and yet be capable of transforming its qualities. Anaximenes saw that the problem of matter required a known but formless substance which is in abundance (to act as a repository for new matter) and which can contract and rarefy to form new materials: air.
2. The problem of change.
So one way of looking at Thales is to see him as the first person to wonder what stuff was made of. And although his answer may have been simplistic, we can see how it prompted those who followed him to produce more sophisticated and novel solutions (a story that must be abridged, continuing as it does to the present day). A story might appear as a thread, a Euclidean short-cut through time, but if so then history is most certainly a tapestry, a thousand stories.
The stories each have their own trajectories and meanings, they can contradict or complement and still retain their individual absoluteness and total veracity. Another such story that begins with Thales travels another path:
Heraclitus famously said that he could never truly step into the same river twice, because there is nothing the persists that is the river, everything is a process of flux and ceaseless change. Thales had wanted to know how the same thing could remain the same while changing, for example food is consumed and becomes part of the animal. Thales not only came up with this problem, he offered a solution: because both grass and bovine are ultimately formed out of water, the grass sustains the cow as its waters transform from one thing (plant) into another (flesh).
Heraclitus was aware of this solution, but he realised that it required both an underlying substance (like water or air) and then all the different things into which the substance can transmorph. But this was a problem for Heraclitus, who saw the inherent ambiguity in saying that water (or air or something else) turns into grass and then turns into animal. In what sense is the water turning into all these different things? And if we're not really sure, why even assume that it does? Heraclitus solved Thales' problem of change by proposing that there are no subsisting things, like rivers, there is only the form of a river (or of a blade of grass, etc) which manifests itself on the substrate of reality.
3. The problem of reality.
Thales began his legacy by assuming that there is some matter which is more basic than everything else (the problem of matter), and that the transformation of this single matter is responsible for changes we see in the world (the problem of change). If we continue a little further we get to Parmenides, who identified another problem which Thales had raised: the problem of reality.
What do we mean when we say that everything is really made of water? According to appearances, the world is not made of water. So what do we mean when we say that something appears one way and yet in reality is another way?
Thales assumed that reality overlapped with appearances: although the world does not at first sight appear to be made of water - it appears to be made out of things like tables and caves - in reality these things too are composed of water. In other words, for Thales elemental water (meaning water as something that forms other things) occupies the same reality as appearing things (like tables as chairs). The difference between describing a chair as composed of water versus wood is a question of abstraction. It is just as true to say that the chair is made of water as it is to say that it is made of wood, but of the two solutions, water is the more basic one. Thales' solution to the problem of reality was to claim that reality is an abstraction.
Parmenides solution to Thales' problem of reality is as incredible as it appears anachronistic. Parmenides proposed that there is an unbridgeable gap between the way of reality and the way of appearances. The world appears to be made out of different things that change with time, such as chairs. It may even be the case that these things appear to be made out of more simple materials (like water, for example). Nevertheless these are all still just appearances. Reality is an indivisible and motionless sphere!
4. The problem of philosophy.
To a certain extent philosophy was reborn with Socrates, although it would be more accurate to point out to the two philosophers who worked in Socrates' wake and defined philosophy for the West: Socrates' student Plato, and Plato's student Aristotle. As a consequence there exists a concept of "Pre-Socratic", as if everything changed with Socrates. Among the most important of these significances is Socrates' role in redefining philosophy's task.
The Pre-Socratic philosophers, beginning with Thales, were famous for their explanations of the natural world (even if that world was somewhat supernatural from our perspective). It is impossible after all this time to know why they needed to know these things. Why were these pressing concerns? Why were they concerned with these problems of matter and change and appearances and reality? We can't know, but we can say that for those Pre-Socratic philosophers who followed Thales, to want to know (to desire knowledge) was to want a description of the external world.
By the time of Socrates (et al.) human relativity had become a problem. For Socrates the new problem of philosophy had become the problem of human perspectives which in turn is defined by the facts of human experience and existence. The human problem was for Socrates the sole problem of his philosophy. The problem of matter (as Thales had originally presented it) was still a problem, but for Socrates it was so extraordinarily far away from the sphere of human life that it merited little concern. It was more important for Socrates to test our values and beliefs.
The rest of the story.
It's hard to detect Thales' handiwork past Socrates. The schools of Plato and Aristotle rose to such prominence that they defined philosophical discussion at least until the beginnings of the modern period, and to a large extent still do. For this reason it is hard to explain how Thales fits into the modern story of philosophy. For example what is the relationship between Thales and Descartes, or Kant, or Nietzsche? These relationships certainly exist, but they are stretched and depend on proxy links to others (especially Plato and Aristotle). For this reason the story of Thales ends
It is appropriate to finish here with a poem written by Diogenes Laërtius
in memory of the first philosopher:
O mighty sun our wisest Thales sat
Spectator of the games,
when you did seize upon him;
But you were right to take him near yourself,
Now that his aged sight could scarcely reach to heaven.