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Thales Essay

1003 words - 4 pages

Thales was a native of Miletus, in Asia Minor. He flourished in 585 BCE (the date of an eclipse he is reputed to have predicted). No fragments of his work have survived, only testimony. Aristotle attributes the following four views to Thales:1. The earth rests on water. (De Caelo 294a28)2. Water is the archê of all things. (Metaph. 983b18)3. The magnet has a soul. (De Anima 405a19)4. All things are full of gods. (De Anima 411a7)This seems like a very bizarre collection of very strange views. What makes these views philosophically or scientifically interesting? We will begin with (1). It seems very likely that Thales was offering an hypothesis to explain a puzzling phenomenon: why are there earthquakes? If the earth floats on water, then we can understand what happens: the earth is rocked by the wave action of the water on which it floats like a boat or a log. (At this point we are more interested in seeing that this is an attempt at explanation than in evaluating it.)To understand (2) we need to examine its source. Archê is Aristotle's word: it means beginning or source or principle (cf. "archaic," "archaeology," "architect"). Aristotle is here talking about what he called the material archê, which can be either the stuff from which something originated or the stuff of which it is composed. Thus, Thales thought (Aristotle tells us) that everything either originated in water (cosmogony) or is actually (now!) made of water (constituent analysis).So what is the scientific or philosophical interest of Thales' ruminations about water? He is attempting to provide a theory which is:1. General (it covers a whole range of similar cases, not just a single one).2. Based on observation (although it transcends all observations).3. Makes no appeal to supernatural causes.This last point is worth dwelling on. Many people before Thales had offered explanations of natural phenomena. These traditional (Homeric) religious accounts also went beyond the observable. For example, thunder was attributed to Zeus' throwing lightning bolts; storms at sea were thought to be due to the wrath of Poseidon.The difference is that Thales' explanations are natural. not supernatural. He does not appeal to anthropomorphic beings in attempting to explain natural phenomena.Guthrie (vol. I, pp. 44-5) puts it succinctly:The questions which excited [the Milesians] were of this kind: Can this apparently confused and disordered world be reduced to simpler principles so that our reason can grasp what it is and how it works? What is it made of? How does change take place? . . . They abandoned mythological and substituted intellectual solutions. . . . [It] was no longer satisfying to say that storms were roused by the wrath of Poseidon, or death caused by the arrows of Apollo or Artemis. A world ruled by anthropomorphic gods of the kind in which their contemporaries believed -- gods human in their passions as well as in their outward form -- was a world ruled by caprice....

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