The Problem of Thales, I. Science

 by on September 20, 2013
Sep 202013

The Problem of Thales

Western philosophy begins with Thales.
–Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy 

…but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up
with modern developments in science, particularly physics.
Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery
in our quest for knowledge.

–Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design


To say there is a problem of communication between philosophy and science is quite an understatement nowadays. Discussions geared toward popular audiences give the impression that there is a choice that everyone must make, which is posed something like this: to believe the claims of science and to commit oneself to a mechanical, deterministic view of the world, or to believe that there is more to the human experience than objective truths and to search for the limits of science in philosophy and, it’s sometimes said, religion. Or, from the other side, the choice is often given thus: to join the tide of inevitable progress offered by science and its methods of inquiry, or to remain behind in the archaic language and obsolete methods of the humanities. Philosophers and scientists alike will point out that these are overly simplistic descriptions of the divide between the two disciplines, but nevertheless they express popular sentiments which obscure the fundamental issues.

To the public audience, philosophy and science seem in every way like two distinct projects. The scientist observes and measures the natural world in order to come away with models that better predict outcomes of the interactions of phenomena. The philosopher speculates about questions that are, at any stage, seemingly unanswerable by the scientist. Whereas the scientist may measure the properties of this or that thing or investigate the cause of an event, the philosopher may ask why there are things at all or what aspects of human nature condition our experience of such an event. But then the independence of these fields of inquiry is called into question when Stephen Hawking says that “philosophy is dead,” or, on the other hand, when Russell Stannard, a physicist himself, attempts to show the need for philosophical inquiry in science. Why does each feel the need to answer for itself to the other?

Scientists like Hawking assert that science has superseded philosophy, that scientific inquiry is now equipped to pursue answers to all the fundamental questions that were, at one point, asked by philosophers. The challenge to philosophy comes not only from without. Since Hegel and the responses to him, particularly from Nietzsche and Heidegger, philosophy has taken on a self-reflective and critical character that makes its own possibility of existence a question for itself. Philosophy, like the sciences, has been divided up into various branches and disciplines in order to meet this challenge with different strategies. There is philosophy of science, which explicitly interrogates science as to its fundamental nature and methods; philosophy of language, of logic, and of mathematics examine the character and scope of the manners in which scientists and philosophers alike represent truth; philosophy of religion looks at religion both as a science and as an experience outside of the scientific experience; political philosophy and ethics investigate the social nature of human activity. And so on.

With this further specialization of philosophy, each branch feels the need to answer the challenge and make itself relevant to science, incorporating new advances in knowledge while still attempting to penetrate to the yet unexplored depths of human understanding. However, science increasingly claims to have appropriated exclusive rights to this task of inquiry from philosophy. Why has philosophy divided itself and attempted to take on an increasingly scientific character, even when science rejects any cooperation? The fundamental problem that remains for philosophy today is its relationship to science and its purpose in a thoroughly scientific age. If we are to make sense of this problem for philosophy, it is urgent that we look at the history of this relationship in search of the root of the separation between the two fields of inquiry.

I. Science

The problem goes back to Thales. From the Greek city of Miletus, Thales was the first in the Milesian school of thought, followed by Anaximander and Anaximenes. In turn, the Milesians thinkers are considered part of the even broader Ionian movement of the 6th-5th centuries BCE. Plato, Aristotle, Simplicius, Diogenes Laertius and others considered Thales to represent some kind of first in the Greek tradition, so he is the most concrete example we have of something like the beginning of Western philosophy as a whole.

Interestingly, when we read the historical accounts, there is a confusing and intermixing of terms used to describe Thales that becomes immediately apparent. Sometimes he is a philosopher, even a speculative thinker; other times he is noted for his practical investigations; and in yet other sources Thales is regarded for what we consider specifically scientific studies like astronomy, geometry, and physics. This combination of philosophic, practical, and scientific characteristics makes him an interesting character to study in the history of philosophy and, as I propose, in the history of science and the relationship between the two disciplines.

We have no writings by Thales himself, but we find sparse accounts of his ideas in Aristotle and Plato. From these accounts we ascribe to Thales the following views. (1) There is a material principle or unity in nature, (2) and specifically the principle or essence of nature is water.1 (3) All things are full of gods. (4) The soul is the principle of motion.2 These are what we might call the cosmological or philosophical views of which we have some concrete knowledge. Sometimes they are summarized as “material monism”, that is, the view that everything is comprised of or has its origins in a single material substance. I will argue that this characterization only scratches the surface of what Thales offers us and that at the root of this Thales, who stands at the beginning, we find a much more revelatory principle which sheds light on the schism between philosophy and science. To understand that, we first turn to the accounts of the practical and scientific activities of Thales.

The most noted account of this type tells that Thales successfully predicated a solar eclipse.3 Whether discovered from his own observations of the sky or calculated from existing Babylonian or Egyptian records4, this sole event serves to characterize Thales as not mere philosopher but natural philosopher or physicist, and it sets a precedent of practicality for Greek science and its inheritors. In this vain, he is also attributed with knowledge of the following5: engineering, having diverted the flow of a river to cross an army; mathematics and geometry, having measured pyramids by their shadows and the distance of ships; astronomy, eclipses aside, he measured solstices and constellations, predicted seasonal changes, and is said to be “the first to study heavenly bodies”; and politics.

From all these accounts, we can summarize the contribution of Thales with two archetypal characterizations. First, for the wide variety of practical activities for which he is known, we get the archetype ἅνθρωπος Θαλῆς (“The man’s a Thales”), originally from Aristophanes and applied to someone noted for their ingenuity. Second, for his investigation into the material essence of nature, he is the first of the natural philosophers or phusikoi, from which we get our ‘physicist’, though Aristotle clearly also implies, at least partially, the meaning in our ‘philosopher’.6 The larger picture that begins to form, then, is of Thales as an essentially rational and practical character who is as much the father of modern science as he is of philosophy. Thales is “the earliest Greek physicist, or enquirer into the nature of things as a whole.”7

Nevertheless, the insistence by Plato and Aristotle to consider Thales as a prototype of philosophy in its beginning requires us to avoid merely coming down on one side of the modern opposition between philosophy and science.8 For this reason, there is a need to search for a more profound principle in Thales, one that goes beyond divisive dialectics such as theory-practice, idealism-empiricism, and humanities-sciences used in the proselytization of academic disciplines. In this going beyond we might discover some context for the attitude represented by Hawking in the opening of this essay.

To this end, we focus our attention on the extracurricular commentary given by Kirk, Raven, and Schofield (KRS) in their history of the pre-Socratic philosophers. The authors summarize the legacy of Thales thus: “Although these ideas were strongly affected, directly or indirectly, by mythological precedents, Thales evidently abandoned mythic formulations; this alone justifies the claim that he was the first philosopher, naïve though his thought still was.”9 KRS structure their history of pre-Socratic thought under the explanatory rubric of a movement from muthos to logos, mythic formulations to rational accounts, the latter providing the basis for the emergence of philosophy in the character of Thales.

The muthos is the explanatory, story-telling comportment closely related to the parable and allegory. Now often used to indicate falsehood as opposed to truth (‘that belief is a myth’), the myth has accompanied humans as a carrier of meaning for much of their history. It is more often associated with, though not limited to, speech, as the oral tradition of human cultures use anthropomorphized stories to communicate central truths. The narrative semantic structure of myth allows for the revelation of meaning but does not impose a meaning. The logos is the foundation of Western philosophy. It is itself the act of founding, of giving account, of grounding experience in reason. This grounding reason looks for a first principle or originary substance to account for phenomena in the fewest terms. It also takes the form of the propositional statement of predication, connecting a subject to its properties. From the logos comes the objective-theoretical comportment that seeks the truth as a direct connection among extant things and meaning as information communication.

It is important to remember that though we are speaking of these as independent categories, there is usually a mixing of mythic and theoretic characteristics since the early development of language in human culture.10 The line between myth and reason is not always clear, and Thales was preceded by several thinkers who KRS characterize as “quasi-rational”, having developed cosmologies and concepts which “although expressed in the language and through the persons of myth, are the result of a more direct, empirical, non-symbolic way of thinking.”11 Among them are Hesiod, who was concerned with a more orderly and explicit cosmology than the mere myths which had come before, and Pherecydes, called a “mixed theologian” by Aristotle and supposedly the first to write in prose. We will return to these in more depth later. For now it is enough only to note that these intermediaries between muthos and logos exist, and that, rather than an abrupt break with myth, Thales and the tradition of Greek science are products of a world in transition, where the rational is never completely free from contamination by the mythical and the mythical yields, little by little, to the constraints of truth as predication and grounding. Yet the emphasis on one or the other marks a significant difference in the evolution of human thought. As the first to be recognized for abandoning mythic rhetoric in order to explain the world, Thales is thus the first natural philosopher.

The questions surrounding this transition from muthos to logos have transcended philosophy and become an important concern in areas such as anthropology, cognitive archaeology and the science of evolution, a full study of which is outside the scope of this essay. For their part, KRS briefly designate the key concepts at work in this transition as (1) anthropomorphism, (2) purposive nature, and (3) the surrounding cultural milieu. For progress to have been made toward something like philosophy, “what was principally required was the abandonment of personification” that marked the anthropomorphic Greek myths. Further, the transition was held back by “the institutionalizing of a mode of interpretation that men are apt to overplay ever at their most rational, namely by seeing the world in human terms as animate or even purposive. In particular, the genetic model of nature differentiating itself out of primordial ‘parents’ proved hard to abandon.”12  Finally, apart from supposedly abandoning the idea of anthropomorphic, purposive nature, a certain material force and cultural milieu was needed. The transition from myths to philosophy

entails, and is the product of, a change that is political, social and religious rather than sheerly intellectual, away from the closed traditional society (which in its archetypal form is an oral society in which the telling of tales is an important instrument of stability and analysis) and toward an open society in which the values of the past become relatively unimportant and radically fresh opinions can be formed both of the community itself and of its expanding environment. It is that kind of change that took place in Greece between the ninth and the sixth centuries B.C.13

One final element which remains implicit in KRS and which certainly has significance in this history is the difference between poetry and prose. Though Thales left no writings, it is said that his younger contemporaries Pherecydes and Anaximander were the first to write in prose in the Greek tradition. It makes sense that prose would become more common around the time of the foundation of philosophy and the abandonment of myths. Poetry seems more suited to the myth and aesthetic meaning, while prose is the medium of information communication. We can’t say which came first, but along with the move from myth to reason, the abandonment of anthropomorphism and purposive nature, and a cultural milieu conducive to the overturning of old customs, there was a parallel and, perhaps, co-dependent move away from poetry. Whatever the exact causes of this historical phenomenon may be, its likely that all of these elements appear simultaneously wherever logos appears in human thinking, and in the time of Thales we see the expression of a more explicit form of reasoning and a mode of doing natural ontology that would inspire the development of Greek science.

So according to KRS, reason, science, and the search for first principles all become explicit with Thales at the beginning of Western philosophy, which now finds itself divided into two projects. The logos was the principle shared between philosophy and science, tracing their history like two threads of a weave from the earliest phusikoi through much of what we know of as Greek philosophy and beyond. Thales as representative of the tradition of the logos is the founder of both philosophy and science in their shared beginning, and in this way we reconcile the two projects in the single character.

To put it another way: Thales is the meta-archetype of (meta)physics. Whether within philosophy or science, the principle of (meta)physics is logos in opposition to myth. The history of science is the tracing of an attempt to supersede the frailty of mythic, temporal experience and thoroughly ground truth in the authority of objective presence. This focus on truth as communicable meaning and direct access to objects of experience by a subject in an indivisible present is the meaning behind the characterization of Western philosophy as “metaphysics of presence” in Heidegger and Derrida. By writing metaphysics in this way–as (meta)physics–I emphasize the fact that we are dealing with two terms in one. The two projects of philosophy and science are co-participants in the metaphysics of presence based on their shared beginning in Thales and the principle of logos. The critique of the metaphysics of presence, then, whether from within as critical philosophy or from without as the criticism of philosophy by science, extends to science, even in its own critique of metaphysics.

Now we return to where we began. The problem of Thales is the question of the role of philosophy in an emphatically technological-scientific age. Science has realized itself in such a way that its existence raises the question of philosophy, it makes philosophy a question for itself and for science. Whatever this phenomenon is, it causes philosophers to talk about the end of philosophy–or at least a revolution in philosophy–and scientists to declare philosophy dead or useless. The question is asked despite the shared beginning of philosophy and science in Thales. In going back to and questioning that shared beginning, I hope to have provided context for the divorce of philosophy and science that Hawking promotes here (an extended version of the opening quote):

How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.

Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

Hawking’s accusation breaks up (meta)physics into the disparate specializations of metaphysics and physics. The true inheritance of the phusikoi that investigate nature and its principles is physics. What, then, is metaphysics but the remainder of the original transformation of Ancient Greece: the lingering of muthos in the lineage of Greek science. The philosophoi, since Plato and Aristotle, have attempted to carry on the project of natural philosophy while still clinging to mythical and speculative baggage. The separation of science from philosophy is the declaration of the futility of metaphysics and the utility of science alone. This seems like the obvious conclusion–certainly a popular one.

Unfortunately, the popular understanding obscures substantial historical complexity. As we’ve seen in looking at the pre-Socratic transition, philosophy and science took shape together in an intimate union based on shared principles and goals, such that trying to fully separate them should appear difficult, even worrisome. The problem of Thales is a problem for science. The founder of (meta)physics and the messenger of the arrival of logos makes the accusation against philosophy problematic. If to philosophy qua metaphysics science is speaking, then we have something of a sibling quarrel in which neither is free of guilt, as both carry the genetics of the original sin. The critique of metaphysics by science betrays science’s own metaphysical grounding, while the critique of the (meta)physics of presence traces empirical and speculative reason alike back to the logos, back to Greece, back to Thales.

If it were true, if there were a lingering muthos in philosophy, is science equipped to find it? Science is not a historical discipline. Quite to the contrary, science is concerned with the production of theories based on empirical observation in the present. From this task it gets its utility and its limitations. On what ground does it make its judgement about philosophy? I fear that, though we may wish to engage scientists and philosophers alike in such questions, the scientist qua scientist and the philosopher qua philosopher are not ready for such a discussion, exactly because of the animosity between the disciplines. If there is a way forward, past the divisive dialectics common in the popular polemics, it would have to be through dialogue among, not scientists and philosophers, but rather the phusikoi and philosophoi in their shared capacity to think and reconsider the logos in its full context. Such a joint reconsideration of shared beginnings revives the ἅνθρωπος Θαλῆς, and has as its goal the renewal of the love of inquiry into all that still holds wonder in human experience. In this way, the inheritors of the Greek science open themselves to their shared beginning and thus to the possibility of their own shared end. 

  1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.3. []
  2. Aristotle, On the Soul, 1.2, 1.5. []
  3. Herodotus, The Histories, 1.74. []
  4. G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 82. The authors argue that Thales’ knowledge of eclipses and other astronomical and cosmological facts is influenced by Babylonian and Egyptian sources. []
  5. These accounts and their sources are documented in Chapter II, The Presocratic Philosophers. []
  6. For example, see Aristotle Physics 184b. 17 and Metaphysics 1005a, 32-33. []
  7. The Presocratic Philosophers, 76. []
  8. See examples of Thales as prototypical philosopher in Plato, Theaetetus 174a and Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.3 983b6. []
  9. The Presocratic Philosophers, 99. []
  10. For discussion of the evolution of mythic and theoretic characteristics in human thinking, a good place to start is Colin Renfrew’s Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind. []
  11. The Presocratic Philosophers, 7. []
  12. The Presocratic Philosophers, 72. []
  13. The Presocratic Philosophers, 73-74. []

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