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Milesian School of Philosophy | Intro

Milesian School of Philosophy | Intro

Ancient tradition says that Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse of the Sun:

Although we know none of the details of this supposed prediction, the event (an eclipse in 585 BCE) has traditionally marked the beginning of philosophy and science in Western thought.

Aristotle, who was one of the earliest to think critically about the history of philosophy,

speculated about why this kind of inquiry should have begun in Miletus, a Greek city on the Ionian coast of Asia minor (in what is now Turkey);

- like later scholars who have asked this question, Aristotle was unable to find an answer.

So the circumstances surrounding the beginning of philosophy remain unclear; perhaps the question is unanswerable.

Nevertheless, Thales, the titular first philosopher, stands at the beginning of a great tradition of rational inquiry and critical thought about the world and the place of human beings in it that continues to the present day.

Thales was the first of a succession of thinkers known as the Pre-Socratics who lived in Greece in the 6-5th centuries BCE:

These thinkers do not belong to any unified school of thought, and they differed dramatically in their views.

Yet they share intellectual attitudes and assumptions and they all display an enthusiasm for inquiry that justifies studying them as a group.

It cannot be merely Thales’ reported prediction of an eclipse that can justify our thinking of him as the first Western philosopher and scientist—

- after all, both the Babylonians and the Egyptians had complex astronomies.

Nevertheless, for Aristotle and those who came after him, Thales, and his fellow-Milesians Anaximander and Anaximenes, shared an outlook that truly marks the beginning of philosophical inquiry.

Part of this was a willingness to speculate and give reasons based on evidence and argument.

Another aspect was a commitment to the view that the natural world (the entire universe) can be explained without needing to refer to anything beyond nature itself:

For instance, Thales seems to have thought that everything is from water:

(although it is not clear whether he thought that water is the origin of all things, or that everything really is water in some form or another).

This may strike us as a naive and overly simplistic claim.

Yet Aristotle saw in Thales’ views something that suggested that Thales had reasons and arguments for them:

They do not all agree about how many or what kinds of such principles there are,

but Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, stated it to be water. (This is why he declared that the earth rests on water.)

Perhaps he got this idea from seeing that the nourishment of all things is moist, and that even the hot itself comes to be from the moist and lives on it (the principle of all things is that from which they come to be)—

- getting this idea from this consideration and also because the seeds of all things have a moist nature; and water is the principle of the nature of moist things.

(Aristotle, Metaphysics)

From Aristotle’s comments, it is clear that he thought that Thales’ claim was based on reasoning from observational evidence.

In the fragments of the Pre-Socratics we may find gaps in explanation, appeals to the God, apparent invocation of divine warrant, breaks in the connection between evidence and assertion:

Despite all these apparent shortcomings, these early Greek thinkers took a bold leap in adopting a critical attitude:

In the case of the Milesians, for instance, we find each proposing something different as the ultimate foundational reality of the cosmos.

Anaximander, who followed Thales, apparently rejected the idea that water is the basic stuff;

in its place he posited a single reality that he called the boundless (or the indefinite), something with no specific characteristics, out of which arise the other ingredients of the cosmos.

Anaximander’s follower Anaximenes, in turn rejects the boundless, apparently arguing that it was just too indefinite to do the job Anaximander required of it:

Anaximenes claimed that Air was the foundational stuff.

Moreover, he seems to have seen that there was a gap in the earlier Milesian theories:

Thales and Anaximander provided no mechanism to account for the transformations of their basic stuff.

Anaximenes remedies this by proposing the processes of condensation and rarefaction:

as Air becomes more rarefied or compacted, other stuffs are produced.

Despite the disagreements among them, even this brief view shows that the Milesians worked within a shared framework of argument and justification.