Thales: The First Philosopher and the Father of Science

Publish: 07.09.2023
Updated: 25.12.2023 17:37
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Introduction

Thales of Miletus, living between circa 624 and 546 BCE, was not just another figure from ancient history. He stands out as the pioneering mind behind what would eventually evolve into Western science and philosophy. Renowned as the first philosopher in the Western tradition, Thales was the beacon that lit the torch of rational thought, signaling a departure from mythological explanations of the world.

Early Life and Miletus

Born in the thriving city of Miletus, in Ionia (modern-day Turkey), Thales came of age in a cosmopolitan environment rich in trade and culture. Miletus was a hub where various civilizations converged, thus, Thales was exposed to a vast array of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.

Philosophical Beliefs

  1. Monism and the Primary Substance: Thales is best known for his belief that water is the fundamental underlying substance or archê of the universe. While it may seem simplistic to modern audiences, this was a revolutionary idea. Before Thales, traditional myths ruled the intellectual landscape, explaining natural phenomena through tales of gods and heroes. Thales’ assertion shifted the focus from mythological narratives to an attempt to identify a single, natural principle behind the multiplicity of phenomena. His choice of water might have been influenced by its ubiquity and its various forms: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam).
  2. Celestial Knowledge: Thales was not just a philosopher but also an astronomer. He is reputed to have predicted a solar eclipse around 585 BCE, a remarkable feat for his time. While the exact methodology he used remains uncertain, his prediction indicates a deep understanding and observation of celestial patterns.
  3. Geometry and Mathematics: Apart from his philosophical inquiries and astronomical observations, Thales is also linked to several geometric principles. One of the famous theorems attributed to him states that a circle is bisected by its diameter, highlighting his pioneering role in the study of geometry.

Influence on Later Thinkers

Thales’ insistence on finding a natural explanation for phenomena laid the foundation for a lineage of thinkers who would follow his approach, including Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus, all of whom sought the primary substance behind existence. Beyond Ionia, his influence can be traced to the philosophical tradition of ancient Athens, where thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle expanded on the quest for knowledge and understanding.

Legacy

  1. The Birth of Rational Inquiry: Thales represents a watershed moment in human thought. By seeking natural explanations and emphasizing the power of human reason, he set the stage for the subsequent explosion of scientific and philosophical inquiry in ancient Greece.
  2. Ethics and Morality: While Thales is primarily celebrated for his natural philosophy, it’s worth noting that he also pondered ethical questions. He is credited with the saying, “Know thyself,” which later adorned the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and became a cornerstone of Socratic philosophy.
  3. The Thales Problem: In mathematics, Thales is remembered for the “Thales Problem,” which involves determining the distance of ships from the shore, showcasing an early use of geometry in practical scenarios.

Conclusion

Thales of Miletus was more than just an ancient philosopher; he was a transformative figure who dared to look at the world through a lens of curiosity and reason. His legacy is not just in the answers he provided but in the questions he posed. Through his inquisitions, Thales shifted the trajectory of thought from mythological narratives to rational inquiry, paving the way for the magnificent tradition of science and philosophy in the West. While we have since expanded upon, refined, or even contradicted his ideas, the spirit of Thales lives on in every question we ask about the world around us.

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