The Pre-Socratics

Jeroen Seynhaeve / Word count [ 816 ] View all [ 38 ] / Vertaal naar Nederlands

Thales of Miletus

The history of philosophy conventionally starts at a well defined point in history, 2500 years ago. For what seems the first time in human history, people expressed dissatisfaction with the explanations offered by superstition, and offered alternatives. These alternatives were hardly scientific, or conclusive, but provocative and argued well enough to give rise to later philosophical giants and to inspire questioning minds ever since.

One could say that the history of philosophy starts every moment of the day – every time someone questions any given explanation. In the past, as in the here and now, big questions such as “What is the world made of?”, “Is the world real?” and “What is our place in the world?” have been answered by means of concepts that involve elusive creatures and happenings, as well as imaginative stories that help us understand and embrace these concepts. Humans’ role and destiny were and are conveniently explained from that perspective. Conveniently, but hardly conclusively.

Enter Thales of Miletus, around 600 BCE. Thales and his contemporaries were mainly puzzled by two questions: (1) What is the basic element everything is made of (“arche”)? and (2) Is there order and justice in the universe (“cosmic order”)?

To the first question, Thales replied “Water” because water appears to be the only element that occurs in many different shapes and forms. His answer was revolutionary – albeit of course scientifically obsolete by now. But revolutionary all the same, because here was an answer that did not rely on elusive divine forces to explain a very basic question about the world. Thales offered logical and testable arguments for his arch-element. He shifted the conversation from unverifiable superstitious dogma to verifiable arguments. Or more precisely – he started the conversation.

Around that same time, others came up with different answers to the two questions I’ve mentioned above. Different answers, but driven by the same attempt to explain the world with argued explanations, rather than with handed-down dogma. Some nominated arch-elements as precise and tangible as Thales’, others offered arch-principles that were a little more elusive, abstract but all-encompassing. Let’s look at examples of both.

Examples of arch-elements include Anaximenes, who claimed that air (“aer”) is the basic element, and went on to use the processes of condensation and rarefaction to explain how there can be motion in the universe. Heraclitus nominated “fire”, but added an arch-principle to his arch-element for good measure (see below), as did Empedocles, who nominated four arch-elements (earth, air, fire and water) and the tug of war between Love and Strife as the arch-principle. Democritus held up the idea of indivisible, imperceptible objects (“atomos”) as the basic building blocks of the cosmos. These tiny objects move around in a void, and bump into and cling onto each other, thereby forming trees, dogs, shoes and everything else in the empirical world.

Examples of arch-principles include Anaximander, who talked about “apeiron”, the infinite, as the principle everything in the universe has its origin and its end in. Pythagoras‘ arch-principle is number. Numbers, and their relative ratios, allow us to explain balance and harmony. In music, for example, we can explain why certain notes sound good together (consonant) while others don’t (discordant), by measuring the length of the string that produces the sounds: half the length of the same string produces an octave lower, double the length an octave higher, 4:3 a perfect fourth harmony, etc. What’s true in music, is true for the rest of the universe, claimed Pythagoras, as he went on to make statements about a harmonious cosmos and human health, and a balanced human ethics and aesthetics based on numbers. Heraclitus elected change (“flux”) as the basic principle of everything. Everything is permanently changing, in never-ending flux. You can’t step into the same river twice, he famously exclaimed. He may have meant two different things, and scholars are undecided about which he did mean. Did he mean that nothing stays the same? Or did he mean that everything is in constant change, moving between opposites, without loosing its individual identity? Parmenides nominated the “One” as the arch-principle – that which is unborn and unperishing, that only is (not was or will be), a unique whole, unmoved, perfect, complete, and provided an important inspiration for Plato.

What’s most remarkable about these earliest philosophers, is that they looked for answers that made sense to them, and provided arguments in defence, thereby rejecting the self-evidence of answers that were handed-down to them. They argued logically, and executed the first scientific experiments to evaluate and test their theories. It is that way of thinking, that way of looking at the world and looking for answers, that has ignited the start of philosophy in history, and indeed, ignites philosophy each and every day.