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. Philosophy and science start with the bold confession of faith that not caprice but an inherent orderliness underlies the phenomena, and the explanation of nature is to be sought within nature itself. . . .

Thus, Thales had the brilliant insight that one could understand natural phenomena-and nature itself-without looking beyond the natural realm to provide the basis for one’s understanding.

So far we have interpreted Thales as a naturalist, as a proto-scientist who is offering an alternative kind of thinking to the prevailing religious orthodoxy.

But is this correct? What about the other views Aristotle ascribes to Thales? (So far we have only looked at two of the four.) What about the magnet being alive, and the world being full of gods? Is Thales inconsistent? Or is he, perhaps, hedging his bets. (“Earthquakes occur because the earth rocks on water-and, besides, there are gods in the water making waves.”)

I think it is still possible to see these four statements forming a coherent world view.

  1. Thales’ claim that “The world is full of gods” need not be a retreat to traditional religion. For Thales does not have a separate realm of gods. He brings them down to earth. I read this statement as saying: “Don’t look outside the natural world for ‘gods’ to explain natural phenomena. Your ‘gods’ — the explanations of natural phenomena — lie closer to hand.”

  2. Similarly Thales’ idea that “The magnet is alive” need not be an attempt to find something spooky in what seems like inanimate nature. There is no compelling reason to believe that he was a panpsychist — someone who thinks that everything is alive. Rather, he was proposing the theory that what makes something alive is its ability to initiate motion in something else. After all, Thales did not say that rocks in general are alive; magnets are special in that they can cause other things to move, which is just what things that we know to be alive (namely, ourselves) are capable of doing.

As for the details of Thales’ thought, it’s easy to pick holes in them. For example, Aristotle had the following to say about Thales’ idea that the earth floats on water:

as though the same argument did not apply to the water supporting the earth as to the earth itself. (De Caelo 294a30)

KRS offer the following curious (but unconvincing) reply to Aristotle (p. 90):

His final objection, that Thales has solved nothing because he would still have to find something to support the water that supports the earth, shows how little Aristotle understood the probable nature of Thales’ way of thinking: Thales would almost certainly still accept the popular conception of the earth (or, in this case, its immediate support) stretching down so far that the problem almost disappeared . . . .

Final comments:

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