Thales the Philosopher: Theory & Contributions to Philosophy

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  • 0:01 Who Was Thales?
  • 0:37 Historical Context and…
  • 1:12 Thales's Theories
  • 3:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

This lesson explores Thales, a 6th century BCE Greek intellectual who was one of the first to offer scientific and philosophical (as opposed to mythological) answers to questions about how the world works. Come meet Thales, the Father of Philosophy!

Who Was Thales?

Ancient Greece was famous for its many great philosophers, but who was the first? Most scholars, including most ancient Greek philosophers, name Thales of Miletus (in Ionia, or western Turkey) as the first philosopher. This 6th century BCE thinker is, in fact, considered the 'Father of Philosophy.' We know very little about Thales the man, and none of his writings survive. However, thanks to subsequent ancient Greek philosophers who were familiar with Thales's theories, particularly Aristotle, we know a few key points about this great intellectual.

Historical Context and Influence

Circa 624 BCE, Thales was born into a Greek culture that explained the world through mythology. For example, according to mythology, earthquakes occurred because Poseidon, the god of the sea and earthquakes, was angry. Thales was the first, however, to consider that there might be natural explanations for such phenomena. Because of this paradigm-shifting concept, Thales is considered the foremost of the famous Seven Wise Men, Pre-Socratic Greek sages who became famous amongst later philosophers for their wisdom in logic, law, ethics, and science.

Thales's Theories

Thales seemed to be interested in many subjects, though we only have fragments of his intellectual achievements. He was likely a statesman or a leader of some sort. He made scientific observations of weather phenomena, and with the help of science and math, he was able to advance techniques in sea navigation. Combining math and science once again, he also became skilled in astronomy and was even able to predict an eclipse. Thales approached each of these subjects searching for rational, instead of mythological, explanations.

A prominent, though vague, tenet of Thales's philosophy was the idea that everything on Earth has a soul. By soul, Thales meant the capacity for change or movement. The phrase, 'all things are full of gods', which Thales may or may not have actually said, is nevertheless famously associated with this theory of soul and movement. By this concept, Thales meant that there are natural laws inherent in nature that determine how a thing functions and changes. Notice again that Thales turned to natural law instead of mythology and divine intervention to explain how the world worked.

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