Thales of Miletus, usually referred simply as Thales, was an eminent pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. Hailing from Miletus of the Asia Minor region, he is regarded as one among Seven Sages of Greece. Though it was under Socrates, Plato and Aristotle that Greek philosophy found its highest expression, Thales’ discourse set the foundation for the subsequent flowering of Hellenistic thought. Even Aristotle acknowledges the valuable precedence set by Thales, by seeing Thales as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.
Among the achievements of Thales is his adeptness in separating mythology from natural philosophy, where previously no such distinction existed. His major preoccupations included an analysis and search for ultimate physical reality and the dynamics of change. By refusing to refer to mythology in his philosophical musings, Thales can be said to have pioneered the earliest known scientific revolution in Western civilization. Such basic building blocks of philosophical discussion as ‘founding principles’ and ‘hypotheses’ were first coined by Thales. Hence, along with Democritus, Thales is credited as the Father of Science.
Beyond deductive reasoning and abstract thought, Thales has also contributed to mathematics. Geometry, in particular, is an area of interest for him. He devised ways of measuring distance between ships, heights of pyramids, etc. These measurements were necessary in the practical affairs of governance and commerce, thus making him a practical philosopher as much as an abstract thinker. His most enduring contribution to geometry is the set of four corollaries to Thales’ Theorem, which have retained their relevance even after two millennia of further progress in mathematics. Thales’ deductive reasoning also ushered the practice of predicting solar and lunar eclipses ahead of time. With rudimentary mathematical and optical tools at his disposal, Thales was not far off the mark in some of his predictions.
One of the notable theoretical contributions of Thales was his assertion that water was the fundamental matter state and that other objects comprising the world were made from it. This is the basis of his cosmological thesis, which is in contrast to Anaximenes’ idea that air is the central matter state. Though modern atomic physics would dismiss the cosmological thesis as absurd, one could see in it the template for more sophisticated atomic physics of recent years. Modern day chemistry and its predecessor alchemy likewise owe a lot to the thoughts of Thales on these subjects. Indeed, Thales’ importance to Western philosophy was later acknowledged by twentieth century philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Frederick Nietzsche. They particularly appreciated the idea of ‘unity of substance’ that Thales elucidated with his cosmological thesis.
Hence, Thales’ contribution to Western philosophy, especially natural philosophy is significant. Thales’ importance to the study of Western philosophy also arises from his contribution to political thought. He actively participated in local politics, having once defended the sovereignty of Anatolia against the aggressive and more powerful Persians. It was Thales who first dealt with aspects of public governance in an abstract form. This is nothing short of pioneering the discipline of political science, which is now an integral part of mainstream academia.
Nahm, Milton C. (1962) . Selections from Early Greek Philosophy. Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.
Kirk, G.S.; Raven, J.E. (1957). The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: University Press.