Thales is considered the founder of Greek philosophy. He is said to have used his knowledge of science to predict a solar eclipse and other natural phenomena. He believed that the Earth was a flat disc that floated on water, and that the principle of all things is water (i.e., everything comes from water, and everything eventually returns to water). Thus he believed that everything in the universe was just a modification of water.

He is thought to have introduced the concept of geometry, although this cannot be proven. He was also probably the first Greek philosopher who looked for a physical origin of the world instead of attributing everything to mythology.

None. Thales never wrote anything, and therefore there are no quotes of him in existence.

(c.624-c.547 BCE)

Thales of Miletus is regarded as the father of philosophy, as he was the first Greek, of whom we have knowledge, to break with existing Greek systems of thinking to conjecture about the fundamental nature of matter and its transformation into myriad things. We hear from Aristotle in his Metaphysics that Thales thought this primary substance, and most fundamental "stuff" which composes the Earth and all life is water. We hear about Thales' thesis secondhand because none of Thales' writings exist today. Thus, the only knowledge we have of what Thales actually thought comes from ideas attributed to him by other thinkers. Based on these sources it is evident that Thales was a pioneer both in astronomy and geometry in addition to philosophy for which he is primarily recognized.

From Aristotle we hear that Thales supposed the Earth to be a disc that floats in a sea of water. Based on this supposition, Thales supposed the cause of earthquakes to be the sea tossing the Earth. This belief is attributed to Thales by Antius, who also named Democritus as an advocate of this explanation.

From Aristotle we also hear another idea often associated with Thales, that "all things are full of the gods." Aristotle's De Anima reads: "Some think that the soul pervades the whole universe, whence perhaps came Thales's view that everything is full of gods." (411 a7-8). It is speculated that Aristotle was given this idea by Plato. The pantheist idea that "all things are full of the gods" does seem suspect considering Thales' apparent materialism, for Thales had named water as the primary source, and not a divine being.

Another feat attributed to Thales is the foretelling of a solar eclipse which occurred on May 28th, 585 BCE. We hear about this from Herodotus, in his recount of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. Thales is also said to have brought geometry to Greece from Egypt.

Thales' younger associate Anaximander of Miletus (c.611-c.547 BCE) is known to have rejected his teacher's idea of water as the primary substance and origin of all things. Anaximander instead said that from which all things are born and eventually return is infinite and boundless.

Thales is the earliest known1 Hellenic Philosopher, grouped along with Anaximander and Anaximenes as the earliest of the pre-socratics2, referred to as the Milesians. This is an altogether fitting name for the three, as they lived in the ancient Hellenic3 city of Miletus. They used to hang out a lot and figure out how the Universe worked, inventing things like reason and logic along the way4. We credit Thales with being the first "natural philosopher" because Aristotle5 does, and who are you to question it, mister?


Yeah, sure, Aristotle says that Thales described the origin of all things as water. Do me the brief favor of looking at the area settled by the ancient Ionian6 Greeks. You will notice that Miletus is actually a city in Turkey, and that everywhere is water! From a certain perspective, the "we all came from the water" perspective of Thales is actually a fairly simple and relatively common creation myth -- most primitive peoples have similar quasi-metaphorical tales that actually impart a great deal of knowledge about their origins.

But this would be an incorrect reading of Thales, because the Greeks already have a creation myth. It is very long, fairly complex, and prominently features castration. Thales's creation theory (for it is presented as a philosophical theory, instead of mythological fact) attempts to create a materialistic account of the origin of earth, devoid of the ancient gods. It is unclear (well, even more unclear) whether or not Thales is describing life, earth, or the universe in this origin account; but it makes sense given other Milesian theories (in particular, the distinction between things which operate according to scientific laws, and the things which create and sustain them) that water here is used as a metaphor for creation. Remember, if you're creating philosophy from scratch you don't have neat words like ontology or epistemology, you have to invent them.

This understanding of Thales is bolstered by another Aristotle7 quote "all things are full of gods" which sounds really stupid if taken literally. It also sounds stupid if understood in light of some sort of modern pantheism. But it makes perfect sense if read backwards. Saying that all things are equally full of gods means that all things are also empty of gods. Again, read with what we know of the two guys he hung out with all the time, it appears that Thales is very close to being the first Atheist, in addition to being the first Philosopher.


We have no idea who Thales was, if he even existed. The only direct evidence of his mere existence comes from a few footnotes in Aristotle, who admitted that his knowledge was not firsthand, and a couple of random references in antiquity. We can't even prove that Thales existed beyond a reasonable doubt, much less have any idea what he wrote, and even less of an idea what he meant by it.

But there may be a chance, dear reader, that you will find yourself in a college classroom with a professor enamored of the pre-socratics. And this professor may insist upon making factual statements about things that no one knows a damn bit about. I encourage you to throw your own feces at him/her.

Hey, it's better than what the Spartans would've done.


1. Perhaps it would be better to say "discussed" rather than known. How can we really claim to know anything about Thales or even this so-called "time" by placing him earliest. It is more precise to merely describe our actions in discussing his supposed existence.

2. If you buy into the whole "time" concept, we discuss them as PRE-Socratics because they came before Socrates, a thoroughly annoying (and ugly) Athenian Proto-Fascist elevated to fame by the lies of his disciple Plato.

3. This is how you say "Greek" when you wish to sound like a pretentious snob.

4. We seriously know nothing about the dude firsthand. Most of our ideas about what he thought come from the two Anas, because they both wrote stuff down. About Thales in particular, we rely upon Aristotle's writings.

5. I should mention here that Aristotle's writings are actually just lecture notes of his that he used to teach classes. Ever looked at your professor's lecture notes? Think you could figure out not only what he's trying to say, but also everything that happened in his general geographic location for the previous three hundred years? So sure, Aristotle had some really good notes, but let's read critically, shall we?

6. This word means "Not Doric." It could also be used to mean the eastern tribe of seafaring Greeks who established colonies all over the eastern Mediterranean. Also, a type of column used in ancient architecture.

7. Reading Aristotle is almost as bad as reading Kant. And reading Kant is almost as bad as reading Heidegger. And reading Heidegger almost made me commit suicide.

Anything actually informative in this write-up comes from Edward Hussey's 1972 bore, "The Pre-Socratics" published in New York by Charles Scribner's Sons. Did you know they also published all of Hemingway's novels? True story.
Thales is the hero of any modern-day philosophy student. These poor souls are constantly derided by their counterparts in the Engineering and Business departments, who are wont to inform aspiring philosophers that thinking about metaphysics and epistemology and other polysyllabics doesn't pay the bills.

Our man Thales was one of the first, if not the first, in Western culture to be so derided. Everyone in Miletus, especially the many money-minded merchants, loved to laugh at Thales, who was constantly carrying on about constellations, and the universe, and all sorts of other things that don't bring home the bacon. Or so everyone said.

According to Aristotle1, Thales eventually got pretty sick of being a laughingstock. He had figured out something important about the positions of the stars and the olive crops, and after looking at the sky for a while he was pretty darn sure that there was going to be a bumper crop of olives that year. So he got it into his head that he'd corner the market on olive presses.

Sure enough, the olives that year were quite bountiful. And when those jokers came with their olives to use the presses, Thales jacked up the price. He made a killing! Who says philosophy doesn't pay?

1. Aristotle, Politics XI, 1259b

The story of Thales:

We tend to tell history as a narrative, and we draw threads between historical characters to make them into a story that contains unity and direction or motivation. At the beginning of Western philosophy, Thales says that everything is water, and this too is the start of a story. To understand his statement, and to understand Thales the philosopher we need some intuition of the problem he was trying to solve. Our first guess would be that he wanted to know what everything is. This particular question may suit his answer, but it ignores his place as the father of philosophy. Here is the story of Thales.

1. The problem of matter.

Thales was the first to wonder about substance; he was the first to ask "so what is everything actually made of?" The old myths Thales grew up with talked about things changing, but they didn't explain what everything was. Thales suggested that everything is water, because all life depends on water, and the world is full of life. Anaximander was a student of Thales. He was taught by Thales that everything is water, but was bothered by one major problem: the theory doesn't account for why things are so completely different, for example water is heavy and cools while fire is light and burns. Anaximander overcame this by ingeniously positing a prior substance out of which different qualities (like hot and cold) could be manifest. He called this original substance apeiron which is Greek for boundless.

Anaximander had a student of his own, Anaximenes, who saw a problem with his teacher's solution, in particular that it created a new substance which we can never know. What Anaximenes needed was a way for an underlying substance to both be of this world and yet be capable of transforming its qualities. Anaximenes saw that the problem of matter required a known but formless substance which is in abundance (to act as a repository for new matter) and which can contract and rarefy to form new materials: air.

2. The problem of change.

So one way of looking at Thales is to see him as the first person to wonder what stuff was made of. And although his answer may have been simplistic, we can see how it prompted those who followed him to produce more sophisticated and novel solutions (a story that must be abridged, continuing as it does to the present day). A story might appear as a thread, a Euclidean short-cut through time, but if so then history is most certainly a tapestry, a thousand stories.

The stories each have their own trajectories and meanings, they can contradict or complement and still retain their individual absoluteness and total veracity. Another such story that begins with Thales travels another path:

Heraclitus famously said that he could never truly step into the same river twice, because there is nothing the persists that is the river, everything is a process of flux and ceaseless change. Thales had wanted to know how the same thing could remain the same while changing, for example food is consumed and becomes part of the animal. Thales not only came up with this problem, he offered a solution: because both grass and bovine are ultimately formed out of water, the grass sustains the cow as its waters transform from one thing (plant) into another (flesh).

Heraclitus was aware of this solution, but he realised that it required both an underlying substance (like water or air) and then all the different things into which the substance can transmorph. But this was a problem for Heraclitus, who saw the inherent ambiguity in saying that water (or air or something else) turns into grass and then turns into animal. In what sense is the water turning into all these different things? And if we're not really sure, why even assume that it does? Heraclitus solved Thales' problem of change by proposing that there are no subsisting things, like rivers, there is only the form of a river (or of a blade of grass, etc) which manifests itself on the substrate of reality.

3. The problem of reality.

Thales began his legacy by assuming that there is some matter which is more basic than everything else (the problem of matter), and that the transformation of this single matter is responsible for changes we see in the world (the problem of change). If we continue a little further we get to Parmenides, who identified another problem which Thales had raised: the problem of reality.

What do we mean when we say that everything is really made of water? According to appearances, the world is not made of water. So what do we mean when we say that something appears one way and yet in reality is another way? Thales assumed that reality overlapped with appearances: although the world does not at first sight appear to be made of water - it appears to be made out of things like tables and caves - in reality these things too are composed of water. In other words, for Thales elemental water (meaning water as something that forms other things) occupies the same reality as appearing things (like tables as chairs). The difference between describing a chair as composed of water versus wood is a question of abstraction. It is just as true to say that the chair is made of water as it is to say that it is made of wood, but of the two solutions, water is the more basic one. Thales' solution to the problem of reality was to claim that reality is an abstraction.

Parmenides solution to Thales' problem of reality is as incredible as it appears anachronistic. Parmenides proposed that there is an unbridgeable gap between the way of reality and the way of appearances. The world appears to be made out of different things that change with time, such as chairs. It may even be the case that these things appear to be made out of more simple materials (like water, for example). Nevertheless these are all still just appearances. Reality is an indivisible and motionless sphere!

4. The problem of philosophy.

To a certain extent philosophy was reborn with Socrates, although it would be more accurate to point out to the two philosophers who worked in Socrates' wake and defined philosophy for the West: Socrates' student Plato, and Plato's student Aristotle. As a consequence there exists a concept of "Pre-Socratic", as if everything changed with Socrates. Among the most important of these significances is Socrates' role in redefining philosophy's task.

The Pre-Socratic philosophers, beginning with Thales, were famous for their explanations of the natural world (even if that world was somewhat supernatural from our perspective). It is impossible after all this time to know why they needed to know these things. Why were these pressing concerns? Why were they concerned with these problems of matter and change and appearances and reality? We can't know, but we can say that for those Pre-Socratic philosophers who followed Thales, to want to know (to desire knowledge) was to want a description of the external world. By the time of Socrates (et al.) human relativity had become a problem. For Socrates the new problem of philosophy had become the problem of human perspectives which in turn is defined by the facts of human experience and existence. The human problem was for Socrates the sole problem of his philosophy. The problem of matter (as Thales had originally presented it) was still a problem, but for Socrates it was so extraordinarily far away from the sphere of human life that it merited little concern. It was more important for Socrates to test our values and beliefs.

The rest of the story.

It's hard to detect Thales' handiwork past Socrates. The schools of Plato and Aristotle rose to such prominence that they defined philosophical discussion at least until the beginnings of the modern period, and to a large extent still do. For this reason it is hard to explain how Thales fits into the modern story of philosophy. For example what is the relationship between Thales and Descartes, or Kant, or Nietzsche? These relationships certainly exist, but they are stretched and depend on proxy links to others (especially Plato and Aristotle). For this reason the story of Thales ends with Socrates. It is appropriate to finish here with a poem written by Diogenes Laërtius in memory of the first philosopher:
O mighty sun our wisest Thales sat Spectator of the games,
when you did seize upon him;
But you were right to take him near yourself,
Now that his aged sight could scarcely reach to heaven.

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