Thales and the Beginnings of European Reflection

by Artur Przybysławski (Author)
©2023 Monographs 182 Pages


This book, Thales and the Beginnings of European Reflection, is more than a field guide to all major testimonies about Thales. It does not merely contain a summary and critique of the available literature on the subject, but also lays down a new, holistic interpretation of Thales from a perspective that brings to light several important, but previously overlooked issues. An emphasis on mythology in Thales’ thought combined with discourse analysis and a comprehensive treatment of his thinking in its pre-philosophical and pre-scientific unity is hoped to offer a unique and deeper insight into Thales’ genius and the beginnings of European reflection.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Preface
  • The first among the Seven
  • The unity of Thales’ thought
  • Endeavors to demonstrate the fundamental nature of water
  • Water as the principle
  • Water on which the Earth rests
  • Thales the scientist
  • Gods, daimons, and souls
  • The many and the one
  • The water metaphor
  • Commutation of the water metaphor
  • Thales’ astrology
  • References
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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That lesson may even come to us with a milleniary
freshness; for, knowing as we do that for thousands
of years past mankind has done nothing but repeat
itself, we shall attain that noble cast of thought
which, transcending all that has been done and
redone, assigns as the starting-point of our reflections
that indefinable grandeur which is the mark of true

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Anaximenes charged his successors with a certain duty towards Thales, the father of philosophy, which should be observed also today by every teacher of the discipline:

Let us who were his pupils cherish his memory, and let it be cherished by our children and pupils; and let us not cease to entertain one another with his words. Let all our discourse begin with a reference to Thales.1

However, when faced with speaking about Thales to students in their first philosophy lecture, one is at a loss for words. After all, “the two theses on which Thales’ reputation must rest are not, at first blush, remarkable for their sobriety: ‘the magnet has a soul’; ‘everything is water.’”2 To make matters worse, those statements are supposed to have given rise to all philosophy, which, in light of so embarrassing an inception, can hardly be expected to command much respect, let alone genuine interest, among the listeners. What is more, the perceived naivety of Thales’ ideas is prone to project onto the person of the lecturer, further crippling his or her ability to defend the ostensibly ludicrous assertions. It would seem that nobody in his right mind would take those propositions seriously, and yet one is forced, perhaps in spite of oneself, to stand in their defense ←9 | 10→ex officio, by reason of representing the philosophical tradition that Europe has cherished for so many centuries. I am quite sure that many of my colleagues know that feeling too well.

This situation, which I have experienced on several occasions, has made me repeatedly revisit the beginnings of philosophy in search of that primordial, authentic force that animated ancient thought with a strength sufficient to inspire more than two and a half millennia of thinking. If Thales’ thought were merely a naive fantasy, to the extent that any serious examination of it would inevitably lead to a reassertion of its ingenuousness, then philosophy would indeed be of questionable origin, hardly warranting the significance of its subsequent achievements and influence. An evolutionary concept positing that philosophy began as an assortment of childish claims (although I fail to see how a child could ever come up with the idea that everything is water) and then gradually progressed to a more mature and wise form is egregiously false, as the practice of returning to the great predecessors has always been a driving force in philosophy – a force that has not necessarily propelled philosophy further or higher, but rather deeper and deeper. Progress in philosophy has largely been a retrograde movement generating new insights in the process of rediscovery of what was already known. If this is true for Plato or Aristotle, who in addition to their revolutionary ideas made some downright comical claims, we should approach Thales in a similar manner, treating him as the bona fide father of philosophy who certainly was not lacking in intelligence, or indeed genius. Furthermore, philosophy was but one of his diverse interests as he was also highly respected for his pioneering work in mathematics and astronomy. Thus, if Thales is not deemed a naive mathematician by the history of mathematics, and if his contemporaries revered him as a sagacious thinker, then perhaps one should presume that his philosophy was also of the highest order. Therefore, before dismissing Thales as ingenuous, it would seem fair to try and look at him in a way that would do justice to the high esteem he enjoyed among his fellow Greeks in antiquity.

This essay constitutes such an attempt. Even if the presented interpretation is not immune to criticism (although it does not seem to be particularly controversial, either), the overall picture shows Thales as a respectable founder of philosophy who set the horizon for all future human endeavor that came to be known as (un)reciprocated love of wisdom. Only such an ←10 | 11→interpretation, recognizing that Thales’ presence continues to be felt to a greater or lesser degree in philosophies so distant in space and time as those comprising twentieth-century thought, can legitimize our calling him the father of philosophy.

It is rather astonishing that philosophers and historians of philosophy have not given Thales more consideration. There is often little time for Thales as one hurries on to discuss the more important presocratics, such as Parmenides or Heraclitus. When writing a history of ancient philosophy, it is perhaps difficult to dwell on Thales while anticipating the chapters on Plato and Aristotle. Thus, the intellectual potential that could be used to explore Thales’ thought usually ends up diverted to other ends. Not more than fifty papers and four books (of which two are editions of testimony about the Milesian, and only the other two, by Panchenko and O’Grady, attempt a comprehensive account of his work) have been devoted to Thales to date, which amounts to very little as compared to the literature dealing with the other presocratics. Nevertheless, an overview of existing research on Thales (which is one of the objectives of this book) attests to his reputation as a truly extraordinary thinker who sparked inspirations enduring to this day and whose genius looms even larger given the scarcity of available information.

Thus, it would be in vain to offer excuses claiming that almost nothing can be said about Thales for dearth of source materials. The fact that only a few shreds of Thales’ thought survive does not necessarily result from the destructive effects of time on existing testimony. Thales was generally a man of very few words, laconic as the Laconians (or Spartans) were said to be:

This is how you’ll see that what I say is true, that the Spartans have the best education and the greatest skill with words: if you meet the most ordinary Spartan, for most of the conversation he strikes you as a dull fellow, and then, no matter what you are talking about, he flings in some memorable, brief, pithy saying like a skillful javelin-thrower, making the man he is talking to look no more than a child. Now there are some, both of earlier times and of our own day, who have seen that admiration of Sparta is much more a matter of learning than of gymnastics, and who know that the ability to utter sayings of that kind is the mark of a perfectly educated man. Thales of Miletus was one.3

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Thus, whatever fragmentary sources we have may not be very different from what Thales’ contemporaries knew about him. Diogenes Laërtius presented him as the author of several terse and pithy expressions rather than a systemic thinker who would pour his philosophy into the vessel of voluminous treatises. Living in Miletus at his time, we might have known of Thales little more than we do today. Indeed, Thales’ strength lay in his laconic style and we can just as well celebrate it in our interpretations, the way his contemporaries did.4 There is little point in throwing up our hands at the limited testimony about his philosophy, as its laconic nature may actually reflect the laconism of Thales himself.

Nevertheless, irrespective of how we explain the scarcity of sources on Thales’ philosophy: whether we attribute it to the ravages of time or to his preferred way of expression, the issue of interpretation will not get any easier, although perhaps we will be relieved of a historian’s anguish caused by working with incomplete records. One thing is certain: the scarcity of source materials on Thales does not mean that he should be brushed off, as it sometimes regrettably happens, since that would amount to forsaking the beginning of philosophy – an issue of fundamental importance for the discipline and for its ability to engage in self-reflection. Given that beginning is one of the meanings of the word arché, if philosophy is to be truly the study of the first principles and of itself, the issue of its origin – of Thales – should be considered essential. Therefore, in this book, Thales is treated both in a historical and a philosophical manner. Quite understandably, most researchers strive to reconstruct the historical truth about Thales, which is also what I do to the extent possible. On the other hand, the various extant pieces of evidence about Thales, which are often difficult to assess in terms of their accuracy, attest to the way European thought remembers itself and its beginnings. Thus, the testimony about Thales is, at the same time, the testimony about the self-awareness of European thought. From this perspective, the question arises as to how faithful that ←12 | 13→testimony is not only to the Milesian; indeed, it may be faithful to philosophy itself and to its reflection in the mirror held up to it by Thales; it may be regarded as a faithful image of philosophy both in its origin and in its self-reflection. Therefore, Thales is significant not merely as a historical figure, whose life should be thoroughly re-created to the extent permitted by the available evidence. He is also significant as a Thales remembered, and for us, who set out to elucidate the beginnings of European thought, the image of a remembered Thales is just as important as a historical reconstruction of his person. On the one hand, Thales, or rather the traces that he left, are the subject of a scholarly archaeology of sorts, which makes every effort to reveal the truth about the founding figure of European reflection. On the other hand, they are the subject of philosophical archaeology aimed at discovering the initial driving force of philosophy and establishing what part of it has remained in its bloodstream across the successive ages of European thought. Therefore, my inquiry is not limited to who Thales was and what he achieved, but it encompasses the question as to who the Thales remembered continues to be for philosophy, or how philosophy perceives itself.

Given the scarcity and rather poor reliability of sources on Thales and his thought, we should be all the more aware of the context in which he put forward his propositions, the context that may flesh them out and elevate them to the status of well-reasoned theses which did not emerge out of thin air, but arose as a historical necessity to play a well-defined role in the history of thinking. Indeed, the study of the subsequent texts by Plato and Aristotle does not seem to be the only appropriate method of elucidating the beginnings of philosophy despite Gadamer’s opinion to the contrary: “The crucial thing in my lectures on the Presocratics is that I begin neither with Thales nor with Homer nor do I begin with the Greek language in the second century before Christ; I begin instead with Plato and Aristotle. This, in my judgment, is the sole philosophical access to an interpretation of the Presocratics. Everything else is historicism without philosophy.”5 That is not so in my judgment. First of all, beginning with ←13 | 14→Aristotle and Plato is a mere platitude rather than a revolutionary approach: no one who interprets the Presocratics can do without them because they provide some of the major sources of knowledge about the former. Second, the weakness of that hermeneutic method is most evident when, having begun with a very selective reading of Aristotle and Plato, Gadamer returns to the Presocratics, including Thales; all he can say about them is an assortment of incongruous remarks, as shall be demonstrated further on. While any student of the Presocratics by and large starts with Aristotle and Plato, it is essential to make sure that one’s interpretation reflects the spirit of the age it concerns. In reference to Gadamer’s hermeneutics, it would seem equally philosophical (or perhaps even more so) to ask what enabled Thales to utter the sentence that originated philosophy. What made possible a leap from the absence of philosophy to a state of firmly grounded reflection? What was it like to pronounce the first philosophical sentence without the backing of a philosophical tradition? This issue is much larger than reconstructing the exact words of Thales. Plato and Aristotle represent a philosophy that had already become highly speculative, possessed of sophisticated concepts, and perhaps no longer able to capture its beginnings, which may have eluded those concepts. After all, Plato and Aristotle were separated from Thales by the space of two centuries and they certainly did not have direct access to his texts. Judging from the Stagirite’s cautious remark, “Thales also from what is recalled about him, seems to have supposed...,”6 for him too the Milesian was an enigma. This puts us in a similar position to that of Aristotle, which means that the extent of his knowledge about Thales is not a crucial point of reference. A perfectly valid analysis of the content of Thales’ teachings in a broader cultural-philosophical-mythological context does not have to imply slavish adherence to the Stagirite. Both Aristotle and Plato were aware of the chasm between them and the wise men of old, as clearly stated by the author of the Symposium. And it is none other than Plato and Aristotle (to whom we would be limited if Gadamer were to have his way) ←14 | 15→who urge us to plunge into the period preceding their writings – a period that was already remote and obscure in their time.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (April)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 182 pp., 5 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Artur Przybysławski (Author)

Artur Przybysławski works as a full professor in the Department of Comparative Studies of Civilizations at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland. He deals with Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and ancient philosophy. He is the author of several monographs and many translations, as well as of two novels.


Title: Thales and the Beginnings of European Reflection