How many of us could give a rough overview of the history of philosophy? Part 1: Thales to Socrates

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Posted May 20 2016 by Dave Darby of
thales Thales of Miletus

It may seem like a strange question from an environmental organisation. But the way that we think nowadays didn’t just fall from the sky – it’s not ‘common sense’ and it hasn’t always been the same. We’re not born with a worldview – it’s something that we develop from what’s gone before. The problems facing us today, especially in terms of what’s happening to global ecology, mean that philosophy – critical thinking, wisdom – is what we need if we’re going to work out what to do and especially how to to live in harmony with nature. This is not an academic question – it’s crucial if we’re going to survive, and at the moment, we’re very far from living in harmony with nature, and headed in the wrong direction to achieve it. Political philosophy is required to work out the nuts and bolts of what to do, and philosophy generally to discuss what’s really important and why.


But the answer to the question, I think, is not very many. I don’t think that most people, by any stretch of the imagination, understand the outline of the history of philosophy – in other words, why we think the way that we do. In that case, it makes it easier for economics to trump philosophy, so that television presenters can look us in the eye and tell us that the only important thing is growth and more money. What else could be more important than that?

So I’m going to present a brief history of philosophy in a series of articles over the coming weeks, which will be stored in the ‘blog articles’ section, under ‘resources’ on the philosophy page.

I’m not an academic, but I don’t necessarily think that academics are the best people to give a broad sweep of the history of thinking. As a non-academic, I think I’m in a better position to define what ‘broad’ actually means, and to present it in an accessible way. The aim is to help more people to get an understanding of the broad sweep rather than drilling down into the minutiae. If you think I’ve made a mistake, let me know. If you convince me that I’ve missed out something crucial or got something wrong, I’ll change it. This might be a very reckless thing to do for someone who’s not an academic philosopher, but it also means that I have no academic career to be wrecked, so what the hell.

Ask anyone who’s ever read a beginner’s guide to philosophy to give you an outline of the history of philosophy – to guide you through the river of human thought since Thales. Very few people could do it, I think (philosophy graduates aside – and even then I’m not so sure). The history of philosophy is the history of ideas. Individual philosophers are the focus of the story, but someone else would have had those ideas eventually – they appeared when the circumstances were ripe. The true stars are the ideas.



Philosophers were all children of their own time, with very different ideas around gender, race, slavery and sexuality than are the norm today. It’s their legacy that’s important. Let’s understand how we got here, then we can focus on ideas as they pertain to the contemporary world. Relatively few philosophers have had ideas that changed the course of human history – and not all of them for the better. Let’s start with long before there was any thought of philosophy. The first hominids lived in the ‘Ouroboros‘ – a state of nature symbolised by a snake eating its own tail. The earliest humans would probably have approached life like other mammals, lving from day to day or from meal to meal, with no self-consciousness or deeper thoughts about existence than survival and reproduction.

The first cave art (around 40,000 years ago) is often thought of as a transition to the ‘magical age’, when humans became the first creatures to realise what they didn’t know. Although they would have been very attuned to their immediate surroundings, questions of why things were the way they were would probably have been explained by magic (although this is speculative). The fact that trees gave them fruit, and they could harvest meat and fish from the forests and the rivers would have been put down to magic. Paintings, sculptures and rituals would have nudged that magic in the direction of providing for them. At some point, perhaps around the time of the first Agricultural Revolution, 12,000 years ago, the magic crystallised into myth, and the great stories that form the basis of our religions. Myths dominated our understanding of the universe until Thales.


Around 600 BC (before the Buddha, Confucius or Lao Tzu), in what is now Turkey, someone called Thales went on record, for the first time in human history, to say that he was not prepared to accept a mythical explanation for the universe any more. I reject your myths, said Thales (well, not entirely), and I am going to use my own mind to try to rationally work out what the universe is. And I’m going to start a school to teach other people how to do the same.

It was a brave thing to do, because he was confronting powerful people who relied on those myths to justify their power. But it changed the course of human history. The way we think now has a direct lineage back to Thales. He was a genius – he had just the right blend of intelligence and imagination at just the right moment. He was the first known philosopher. Thales also made the first general statements about geometry – for example that if two straight lines cross, the opposite angles are equal. He wasn’t just talking about particular lines – but about all lines. It was the first time general statements like this had been made about lines, circles etc. His fame spread to Egypt, where he was invited to try to measure the vertical height of the pyramids, which he did by measuring the length of a pyramid’s shadow at the precise moment that the length of his own shadow was the same as his height – therefore the length of the pyramid’s shadow, plus half the base, was the height of the pyramid. Simple in hindsight, but genius at the time.

He was followed by the ‘natural philosophers’, who were obsessed with what matter consists of, but who lacked the experimental methods to find out. But at least people were challenging each other rather than passively accepting stories or myths. Thales’ own opinion on matter was that everything is ultimately made of water. Although this sounds ludicrous to modern ears, he based this idea on the fact that rivers deposit sediments that create more land (his home town of Miletus was a seaport in his day, but is now 10 miles inland). As a young man, he did a ‘grand tour’ to broaden his mind – not of Europe, but of Mesopotamia and Egypt, as was usual for well-bred young men of his time. The Tigris, Euphrates and Nile regularly flooded, and young Thales saw bubbles rising as vegetation began to rot underwater. And as some of the gas produced was methane, it could be ignited. So for Thales, it appeared that earth, air and fire were all delivered to us from water.

The natural philosophers



Others believed that everything was ultimately made from earth, or air, or fire. For almost 200 years, philosophers were obsessed with what the universe was made of. Heraclitus said everything constantly changes; Parmenides said that it only looked as though everything was constantly changing, but really, underneath, everything stayed exactly the same forever. With what we know today, we can provide interpretations to support them both. Evolution brings change and added complexity, but this ‘change’ is just rearrangement of matter that all came into existence with the Big Bang, and no more has been made since. Same stuff, but its perpetual rearrangement gives the impression of constant change.

For Empedocles, the universe was made up of four ‘elements’ – earth, air, fire and water, and that they never change – but the proportions of those four elements in any particular object are constantly changing. When something dies, its elements disperse into the soil or the air (or into the bodies of animals, and eventually excreted), and are then recombined to form something else. You could say that Empedocles made a synthesis of the ideas of Parmenides and Heraclitus that brought the two opposite ideas together and we could move on. 2,200 years later, Hegel said that humans have always used the thesis/antithesis/synthesis method to move forward (and he called it ‘dialectic’ – but more of that later).

The important thing about the natural philosophers was not that they were wrong, but that they could be challenged – in ways that the Gods and the religious myths could not. Democritus wasn’t wrong however, when he said that the four elements were made of atoms (greek for ‘indivisible’), and things looked the way they did because of the combination of an almost infinite number of atoms of each element. With the benefit of hindsight, we might call him a genius – but he had absolutely no way of knowing. His was just a lucky guess – but a very imaginative guess, and one that secured his place in history. But there were almost definitely lots of equally imaginative ideas that have been forgotten because they were way off the mark.

Two giants of this period were Euclid and Archimedes, whose work in geometry and mechanics respectively wouldn’t be surpassed for 2000 years. And even today, now that we have the Large Hadron Collider, and a deep understanding of atoms and sub-atomic particles, we still don’t know what those tiniest particles are made of’ – what the ‘stuff’ of the universe is. The questions that the natural philosophers were asking still haven’t been answered.




The sophists started the move away from this kind of thinking, saying that philosophy should be about humans – about how to live, rather than pointless speculation. The sophists were concerned with practical philosophy – how to think rationally and to base our actions on reason, rather than on myth, religion or speculation, to better ourselves and to better society. But they also saw that different societies had different gods, different myths and different morals, so they denied that morality was absolute. Just do what had to be done to ‘get on’ in this life – and philosophy could be manipulated to justify a range of different actions. This is why ‘sophistry’ is still a term of abuse in philosophical (and other) circles.

Next: Socrates, Plato & Aristotle.