C. Ancient Philosophy: 1st Extract
The First Philosophers
Before we go on to discuss individual philosophers, there is an important general observation to be made that sets the tone of what is to follow. If one were to sum up the breakthrough made by the first philosophers, it would be in the idea that the basic structure of the universe conforms to reason. In this simple phrase is packed together much that explains the impulse to philosophise, the dizzying exhilaration that comes when one realizes that mere mortals such as ourselves have the power to inquire into the hidden nature of the universe.
Now in the idea that the universe conforms to reason, there are two quite different thoughts, which at first were not clearly distinguished. The first thought is this. If one attempts to work out the simplest and most economical arrangement of things in the universe, a unified account of the beginning of the world and of the basis of the processes and changes which we observe taking place around us, then that account has the greatest chance of being true. It is irrelevant what people thought in the past, the only question is what theory provides the best explanation, the explanation most satisfying to reason, or what is part and parcel of our capacity to reason our innate sense of order and simplicity. This is something which is so much taken for granted by scientists today, that one has to make a positive effort to recognize that it is based on a huge philosophical assumption. Why should the arrangement of things in the universe be the most reasonable one? Why should we hold that processes and changes necessarily take place according to fixed laws and principles, and cannot happen in a haphazard and arbitrary manner, even when they give every appearance of doing so?
What one can say in answer to this is that we do in fact succeed in predicting the outcomes of processes and changes, something which would be a mere fluke if their underlying mechanisms did not conform to laws. But there is another, deeper explanation embodied in a second thought which comes from the idea that the universe conforms to reason: the thought that certain basic features have to be a certain way and cannot be otherwise, if one considers the matter rationally. This thought goes beyond physics, beyond the attempt to work out the most probable arrangement of things in the world based on reason and experience; it is the germ of what was later to be called metaphysics. Given that the basic features of the world are rigidly bound by logic, there is further ground for believing that the world as we find it, in all its myriad detail, has a nature which is reasonable and predictable, rather than unreasonable and arbitrary.
One thing which many of the early Greek thinkers had in common was the belief that the universe is made of, or from a basic kind or kinds of stuff. Thales, who was active around 585 BC, and who is generally acknowledged to be the very first philosopher, is reported by Aristotle to have held that everything is ultimately made of water. Since, in common with the other early thinkers, Thales' doctrines survive only as they were quoted or paraphrased by others (and in Thales' case, we have the least material to work on), we ultimately have to trust such reports, although keeping an eye on possible alternative interpretations, and adjudicating between all-too frequent conflicting accounts. In this instance, we simply have to take Aristotle's word for it. According to his version of what Thales said, the world did not merely emerge from water, as traditional belief had maintained on the basis of the familiar observation of the ubiquitous role of water in physiology. On the contrary, everything we see and touch is, in some sense, really water.
If this is what Thales believed, it was a tremendously bold induction from the observed fact that water has the capacity to change into different forms such as ice and steam, and quite unprecedented. At a stroke, all that happens in the universe is given a unified explanation. However complicated and difficult to unravel some particular process might be, we can now think of it as consisting entirely of water changing from one state to another, or of things breaking down their old structural arrangements and forming new ones according to their ultimate watery nature.
Yet after the initial shock and wonder at such a bold and exciting hypothesis, one may begin to worry just what Thales could have meant by the claim that all things are 'really' water. The air we breathe, the trees and houses around us are 'really' water. The fire that we light to keep ourselves warm is 'really' water! Well, wouldn't someone who had lived all their life at the equator gaze at a chunk of ice, as a substance they had never seen before, in total disbelief that such material could possibly be water until it melted! On second thoughts, that would hardly settle the question: it does not follow logically from the fact that where there was ice there is now cold water that the ice and the water are the very same stuff. It is logically possible that when ice 'melts' a process takes place whereby ice-stuff is replaced by different water-stuff. That is to say, on some possible world, one might suppose, that is just what happens when ice melts: the ice goes out of existence and at the very same time and in the very same place water comes into existence. Yet on deeper reflection, just what is the difference between 'same' and 'different', or 'existence' and 'non-existence' here? What is identity? We have touched on one of the deepest and most perplexing questions of metaphysics.
Rather than get bogged down at this early stage, let us come at the question from a slightly different angle. Wood, air, metal, stone, fire, according to Thales, are all really water. What is the difference between saying that and saying as we shall see one of his close successors Anaximenes claimed that wood, metal, stone, fire, water are really air? or, as Heraclitus asserted, that wood, air, metal, stone, water are really fire? Aren't these philosophers all saying exactly the same thing: that everything is 'made' (whatever exactly that term means) of the same basic stuff, that undergoes changes into these different forms? Clearly, Thales must have meant something more. When we gaze at the sea or a glass of water we are seeing the one stuff that all things are made of in its truest, or most revealing form. All the other materials we encounter exist in a form which in some manner disguises their true nature. (The corresponding claim applies, of course, to the air of Anaximenes or the fire of Heraclitus.) In that case, more needs to be said by Thales about the unique properties of water, that justifies its being singled out in this way.
Meanwhile, no less impressive than his claim about water is a second inductive inference which Thales made: that the magnet moves iron because it has a 'soul'. Thales had noted similar effects with lumps of amber that had been rubbed on certain materials (now known as the process of 'electrostatic attraction'). He conjectured that these were different forms of the same universal process that also includes the power of the mind or soul to move the body. All things, he believed, the things we call 'inanimate' just as much as those we call 'animate', have, or are something over and above the inert stuff of which they are made. In some sense, every object possesses in one form or other its own power to move or change itself, or other things. In the memorable phrase reported by Aristotle, who may or may not have been quoting him directly, 'all things are full of gods' (instead of 'gods' one might equally put 'spirits'). Thales realized that a universe which was nothing other than different forms of one and the same inert stuff would have nothing to make it go. But rather than fall back on the facile explanation of an outside intelligence who takes the watery material and moulds it into various shapes and forms, and whose power is then needed to set the world in motion and make things move or change, Thales put the power of gods into the very things themselves.
Even if today we are sceptical about the simple identification of the power of mind to move the body with physical force, we should be wrong to accuse Thales of a primitive animism here. His thought was far more profound. He was not saying that when a magnet moves iron, the iron is somehow consciously 'alive' in the way that we are, but rather that when we think and act we merely exhibit in a more subtle form the forces that govern all natural things. It is in this light that we should view a saying of Thales, reported by Diogenes Laertius, that brings the views about water and souls into beautiful harmony: that 'mind is the quickest of all, for it runs through everything'. In the glass of clear liquid that we drink to quench our thirst we can see in its most perspicuous form the very soul of the universe.