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The birth of philosophy

Dan Sportiello | Thursday, December 9, 2010

Philosophy was born two centuries before Aristotle when Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse. The Lydians and the Medes, locked in combat at the River Halys, looked to the suddenly darkened sky and ended their warfare, declaring the river the border between their two nations. As the light returned to the sky, so was a light enkindled on earth — albeit a light of a very different kind: changes in the world — and even changes in the sky — were not the arbitrary will of the gods. They were, on the contrary, governed by an inviolable order — and, when a man came to understand that order, he could predict them. For the first time in human history, a man had traded the subjective for the objective — seeing the world not from within the perspective of a given moment but rather from that of the eternal. For the first time in human history, a man had become as a god — had stolen the divine fire of knowledge of things as they will be. Though it would, in the darker ages to come, dim considerably, this fire would never again go out.

This is, of course, juvenile romanticism. If Thales in fact made any prediction at all, he did so on the basis of knowledge that any Babylonian astronomer had at his fingertips — and “as regards solar eclipses,” Russell reports, “they were hampered by the fact that an eclipse may be visible in one place and not in another. Consequently they could only know that at such and such a date it was worth while to look out for an eclipse.” The knowledge of Thales was only that an eclipse may occur at a certain time; that it did occur was just luck. And the fact that, despite his prediction, the Lydians and Medes took the eclipse for a sign of divine disfavor shows that whatever light Thales had been kindled was, as yet, not particularly bright.

Even so, there is something profound in the prediction of Thales — if that prediction is taken not in itself but rather as symbolic of the conditions necessary for it. Thales was not the first to predict an eclipse, but it seems that he was the first to realize that the very possibility of such prediction — that is, the very possibility of knowledge — required the world to be a certain way: it had to be unstable enough such that it changed, yet it had to be stable enough such that such changes were ordered — and, thus, predictable. The world, in other words, had to be a cosmos — a system the parts of which interacted over time according to certain laws — if knowledge of it was to be so much as possible. If the world were otherwise, change would be either arbitrary or illusory — and, either way, its prediction would be impossible.

Insofar as this was the achievement of Thales, it deserves indeed to be called the birth of philosophy. That this was the achievement of Thales is rendered plausible by the fact that Thales was the first to move beyond myth and speculate as to the principles of things: all things, he apparently held, are really just water — such that the change of one thing into another is really just condensation and rarefaction acting upon that water. This is, Russell quips, “discouraging to the beginner, who is struggling — perhaps not very hard — to feel that respect for philosophy which the curriculum seems to expect.” But as a philosophical hypothesis — or, at any rate, a paradigm for philosophical hypotheses — it is breathtaking: beneath the apparently limitless diversity of things are a limited number of principles, all of which one can come to understand.

“If we lived on a planet where nothing ever changed,” Sagan notes, “there would be little to do. There would be nothing to figure out. There would be no impetus for science. And if we lived in an unpredictable world, where things changed in random or very complex ways, we would not be able to figure things out. Again, there would be no such thing as science. But we live in an in-between universe, where things change, but according to patterns, rules, or, as we call them, laws of nature.” Any science, it is clear, presupposes these two elements — that of change and that of stability. We can, to this extent, know the metaphysical structure of the world as soon as we can know anything at all. If we have a claim to divine fire, it is this.


Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on WVFI. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.