Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Philosophy 101 - Week 1 - Thales' Method of Knowing

Discuss what makes Thales' method of knowing distinctly philosophical as opposed to mythology and religion.

Mythology and religion explained earthly and celestial events by attribution to the gods such as found in Hesiod's Theogony, which explained the creation of the world and natural events as being caused by the gods. By contrast, Thales' method for explaining natural phenomena changed the narrative from myth to empirical observation. Patricia O’Grady notes, "Thales would have recognized evaporation, and have been familiar with traditional views, such as the nutritive capacity of mist and ancient theories about spontaneous generation, phenomena which he may have ‘observed’".

Thales' idea to not default to the traditional, myth-based narrative, and instead, to hypothesize on the causes of events based on real world observation, fundamentally changed how the ancients philosophized about the natural world. Instead of purely mythical causes, Thales could point to undeniable natural events and ascribe the process to a hypothesis, which could then debated and refined. In sum, he gained knowledge through observation and reasoning as opposed to a revelation based (i.e. from reading a poet such as Hesiod) tradition or myth.

Furthermore, he leveraged this way of learning to prove his point to others. Through observation of the stars, Thales was able to predict that the olive crop was going to be bounteous. His foresight allowed him to corner the market on all the olive presses and when the harvest came, he owned and controlled the production. He did not ascribe the cause of the bumper crop to the gods, but rather to inquiry of natural events.

Patricia Curd succinctly sums up this fundamental change in philosophizing when she notes, "Aristotle is confident that Thales belongs, even if honorifically, to that group of thinkers that he calls “inquirers into nature” and distinguishes him from earlier poetical “myth-makers.” In Book I of Metaphysics, Aristotle claims that the earliest of these, among whom he places the Milesians, explained things only in terms of their matter (Met. I.3 983b6–18)".


O’Grady, P. (n.d.). Thales of Miletus (c. 620 B.C.E.—c. 546 B.C.E.). Internet encyclopedia of philosophy.

Curd, Patricia, "Presocratic Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

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