Monday, January 12, 2015

Getting started


Maybe it would have been more appropriate to write my last blog about making a new start than about age. For isn’t it just the symbolic value of the New Year that mentally we start anew? Many people feel that this is the moment to change life, to throw away bad habits, to begin new projects, and so on, which is expressed in the custom of making New Year’s resolutions.
Everything has a beginning but most things do not begin from nothing. What we consider a new beginning is in many respects a continuation of what already existed. This is also true for philosophy. Nevertheless, most writers on the history of philosophy say that Western philosophy has a clear beginning, namely the Milesian school of philosophy, which has been founded in the sixth century BC. Even more, most of these sources talk about a first philosopher: Thales of Miletus, who lived about from 624-546 BC. One of them who regarded him as the first in the tradition of Greek – and we can now say “Western” – philosophy was Aristotle.
Not much is known about Thales. We do not know his exact dates, for instance. Thales was born in the city of Miletus, a Greek commercial town on the west coast of Minor Asia. He seems to have been a businessman and a politician and he has travelled to Egypt, from where he brought the science of geometry to the Greeks. Actually the only certain thing we know about his own philosophy is that he thought that water is the original substance of all matter and that the earth rests on water. These ideas would soon be pushed away by better ideas, although Thales’s ideas are not as bad as they seem on the face of it, if one considers how important water is in the world.
However, it is not these ideas that made Thales the father of philosophy but it is the way he thought about the world. For Thales did not fall back on religion when he expounded his philosophical ideas and when he explained nature, as was usual in his days, but he formulated them in philosophical terms and he explained natural phenomena by referring to other natural phenomena and by examining nature. By doing so he laid the foundations of modern philosophy and science and so he made a new start in the way we think.
Without a doubt Thales has been influenced by others. Then we think in the first place of the Babylonians and the Egyptian mathematicians. But is this a defect and does it make him less original? Of course not. If for developing every new idea we should have to start from a bare basis, we would come to nothing. Being original is often not a matter of developing completely new ideas but it is a matter of developing new perspectives and putting old things in other lights. That’s what Thales did and what makes him important in the first place. It made that philosophy became both a new way of thinking and a carrying on of what already had been done for such a long time. In the end the result was that many old ideas faded away and that they were superseded by ideas acquired by the newly developing approaches of philosophy and science as a kind of paradigm shift before this term had been developed by Thomas Kuhn. In this way going on is often getting started.

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