Origins of Western Thought
An excellent and concise introduction to Presocratic philosophy.
Use the links to explore concepts and individuals. When reading,
work to form and idea of how Thales fits into the history and how
his ideas compare to other Presocratics.
An outstanding article by Patricia O'Grady. This
is well worth reading thoughtfully.
Wikipedia article with several useful links to important
Eclipse of reason
Mythic thought and analytic thought
The term Mythic Thought is descriptive of a way of understanding
that is older than all of recorded history. Mythic thought is a way of
explaining facts in the world by relating stories involving supernatural
agencies with human-like qualities. In contemporary language, the word
has a connotation of a false belief or illusion. This negative evaluation
is not important to our consideration here at all. Mythic thinking remains
a widely held mode of explaining the world today. Indeed, narratives that
explain reality via divine action might be important aspects of the belief
systems of people reading this passage right now. I emphasize that the
present exegesis is not claiming that mythic thinking is erroneous or
that mythic narrative accounts of reality are false. Such a thesis can
be maintained and is worth arguing, but that is not at all the purpose
of this piece. Rather, by distinguishing mythic thought from analytic
thought we are able to characterize two different ways of approaching
reality. Thales is distinguished from his contemporaries because he departed
from their mythic accounts of reality and sought analytic explanations
For instance, Thales correctly predicted the occurrence of a total solar
eclipse. We do not know how he achieved this, but he was a master of astronomy,
geometry, and mathematics, so he had the necessary tools. The crucial
point is that Greek culture already had a conventional explanation for
solar eclipses. The poet Archilochus, who was contemporary to Thales,
|“Nothing there is beyond hope nothing can be sworn impossible
nothing wonderful. Since Zeus father of Olympians made night from
mid-day hiding the light of the shining-sun and sore fear upon man.”
This Greek account is similar to that given in the Hebrew book of Amos
from roughly the same period in history.
|“And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord GOD,
that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the
earth in the clear day.” (Amos, 8:9).
Most cultures have mythical
accounts explaining the phenomena of the solar eclipse. In many cases
the implication of an eclipse is a divine anger that must be appeased.
Mythic thought provides explanations for the way things are through stories
supported by tradition that invoke a supernatural agency with human-like
qualities. Knowing the story, and perhaps what one should do in response
to the story, is a sufficient understanding of the world for the mythic
Please note again that by speaking of supernatural accounts of the natural
world I am not saying that they are false or spurious. The word “myth”
has a negative connotation in contemporary language. For the present consideration
I am fully willing to accept the possibility that a solar eclipse is caused
by a deity removing the sun from the sky. Indeed, some cultures including
Greeks regarded the sun and moon as gods, thereby adding greater force
to the mythic account. The important point is that Thales provides an
alternate way of thinking about natural phenomena. According to Aetius;
|“Thales says that the eclipses of the sun take place when
the moon passes across it in a direct line. Since the moon is earthly
in character, and it seems to the eye to be laid on the disc of the
Thales provides a purely naturalistic account which is based on an analysis
of the objects involved (i.e. sun, moon, light, eye). Thales makes no
mention of supernatural beings in his explanation.
Morever, Thales views his sort of account as having practical value: he
is able to make predictions of events that have impact on human affairs.
No one would have dared to predict the actions of the gods, an eclipse
is an occasion to fear and appease the divine agent. Thales provides a
very different approach in which natural phenomena have natural causes
and practical uses. This is why Thales is consider to be at the cutting
edge of the origin of science.
Again, many people today hold books of sacred scriptures to be literal
and accurate accounts of
the origins and nature of reality. On that view, where the book says that
an eclipse is caused by god removing the sun from the sky out of anger,
that is precisely what has happened and no other explanation is needed.
That form of thinking remains powerful today, especially in the United
States. In the seventh century B.C.E. Thales provided an alternative way
of thinking; once based in analysis, methods of demonstration, and with
practical implications. The method of Thales has one main advantage: it
can be tested. This is the difference between the mythical and analytic
ways of thinking. Philosophy grew out of the analytic mode of thought.
Next - learn more about concrete
thought and abstract thought