All is water
Thales’ analytic reasoning was a stark departure from mythic accounts of the world (which, all the same, continue to have great power today). If we take an analytic approach to the universe, we find two sorts of entities in it: kinds of things that can be grouped and counted as individuals and kinds of things that be divided and measured as units. Rocks, human beings, days and nights, and rainbows are all ideas of individual things that have separate existence from one another and can be enumerated. Money, life, justice, happiness, and humanity, on the other hand are ideas of a more general character. Sure we can distinguish different instances of them, but they do not appear to us as distinct individuals. We have to single some aspect of them out in order to have an instance. That is, here is one dollar and here is a quarter, but where is money? The idea of money is not the sort that belongs to a single individual. It is a general and abstract concept.
In the history of philosophy, Thales is well known for his seemingly strange thesis that “All is water.” As Aristotle recounts it;
One important observation to make about this thesis is that Thales is proposing an explanation for the ultimate nature of reality that is not dependent upon supernatural entities. Odd as it sounds to us, the claim “All is water” or “everything is made out of water” is a purely analytic account. This is very different from the various mythic explanations of the origin of existence (many of which involve both gods and water).
Another interesting observation is that in water, Thales had identified a substance with special qualities. Water is a unified concept that tends more to the abstract and general than the concrete and individual. In saying that “all is water” Thales may be saying that all of existence is a unified whole and that the basic principle of all pervades everything.
Thales took an analytic approach to the universe. Perhaps in his thesis that “All is water” he is seeking a way to say that abstract ideas are the more basic aspects of reality. Water is not a fully abstract idea for us today, it is a material substance. Yet, water bears many of the features of an abstract idea. When we say that the earth is 3/4 covered with water, we do not mean that there are many individual waters that group together. Water is a unified substance that is measured by being divided. When we say that about 60% of the human body consists of water, it is not to say point out individual units, as opposed say to ten fingers, two eyes, and so on. When we wonder whether there is water on Mars we are not distinguishing that water from our own water. The water we seek is of a unified concept.
The abstract character of the “all is water” thesis is consistent with Thales’ departure from mythic accounts of reality. Mythic thinking is characterized, in part, by the attribution of causes to individual supernatural individuals. When Archilochus attributed the solar eclipse to the actions of Zeus and when Amos attributed the solar eclipse to Yaweh, they were producing an individuated account of the universe. The deity is separate from nature and an individual unto itself. Thales is appealing to a general principle and a cause that is not separate from nature at all.
The ability to think in general and abstract terms is a powerful feature of human consciousness (though it is not the only way to think). In his thesis; “All is water” it may well be that Thales was promoting an abstract approach to thinking about the composition and nature of reality. If my interpretation is correct, then Thales was to be in good intellectual company (albeit, a few hundred years after his death). Socrates and Plato were to make a major point about the difference of individuals and abstract ideas in the third century B.C.E. Aristotle built his metaphysic upon criticisms of Plato’s views, and so Western Philosophy was on its way. The problem of the one and the many, as it is sometimes called, has continued to be an unresolved issue to the present.