early philosophers

The Search for First Principles

Imagine being so important that historians would divide periods of time according to your name. Everything before you were born was just “prehistory”; the really important events don’t get started until your life begins. Our way of talking about history awards this honor to very few people. Off the top of my head I can think of just three cases where “prehistory” is named according to a person: Before Christ in history itself, pre-Raphaelite in Renaissance art, and pre-Socratic in philosophy.

As the name pre-Socratic suggests, philosophers before Socrates tend to be seen as unimportant. They are lumped together as mere philosophical stage-setting, like the sound of an orchestra tuning before a concert: perhaps nice for setting the mood, but quickly forgotten once the main event begins. The dismissive attitude toward the pre-Socratics is maintained by the surface-level absurdity of their theories: Thales thought everything was water, Anaximenes disagreed and said it was air, Xenophanes said all things must be both earth and water, and Heraclitus claimed fire. Obviously, these early conclusions were rightly abandoned.

And yet, when I teach the history of philosophy, I try to stick up for this plucky bunch of upstart thinkers. For example, history remembers Thales of Miletus as the very first philosopher because he asked a new kind of question about the world. Greek sages before Thales explained the world through the lens of mythology. We are all familiar to some degree with these mythological accounts: evil exists because Pandora opened a box, humans have fire because Prometheus stole it from Zeus, etc. Thales was unsatisfied with these kind of answers about the way the world is, not because he is an atheist who rejects the possibility of divinity (after all, Aristotle recalls that Thales believed “all things are full of gods” [De Anima I.5 411a7-8]), but rather because Thales recognized that mythic stories don’t reveal the deepest ‘why’ of things. We might say that Thales’ new question was what does reality turn out to be when we start thinking about it rationally?

Thales’ new question kicked off an investigation into what Plato would come to call “really real reality” (Phaedrus 247c7). I have on my desk a cup of coffee—what is it really? We may then debate whether my coffee cup is really painted ceramic, bosons and fermions, or something else. Never mind the answer—simply to ask this kind of question at all is already an achievement, for to ask it raises a new kind of inquiry, namely, into what philosophers call the coffee cup’s first principle (Greek: arche). What is it that makes this coffee cup what it is, and not, say, a whistle or a hat? As far as we know, Thales was the first person to have asked this kind of question.

Now, Thales thought that the first principle or arche of all material things was water. Absurd? Perhaps. Still, notice that he bases his view on premises that don’t depend on belief in mythology or a certain narrative. After all, water (or at least moisture) is found everywhere there is life. What better indicates that something is alive than the fact that it moves? And, all things seem to move, so perhaps all things have a degree of life. If so, evidently all things have water in them. Moreover, while other things seem to come into and go out of existence, water does not: it simply changes its appearance into steam, humidity, clouds, ice, etc. Perhaps water has a special kind of permanence, to say nothing of its ability to change into things that look nothing like itself.

As strange as Thales’ reasoning sounds to us—privileged as we are to have a bit of scientific knowledge—there remains something very contemporary about his basic insight. Knowing what something is means knowing its deepest origin, its arche. Consciously or not, we are often inclined in this direction, whether we are adopting a pet, learning more about ourselves, or grappling with our religious or national identity. Moreover, knowing the arche of a thing is helpful for knowing its telos—that is, its final goal or purpose. If we know where something comes from, we’re better informed as to where it is headed. Thales, I believe, was on the right track when he cautions us to avoid the easy answers of mythology, which in modern times look more like self-gratifying narratives or convenient propaganda. Instead, we should take up the philosopher’s—even the pre-Socratic philosopher’s—challenge to search for first principles.

Wesley Bergen is a Theology teacher at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia and a Ph.D. Candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He holds a Masters of Arts in Philosophy from Loyola Marymount University and an MPhil from The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Scroll to Top