Introduction to Philosophy/Origins of Philosophy


Bust of the philosopher Socrates. Roman copy of Greek original (c.380-360 BC)



The term philosophy is derived from the Greek words phylos meaning "to love" and sophie meaning "wisdom".

Introduction to Philosophy


In the Phaedo, Socrates says that philosophy is a preparation for the death that awaits us all. When the mind is engaged in philosophy it is free of concerns and dwells in the domain of ideas. Our minds enter a spiritual region transcending the death of our corporeal experience. Another, better known, view of Socrates is that of philosophy as ‘the love of wisdom’. This love discovers truth, and we become wise by practical application in our daily lives of what has been discovered.

These definitions highlight the nature of philosophical inquiry. Philosophers ask questions. These questions try to understand the metaphysical and physical universe including humans and their world



The history of philosophy in the west begins with the Greeks, and particularly with a group of philosophers commonly called the pre-Socratics. This is not to deny the occurrence of other pre-philosophical rumblings in Egyptian and Babylonian cultures. Certainly great thinkers and writers existed in each of these cultures, and we have evidence that some of the earliest Greek philosophers may have had contact with at least some of the products of Egyptian and Babylonian thought. However, the early Greek thinkers added at least one element which differentiates their thoughts from all those who came before them. For the first time in history, we discover in their writings something more than dogmatic assertions about the ordering of the world - we find reasoned arguments for various beliefs about the world.



Thales (in Greek: Θαλης) of Miletus (circa 624 BC - 546 BC), also known as Thales the Milesian, was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. Many regard him as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition. He has also been traditionally considered the father of science, although it is also contended that the beginnings of science may be traced to Ancient Egypt.


Thales lived in the city of Miletus, in Ionia, now western Turkey. According to Herodotus, he was of Phoenician descent.

The well-traveled Ionians had many dealings with Egypt and Babylon; Thales may have studied in Egypt as a young man. In any event, Thales almost certainly had exposure to Egyptian mythology, astronomy, and mathematics, as well as to other traditions alien to the Homeric traditions of Greece. Perhaps because of this, his inquiries into the nature of things extends beyond traditional mythology.

Several anecdotes suggest that Thales was not solely a thinker; he was involved in business and politics. One story recounts that he bought all the olive presses in Miletus after predicting the weather and a good harvest for a particular year. Another version of this same story states that he bought the presses to demonstrate to his fellow Milesians that he could use his intelligence to enrich himself. Herodotus recorded that Thales advised the city-states of Ionia to form a federation.

Thales is said to have died in his seat, while watching an athletic contest.

Theories and influence

Before Thales, the Greeks explained the origin and nature of the world through myths of anthropomorphic gods and heroes. Phenomena like lightning or earthquakes were attributed to the actions of the gods.

By contrast, Thales attempted to find naturalistic explanations of the world, without reference to the supernatural. He explained earthquakes by imagining that the Earth floats on water and that earthquakes occur when the Earth is rocked by waves. Herodotus cites him as having predicted the solar eclipse of 585 BC that put an end to the fighting between the Lydians and the Medes.

Thales's most famous belief was his cosmological doctrine, which held that the world originated from water. It is sometimes assumed that Thales considered everything to be made from water. According to others, however, it's likely that while Thales saw water as an origin, he never pondered whether water continued to be the substance of the world.

Many philosophers followed Thales's lead in searching for explanations in nature rather than in the supernatural; others returned to supernatural explanations, but couched them in the language of philosophy rather than myth or religion.

Thales is credited for having first popularized Geometry to ancient Greek culture, mainly that of spatial relationships.

The best explanation of Thales's view is the following passage from Aristotle's Metaphysics (983 BC). The passage is given in translation with key phrases transliterated from the Greek for the reader's benefit. The reader will see in the transliteration words from the theory of matter and form that were adopted by science with quite different meanings. The translation is somewhat literal, for purposes of accuracy.

"That from which is everything that exists (ta onta) and from which it first becomes (ex hou gignetai protou) and into which it is rendered at last (eis ho phtheiretai teleutaion), its substance remaining under it (tes men ousias hypomenouses), but transforming in qualities (pathesi metaballouses), that they say is the element (stoicheion) and principle (archen) of things that are (ton onton)."

And again:

"For it is necessary (dei) that there be some nature (physin), either one or more than one, from which become (gignetai) the other things (t'alla) of the object being preserved (sozomenes ekeines)... Thales says that it is water (hydor)."

Aristotle's depiction of the change problem and the definition of substance could not be more clear. If an object changes, is it the same or different? In either case how can there be a change (metabollein) from one to the other? The answer is the substance (ousia or physis), which "is saved", but acquires or loses different qualities (pathe, the things you "experience").

A deeper dip into the waters of the theory of matter and form is properly reserved to other articles. The question for this article is, how far does Aristotle reflect Thales? He was probably not far off, and Thales was probably an incipient matter-and-formist.

The essentially non-philosophic DL states that Thales taught as follows:

"Water constituted (hypestesato, "stood under") the principle of all things."

Heraclitus Homericus (Quaes. Hom. 22, not the same as Heraclitus of Ephesus) states that Thales drew his conclusion from seeing moist substance (hygra physis) turn into air, slime and earth. It seems clear that Thales viewed the Earth as solidifying from the water on which it floated and which surrounded it as Ocean.

Thales applied his method to objects that changed to become other objects, such as water into earth (he thought). But what about the changing itself? Thales did address the topic, approaching it through magnets and amber--which, when electrified by rubbing, attracts in the same way.

How was the power to move other things without the mover’s changing to be explained? Thales saw a commonality with the powers of living things to act. The magnet and the amber must be alive, and if that were so, there could be no difference between the living and the dead. When asked why he didn’t die if there was no difference, he replied “because there is no difference.”

Aristotle defined the soul as the principle of life, that which permeates the matter and makes it live, giving it the animation, or power to act. The idea did not originate with him, as the Greeks in general believed in the distinction between mind and matter, which was ultimately to lead to a distinction not only between body and soul but also between matter and energy.

If things were alive, they must have souls. This belief was no innovation, as the ordinary ancient populations of the Mediterranean did believe that natural actions were caused by divinities. Accordingly, the sources say that Thales believed all things possessed divinities. In their zeal to make him the first in everything they said he was the first to hold the belief, which even they must have known was not true.

However, Thales was looking for something more general, a universal substance of mind. That also was true to the polytheism of the times. Zeus was the very personification of supreme mind, dominating all the subordinate manifestations. From Thales on, however, philosophers had a tendency to depersonify or objectify mind, as though it were the substance of animation per se and not actually a god like the other gods. The end result was a total removal of mind from substance, opening the door to a non-divine principle of action. This tradition persisted until Einstein, whose cosmology is quite a different one and does not distinguish between matter and energy.

Classical thought, however, had proceded only a little way along that path. Instead of referring to the person, Zeus, they talked about the great mind:

"Thales", says Cicero, "assures that water is the principle of all things; and that God is that Mind which shaped and created all things from water." (Cicero:"De Nat.Deorum,"i.,10.)

The universal mind appears as a Roman belief in Vergil as well:

"In the beginning, SPIRIT within strengthens Heaven and Earth,
The watery fields, and the lucid globe of Lina, and then --
Titan stars; and mind infused through the limbs
Agitates the whole mass, and mixes itself with GREAT MATTER"
(Virgil: "Aeneid," vi., 724 ff.)



Socrates (c.470 – 399 BC) (Greek Σωκράτης Sōkrátēs) was a Greek (Athenian) philosopher.

Like Thales and the other pre-Socratics, Socrates too had the ambition to ask questions of life. However, where the pre-Socratics were more concerned with the cosmological questions, Socrates was concerned with questions of the following nature: What is piety? What kind of life is worthwhile for a human to live? Can virtue be taught? What is justice? Is there more than one's virtue? What is human excellence?

Socrates did not actually write any of these ideas down. The only written information about his philosophy can be found in the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon. These dialogues deal mostly with questions of the good life, human excellence, and the cultivation of knowledge. One of Plato's most important and best known works is "The Republic" in which we find the allegory of The Cave that explains the difference between perceived reality and "real" reality which, according to Plato, can only be found in the realm of ideas. More: Greek Philosophy: Socrates