As early Greek civilization grew more complex (c. 500 b.c.e.), mythology and religion began to develop into philosophy (and later into science). As part of this development, a new kind of thinker emerged known as a sophos, from the Greek word for “wise.” These “wise men,” and they were almost exclusively men, asked increasingly sophisticated questions about all sorts of things, especially natural processes and the origins and essence of life. Although mythology and religion continued to play important roles in the lives of people for centuries to come, these first philosophers were noted for their attempts to use reason and observation to figure out how the world works.
Instead of living a “normal life,” the sophos devoted himself to asking questions that so-called normal people thought had already been answered (by religion and mythology) or were unanswerable (and thus a waste of time). In respect to public perceptions, it didn’t help that the sophos lived and spoke in ways that were interpreted as showing disregard and possibly disrespect for conventional values, and that set him or (infrequently) her apart from “regular folks” living “normal” lives. It is hardly surprising, then, that one of the earliest popular images of philosophers is the stereotype of an odd, “absent-minded,” starry-eyed dreamer and asker of silly questions. The very first Western thinkers identified as philosophers were initially concerned with questions about the nature of nature (physis) and of the “world order” (kosmos).
Presocratic Rational Discourse
The earliest Western philosophers are referred to as the Presocratics because they appeared prior to Socrates, the first major figure in the Western philosophical tradition. Some of the Presocratic philosophers are described as proto-scientists because they initiated the transformation of mythology into rational inquiry about nature and the cosmos. A very general characterization of the development of Presocratic philosophy is helpful for placing subsequent philosophical issues and disagreements in context. Of most interest for our purposes is the Presocratic philosophers’ struggle to offer rational, “objective” arguments and explanations for their views. These concerns played a major role in the origins and historical development of Western philosophy. The first philosophers’ intense interest in explanations shaped the development of reason by triggering questions of logical consistency and standards of knowledge that went beyond the sorts of evidence that a craftsman could offer to back up his claims to expertise.
The Presocratic Philosophers
Thales (c. 624–545 b.c.e.), traditionally said to be the first Western philosopher, seems to have believed that water is in some way central to our understanding of things. This concept was probably based upon a belief that the earth floated on water, and that all things originate with water. Current opinion holds that Thales believed that whatever is real is in some significant sense ‘‘alive.’’ According to Aristotle, Thales ‘‘thought that all things are full of gods,’’ and as evidence of such powers even in apparently inanimate nature he points to the remarkable properties of what was referred to as the ‘‘Magnesian stone’’. Although Aristotle’s statement is too slight to serve as a sure foundation for judgment, it seems more likely that Thales was arguing for the broader presence of life forces in the world than most people imagined, rather than that the real in its totality is alive.
Thales’ younger contemporary from Miletus, Anaximander, born toward the end of the seventh century B.C.E., found the explanatory principle of things in what he called ‘‘the apeiron,’’ a word that might be translated as ‘‘the indefinite,’’ ‘‘the boundless,’’ or both. This opens up the possibility that the apeiron is both immeasurably large in its temporal and physical extent and also...