What Contributions Did the Presocratics Make to the Early Development of Philosophy?

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  • Topic: Anaximander, Soul, Thales
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  • Published : April 30, 2011
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What contribution did the Presocratics make to the early development of philosophy? Before the Presocratics the world was under the influence of the Olympian gods who were much like humans, changeable and willful. The Greek world was wondering about what the universe was made of and how it came to assume its present form. The Presocratics were 6th and 5th century BCE Greek thinkers who were not influenced by the views of Socrates and who introduced a new way of thinking about the world and the place of human beings in it. They sought the origins of things and the order of the universe, but in addition to science they were also interested in ethics and the criticism of contemporary religion. These philosophers rejected the myth of a cosmos ruled by gods and demons in favor of a rational one governed by universal and discoverable laws. These philosophers tried to discover principles that could uniformly, consistently, and comprehensively explain all natural phenomena and the events in human life without resorting to mythology. When people wondered about where they came from, why and how evil came into existence, why there was fortune and misfortune in life, and how they could attain peace and happiness, they found an answer in mythology. Myth was the cradle of philosophy. Mythology is story telling based upon uncritical social beliefs and the arbitrary will of the gods; philosophy is an explanation based upon reason and principle. The pre-Socratics approached the question of being primarily using two sets of questions: first, whether the ultimate reality can be conceived of through a model based upon sensible element(s) or intelligible element(s); second, whether the ultimate reality is absolute or ever changing. Philosopher means “lover of wisdom.” The beginning of philosophy in ancient Greece is often given as 585 BC, the year that the first Milesian philosopher, Thales, predicted a solar eclipse.  The Milesians, like Thales, were preoccupied to find the ultimate principle that governs all beings and phenomena. Their inquiry was metaphysical in the sense that it was directed towards the discovery of the principles of being. This stance of inquiry into ultimate principles distinguishes them from the attitude of natural scientists, who are trying to find the laws and mechanisms of nature. The Milesians conceived of the world as one. In spite of the diverse appearances of phenomena, they thought that there was one unique being which was the ultimate reality and that all extraordinary diversity was its manifestation. Thales brings a new naturalistic scientific approach to explaining the world. Thales holds that water is the fundamental substance of the world. He did not consider water to be a pure physical chemical compound. Water carried a sense of mystery and divinity. Thales conceived of the ultimate reality, which in itself has divine characteristics such as oneness, indestructibility, immutability, originality, as a sensible and visible element. The significant contribution offered by Thales is not the answer but the question and how Thales proposed to answer it.  Prior to this, answer questions about the ultimate nature of the worlds would be given in terms of the supernatural.  Thales takes an important step away from mythology and superstition. Thales recognizes that the world is not just what it appears to be and asks about its fundamental nature.  Change is apparent.  Thales asks about the nature of that which endures change.  What is the nature of the underlying substance that goes through changes?  The question here raises a metaphysical issue and does so in a way that invites rational investigation rather than mere speculation or appeal to myth and the supernatural. His questions regarding the origin and nature of the universe inspired others to think along similar lines. Other thinkers identified the ultimate reality with different material elements. Anaximander of Miletus identified it with the boundless or...
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