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  • Thales of Miletus: The Beginnings of Western Science and Philosophy
  • Kevin Robb
Patricia F. O’Grady . Thales of Miletus: The Beginnings of Western Science and Philosophy. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2002. Pp xxii + 310. Paper, $84.95.

This book has a consistent thesis: Thales of Miletus was the first Western scientist and philosopher not just for what he began, but for what he himself said (or, as O'Grady believes, wrote). On this view, Thales made significant contributions to metaphysics ("He asked the question: 'What is real?' no less than Plato and Aristotle did," 249), cosmology (on the earth and earthquakes, 87 ff.), astronomy (notably the eclipse, 126 ff.), mathematics (Proclus attributes Euclidean theorems to Thales, 191 ff.), psychology (on psyche) and theology (on "full of the gods," 108 ff.). O'Grady's thesis is that we know enough about Thales' thoughts in these areas (each a treacherous minefield of scholarly dispute, as O'Grady admits) that, after a clarified understanding of "Scientificity and Rationality" (her awkward title for Chapter 11), we can confidently conclude that philosophy and science were well begun by Thales. "I believe I have drawn a clear and detailed picture of a brilliant, veracious, and courageously speculative Greek. I see him as a questioner of almost everything, an investigator of nature . . .Thales is not the mere shadowy figure of Guthrie's perception. He is a man of substance, a man of distinction and of lasting importance" (251).

O'Grady had early noted that W. K. C. Guthrie considered Thales a shadowy figure historically, made all the more so, Guthrie believed, because the legend kept expanding. For example, a sixth-century Thales as the seeker after the material archê, and so the first important physikos, is unknown before fourth-century Aristotle's Metaphysics Alpha, and by the time Euclidean theorems are attributed to Thales the tendency to foist imposing discoveries on famous persons was prevalent.

This raises the major issue concerning O'Grady's exhaustively researched book. To what extent can the doxographic sources (the "A" sections of Diels's 1903Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker), be used to interpret the Presocratics, especially if the original wording from a thinker perished (any "B" section quotations). It is clear that in the fourth century nothing in writing from Thales survived for the Lyceum to read and catalogue although its scholars clearly sought it; the repeated legetai ("it is said") of Aristotle in Metaphysics Alpha and elsewhere is decisive. It is his standard way of indicating that no written work on the matter survives to be consulted, but stories or oral accounts do.

O'Grady's thesis requires that the "A" section material be exploited fully, especially to present Thales as a philosopher (29-70). Many historians will be unwilling to take the entire journey with her. Some (Harold Cherniss) would balk at the first step. The demand for confirming ipsissima verba (or "B" quotations) to reconstruct the thought of any Presocratic with real confidence (as once proposed by G. S. Kirk) threatens to exclude Thales from histories of philosophy, an unsatisfactory result. Even so, Harold Cherniss proposed that drastic solution in 1935 in his magisterial Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratric Philosophy. Presocratic philosophy, he argued, should begin with Anaximander (375).

The heart of Cherniss's numbingly exhaustive argument (400 + pages) was that Aristotle's purpose in surveying his predecessors's views was never historical, but dialectical. His intent was to argue for a fourfold causality (on the grounds only four archai had been turned up by all his predecessors, starting with Thales' material cause), and to fit those predecessors's views into a theory of natural causality as he had finally formulated it in his sophisticated, [End Page 107] largely technical vocabulary. Aristotle's "historical" notices on which all later accounts must depend were, thus, never history; the problem and the solution, along with their language, were Aristotle's alone. If Theophrastus paraphrased what he found in Aristotle (McDiarmid), and if the post-Aristotelian doxographic notices were largely dependent on Theophrastus (so already Diels in 1879, in Doxographi Graeci), then any attempt to extract a philosophical Thales from the later doxographic sources (or Aristotle) is methodologically doomed from...


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