Thales of Miletus, one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, is known for introducing a naturalistic approach to understanding the universe. His statement “Water is the beginning of all things” is his cosmological doctrine and reflects this naturalistic approach.
In ancient times, explaining the nature of the universe often involved mythological narratives with various deities responsible for different aspects of the cosmos. Thales represents a departure from this mythological explanation. Instead of attributing natural phenomena to the whims of gods, he sought to find a single underlying principle or “arche” that could account for the diversity of nature.
When Thales claims that “Water is the beginning of all things,” he is proposing that water is this “arche,” the fundamental substance or principle from which everything else arises. This was a radical idea for its time because it suggested a natural, as opposed to supernatural, origin of the world.
His choice of water as the fundamental substance might seem strange to us today, but it made sense given the knowledge and observations of his time. Water was seen as a source of life and growth, and it could exist in various forms: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam). Thus, he might have thought it plausible that other forms of matter could emerge from water.
In sum, Thales’ statement reflects an early scientific approach to understanding the universe, focusing on natural substances and processes rather than divine intervention. It’s important to note that while his specific theory about water has been superseded by modern science, his broader approach laid the groundwork for all of Western philosophy and science.