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Our panel of 89 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Scholars no longer say with the same confidence they used to that Thales was "the first" philosopher, or even the first European philosopher. There was a time when historians could assert, as Gordon Clark did: "Greek philosophy began on May 28, 585 B.C. at 6:13 in the evening." There's some truth behind a statement like that, but it also rests on a number of questionable assumptions.

Let's start by separating European philosophy from other traditions of wisdom literature and cosmology. Leaving India and China aside, for instance, does Thales then emerge as clearly the first thinker? He was called one of the "seven sages" of archaic Greece, but that doesn't help, given how little we know about those sages, or how far we are from a canonical list of the seven. The late-ancient author Diogenes Laertius treats Thales as a very early figure in philosophy, but even he considers whether the Persian Magi (Zarathustra and his followers) should count as predecessors to Thales, or the "gymnosophists" or naked wise men of India.

The date of May 28, 585 is based on one of the anecdotes about Thales that we get from Herodotus, who says that he correctly predicted a solar eclipse. Because solar eclipses are fairly rare, modern astronomers can specify the date and time of the one that Thales would have forecast; hence the precision of the date and time. And predicting an eclipse does reflect an attitude toward the predictability of nature that helps to mark the difference between a "mythological" age and a "philosophical" or even scientific one.

On the other hand, Herodotus also gives more pedestrian reports about the activities of Thales, such as his trick for getting an army across a major river, or his plans for unifying the Ionian regions of Greece. Some of the stories about Thales in Plato and Aristotle make him appear intelligent and inquisitive but not necessarily, or especially, a philosopher.

If the beginning comes after Thales, the best candidate for a first philosopher would be Anaximander, sometimes described as Thales' student. Anaximander lived in Asia Minor in the late seventh and early sixth centuries. He wrote on astronomy, geography, biology, and other subjects, and contributed to materialism with his proposal for a single undefined or infinite type of stuff (APEIRON) that everything is made of. One central fragment attributed to him survives, most famously in the work of the Roman philosopher Simplicius. That APEIRON element is different from all the known forms of matter and changes into them and back out of them.

I think that by the time you get to Anaximander and the subsequent generations of thinkers, you are definitely in the presence of philosophy. As you move to earlier generations it becomes less clear whether to call the intellectual activity philosophical. Somewhere in between is the beginning.