Fearful of the near pariah status of history of philosophy in the hard-core precincts of analytical philosophy today, I hastened in my first salvo to project an almost futuristic version of it that allows me now to relax a bit in the longuedurée of the past in which history of philosophy has been widely felt to be most at home. Going then to the opposite extreme, it will be not some putative end of philosophy but rather its presumed beginning of it, in Thales, to which I now turn, meekly following Aristotle in the first Book of his Metaphysics. So here at least history of philosophy figures, superbly, as all of apiece with systematic philosophy as such?
Maybe not, though it can certainly seem so on a casual reading of his text. However attractive, in its own right, as a history of philosophy replay of Aristotle’s discussion of his “four causes” – material, formal, efficient and final – earlier in his Physics, he is quite explicit as to the immediate rationale for undertaking this replay, “for we shall either find another kind of cause, or be more convinced of the correctness of those which we now maintain” (983B 5). Only more convinced, thereby allowing even in this case for there being a fifth cause that continues to elude him? Although resolving this issue could not fail to supply a missing chapter in the history of philosophy that lies at any rate beyond those few readily at hand for me now, I am in rather a position to supply a friendly amendment to Aristotle in his effort to explain why Thales settled on water as being “that of which all things consist, the first from which they come to be, the last into which they are resolved (the substance remaining but changing its modifications)”, 183B 8-9.
Invoking a possible worlds approach to a pre-Socratic hermeneutics that aims only to secure a more or less close approximation to what the historical Thales had in mind, conceding of course that the closest possible world is always the actual world, I cannot but notice how the most immediately relevant “modifications” of water – liquid, solid and vapor – fail to feature in Aristotle’s account. If one’s first thought, still more Aristotle’s first thought, might be that liquidity, far from being on a par with the “other” modification of water, smacks rather of being an essential property of it, “smacks” is the word that alerts us to a puzzle with which I propose to view Thales as having profoundly struggled but in vain. Well, not in vain, seeing that a still missing chapter in the history of how philosophy and science fatefully come to go their separate ways, I take to lie encoded in that heroic struggle.
Even allowing Thales to be in a position to distinguish water l from water s and water v, one hesitates to find him content with Aristotle’s “substance (ousia) remaining but changing its modifications”, quite as if this ousia were a Lockean “I know not what”, though once one allows ice and steam or vapor to supply such diverse Fregean modes of presentation for water, the further inductive leap to the rest of nature need not fall afoul of familiar hypothetico-deductive canons.
Distinguish now the historical Thales, whoever he might be, from my own Thales one and Thales two who figure as Lewisian counterparts in very close possible worlds an implicit struggle between which turns on how Thales two continues to insist that, as an especially perspicuous mode of presentation of water simpliciter, water l must finally be found to trump both water s and water v.
Mere anachronistic mention of Frege and Lewis should be enough to verify how my own take on Thales is as futuristic as Aristotle’s, only much more so, at this still greater remove from him. Add the name of Quine, and a still deeper theme emerges, in connection with ontological commitment. Taking Thales to be ontologically committed only to . . . water, “(x) x is water” strikes one as a highly jejune formulation of his position in Quine’s canonical notation of first-order predicate logic if only because “(x) x = water & (y) y = x” is no less acceptable, albeit appealing now to an enhanced first-order predicate logic with identity in which Quine is still more at home.
If this distinction between predicate logic with and without identity will doubtless be felt to be surely at least one technical nuance too many, at any rate by those of my fans who are rooting above all for a reactivated history of philosophy, it is precisely Quine and his commitment to philosophy “from a logical point of view” on whom I am principally relying in undertaking that very reactivation. A two-way street, however, in my juxtaposing, incongruously, Thales and Quine, I venture to shed almost as much light on the latter as I do on the former, starting with his focusing “on what there is” from a logical point of view. A putative counter-example to Quine’s purportedly neutral – as regards competing ontologies – first-order scheme that implicitly provides only for count nouns, the early philosophers plumped for mass nouns, water for Thales, air for Anaximander and fire for Heraclitus.
As to whether Quine would allow for a purely aqueous ontology or proto-ontology according to which “all there is is water and only water”, I believe he would refer us to his doctrine of “indeterminacy of radical translation”, insisting only that a Whigish approach that takes Thales’ mass noun quasi-ontology to be applauded as baby steps on the way to a proper count noun ontology would register for him as among his less favored translations.
As to whether Williamson would stick in this context to his epistemic theory of vagueness I am much less confident.
Finally, pressing into further service Davidson’s doctrine of “charity” as a talisman for dispelling Quinean indeterminacy, no less than five major figures in analytical philosophy have been called upon to discharge this “missing chapter” on poor old Thales. How absurd now, my worries about an impending end of philosophy, when these five almost equally riveting figures pass before us in review!