Philosophy and the Denial of the Value of Labor

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Philosophy begins in the West, as we still tell ourselves today, with Thales. On the one hand, this is completely appropriate. If, as Aristotle argues, wisdom has some relation to the search for principles, then it must not be related to anything of immediate practical concern. In this light, Thales is the perfect beginning of the philosophical enterprise. The notion that “all things are from water,” is certainly a move away from the givenness of phenomena to their principle in something that is not immediately phenomenal. And it is precisely this move toward the principle that led Thales to study the things above the earth, leading to the following calamity:

…just as, Theodorus, a witty and attractive Thracian servant-girl is said to have mocked Thales for falling into a well while he was observing the stars and gazing upwards; declaring that he was eager to know the things in the sky, but that what was behind him and just by his feet escaped his notice.

The origin of this story, at least in this form, is Plato’s Theaetetus. It comes within an argument Socrates mounts showing that the philosopher has no concern for the agora and for all those things belonging to the body. The argument, then, culminates in this odd story about Thales. Socrates argues that only the body of the philosopher is at home in the city, while his mind [dianoia] disdains such things and turns toward contemplation of “everything that is, each in its entirety, never lowering itself to anything close at hand” (Theaetetus, 172e). Aristotle, as we saw, takes this argument seriously, insisting that the search for principles is precisely what forces the philosopher out of the work-a-day world of the agora and the polis, i.e., out of the world of practical concern.

The story of Thales falling in the well, however, already references the world of labor, the world of not only practical concern but also of the work that is required in order for daily life to carry on. Socrates tells us not just that Thales fell into a well, not just that he fell because he was a philosopher, but that he was mocked by a servant. The clash here is obvious: Thales, as a philosopher, as one concerned with the principles of what is, becomes unable to negotiate the world of practical, everyday concerns and, from the perspective of the one who labors in that world, deserves to be mocked. A strange story indeed to announce the beginning of the philosophical enterprise! …

Richard A. Lee, Jr.

Philosophy and the Denial of the Value of Labor

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