Lives of the Eminent Philosophers: Thales
To the promotions committee:
This is my evaluation of Thales’ case for tenure. First a word about our connection. I have talked with him several times, but always in a professional capacity. I do not know him well. I believe, therefore, that I can be objective in my assessment.
To cut to the chase, Thales is widely regarded as the wisest man of his age, and the case for tenuring him is strong. Your department is lucky to have him. His most significant contribution is his argument that everything is ultimately made of water. It has made a big splash; in the most recent issue of Miletian Metaphysics well over half the articles are devoted to discussing it. Also worth mentioning is his treatment of that age-old conundrum: which is older, night or day? Thales has argued, and I quote, “Night is older, by one day.” Now I myself received tenure for arguing the opposite, in a treatise that so far has over 200 citations on Google Scholar. I have long thought that the “night is older” view was completely indefensible. Thales, to his credit, has convinced me that it needs to be taken seriously. His arguments are certainly the best I’ve seen, though I still think they suffer from serious flaws. (Note to administrators: philosophers always disagree, so this should not be taken as indicating doubts about his case.) His contributions are all the more impressive given that Thales came to philosophy late, after a career in politics.
I should fill in some context, for administrators relying on this letter. You probably noticed, when reading Thales’ CV, that he has published nothing. Please note that this is not unusual in his field. Many prominent philosophers have written nothing; some superstars have written only one treatise. Philosophy is young, and does not yet fit the mold of either a “book” discipline or a “journal article” discipline. Think of it more as a “reputation” discipline: if a lot of philosophers think you’re great, that’s all it takes to be great. In fact, as things are, actually publishing something can sometimes diminish your standing in the profession, as your stellar “potentially” is transformed into a somewhat lackluster “actuality.” I expect philosophy will grow out of all this by 500 BCE or so, as more refereed journals are established and the publish-or-perish arms-race begins; but until then people like Thales need to be “grandfathered” in.
It may also be useful to categorize Thales’ research. Philosophers are standardly divided into three kinds, as follows:
some are called natural philosophers because they investigate nature; others are called moralists because they discuss morals; those who occupy themselves in verbal hairsplitting are called dialecticians.
Thales falls into the first group.
If I have one reservation about this case, it is that Thales’ extracurricular activities may interfere with his future research trajectory. His political punditry may have saved Miletus from the Persians, but it surely takes up a great deal of time and energy. His innovations in time-measurement have also been influential; using a 365-day calendar has become industry standard. But that work does not qualify as philosophy, and so must be set aside for our purposes here.
So much for my evaluation of Thales’ research. About his teaching and service I can write less, as I have not been in a position to observe either. I have heard, though, that he is a bit of a loner, and so may not be as much of an asset to a graduate program as one might like.
In your request letter you asked if Thales would receive promotion here. I expect it would be a “slam dunk” case, even though we are more in need of hairsplitting dialecticians than natural philosophers. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were soon inundated with outside offers. Retention in the face of richer schools’ outrageous salaries should not be hard, though, as he is known to be independently wealthy from speculating in the olive oil market.
It is standard to end these letters with peer comparisons. In Thales’ case this is a challenge, as he is the first philosopher.
If I can be of any more assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
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Facts about Thales, and quotations, are from Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Pamela Mensch.