Brief Reflections on Heraclitus

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qualia
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 11:19 am
Heraclitus 535 BCE - 475 BCE
I would like to offer some brief reflections I have on the ancient thinker, Heraclitus and of the influence he has played on many trends of thought. I hope it adds a little to the great body of discourse on this fascinating ancient thinker.

Part I - Introduction
The birth of philosophy was greatly influenced by an ongoing discourse with religion. Both disciplines utilized the word to uncover the secrets of the world and both claimed to be experts on the eternal and divine. If Xenophanes is understood as expressing the radical critique that reality - of religion and its gods - is a mere construct of the human mind, and the Milesian School are understood as attempting to reduce reality to mere matter, Heraclitus emerges as a more radical yet reforming figure, believing that there is something more fundamental than either conception, but which gives rise to both.

Of course, this is only one interpretation amongst hundreds, and no doubt a rather anachronistic account. The doubting question will always arise of just how much of this story is true. Or how much is simply a narrative that I have constructed in order to elaborate my own fantasies and desires, my own self-image and sense of self as a person.

The issue becomes ever more precarious when we turn to Heraclitus himself whose style of writing appears in the form of aphorisms. Redolent of Koans, they are short sentences of multi-packed density. They read like riddles, offering layer upon layer of complexity and interpretation, as if they were suggesting themselves to be solved like puzzles, the solution of which will guide the reader towards some deeper mystery or insight. Although separated by some two and half thousand years, I think Heraclitus would appreciate Wittgenstein's comment when he suggested that his aphorisms should be served "as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands [them] recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them."

Part II - The Riddler
In similar spirit to the religious community of his time, Heraclitus offered himself to the Public Square of ideas not as the writer and creator of a philosophy, but as the spokesperson, the prophet of an impersonal, timeless, objective and universal truth; a truth which exists independently of its writer and teacher.

It is not his philosophy that should be adhered to, Heraclitus advises, so much as the Word it conveys, and more importantly, the message that ultimately everything is One (Fr: 50). It is on this account, and their assumed failure of understanding basic reality, that although influenced by thinkers such as Homer, Hesiod, Xenophanes, Pythagoras, and the Milesian philosophers, he criticizes them all and treats them as mere fools or frauds (Fr: 40, 42, 57, 129).

Heraclitus understands that it is difficult for humans to accept this simple view, and what makes matters worse is that human stupidity, their "blindness", makes it virtually impossible for anyone to understand it. Like a race of sleepwalkers or zombies, most of us fail to understand his message, just as we continuously fail to understand the world about us (Fr: 1).

Heraclitus has little faith in the general, everyday human capacity of thought and self-reflection, and does not seem to like human company much either. There is a story in which it is said he fled to the mountains to rid himself of human company and like Plato, he was something of an elitist in the sense that he did not trust democracy. Indeed, Heraclitus is the first to raise the problem of democracy (Fr: 121), of how to reconcile that which is to be common to all - the rule by everyone, perhaps a kind of feared mob rule- with the necessity of excellence, the arche, as the driving motor of society.

In many ways, Heraclitus comes across as a rather cantankerous aristocrat. He argues that one man who is best is worth ten thousand ordinary others (Fr: 49), frowns upon drinking (Fr: 117), believes people should live a life of moderation (Fr: 85) and self-control (Fr: 43), thinks success in the games is the greatest goal for mortals (Fr: 29), and that death in the battlefield is the most honorable way of exiting life (Fr: 24).

Interestingly, the war for Heraclitus, is always a beginning, not in a metaphorical sense, but as a means of selection between individuals and nations in which some will become slaves and others free (Fr: 53). Oppositions of this kind are governed by an overriding law which maintains balance and justice (Fr: 80, 114). Hegel, in his fashion, would deepen these Heraclitusian insights and formulate his ideas on the Universal Dialectic, the Owner-Slave relation and Life-and-Death struggle which would go on to influence Marx and Sartre's own interpretation of existentialism.

Part III -Some Basic Heraclitusian Principles

The Logos
The old time Hellenistics believed thinking was the act of talking, and the word was its breath. Inspiration (the act of drawing in breath) for prophets and poets was the aspiration (the act of breathing) of words, and for this reason, was divine knowledge. To perceive was literally an exercise in aspiration and there existed in ancient thought an amplified tendency to identify the soul with air or breath. So, bearing this in mind, in which sense did Heraclitus use the word Logos? Was it the act of talking or thinking, or the word, and discourse, or was it beginning to take on the form of some universal law, or the Word of some divinity?

Although it is difficult to give any exact explanation of the Logos without falling into the obscurity of the Ephesusian himself, we can identify that for Heraclitus: all things are created in accordance with the Logos; the Logos is common to all; Logos is a law in which men tend to break when distancing themselves from it; and that the wise, after hearing the Logos are in agreement that all things are One. In this sense, we could argue, that the Logos, in accord with later Greek thinkers such as Plato, Aristotles, or Epicurus, is Reason. Reason is the ordering principle of the universe, the Logos.

The originality of Heraclitus, then, is not in understanding the concept of Logos as a singular entity or energy pulsating throughout the cosmos and in this way being something akin to the Tao itself, but the idea that the Logos as Reason, the Logos as the classifying, value making, judging, aesthetic appealling mental operations which give meaning to the world and human life is at the heart of our being, and is potentially common to all.

One's wisdom, one's salvation is not to be found in external gods or popular opinion, but in partcipating in the human power of reason. It follows that the object of philosophical speculation should not just be in the accumulation of facts and knowledge (Fr: 40), as if that gave one true wisdom, but in the capacity of a deeper understanding and awareness in this essential human ability.

Zeus that is not 'Zeus'
One of Heraclitus' deeper insights comes to us in the following fragment: "The wise is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus" (Fr: 32).

On a first reading this aphorism appears to be a bizarre or even paradoxical statement, but it makes sense. Heraclitus is saying that the divine does not want to be called by a name (Zeus) if we think of the divine as, say, Homer or Hesiod created it, or said it was. However, if the divine is recognized in that name thanks to the allusion that there is in that name to the divine (Zeus, the supreme father or life itself), then Zeus can be called Zeus because the name corresponds to another signification, in this case, its essence: Life.

If this is the case, then religion, like philosophy (Fr: 1, 2), as observed by Heraclitus, cannot give the real truth, but at best offer up signs of the truth. Religion and philosophy are symbolic in their power; they surrender significations of the Logos, but the signs' signifiers cannot be thought of where the meaning itself actually resides. As Heraclitus writes: "Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign" (Fr: 93). In other words, there are no pure, self-evident or elementary answers to life's complexities, but merely interpretations of them, some better and some worse.

The Rivers
Heraclitus is famous for his river fragments of which there are about three (Fr: 12, 49a, 91): "We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not" (Fr: 49a) is one typical example.

Evidently, a river is a river because it consists of fast running water. If the water did not run we would call it a lake, or pond, and if it ran slower and more narrowly, we would probably call it a stream. The river, then, is ever changing, so you cannot step into it twice. But you do step into the same river twice in the sense that it is still the river, it remains even though it is changing. In fact, it is exactly this change which constitutes the river's permanency and constancy; if it did not change it would not be a river.

We as humans can also be understood in this fashion. We are human by virtue of our continual change, mentally and physiologically. Sartre argues much the same thing when he announces in true Heraclitusian fashion that the human "is what it is not and is not what it is." We are not what we are, because we change, and we are what we are not, because our changes often involve changing ourselves to be something other in the future that we are not now. For Heraclitus, this notion of change is the necessary condition of rivers' and humans' permanency and constancy, and more than likely, for all things in the cosmos.

The Universal Dialectic
The universe, then, for Heraclitus is one of continual change and movement, but the contradiction, the plurality, the opposites of his world - its chaos and order, its days and nights, life and death, slaves and owners, best and worst, impure and pure, cold and hot, humidity and dryness - are its essential harmony or unity (Fr: 54).

"God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes" (Fr: 67). And it is "the same thing in us", Heraclitus argues. We "are living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former" (Fr: 88). What we have here is not a paradoxical riddle, but insight into a most singular mind highlighting the interconnections of opposing states in exactly the same thing.

For Heraclitus, contradictions of this type are essentially the same because they belong to a more fundamental structure of the entity's being. Opposites become monistic in a transcendental manner, the plurality and dialectic expressed or perceived are poles of complimentary continuum in which everything is ultimately unified. In philosophical parlance, Heraclitus appears to be the first Western thinker to put forward a notion of Universal Dialectics or Dialectical Monism, the constant process of Becoming.

Accordingly, each thesis encounters its inevitable opposing idea or antithesis, there follows a clash of sorts whereby both are amalgamated into a synthesis which conserves the contradiction while ultimately negating it. Accordingly, ultimate reality cannot be conceptualised into some fixed, immutable and static state, for reality is both being and non-being, a continual flux, transcended only by the process of Becoming.

Fire

Evidently, the Milesians were material monists who believed in ultimate matter: Thales water, Anaximander the boundless, Anaximenes air. So, according to tradition, when Heraclitus speaks of fire as being ultimate reality or that all things are ultimately manisfesatations of fire, it follows that he too is either a material monist, or at worst, contradicting himself in light of his theory of radical flux. But this reading is not entirely charitable.

In light of fragments 31, 36, 62 and 76, I think Heraclitus is using the metaphor of this classical Greek element to press on with his theory of change. For the Greeks, fire was the element of energy, assertiveness and passion. Fire was continuously becoming, it had no fixed form or shape, it was paradoxically both the devouring and destructive force, but also the creative and life saving element.

This reading can also be supported by the fragments 31 and 32 and in this one which reads: "This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now and ever shall be an ever-living. Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out" (Fr: 30). For Heraclitus the world always was, is and will be, so it does not die and then come back again, according to the Stoics or Aristotle's reading, but, instead, is constantly being transformed and changed, and these transformations are the very essence of nature. Without change there could be no world, no cosmos.

The notion of continual change as the essential quality of nature and man is the reason why, I believe, Heraclitus praises so much war and strife (Fr: 53, 80). It is not because he a sadistic, or bellicose thinker, - for as we have seen his image of the Logos as a universal human quality makes him something of a humanist, - but because the conflicting powers of opposites make life and the world a possibility, without this continual change, according to Heraclitus, there could be no life, no world.

Heraclitus' guiding force in the cosmos are symbolized by the images of fire and the "Thunderbolt" which "steers the course of all things" (Fr: 64). Zeus' thunderbolt. Zeus, the King of Gods and of Olympus, and more importantly, Zeus, the Greek's archetypal deity and embodiment of religious thought.

Epistemological Concerns
With the later two-fold misreading critique coming in from Plato and Aristotle, Heraclitus never stood a chance. Plato wrote, for example, that knowledge was impossible for Heraclitus because there was just too much change going on or something to that effect. Yet when we come to Heraclitus, or at least the commonly held 139 fragments, we find there is no evidence that he repudiated knowledge.

Sure, he did like people too much, nor did he have a lot of faith in their intelligence (Fr: 17, 34, 107), but that is not the same as saying that people are incapable of wisdom. In fact, the essence of his message suggests that wisdom is possible, but not for all. Heraclitus seems to be an early type of empiricist. He claims that "The things that can be seen, heard, and learned are what I prize the most." (Fr: 55), and that above all, "The eyes are more exact witness than ears" (Fr: 101).


What Heraclitus does attack, however, is the idea that knowledge or wisdom is simply the accumulation of information, or clever quotes, sayings and dictums. "The learning of many things" Heraclitus informs us, "does not teach understanding" (Fr: 40). He criticizes the great poets and thinkers of his epoch, and seems to mistrust public opinion - "" (Fr: 104) - for each in their turn either fail to comprehend the meaning of the information they hold, that is, to grasp its complexity and then to discover from this disarray its essential unity, or more worryingly, end up falsifying reality (Fr: 40, 104, 57).

Part IV - Heraclitus' Legacy
As suggested, I believe Heraclitus is evident in works by Hegel, Marx, and Sartre. In more ancient times, Parmenides probably established his philosophy in direct opposition to Heraclitus; we can see that Plato more than likely lifted Heraclitus' theory of change and used it as the model for his sensible world; and that the Stoics worked on Heraclitus' notion of destruction and regeneration to inform their own understanding of the world.

Heraclitus was no doubt a highly innovative and revolutionary thinker, and is a pleasure to read, re-read and ponder. And yet, for the sake of further clarity and insight, what a pity that the volume he is said to have left at the temple of Artemis - one of the ancient seven wonders of the world - is no longer in existence. Ironically, the papyrus roll was probably destroyed in fire set off by Herostratus, only to become again, to be reborn in interpretations of this kind.

As it is, history has the upper hand, and Heraclitus will probably always be remembered as the Obscure philosopher. If the interpretation I have given means anything, it has been to show that this is not an entirely charitable attribute to the Greek thinker and that perhaps Heraclitus' greatest legacy is to have rejected the idea of Being as some kind of constant, fixed and eternal principle, and instead offered the notion of Becoming and ever change, an insight that Nietzsche, Heidegger, existentialists and post-modernists in the form of Derrida have appreciated and embraced in their fashion.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 12:28 pm
@qualia,
qualia;159337 wrote:
Heraclitus 535 BCE - 475 BCE
I would like to offer some brief reflections I have on the ancient thinker, Heraclitus and of the influence he has played on many trends of thought. I hope it adds a little to the great body of discourse on this fascinating ancient thinker.

Part I - Introduction
The birth of philosophy was greatly influenced by an ongoing discourse with religion. Both disciplines utilized the word to uncover the secrets of the world and both claimed to be experts on the eternal and divine. If Xenophanes is understood as expressing the radical critique that reality - of religion and its gods - is a mere construct of the human mind, and the Milesian School are understood as attempting to reduce reality to mere matter, Heraclitus emerges as a more radical yet reforming figure, believing that there is something more fundamental than either conception, but which gives rise to both.

Of course, this is only one interpretation amongst hundreds, and no doubt a rather anachronistic account. The doubting question will always arise of just how much of this story is true. Or how much is simply a narrative that I have constructed in order to elaborate my own fantasies and desires, my own self-image and sense of self as a person.

The issue becomes ever more precarious when we turn to Heraclitus himself whose style of writing appears in the form of aphorisms. Redolent of Koans, they are short sentences of multi-packed density. They read like riddles, offering layer upon layer of complexity and interpretation, as if they were suggesting themselves to be solved like puzzles, the solution of which will guide the reader towards some deeper mystery or insight. Although separated by some two and half thousand years, I think Heraclitus would appreciate Wittgenstein's comment when he suggested that his aphorisms should be served "as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands [them] recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them."

Part II - The Riddler
In similar spirit to the religious community of his time, Heraclitus offered himself to the Public Square of ideas not as the writer and creator of a philosophy, but as the spokesperson, the prophet of an impersonal, timeless, objective and universal truth; a truth which exists independently of its writer and teacher.

It is not his philosophy that should be adhered to, Heraclitus advises, so much as the Word it conveys, and more importantly, the message that ultimately everything is One (Fr: 50). It is on this account, and their assumed failure of understanding basic reality, that although influenced by thinkers such as Homer, Hesiod, Xenophanes, Pythagoras, and the Milesian philosophers, he criticizes them all and treats them as mere fools or frauds (Fr: 40, 42, 57, 129).

Heraclitus understands that it is difficult for humans to accept this simple view, and what makes matters worse is that human stupidity, their "blindness", makes it virtually impossible for anyone to understand it. Like a race of sleepwalkers or zombies, most of us fail to understand his message, just as we continuously fail to understand the world about us (Fr: 1).

Heraclitus has little faith in the general, everyday human capacity of thought and self-reflection, and does not seem to like human company much either. There is a story in which it is said he fled to the mountains to rid himself of human company and like Plato, he was something of an elitist in the sense that he did not trust democracy. Indeed, Heraclitus is the first to raise the problem of democracy (Fr: 121), of how to reconcile that which is to be common to all - the rule by everyone, perhaps a kind of feared mob rule- with the necessity of excellence, the arche, as the driving motor of society.

In many ways, Heraclitus comes across as a rather cantankerous aristocrat. He argues that one man who is best is worth ten thousand ordinary others (Fr: 49), frowns upon drinking (Fr: 117), believes people should live a life of moderation (Fr: 85) and self-control (Fr: 43), thinks success in the games is the greatest goal for mortals (Fr: 29), and that death in the battlefield is the most honorable way of exiting life (Fr: 24).

Interestingly, the war for Heraclitus, is always a beginning, not in a metaphorical sense, but as a means of selection between individuals and nations in which some will become slaves and others free (Fr: 53). Oppositions of this kind are governed by an overriding law which maintains balance and justice (Fr: 80, 114). Hegel, in his fashion, would deepen these Heraclitusian insights and formulate his ideas on the Universal Dialectic, the Owner-Slave relation and Life-and-Death struggle which would go on to influence Marx and Sartre's own interpretation of existentialism.

Part III -Some Basic Heraclitusian Principles

The Logos
The old time Hellenistics believed thinking was the act of talking, and the word was its breath. Inspiration (the act of drawing in breath) for prophets and poets was the aspiration (the act of breathing) of words, and for this reason, was divine knowledge. To perceive was literally an exercise in aspiration and there existed in ancient thought an amplified tendency to identify the soul with air or breath. So, bearing this in mind, in which sense did Heraclitus use the word Logos? Was it the act of talking or thinking, or the word, and discourse, or was it beginning to take on the form of some universal law, or the Word of some divinity?

Although it is difficult to give any exact explanation of the Logos without falling into the obscurity of the Ephesusian himself, we can identify that for Heraclitus: all things are created in accordance with the Logos; the Logos is common to all; Logos is a law in which men tend to break when distancing themselves from it; and that the wise, after hearing the Logos are in agreement that all things are One. In this sense, we could argue, that the Logos, in accord with later Greek thinkers such as Plato, Aristotles, or Epicurus, is Reason. Reason is the ordering principle of the universe, the Logos.

The originality of Heraclitus, then, is not in understanding the concept of Logos as a singular entity or energy pulsating throughout the cosmos and in this way being something akin to the Tao itself, but the idea that the Logos as Reason, the Logos as the classifying, value making, judging, aesthetic appealling mental operations which give meaning to the world and human life is at the heart of our being, and is potentially common to all.

One's wisdom, one's salvation is not to be found in external gods or popular opinion, but in partcipating in the human power of reason. It follows that the object of philosophical speculation should not just be in the accumulation of facts and knowledge (Fr: 40), as if that gave one true wisdom, but in the capacity of a deeper understanding and awareness in this essential human ability.

Zeus that is not 'Zeus'
One of Heraclitus' deeper insights comes to us in the following fragment: "The wise is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus" (Fr: 32).

On a first reading this aphorism appears to be a bizarre or even paradoxical statement, but it makes sense. Heraclitus is saying that the divine does not want to be called by a name (Zeus) if we think of the divine as, say, Homer or Hesiod created it, or said it was. However, if the divine is recognized in that name thanks to the allusion that there is in that name to the divine (Zeus, the supreme father or life itself), then Zeus can be called Zeus because the name corresponds to another signification, in this case, its essence: Life.

If this is the case, then religion, like philosophy (Fr: 1, 2), as observed by Heraclitus, cannot give the real truth, but at best offer up signs of the truth. Religion and philosophy are symbolic in their power; they surrender significations of the Logos, but the signs' signifiers cannot be thought of where the meaning itself actually resides. As Heraclitus writes: "Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign" (Fr: 93). In other words, there are no pure, self-evident or elementary answers to life's complexities, but merely interpretations of them, some better and some worse.

The Rivers
Heraclitus is famous for his river fragments of which there are about three (Fr: 12, 49a, 91): "We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not" (Fr: 49a) is one typical example.

Evidently, a river is a river because it consists of fast running water. If the water did not run we would call it a lake, or pond, and if it ran slower and more narrowly, we would probably call it a stream. The river, then, is ever changing, so you cannot step into it twice. But you do step into the same river twice in the sense that it is still the river, it remains even though it is changing. In fact, it is exactly this change which constitutes the river's permanency and constancy; if it did not change it would not be a river.

We as humans can also be understood in this fashion. We are human by virtue of our continual change, mentally and physiologically. Sartre argues much the same thing when he announces in true Heraclitusian fashion that the human "is what it is not and is not what it is." We are not what we are, because we change, and we are what we are not, because our changes often involve changing ourselves to be something other in the future that we are not now. For Heraclitus, this notion of change is the necessary condition of rivers' and humans' permanency and constancy, and more than likely, for all things in the cosmos.

The Universal Dialectic
The universe, then, for Heraclitus is one of continual change and movement, but the contradiction, the plurality, the opposites of his world - its chaos and order, its days and nights, life and death, slaves and owners, best and worst, impure and pure, cold and hot, humidity and dryness - are its essential harmony or unity (Fr: 54).

"God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes" (Fr: 67). And it is "the same thing in us", Heraclitus argues. We "are living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former" (Fr: 88). What we have here is not a paradoxical riddle, but insight into a most singular mind highlighting the interconnections of opposing states in exactly the same thing.

For Heraclitus, contradictions of this type are essentially the same because they belong to a more fundamental structure of the entity's being. Opposites become monistic in a transcendental manner, the plurality and dialectic expressed or perceived are poles of complimentary continuum in which everything is ultimately unified. In philosophical parlance, Heraclitus appears to be the first Western thinker to put forward a notion of Universal Dialectics or Dialectical Monism, the constant process of Becoming.

Accordingly, each thesis encounters its inevitable opposing idea or antithesis, there follows a clash of sorts whereby both are amalgamated into a synthesis which conserves the contradiction while ultimately negating it. Accordingly, ultimate reality cannot be conceptualised into some fixed, immutable and static state, for reality is both being and non-being, a continual flux, transcended only by the process of Becoming.

Fire

Evidently, the Milesians were material monists who believed in ultimate matter: Thales water, Anaximander the boundless, Anaximenes air. So, according to tradition, when Heraclitus speaks of fire as being ultimate reality or that all things are ultimately manisfesatations of fire, it follows that he too is either a material monist, or at worst, contradicting himself in light of his theory of radical flux. But this reading is not entirely charitable.

In light of fragments 31, 36, 62 and 76, I think Heraclitus is using the metaphor of this classical Greek element to press on with his theory of change. For the Greeks, fire was the element of energy, assertiveness and passion. Fire was continuously becoming, it had no fixed form or shape, it was paradoxically both the devouring and destructive force, but also the creative and life saving element.

This reading can also be supported by the fragments 31 and 32 and in this one which reads: "This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now and ever shall be an ever-living. Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out" (Fr: 30). For Heraclitus the world always was, is and will be, so it does not die and then come back again, according to the Stoics or Aristotle's reading, but, instead, is constantly being transformed and changed, and these transformations are the very essence of nature. Without change there could be no world, no cosmos.

The notion of continual change as the essential quality of nature and man is the reason why, I believe, Heraclitus praises so much war and strife (Fr: 53, 80). It is not because he a sadistic, or bellicose thinker, - for as we have seen his image of the Logos as a universal human quality makes him something of a humanist, - but because the conflicting powers of opposites make life and the world a possibility, without this continual change, according to Heraclitus, there could be no life, no world.

Heraclitus' guiding force in the cosmos are symbolized by the images of fire and the "Thunderbolt" which "steers the course of all things" (Fr: 64). Zeus' thunderbolt. Zeus, the King of Gods and of Olympus, and more importantly, Zeus, the Greek's archetypal deity and embodiment of religious thought.

Epistemological Concerns
With the later two-fold misreading critique coming in from Plato and Aristotle, Heraclitus never stood a chance. Plato wrote, for example, that knowledge was impossible for Heraclitus because there was just too much change going on or something to that effect. Yet when we come to Heraclitus, or at least the commonly held 139 fragments, we find there is no evidence that he repudiated knowledge.

Sure, he did like people too much, nor did he have a lot of faith in their intelligence (Fr: 17, 34, 107), but that is not the same as saying that people are incapable of wisdom. In fact, the essence of his message suggests that wisdom is possible, but not for all. Heraclitus seems to be an early type of empiricist. He claims that "The things that can be seen, heard, and learned are what I prize the most." (Fr: 55), and that above all, "The eyes are more exact witness than ears" (Fr: 101).


What Heraclitus does attack, however, is the idea that knowledge or wisdom is simply the accumulation of information, or clever quotes, sayings and dictums. "The learning of many things" Heraclitus informs us, "does not teach understanding" (Fr: 40). He criticizes the great poets and thinkers of his epoch, and seems to mistrust public opinion - "" (Fr: 104) - for each in their turn either fail to comprehend the meaning of the information they hold, that is, to grasp its complexity and then to discover from this disarray its essential unity, or more worryingly, end up falsifying reality (Fr: 40, 104, 57).

Part IV - Heraclitus' Legacy
As suggested, I believe Heraclitus is evident in works by Hegel, Marx, and Sartre. In more ancient times, Parmenides probably established his philosophy in direct opposition to Heraclitus; we can see that Plato more than likely lifted Heraclitus' theory of change and used it as the model for his sensible world; and that the Stoics worked on Heraclitus' notion of destruction and regeneration to inform their own understanding of the world.

Heraclitus was no doubt a highly innovative and revolutionary thinker, and is a pleasure to read, re-read and ponder. And yet, for the sake of further clarity and insight, what a pity that the volume he is said to have left at the temple of Artemis - one of the ancient seven wonders of the world - is no longer in existence. Ironically, the papyrus roll was probably destroyed in fire set off by Herostratus, only to become again, to be reborn in interpretations of this kind.

As it is, history has the upper hand, and Heraclitus will probably always be remembered as the Obscure philosopher. If the interpretation I have given means anything, it has been to show that this is not an entirely charitable attribute to the Greek thinker and that perhaps Heraclitus' greatest legacy is to have rejected the idea of Being as some kind of constant, fixed and eternal principle, and instead offered the notion of Becoming and ever change, an insight that Nietzsche, Heidegger, existentialists and post-modernists in the form of Derrida have appreciated and embraced in their fashion.


Well, if you are making comments about Heraclitus, they had better be PDQ. Heraclitus would expect it of you.

I don't think you are right about the waters in rivers having to be fast-flowing. There can be turgid rivers. "River" is not, I think, differentiated by other kinds of bodies of water by the speed of the flow of its water.

A large natural stream of water emptying into an ocean, lake, or other body of water and usually fed along its course by converging tributaries.

This definition says nothing about the how fast or slow the waters of a river have to be.

And, it is not true that the river is always changing, as you write. The Nile or the Mississippi rivers are the same geographical entities even when their waters change. The river is, essentially, the river bed, not the water that flows through the river bed. You and Heraclitus, both, are confusing the river (or river bed) with the water in the river.
 
prothero
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 12:38 pm
@qualia,
qualia;159337 wrote:
As it is, history has the upper hand, and Heraclitus will probably always be remembered as the Obscure philosopher. If the interpretation I have given means anything, it has been to show that this is not an entirely charitable attribute to the Greek thinker and that perhaps Heraclitus' greatest legacy is to have rejected the idea of Being as some kind of constant, fixed and eternal principle, and instead offered the notion of Becoming and ever change, an insight that Nietzsche, Heidegger, existentialists and post-modernists in the form of Derrida have appreciated and embraced in their fashion.

Probably the most extensive treatment of the notion of "becoming" (change or process) as primary reality over "being" is the process philosophy of A.N. Whitehead. Which also gives rise to the process theology movement.

Do you also post in the Galliean Library?
 
qualia
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 12:51 pm
@kennethamy,
Re: The River Fragments.
The river...is ever changing, so you cannot step into it twice. But you do step into the same river twice in the sense that it is still the river, it remains even though it is changing. In fact, it is exactly this change which constitutes the river's permanency and constancy; if it did not change it would not be a river.

Kennethamy, I think a re-reading of the above would highlight the idea that it is not asserted that the conception of the Heraclitean river "is always changing".

Prothero, thank you for the Whitehead insight, I haven't read anything by the fellow but have enjoyed insights on the ontology of becoming made by Nietzsche, Bergson and in the semiotic works of Peirce. Yes, at TGL I do post. Great forum.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 01:13 pm
@qualia,
qualia;159352 wrote:
Re: The River Fragments.
The river...is ever changing, so you cannot step into it twice. But you do step into the same river twice in the sense that it is still the river, it remains even though it is changing. In fact, it is exactly this change which constitutes the river's permanency and constancy; if it did not change it would not be a river.

Kennethamy, I think a re-reading of the above would highlight the idea that it is not asserted that the conception of the Heraclitean river "is always changing".



Well, no one says that the conception of the river is always changing. Heraclitus says that the river is always changing. Or, at least, that is what you said he says.
 
prothero
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 02:57 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;159355 wrote:
Well, no one says that the conception of the river is always changing. Heraclitus says that the river is always changing. Or, at least, that is what you said he says.
Of course even the river bed changes over time, and even rivers and continents disappear, and we often change the names of our geographic features. So "being" is saved but only temporarily. Whereas "becoming" goes along it merry way pretty much eternally as far as we can tell.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 03:59 pm
@prothero,
prothero;159379 wrote:
Of course even the river bed changes over time, and even rivers and continents disappear, and we often change the names of our geographic features. So "being" is saved but only temporarily. Whereas "becoming" goes along it merry way pretty much eternally as far as we can tell.


Yes. The river bed changes over time. But that is irrelevant, since that is not what Heraclitus meant when he intoned that you cannot step into the same river twice. He did not mean that you cannot step into the same river bed twice. He meant that you cannot step into the same river twice because he mistakenly identified the river with the water that flowed though the river bed. No fair changing what he meant in order to make him right when he was wrong.
 
prothero
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 04:48 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;159403 wrote:
Yes. The river bed changes over time. But that is irrelevant, since that is not what Heraclitus meant when he intoned that you cannot step into the same river twice. He did not mean that you cannot step into the same river bed twice. He meant that you cannot step into the same river twice because he mistakenly identified the river with the water that flowed though the river bed. No fair changing what he meant in order to make him right when he was wrong.
Well I lack your certainty about what he did or did not mean.

I suspect he meant the water in the river was always changing and was using it as an example about the primacy of change in the world over the opposing notion of static "being".

In any event I agree with the notion that "becoming" is more fundamental than "being" and I suspect Heraclitus would too.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 06:05 pm
@prothero,
prothero;159415 wrote:
Well I lack your certainty about what he did or did not mean.

I suspect he meant the water in the river was always changing and was using it as an example about the primacy of change in the world over the opposing notion of static "being".

In any event I agree with the notion that "becoming" is more fundamental than "being" and I suspect Heraclitus would too.


But, to say that it is never the same river because the water in the river keeps changing is wrong. Surely we can agree on that. Now, whether Heraclitus meant that you might think disputable, but most interpret him as meaning that. But that is another matter. To repeat, if he did mean that the river does not say the same because the water keeps changing, then that is obviously wrong. That is the part, at least, I can understand. The business about becoming (or 'becoming") and being (or "being") is something I find too obscure to have an intelligent opinion about. So I just ignore it. I don't know where you could have got the idea that I have any kind of opinion about which is fundamental. I have very little understanding about what it is supposed to mean. I'll retract that: I have no understanding what it is supposed to mean.
 
qualia
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 06:18 pm
@prothero,
kennethamy wrote:
The river bed changes over time. But that is irrelevant, since that is not what Heraclitus meant when he intoned that you cannot step into the same river twice. He did not mean that you cannot step into the same river bed twice. He meant that you cannot step into the same river twice because he mistakenly identified the river with the water that flowed though the river bed. No fair changing what he meant in order to make him right when he was wrong.


Kennethamy, In the fragment offered, We step and do not step into the same rivers...(Fr: 49a), it is evident that he is suggesting that we do and do not step into the same river twice. So, although I appreciate your concern, I don't think it reflects the subtlety of Heraclitus' position. It is in this light that I suggested that Heraclitus might be arguing that it is change - an ever becoming - which constitutes permanency. As Prothero has argued, rightly or wrongly, for Heraclitus it does appear that "becoming is more fundamental than being".

Anyway, apart from that one niggle, are there any other suggestions or insights into the text?
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 06:26 pm
@qualia,
qualia;159434 wrote:
Kennethamy, In the fragment offered, We step and do not step into the same rivers...(Fr: 49a), it is evident that he is suggesting that we do and do not step into the same river twice. So, although I appreciate your concern, I don't think it reflects the subtlety of Heraclitus' position. It is in this light, that I suggested that Heraclitus might be arguing that it is change - an ever becoming - which constitutes permanency. As Prothero has argued, rightly or wrongly, for Heraclitus it does appear that "becoming is more fundamental than being".



To talk about rivers (plural) puts a new light on it (if that is what H. said). Clearly it is true that some of us may step into both into (say) the Missouri, and also into the Hudson rivers. Nothing easier. But I thought H. was saying that we cannot step into the very same river twice. And that is clearly false. For instance, I can step into the Hudson at Pougkeepsie, and then, and hour later, step into the Hudson again at Albany. Isn't that true?

Before we run off into the wild blue yonder of becoming and being, shall we get the facts straight? The fact is, that we can step into the same river many times.
 
prothero
 
Reply Sun 2 May, 2010 06:48 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;159431 wrote:
But, to say that it is never the same river because the water in the river keeps changing is wrong. Surely we can agree on that.
No we can not agree on that, for to agree on that is to miss the meaning of the statement. The water has changed, the pebbles have moved, the river bank has eroded, etc, etc. The name of the river stays the same, but the river is ever "changing" ever not the "same".
I think you know what is meant. It is the tension between "being" and "becoming", the "same" but not "the same".
 
jeeprs
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 12:24 am
@qualia,
Excellent post. I developed an interest in Heraclitus from The Aristos, novelist John Fowles book of philosophical aphorisms, which contained practically the whole collection of Heraclitus' sayings. One which I often remember is 'The many live each in their own private world, while those who are awake have but one world in common'.

He is, as you observe, somewhat anti-democratic, and I think Heraclitus was indeed an elitist, insofar as believed most of the hoi polloi lived in a state of virtual stupor. I recall another aphorism where he said 'the many (practically interchangeable with 'fools!') glut themselves like beasts'.

qualia;159337 wrote:
One's wisdom, one's salvation is not to be found in external gods or popular opinion, but in partcipating in the human power of reason. It follows that the object of philosophical speculation should not just be in the accumulation of facts and knowledge (Fr: 40), as if that gave one true wisdom, but in the capacity of a deeper understanding and awareness in this essential human ability.


I agree but perhaps rather than 'human' power would suggest 'trans-human' in that it is something both internal and external to the human.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 06:46 am
@prothero,
prothero;159443 wrote:
No we can not agree on that, for to agree on that is to miss the meaning of the statement. The water has changed, the pebbles have moved, the river bank has eroded, etc, etc. The name of the river stays the same, but the river is ever "changing" ever not the "same".
I think you know what is meant. It is the tension between "being" and "becoming", the "same" but not "the same".


Changing or keeping the name of a river has no more to do with whether the river is the same or changed than it has to do with change or persistence of any other thing. But the Nile river today is the very same river Cleopatra sailed up on in her "burnished barges" many millenniums ago. What river do you believe it was? Certainly not the Missouri river. That river was in North America. Certainly not the Thames. That river was in the south of England. Rivers are geographical entities, and are identified by their geography. The waters of the river are even changing (no quotes) and are never the same (no quotes). But the river is the same river. I could imagine it having been diverted after some natural catastrophe, and following an entirely different course from that it use to have. In that case, there might be some discussion as to whether it is the same river or not. But why would the river be a different river because some things about it changed?

The metaphysical issue is always that of persistence through change. Just because a few things change about X, that needn't (and doesn't) mean that it is no longer X. Else you would not be the very same individual you were when you were a small child. As Wittgenstein remarked, we should not confuse "identical" with, "same".
 
prothero
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 02:21 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;159526 wrote:
The metaphysical issue is always that of persistence through change. Just because a few things change about X, that needn't (and doesn't) mean that it is no longer X. Else you would not be the very same individual you were when you were a small child. As Wittgenstein remarked, we should not confuse "identical" with, "same".

Perhaps it would have satisfied you if Heraclitus had said "you cannot step into the identical river twice". The point would still be, that change is a property of the world, that everything changes, and that static being is less a property of the world than change or becoming.

Plato played with the notion of becoming versus being. Eventually Plato decided that perfection was eternal changlessness much to the detriment of the last two thousand years of philosophy and religion for "being" now so dominates Western thought that it seems difficult for many to comprehend how anyone could think process could be an important feature of "reality" and the world.
 
jeeprs
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 06:26 pm
@qualia,
Heraclitus attitude that 'all is flux' and 'strife is the father of all things' are nevertheless very profound insights and as Prothero points out, in stark contrast to the idea of 'changeless essences' (which I believe was actually much more Aristotlean than Platonic, though.) It was a very Buddhist view - 'you can never step in the same river twice' could easily be found in the Pali Nikayas (Buddhist scriptures).

In point of fact you are not the same person you were as a small child. Neither are you a different person. In fact these designations 'same' and 'different' have no absolute validity. They are conventional designations, that is all. We are much more like swirls or eddies than we are like statues or monuments. Heraclitus' view was essentially dynamic. I reckon he would have been a very tough master!
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 07:31 pm
@prothero,
prothero;159646 wrote:
Perhaps it would have satisfied you if Heraclitus had said "you cannot step into the identical river twice".


No. I would not have been satisfied at all. For, the Nile river is identical with the Nile river. As long as there is a Nile River , that is a necessary truth, since everything is self-identical. "Identical" means, "one and the same". Or, numerically the same. Of course, X and Y can be numerically the same, but still have the same properties at different times. For instance, you, as a three year old, may be 4 feet tall, and you as thirty year old may be 6 feet tall. But would that mean that you as a three year old are not numerically the same person that you are when you are 30? Not at all. For you, as a three year old, and you as a thirty year old are both 4 feet tall, and 6 feet tall, but at different times. X and Y are identical with one another if and only if X and Y have the very same properties. And, as I have argued, you at the age of three, and you, at the age of thirty, have the very same properties, only at different times.
 
jeeprs
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 08:42 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;159749 wrote:
For, the Nile river is identical with the Nile river. As long as there is a Nile River , that is a necessary truth, since everything is self-identical. "Identical" means, "one and the same".


You will find that past a certain point, it splits into the Blue and the White Nile. Also when it enters the delta near the Mediterranean coast, it splits into innumerable rivulets. It is also know by different names by different tribal groups.

So which is the real Nile?
 
qualia
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 08:45 pm
@kennethamy,
Kennethamy, just wanted to make some comments here.

In recent times, dams, barrages, and weirs have been built into and across the Nile to redirect, raise and re-channel its waters, and we can also witness the ever growing impact of industry, urban sprawl, river pollution and industrial waste in and about the Nile. To this extent, it is difficult to comprehend how it is the same 'river' Cleopatra sailed upon and how exactly the 'river' has contained exactly the same properties for the last two thousand years. Indeed, as prothero has argued, it does seem that change is a property of the world, or in this case, the river.

Referring to the sentence in the same post (No.14) where it is mentioned that the river Nile is identified by its geography, even this distinction must be made explicit at risk of discussing the obvious. If I showed you a satellite map of the world and said, 'where is the River Nile' you'd probably be able to show me, but could Cleopatra or the greatest geologists and cartographers of her times even comprehend what it was I was showing them, - even if they understood the word River Nile? Again, we are assuming too much by the term geography. If I took a desert man who had never ventured from the desert to the Nile and asked him, 'where is the geographical feature river?' To imagine him pointing out the Nile assumes within the thought experiment that the idea 'river' exists independently of his language prior to it being labeled or tagged with the word 'river'.



To say something like, 'the Nile River is identical with the Nile River', is, I think, to say, the signifier 'Nile River' is the same as the signifier 'Nile River', but I don't understand the significance of this. Sure, the signifier 'Nile River' may well refer to something experienced, but to move on from this position and claim that the signified, the meaning of the 'Nile River' is the same for all cultures, and all people, at all times, a fixed and immutable signified definable in terms of some unchanging essence is something I cannot comprehend. After years of searching for the river would my exclamation the 'Nile River' mean the same as when a local boy says to his mate, 'just going for a pee in the 'Nile River''?

This leads me to a final point. Imagine the myriad signifiers which have labeled the Nile River, how it has been voiced by different cultures over the course of centuries, and then the myriad meanings surrendered upon those signifiers. Do they neatly correspond to those in all other cultures? Is Cleopatra's conception and understanding and lived in experience of the Nile River the same as the early European explorers, Stone Age people, mine or yours, even if it was - and it isn't - identified with exactly the same signifier across all these cultures?

To this extent, even if it was always the case that the 'same word' referred to 'the same thing' at all times, it is still subject to different and ever changing evaluations, definitions and meanings of it and as I think jeeprs has argued the designations willed upon them more than likely have no absolute validity. We may add that these mental concepts, part of the general sign-system that is language, will be subject to the given culture's, society's and people's way of seeing things, so, again, it won't make much sense to say the 'Nile River' signified is identical with the 'Nile River' signified. Clearly, we beg the question whose signified (mine, Cleopatra's?), at what date and so on.

If these sign representations are our access to understanding the 'Nile River', determining how exactly they have remained unchanged throughout the course of history is a critical and fascinating issue at this junction. Thank you for helping bring these ideas to the fore.
 
prothero
 
Reply Mon 3 May, 2010 08:53 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;159749 wrote:
No. I would not have been satisfied at all. For, the Nile river is identical with the Nile river. As long as there is a Nile River , that is a necessary truth, since everything is self-identical. "Identical" means, "one and the same". Or, numerically the same. Of course, X and Y can be numerically the same, but still have the same properties at different times. For instance, you, as a three year old, may be 4 feet tall, and you as thirty year old may be 6 feet tall. But would that mean that you as a three year old are not numerically the same person that you are when you are 30? Not at all. For you, as a three year old, and you as a thirty year old are both 4 feet tall, and 6 feet tall, but at different times. X and Y are identical with one another if and only if X and Y have the very same properties. And, as I have argued, you at the age of three, and you, at the age of thirty, have the very same properties, only at different times.

The nile river is ever flowing, ever changing, never the "same". Likewise I am ever changing, new experience, never the "same". I think most people understand this concept. I do not know how one would maintain that I have the same properties at 30 that I had at 3 for almost nothing about me would be the same, not the molecules that compose my body, my height,my weight, my memories, In fact there would be many more things or properties that were different than the "same" and certainly not "identical".
I am not sure what the point in continuing these exchanges is for we are not exchanging ideas or concepts merely disagreeing again about the meaning of words.

The philosophical issue however for Heraclitus and for others who quote him is the tension and the respective roles of (change, process and becoming) versus (being, static properties and eternal changlessness) in reality. Perhaps you could address the philosophical issue at hand.
 
 

 
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