Lauren asked:

I have a question in my textbook that I was wondering if you could help. The question is:

How would Heraclitus have responded to the following statement? ‘Heraclitus’ theory is wrong because the objects we see around us continue to endure throughout time; although a person, an animal or plant may change its superficial qualities, it still remains essentially the same person, animal or plant throughout these changes. In fact, we recognize change only by contrasting it to the underlying permanence of things. So permanence, not change, is the essential to reality.’

Answer by Graham Hackett

Lauren, there is a great deal in this quote. Incidentally, I don’t recognise it so I am wondering where it comes from. Heraclitus would not have responded in ordinary everyday language, he would have responded gnomically, so that we would have great difficulty understanding his answer. That’s Heraclitus the obscure for you!

Incidentally, I don’t read Greek, so you will have to take my comments on the fragments of Heraclitus as referring to their English translation. In fact, the version I am looking at now, as I try to comment on your question, is due to GWT Patrick. This is rather an old translation (1889) but I have not found that reading anything more recent alters my answer.

The key to understanding Heraclitus lies in grasping the meaning of expressions such as ‘flux and process’ and the ‘unity of opposites’.

In talking about flux, it is usually the case to stress that fire is a key element for Heraclitus, and that this means that he regards nothing as permanent. The cosmos is in a state of perpetual flux, and this view is often contrasted with the Milesian philosophers search for a constant, an arche; something which is unchanged throughout the perpetual change which the perceptual world seems to suggest is the norm. Or as Heraclitus famously puts it himself;

"Into the same river you could not step twice, for other and still other waters are flowing."

Or, even more mysteriously,

"Into the same river we both step and do not step. We both are and are not."

And Heraclitus also says;

"All things are exchanged for fire and fire for all things, just as wares for gold and gold for wares."

This all suggests that Heraclitus is denying that there is anything permanent; all is in flux, to be consumed by eternal fire. There is nothing wrong about this view; it is the orthodox one and can be strongly supported by reference to the fragments. But all is not as it seems in the words of Heraclitus. Things can change almost constantly and still retain an identity. Take the metaphor of the river — surely a good example of something which is ever flowing and ever-changing. Yet a river cannot be a river unless it is constantly changing in this way. If a river ceases to flow, then it arguably stops being a river, and becomes something else — a lake, say. The ship of Theseus can still (arguably) be the ship of Theseus even though it has changed considerably through constant repair and improvement over the years.

Heraclitus would no doubt argue that if you wish to find a permanent feature in the cosmos, then you should stop looking for a substance, and look for a process instead. Fire is a metaphor for this process. Even in the case of the Milesian philosophers, it is still possible to discern an interest in an underlying process rather than searching for an unchanging stuff, or arche. Was it not Anaximenes, who, whilst suggesting that air might be the permanent underlying substratum of reality, nevertheless identified observable reality as being the result of changes in this substance? Air could become more rarefied or solidified, and so perpetual change would be a feature of the cosmos just as much as the permanence of air.

As if to reinforce his insistence on a process of change rather than a permanent unchanging substance, Heraclitus is also seen to stress an underlying rule (i.e. ‘logos’ ) in the cosmos, which is often referred to as the ‘unity of opposites’. We can find the following among the fragments of the works of Heraclitus;

"Cold becomes warm, and warm, cold; wet becomes dry, and dry, wet They do not understand: how that which separates unites with itself. It is a harmony of oppositions, as in the case of the bow and of the lyre.

‘Unite whole and part, agreement and disagreement, accordant and discordant; from all comes one, and from one all."

There are more examples of these to be found. In the cosmos, an object moves from point A to point B, thus creating a change, but the underlying law remains the same. Thus, a unity of opposites is present in the universe. So I would argue that Heraclitus would not disagree outright with much of the wording of your question, which states that the underlying logos of the cosmos is permanence. He might use the same words but insist that the underlying logos is change, not permanence.

Instead of saying (as in your quote),

‘… the objects we see around us continue to endure throughout time; although a person, an animal or plant may change its superficial qualities, it still remains essentially the same person, animal or plant throughout these changes. In fact, we recognize change only by contrasting it to the underlying permanence of things. So permanence, not change, is the essential to reality,’

Heraclitus might say,

‘… the objects we see around us perpetually change throughout time; although a person, an animal or plant may remain the same in its superficial qualities, it is always in flux. In fact, we recognize permanence only by contrasting it to the underlying changing of things. So change, not permanence, is the essential to reality.’

Is it not possible to regard permanence and change as being opposites, to be included in Heraclitus’s own idea of the unity of opposites? Perhaps it is possible to argue that permanence and flux are a matter of perspective, and furthermore, that Heraclitus seems to capture something important about them in his logos.

 

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