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Heraclitus: you never step into the same river twice


To: Robert A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus: you never step into the same river twice
Date: 1 June 2001 11:56

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 May, with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, on Heraclitus’ aphorism, ‘Upon those that step into the same rivers different and different waters flow...they scatter and gather, come together and flow away, approach and depart’.

This is a model essay, well thought out and argued. You have done well to integrate what Heraclitus says about the unity of opposites with the view that change is the fundamental principle of reality. The two quotes (‘All that can be seen, hear, experienced...’, ‘Let us not make random conjectures...’) add nice touches.

Change, not numbers, not substance, is what holds reality together, makes it one. Your essay has enabled me to see something which I haven’t seen before, and that is exciting for me. In the unit on Heraclitus, I unfavourably contrast the ‘revisionary’ interpretation of Heraclitus according to which all he is claiming is that change is universal, with the Platonic interpretation which is far more radical, involving the denial of the reality of substance. - I wonder whether your essay suggests a third possibility?

As an empirical ‘proof’ of his theory of Monads, Leibniz once challenged the aristocrats of the Hanoverian court to find two leaves which were identical in all their attributes. If two such leaves had been found, however, it would not have disproved Leibniz’s view that every individual is uniquely individuated by its properties, “No two objects differ ‘sole numero’.” The reason such a discovery would not count as a disproof of the Monad theory is that, included amongst a thing’s properties is its ‘point of view’ that it occupies in relation to the rest of the universe. Even if we cannot detect it from an external examination, the leaf on the left ‘perceives’ the universe differently from the leaf on the right.

I think one ought to say the same thing about an imaginary challenge that Heraclitus might have issued to his contemporaries, to find a physical object that exists for some period of time without changing, even minutely. Supposing such an object were found, why should that disprove the metaphysical principle that change is the fundamental principle?

Now one possible reply, along the same lines as the defence of the Monad theory, is that even if a thing does not physically change, its relations to other things are changing constantly. I don’t like that, however. Suppose one had a stone, say, that did not change, we should still have to give some account of its continued existence, what it is that ‘keeps it going’ in its stone-hood. If ‘it’s made of unchanging stuff’ is not the answer, then what? Heraclitus’ reply might be, ‘What you see is a temporary stalemate between opposing forces, which is dynamic and not merely static. Energy, force, the impulse to movement is the sole reality. When forces balance, then the appearance of a ‘static substance’ arises.’

I like this a lot more than the interpretation which I assumed, e.g. Kirk et al to be putting forward. The idea of an object as the product of a tug-of-war does indeed seem a serious challenger to the Platonic view, which would make Heraclitus’ theory a version of Whiteheadian process philosophy. Maybe I should give Kirk another look!

It is indeed difficult, within the context of Newtonian mechanics, to overlook the difference between an object accelerating under the influence of a force and two opposed forces acting on the same object (the difference between falling to earth under the influence of gravity, and having landed there). Only the movement qualifies as ‘change’. In Heraclitus’ mind, if we can get inside there, there seems to be the idea that the second of the two states is itself one of constant movement. One might imagine, say, two Sumo wrestlers constantly moving, feinting, trying first one hold than another, while neither makes any forward progress. If only we could see through appearances, we would observe that very struggle in the bow and the lyre. Yes, I like it.

I have nothing else to comment on what you have written. I’ve looked hard for criticisms to make of your essay, but I can’t find any. Well done!

All the best,