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Essays on Heraclitus, Descartes and Parmenides


To: Randy W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Heraclitus, Descartes and Parmenides
Date: 31 October 2005 13:04

Dear Randy,

Thank you for, your email of 20 October, 21 October and 29 October, with your University of London essays in response to the questions,

In what sense or senses does Heraclitus believe in the unity of opposites?

'The difference between the Cartesian and his opponent is a difference of view about the relation between the concept of a person on the one hand and the concept of a person's mind on the other' (Strawson). Discuss.

'One story, one road now is left: that it is.' Give a critical interpretation of the argument that leads Parmenides to this conclusion.

I have attached units from the Pathways Presocratics program which illustrate points which I make about your essays on Heraclitus and Parmenides.

Descartes and Strawson

Strawson's account of the concept of a person, as a unitary concept to which both psychological and physical predicates apply, has come under attack. Strawson seems unwilling to go all the way in rejecting dualism, as the materialist would do. This makes his position rather interesting.

You will find more about Strawson's view of persons in his book 'Individuals', Chapter 3.

For the purposes of this essay, it is important to be clear about the difference between the question whether Strawson's attack on Descartes notion of the self is valid, and the question whether Strawson has provided a coherent alternative to Descartes.

The '2M Descartes' as you call him, believes that I would still exist even in a world where no physical things exist. It is not until Meditation 6 that Descartes explicitly draws the conclusion that I am a 'mental substance' as distinguished from 'physical substance' and that the 'person' GK or RW is made up of two metaphysically distinct substances interacting with one another.

You are interested in the idea of a position distinct from 6M mind-body dualism, a position which remains agnostic on the question whether body exists. It remains the case, however, that the 2M Cartesian is still committed to the view that if body exists, then in addition to the thing I call 'I' there is an entity which I call 'my body' which plays a significant role in my experience.

You say, 'Strawson says that the Cartesian "must hold that the notion of an individual consciousness or mind is perfectly intelligible apart from the notion of a person whose mind or individual consciousness it is." But this is true only if we accept, as Strawson wants us to, that a person is composed of both a mind and a body. The 2M Cartesian is not sure at all that this is so, because he is not sure that the body exists in any real way.'

This doesn't seem to follow. A 'person' by Strawson's definition has a mind and a body. If 2M Descartes is agnostic over the question whether body exists then he must indeed hold that 'the notion of an individual consciousness or mind is perfectly intelligible apart from the notion of a person whose mind or individual consciousness it is'. If we are agnostic over the question of the existence of body, then this translates directly into agnosticism over the existence of a 'person' defined as that which has a mind and also a body.

Strawson's arguments against Descartes fall into two distinct categories. On the one hand he attacks the intelligibility of the Cartesian notion of a 'self' on the grounds that there is 'no entity without identity'. This is a logical objection (which originated in Kant's 'Paralogism so transcendental psychology', from the Second Part of the Critique of Pure Reason). There is no logical difference between one Cartesian I thinking the thoughts I am thinking now and a hundred such I's, or between one I who started this email and has reached paragraph 12, and twelve I's each of whom wrote a different paragraph, passing their memories on like a line of colliding pool balls (this is Kant's image).

I remember as a student objecting loudly that if there is no difference between 'one' and 'many' why doesn't that simply underline the fact that there is only one? I'll leave you to ponder why that is not a good objection.

Strawson's other line of argument looks rather quaint to a contemporary philosopher, but would have seemed less quaint to his contemporaries who were much closer to the 'ordinary language' approach. You could take the argument simply as an observation about the way we in fact apply the concept of a person, showing how odd Descartes' suggestion of a redefinition of the self in terms of purely, subjective, first person experience is. But of course this neglects the fact, as you correctly point out, that Descartes thinks he as a compelling argument for doing this. Familiar ways of thinking are not always correct.


This is a model answer to the question. My only real reservation concerns what it means to say that, 'everything in the universe is in constant flux or change'.

There are two distinct views about this. On the less extreme version, everything in the universe is undergoing change, either slowly or rapidly. A rock, for example, is changing imperceptibly, while a river or a burning log changes rapidly.

On the second, more extreme version, there is no such substance as 'rock' or 'wood' or 'water'. These 'things' to which we apply names are merely the more or less stable image produced by a succession of events of 'rock-ing', 'wood-ing', water-ing', in just the same way as what we term a 'river' does not refer to a thing but to the image produced by an underlying process. In other words, rocks, wood, and even water are not stuffs but 'rivers' or processes which are not processes 'of' anything. This is the sense in which Plato read Heraclitus. In the 20th century, the philosopher A.N. Whitehead in 'Process and Reality' gave a theory which combines Plato with Heraclitus.

Modern commentators tend to go with the less extreme version. The problem with this is that it gives a less convincing account of how the idea that 'everything is changing, if only imperceptibly' relates to the proposition 'all things are one'.

Anaximenes had already provided a plausible theory to explain why the so-called 'opposites' are not really opposite qualities but merely different points on a scale (of compression-rarefaction). Yet Heraclitus believed that he was offering something radically new. How does Heraclitus' theory differ from Anaximenes? What is the real difference between saying that everything is air (more or less compressed) and saying everything is fire (burning more or less intensely)?

On the second, Platonic reading, the explanation would be that whereas for Anaximenes the unity of the cosmos is accounted for by the fact that everything is made of the same stuff, for Heraclitus the unity is provided not by 'stuff' but rather by the Logos itself, the law which governs all change. So the rock and the wood are not forms of stuff but rather patterns created by the Logos.

Again, on the second reading, it is easier to understand why Heraclitus felt that he had to battle against language. The very fact that we use substantival expressions implies belief in 'substance'. This is why (I would argue) Heraclitus makes such a fuss about the opposites. It is as if he is telling us, 'Whenever you feel tempted to think that you have found something which is not relative, or which is not part of a necessary balance, or a complementary part of a whole, remember all the examples I have given you.' Anaximenes thought he had found something which was non-relative, namely air. Air always is what it is, only its density - the amount of air in any given place - changes. In doing so, he was, in Heraclitus' view, merely giving expression to the shallow, common sense view, that some things just are what they are, rather than holding their qualities only in relation to something else which has the opposite quality.


I like what you have tried to do here, in contrasting the 'physical' and 'metaphysical' readings.

Your analysis of Parmenides' argument, on the physical reading is very close to the one I would give. This is also Hamlyn's version. The crucial, and highly suspect premise, is, 'If something does not exist then it cannot exist.' This certainly looks like a blatant example of an elementary modal fallacy.

In the attached Pathways unit, there is an attempt to explain why, from Parmenides' perspective, this claim might have seemed compelling. Basically, the idea is that 'not' or 'negativity' cannot be part of reality itself. Whenever we say that something 'is not' it is either because it 'is' something else, or because something else 'is'. In other words, what Parmenides is trying to do is convey a vision of reality as it would be if only we did not attempt to apply words or concepts to it. Bradley and Sartre come to mind as two metaphysically minded philosophers who have tried to do a not so dissimilar thing.

I wouldn't exactly call this a 'physical' reading. Nor is it 'metaphysical' in your sense, namely an argument which is intended to apply merely to concepts.

The story of the 'physical' is told in Parmenides' 'Way of Opinion'. Everything we say about the physical world is false, for the reasons given, but Parmenides apparently seems prepared to allow us to indulge ourselves. It is not completely pointless to talk about things that are false. But philosophers are supposed to be concerned with the truth. And the truth is as he says it. Reality is 'solid' (but not physically solid), 'like a sphere' (but not spherical), 'limited' (but no particular size) and so on.

Going back to your metaphysical reading, to make this at all plausible, you would have to relate it to Parmenides deductions concerning the nature of what is (solid, like a sphere, limited etc.) While the argument starts off with, 'take any x' (take any object, take any concept) the conclusion is not about that object or that concept but about being, or the truth itself. His conclusion is clearly talking about one thing. This is easy enough to see on the physical reading. Whereas on your metaphysical reading, the conclusion is merely about that concept.

The examiners will be impressed by the fact that you have attempted to find a more plausible/ interesting interpretation. They will be more impressed, the more convincing you can make that interpretation.

All the best,