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The Logos of Heraclitus


To: Namet I.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The Logos of Heraclitus
Date: 11 January 2007 10:03

Dear Namet Ilahi,

Thank you for your email of 31 December with your essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What is the logos and why did Heraclitus think it was important?'

This is a good general summary of Heraclitus' view of the Logos, which raises several interesting issues.

The first concerns your correct observation that the word 'logos' in Greek is a common term which Heraclitus has taken for a special use or meaning. This raises the problem of how one can tell when Heraclitus is using the term in its common sense and when he is using it in his special sense.

You suggest that in the remark, 'One must follow what is common, but although the logos is common, most men live as if they had a private understanding,' Heraclitus is using the word logos in both the 'common' and 'specific' senses.

I would venture the following very simple hypothesis regarding the logos: Heraclitus has a logos, AN account or theory or explanation. He believes that this is the one true account. Therefore it is, for him, THE logos. Everyone has their own theory, their own view. But in reality there is only one true theory, and that is the one that he has put forward.

That is just what truth is: that which is common for all. The claim that there is 'one truth for all', was later challenged by the Sophist Protagoras as we will see in unit 14. However, for Heraclitus, as for the other Presocratics, truth is absolute not relative.

However, there is something additional in this remark which is not captured merely by the observation that the truth is the same truth for all. And that is the suggestion that the logos, being the very substance of the human mind, is available to those who look into themselves, as Heraclitus did (hence his statement 'I looked into myself', which is rather puzzling at first sight). This suggests something almost mystical, beyond philosophy, the idea that by meditation one can discover the ultimate truth by contemplating the nature of one's own mind or soul.

You say several times that the logos is responsible for 'harmony'. There is a sense in which this is true, if we understand by 'harmony' a state of relative stability, which gives rise to a world of identifiable objects and features. However, it is vitally important for Heraclitus that this stability arises out of a constant struggle, the 'back-stretched connection as in a bow or a lyre'. So this is a radically different kind of harmony from the harmony of agreement, where things - or persons - are working together harmoniously for a common goal.

Apart from questions of precise interpretation, however, there is a deeper issue concerning the importance of the logos. Obviously, any philosopher who puts forward a theory after deep study and reflection thinks that their theory is 'important'. Moreover, Heraclitus demonstrated in numerous ways his fanatical dedication to the cause of philosophy and reason. But it seems to me that there is also a specific reason in Heraclitus' case.

The Logos Heraclitus has put forward is, he claims, the truth. It is important to know the truth. Moreover, the Logos tells us the truth about ultimate things and it is especially important to know the truth about ultimate things. But that goes without saying. There is something else, which we discover when we compare the logos of Heraclitus to the logos (in the common sense) of any of the other Presocratic philosophers: and that is that there simply IS nothing else.

All the other Presocratic Philosophers believed in substance. Their different accounts of the cosmos all agreed on one point: that there is something permanent which is there at all times, the very stuff of reality, even while phenomena shift and change. But that is not so for Heraclitus. Apart from the phenomena there is nothing but the logos, the permanent law governing appearances. This was his great legacy to the history of philosophy.

The interesting question remains whether we should view the theory of a universe in process as a contribution to physics, or to metaphysics. I remark on this in the unit on Heraclitus. Either way, the Logos of Heraclitus acquires a different level of importance.

All the best,