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Heraclitus on the logos and change and Zeno on motion


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus on the logos and change and Zeno on motion
Date: 13 June 2007 12:39

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 7 June, with your three University of London Essays in response to the questions:

'What is the Heraclitean logos that people do not comprehend?' (Revised)

'In what sense, if any, does Heraclitus hold that everything is always changing?'

'What, if anything, can Zeno's paradoxes teach us about motion?'

I have to confess that I had a completely different picture of you, prior to seeing the photos from your Italian cruise. Reading your essays, your words seem to come across differently - such is the power of the image.

Heraclitus on the Logos

Your new work on this essay consists in the suggestion that the reason why people do not comprehend the Logos is because of their attachment to primitive animism.

This is not an implausible proposal, although it is not one that had occurred to me. Aren't all the Presocratics battling against primitive beliefs and superstitions?

I suppose you could argue that, e.g. Anaximenes has not fully expunged animism from his conception of air as Arche, likewise other theories where 'mind' is regarded as some kind of universal force. With 'logos' any trace of conscious intention is removed and all that remains is the bare conception of 'law'. Maybe.

The impression given by Heraclitus' fragments is that he is not just 'against' the ignorant multitude but also other philosophers who don't understand the true meaning of the Logos. He is not fighting on the side of philosophers against the non-philosophical, but rather on the side of the Logos against every other theory - every other philosopher. But this is a point where one can only speculate.

Heraclitus on change

I think I disagree with you about what are the two contrasting views of 'change' that can be attributed to Heraclitus.

Let us assume, on either view, that Heraclitus whatever else he was setting out to do, opposed the traditional view of the 'opposites' such as 'the hot' and 'the cold' in favour of the idea of 'determinable magnitudes, positions on a continuum.'

I've made the point before that this was not a novel idea, because Anaximenes with his single process, 'condensation/ rarefaction' in effect does this too.

So what is so new in Heraclitus? According to Kirk and Raven, Heraclitus believed that 'everything is changing' in the sense that, while some things are changing visibly and dramatically, other things change only imperceptibly. Take the most permanent thing you can think of, a gold medallion, if one could take a sufficiently close look - or, alternatively, wait a sufficiently long time, one would observe change.

Today, this would be regarded as unremarkable. Physics tells us that only atoms do not change (and even atoms can undergo changes in the energy level of their outer electrons). Things made up of atoms can never be permanent so long as there are any processes occurring around them. They will be affected in some way, if only imperceptibly.

The Platonic view I thought was opposed to this is the idea that there is no 'substance'. The appearance of relatively stable 'shapes' is a phenomenon which is explained in the way one explains the shape of a river or a flame. Hence, in Plato's world of appearances, there is nothing 'underlying' the sights and sounds that assail us. Permanence comes from the Forms. For Heraclitus, it comes from the Logos - which is perhaps not that very different (a point that Plato perhaps only grudgingly accepted).

You seem to want to propose a third explanation, that it is only our viewpoint that is 'constantly changing'. This, however, suggests a picture where on the metaphysical level there is, after all, permanent substance, and change exists only in our perceptions. It that case it would be true to say, in effect with Parmenides, that change is an illusion and that reality consists in unchangeable Being!

This is not to decry your strategy of seeking to focus on the correct interpretation via an examination of Heraclitus' view of opposites. This is the best clue we have as to his true intentions. However, as always, you need to make it very clear that you are going into this in order to answer the question. I would be much briefer in my account of the four ways in which opposites are related. You don't need to argue the case for your interpretation of the four ways - that would require an essay in itself.

Zeno on motion

This one has really got me beat. I can't think of any real criticisms to make. A thoroughly well-thought out and persuasive piece of work. Excellent.

However, just because this is my job, I'm going to try to ferret out something you might not have thought about.

You've mentioned a number of philosophers but not Bergson. Bergson saw the arrow paradox as illustrative of the false 'cinematographic' view of time as analysable into an infinite series of instants. In place of this he proposed his view of 'Duree', as the ultimate reality. You say that given duration, we have motion. But what is duration?

Taking our cue from Russell (see page 5), it can be argued, in Humean fashion, that the state of the universe at any given instant has no logical consequences for its state at any other instant. In that case, there is a possible world, experientially indistinguishable from the actual world, which does in fact consist in just that - a series of static states, like a movie film.

Taking this thought one stage further, if we start with the description of such a world, what does it take to put the 'duration' or the 'motion' back in? The mathematical notion of continuity comes as close as one is able to get, but arguably still only gives an ersatz notion of duration.

These thoughts are obscure, and I'm not a Bergson expert (you can look up the article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia). However, they suggest that Zeno might have embraced the modern mathematical analysis of the infinite as final evidence of the truth of the Parmenidean view of reality.

All the best,