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Heraclitus on the logos and the unity of opposites


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus on the logos and the unity of opposites
Date: 25 May 2007 11:45

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 17 May, with your two University of London essays on Heraclitus, in response to the questions, 'What is the Heraclitean logos that people do not comprehend?' and 'In what sense or senses does Heraclitus believe in the "unity of opposites"?'


The title of the essay could have been, 'Examine Heraclitus' theory of the Logos,' or, 'What is the "Logos" according to Heraclitus?' I therefore think it is significant that the question pointedly alludes to Heraclitus' claim that the many do not comprehend the Logos.

Could any of Milesians have said this? Anaximander's theory of the Apeiron is pretty deep and complex. Couldn't he have said, 'The many do not understand the nature of the Apeiron'? Only in the sense that any philosopher tends to look down his nose at the opinions of non-philosophers.

One possible view, not wholly convincing, is that this is merely a reflection of Heraclitus' character: distant, disdainful, contemptuous of the low intelligence of most mortals. An alternative possibility - which I think the examiner may be hinting at - is that there is something especially ironic, or remarkable, or perhaps even inevitable in the failure of the many to comprehend the Logos.

Despite the careful way that you pick apart the fragments referring to the Logos, I think you've missed this.

Fr. 101 'I searched out myself' seems particularly pertinent, especially in relation to the other things Heraclitus says about the soul. This is Heraclitus' description of what the philosopher does. You look into your self and what you find is the Logos because that's just what a person's soul IS, and this Logos is nothing other than the fundamental principle of all things.

I realize that one short fragment is pretty tenuous evidence, but it was considered important enough to preserve.

It is therefore a supreme irony, to say the least, that the majority do not comprehend the Logos. They go about in a state which is barely distinguishable from a dream. They do not know themselves. They are not awake.

There is another possible angle - which can be taken independently of the point about the Logos in us - which has to do with the extreme difficulty of comprehending the world as Heraclitus sees it. Anaximander's Apeiron theory is tame by comparison. Because what the Logos theory says is that there are no things, no substance, nothing constant or stable. The very language which we use to describe the world as we find it is fatally defective from a philosophical point of view - hence the paradoxes and constant attempts to trip up language in order to reveal its defective nature. No wonder that the Logos is only comprehended by the few.

It depends a lot on who your examiners will be, how much they want to hear these kinds of claims which, consistent with the evidence though they may be, go some way beyond merely expounding the fragments and suggesting possible interpretations. You do need to bear in mind the wording of the question, but this can be done equally well by considering theories then dismissing them or suspending judgement for lack of evidence.

Unity of opposites

One thing I missed here was any sense of contrast with the 'traditional interpretation' which you refer to several times. On the traditional interpretation, i.e. the one given by Plato, a table or a mountain IS a 'flame' or 'river'. There is no 'substance' there, only a stable image caused by constant change. For Plato, the only genuine unities are the Forms, while the Heraclitean world became his model for the world of phenomena.

Consider the bow or the lyre. To observer that there is a constant tension of opposing forces is in one sense unremarkable. There is such a thing as tension. We all know that. If you have any doubt, cut the string. From the point of view of modern mechanics, this would be understood in terms of the notions of force and potential energy. This description was unavailable to Heraclitus. Force can't be seen, only its effects in movement and change.

An image Heraclitus might have appeal to, in line with the image of the river or fire, would be two opposing armies battling it out. From a distance, there is no change, neither army is giving any ground. But close up what we see is a constant process of fighting and dying.

By contrast, the 'modern' interpretation (preferred, e.g. by Kirk et. al.) is that everything is changing, but some things, like tables or mountains, only change very slowly. It is less clear, however, why in that case Heraclitus says what he says about the opposites. What point is he making?

On either view, we have to look at the dialectical context. Heraclitus was battling with a way of seeing things which he thought was fundamentally flawed. The Presocratics talk of things like 'the hot', 'the cold', 'the light', 'the dark' as if these were entities which existed in themselves rather than merely as determinable magnitudes, or relative positions in a continuum. (In the Pathways Presocratics program I suggest that Anaximenes saw this too.) This is consistent with the Kirk interpretation.

On the other hand, if we go for the stronger, Platonic view then the examples of opposites are needed to loosen the hold of 'substantival' thinking. Nothing simply 'is'. It is possible that Heraclitus, obscurely, thought that all the ways in which opposites are related - perspectival, by contrast, cyclical, in tension - are simultaneously instantiated in every so-called 'thing'. That is to say, one could undertake an Heraclitean analysis, with regard, e.g. to this desk, or a mountain, showing 'its' dependence on perspective, contrast etc.

As with the logos theory, there is much room to speculate and so one has to show due awareness of how far an interpretative hypothesis is required in order to make sense of the data, as opposed to merely being consistent with that data.

All the best,