philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Heraclitus: we cannot step into the same river twice


To: Gerard M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus: we cannot step into the same river twice
Date: 26 July 2007 16:21

Dear Gerard,

Thank you for your email of 25 July, with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, 'On the Assertion of Heraclitus that We Cannot Step into the same River Twice.'

Your essay highlights two problematic aspects of the things we normally think of as 'entities' or 'objects'.

The first problematic aspect is that things change over time. You give the example of a candle, which starts off twelve inches long and then after burning for a few hours is found to be only six inches long.

The second problematic aspect is that things do not exist independently of other things but as part of a complex interconnected causal network. If you took that surrounding network away the thing could not exist. Applying this to the candle: the candle was manufactured at such and such a time, out of pre-existing materials which themselves have an origin which is either manufactured or natural etc. etc.

I think that you are right in identifying the first of these two problems with questions raised directly by Heraclitus, e.g. in what he says about the river. I don't think it is all that Heraclitus wanted to say, but it captures a problem which exercised other Presocratic philosophers besides Heraclitus, namely, how there can be identity in change, and if we pursue this question it does lead us to the core of Heraclitus' philosophy.

It is fair to say that the majority of contemporary analytic philosophers would not regard the problem of explaining how there can be identity in change as an impossible challenge. Our conceptual scheme is founded on the identification of relatively permanent spatio-temporal 'objects' which are defined in terms of an 'essence' which does not change, and 'accidents' which do change. This is a distinction which goes back to Aristotle.

Consider an individual human being. It is part of the 'essence' of a human being to be alive. We say that 'John F. Kennedy no longer exists' meaning that JFK has died. His remains lie buried in the ground, but the remains of JFK are not JFK. By contrast it is not part of JFK's essence to be President of the United States, or the husband of Jackie, or have a full head of hair, or to be 40 years old etc. etc.

However, if we put this point to Heraclitus, he would respond that our 'conceptual scheme', whose basis is ultimately pragmatic, fails to get down to the ultimate root of things. It is in fact very difficult to say precisely what the 'criteria of identity' for a given thing, for example, a person. These are rough and ready distinctions but not reflections of ultimate metaphysical reality.

In order to maintain this view, however, it is not enough to point out something we know already, that there is a degree of vagueness in the way we distinguish between 'essence' and 'accidents' or the criteria of identity of an object. It is necessary to go further and claim that there is in fact a deeper, truer description of things which does not depend on our ordinary conceptual scheme. I think this is what Heraclitus believed. He believed that the true description of things is in terms of events rather than in terms of Aristotelian 'substances'. No-one can ever give this description literally, but one can hint at the ultimate reality by using analogies and paradoxes.

I said there were two problematic aspects and that only one of these can be attributed directly to Heraclitus. The other aspect seems much closer to what Spinoza maintained, when he said that there is only one substance, 'Deus sive Natura'. Taking the Cartesian definition of substance as something which does not depend on anything else in order to exist, Spinoza reasoned that what we term ordinary substances, like a candle or a tomato, or our own selves, do have a dependent existence, in just the same way that the red of the tomato or the white of the candle depend on the substance in which they inhere. What are ordinarily termed 'things' or 'substances' are merely properties of the one ultimate substance.

However, even if this view cannot be attributed directly to Heraclitus, I will concede that a case can be made that in a universe conceived as ultimately made up of events rather than Aristotelian substances, there must be one thing that exists which is not an event but rather that which the event ultimately happens TO. And that would be very close to Spinoza's 'one substance'.

All the best,