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Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming opposites are one?


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming opposites are one?
Date: 30th September 2008

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 19 September, with your University of London Greek Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'How do we understand Heraclitus's claim that opposites are one? Does this claim commit him to inconsistency?'

This is a good essay, which shows that you have made a concerted effort to get to grips with the philosophy of Heraclitus. However, it reads a bit like an answer to a different question, e.g. 'Explain the role of the doctrine of the unity of opposites in the philosophy of Heraclitus, and its relation to Heraclitus' notion of the Logos.' (This isn't an actual UoL question, I just made it up, but you get the general idea.)

Although in various parts you do say most of what is needed to answer the question you have chosen as the topic for your essay, you need to focus more on the question itself.

The first thing you need to do is explain what it WOULD take to show that Heraclitus is committed to an inconsistency. What is inconsistency? how is it defined? can you give an example of what would be an inconsistent statement, in relation to the kinds of things that Heraclitus says?

Suppose Heraclitus had said, 'Athens is Sparta.' That's a pretty daft thing to say. But on the assumption that 'Athens' refers to Athens, and 'Sparta' refers to Sparta -- in other words, that the names of the city states are being used in their normal sense -- then this is inconsistent. Two different entities can't be the same entity. Or suppose Heraclitus had said, 'A horse is a cow.' A horse can't be a cow without ceasing to be a horse. So that too would be inconsistent (It is a different question whether it is possible for a horse to transform into a cow.)

The general principle we are using would be something like this: In order to convict Heraclitus of inconsistency, we need to find at least one example where Heraclitus asserts, of some x, that it has property F and property not-F, at the same time, in the same respect, from the same point of view etc.

Armed with this principle, you can then examine the different assertions that Heraclitus makes about opposites. You will gain marks if you are able to sort these into types, e.g. change over time, things appearing different from different points of view and so on. You have done this to a significant extent.

The examples of Athens/ Sparta and horse/ cow aren't very interesting because they don't even look like possible candidates for being 'opposites'. The problem is, anything which does look like a candidate for being an 'opposite', has a Heraclitus-style explanation of why the assertion of identity is not inconsistent. There is something to think about there. What IS an 'opposite'? how is that term used? What would be an example of an inconsistent statement about the identity of opposites?

Another angle which you could consider is whether Heraclitus goes *too far* in asserting identity. The examples themselves look acceptable enough; the question is whether, in generalizing from those examples, Heraclitus is perhaps tempted into making an assertion which is inconsistent. We are told that everything is 'fire', and you offer the helpful suggestion that Heraclitus could be understood, from a contemporary perspective, as asserting that everything is a form of energy. The problem with that is that it fails to differentiate Heraclitus sufficiently from his predecessors, a point which you go to some lengths to explain at the beginning of your essay.

Anaximenes held that hot, cold, wet, dry, heavy, light etc. etc. are all properties on a continuous scale, which are accounted for by the single process of condensation-rarefaction. If we are looking for the first Presocratic philosopher to assert the 'unity of opposites' then it would be Anaximenes not Heraclitus. So what exactly does Heraclitus add or change in this picture of a continuum in order to reach his conclusion? and is this perhaps a step too far?

A possible key lies in issue which you mention in your essay but don't go into, the question of the Platonic/ Aristotelian reading of Heraclitus. One view which might plausibly be attributed to Heraclitus is that according to which everything in the universe is in the process of undergoing change -- slowly or quickly. A house on fire undergoes a process of rapid change, whereas a stone changes relatively slowly over time. However, on the alternative Platonic reading, everything in the universe, everything that we call an 'object' is in fact like a river. Contrary to what Anaximenes believed, a stone has no 'substance', it is not 'made' of anything as such. Rather it is merely the stable image of a constant process of flux.

I don't think this is off topic. It is fairly easy to defend Heraclitus against the charge of inconsistency, as long as one stays at the level of common-or-garden examples. The question is, or ought to be, whether he held a view which many philosophers (though by no means all, A.N. Whitehead in Process and Reality would be an important exception) regard as inconsistent, the idea that nothing in the universe 'is' -- there is no 'substance' -- but rather everything 'becomes'.

All the best,