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Heraclitus on the unity of opposites


To: Sean K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus on the unity of opposites
Date: 7th January 2009 12:48

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 18 December, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, entitled, 'Heraclitus and the lessons of opposition'.

I am sorry that I was not able to respond to this sooner. I came back to my office on Monday, facing an avalanche of work. I hope that you had an enjoyable holiday.

This is an excellent piece of work. Your primary focus is the question whether or not Heraclitus 'violated' the principle of non-contradiction. However, the scope of the essay extends to an appreciation of what Heraclitus set out to achieve, -- against the background of Milesian theories of an Arche -- and whether, or to what extent, we can say that he succeeded in his aim, whatever that aim might have been.

Two observations stand out as aspects of Heraclitus' thought which I can say, in all honesty, I have not previously given much consideration. The first is your observation regarding the nature of fire: 'One important property of fire... is... motion of a perhaps very random sort'. In other words, war, play, fire are chaotic, in principle unpredictable processes. They break things down, so that they can be built up again. Presumably, it is the function of the logos to do the breaking down, as well as the building up.

One wonders, seriously, whether this is not too much to ask of a single principle. Ought there not to be two fundamental forces (like Empedocles 'love' and 'hate')? With our physical and mechanical understanding of the universe it is easy enough (well, not 'easy') to see how the very same laws of nature which break apart and destroy can also build (e.g. through crystallization, natural selection, etc.).

All Heraclitus had to say is, 'What do you expect, creation is destruction, and destruction is creation?' (or words to that effect). And now the suspicion is that he really is falling under the spell of his own rhetoric -- just as revolutionary Marxists are accused of doing, inspired by the Hegelian dialectic. (One wouldn't make this accusation of Hegel.)

I would have liked to have seen you draw more of the consequences of your observation. Too much of the focus in discussions of Heraclitus is on Logos as the 'law of process' but this one-sidedly ignores the chaotic aspect.

The second observation, which struck me with considerable force, is where you say, 'We have no cogent frame of reference into the nature of the Logos. This hidden Logos makes everything one and from the perspective of the gods where we see plurality they see unity.' What immediately came to mind is Thomas Nagel's 'View From Nowhere.' Walking up the road, we only see the road up. Our knowledge of the road is essentially perspectival, as is all human knowledge based on experience. Yet the objective facts are not perspectival. The clash between the subjective and objective standpoints becomes an important issue with Heraclitus, in a way which it is not for his predecessors.

Both the Milesians and Heraclitus accept the principle -- which is the basic premiss of any philosophical account of reality -- that things are not necessarily as they appear. However, it is only Heraclitus who sees beyond the merely superficial, 'This piece of wood is really water (or air, or whatever)' to a deeper truth which cannot be expressed in terms of 'what things are really made of'.

All though you mention Barnes' pouring cold water on Heraclitus' assertions about opposites, you manage somehow to avoid what is a significant point of debate: whether, in fact, Heraclitus held the views about process attributed to him by Plato -- in effect, that all objects, including stones and tables, 'flow' like rivers -- or whether he merely held (as Kirk, Raven and Schofield assert) that all physical things undergo a process of change, although some things change quickly while others slowly. If he didn't hold the more extreme view, what was he trying to say?

Maybe one of the reasons why so many philosophers and commentators find Heraclitus fascinating is not just that the fragments are open to different interpretations, but that he really did try to say too much. There are so many directions in which one can take his thought. Hegel's dialectic, Whitehead's process philosophy, the physical equation of matter and energy, the clash between the subjective and objective standpoints are all ways of continuing along the path which Heraclitus laid out.

Thank you for this essay which I found a fascinating read.

All the best,