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Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites
Date: 18th December 2008 12:39

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 7 December, with your timed essay in response to the 2007 University of London Plato and the Presocratics essay, 'Explain the content and importance of Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites.'

On the whole, this is a very good essay.

At the beginning, I was worried that you were trying to answer a different question ('Does Heraclitus doctrine of the unity of opposites violate the law of non-contradiction?') although it became quickly clear that you were merely calling attention to the paradoxical-seeming aspect of Heraclitus' pronouncements.

Be careful, though, when you do this in an exam. Examiners tend to make snap judgements (generally, as an examiner I have already provisionally assigned a mark by the end of the third or fourth paragraph).

I liked the way you distinguished two senses of 'importance', viz. importance for Heraclitus' own theory, and for his relation to his contemporaries, and importance in the subsequent history of philosophy. What the examiner is asking is, 'What is so great and original about Heraclitus' theory of the unity of opposites?'

One of the things that Heraclitus clearly intends to do is challenge the then accepted view of 'the opposites' as having some kind of substantival existence -- 'the hot', 'the cold', 'the light', 'the dense'. Yet Anaximenes had already done this in his theory of condensation/ rarefaction which shows that what we think of as 'opposites' are merely relative positions on a scale. There is no such thing as 'the dense' as such, but merely different gradations of density. There is no such thing as 'the hot' as such, but merely different degrees of heat. Today, we find these observations obvious, but they were not so in the time of the Presocratics.

By making this point, you will have prepared the ground for what is Heraclitus' unique contribution, namely, the rejection of a 'static' view of reality as so much 'stuff' combining and recombining (as exemplified by Anaximenes' air) in favour of a dynamic view, where it is the Logos itself which provides the ultimately 'constant' feature, and the relative permanencies which we perceive are merely products of the dynamism.

In putting the matter this way, I am admittedly slurring over the question of whether Heraclitus believes that what we term 'things' actually flow like rivers, or whether his view was in fact less 'extreme' than the picture painted by Plato of 'Heraclitean flux'.

This is an issue which is very relevant to the question. As you observe, Whitehead's process philosophy appears to owe a considerable debt to Heraclitus. But would it be correct to view Heraclitus as claiming that the ultimate reality is not that of 'substances' but rather of 'events'?

A slightly less important point would be your choice of examples of statements Heraclitus makes about opposites. I would have thought that, in order to fully answer the question you need to do some logical analysis in separating out the different kinds of example that Heraclitus gives of 'unity of opposites' and showing how they work. You do this to some extent, but you could have been more explicit.

What exactly is the significance of the 'money' metaphor in Heraclitus' remark about fire being the common 'coin of exchange' between water, earth etc, 'like goods for gold'. Is he saying that water and earth are 'really' fire? Or is the 'everlasting cosmic fire' a different metaphysical level of description from the 'fire' which we see in the world? In that case, the 'fire' we see in the world is just another kind of stuff which exemplifies the properties of the 'cosmic fire' better than water or earth do. The point about 'exchanging goods for gold' is that each exchange is governed by a rule of exchanging things of the 'same value'. In other words, the Logos defines a law of exchange, which in many ways is a precursor to the modern idea of a 'scientific law'.

You also mention that Heraclitus goes 'against common sense', but don't say enough to justify this. Is the view that 'war is the father of all things' against common sense? Considering the time when Heraclitus was writing, a time of continual political struggles and war, it would have been considered 'common sense' that war is an inevitable part of the process of political change. Certainly, this is not the most 'paradoxical' of the things Heraclitus says. Whereas, the claim that a chair or a table is 'like a river' is definitely against common sense (IF that is what Heraclitus claimed).

All the best,