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

Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming that opposites are true?


To: Shan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming that opposites are true?
Date: 24th February 2009 12:48

Dear Shan,

Thank you for your email of 14 February, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'How should we understand Heraclitus's claim that opposites are true? Does the claim commit him to an inconsistency?'

This is in many ways a model answer to the question which gives me very little to comment on. There is nothing that you say which one might take exception to. You have covered all the main kinds of assertions about opposites and given plausible interpretations which show that Heraclitus is not involved in inconsistency, committed to denying the law of non-contradiction.

All of which leaves one wondering, 'Why all the fuss?' If we could transport Heraclitus in a time machine and persuade him to sit in on a logic seminar, can we envisage that he would have any objections to the account given of his philosophy of opposites, or to the seemingly plausible construction placed on his words?

I have a niggling feeling about this, and wonder whether you have too.

Heraclitus thought he was making statements that few men could understand, claims that were incredibly daring and paradoxical. And here we are, nodding our heads and saying, 'Of course, why not.'

It is worth at least trying to construct an alternative picture of a view that Heraclitus might have wanted to put forward, which he argued for indirectly by means of these seemingly anodyne examples, hoping that somehow the combined effect would eventually produce comprehension.

At any rate, as a matter of historical fact, subsequent philosophers have 'seen more' in Heraclitus, notably Hegelians and Marxists which at least gives one pause for thought.

Here is one possibility: We have seen Heraclitus observing that various qualities apply to things only from given points of view. Sea water is good for fishes but bad for men. The road is 'up' or down depending on which way you are going, and so on. What if he was not merely giving *examples* of how things can be seen from different points of view, but rather advancing the thesis that *every* property -- without exception -- is relative to a given perspective, in such a way that there will always be a perspective from which it has the opposite property?

On this hypothesis, Heraclitus is doing nothing less than attack the very basis of language itself. Nothing 'is' anything. Or rather, whatever a thing 'is' it also 'is not'. Not even when you get down to the basic constitution of matter. At rock bottom, there is 'fire' but the term 'fire' does not refer to an entity with properties but rather to the 'backstretched connection' itself, a live tension between opposites.

I may have mentioned to you before the 'principle of charity' which is a methodological rule for interpreting a philosopher requiring that (other things being equal) we put a coherent rather than an incoherent construction on their words. Rather than be quick to convict a philosopher of a fallacy, one looks for an interpretation according to which they are arguing for something valid and true.

However, it could also be argued that there are times when we should also be concerned with seeing something deep or interesting in a philosopher's vision, even if this results in attributing incoherence. I do think that there is a case for saying this with Heraclitus. He didn't want to say something anodyne. He wanted to shock his readers, stir them out of their complacency.

The thesis that 'there can be no language' was taken seriously enough by Plato, in his dialogue Cratylus. That is at least one piece of evidence that Heraclitus was indeed trying to stir things up, and Plato saw this.

I mentioned Hegel and Marx. A.N. Whitehead (collaborator with Russell on 'Principia Mathematica') in his treatise 'Process and Reality' argues for a metaphysical view according to which our everyday language, referring as it does to entities which persist through time, inevitably falsifies reality, that is to say hides its true ontological structure. In these terms, every statement that we utter is 'false', yet there is no way to convey the 'truth' other than in general terms. The metaphysician F.H. Bradley in 'Appearance and Reality', argues that ordinary language is condemned to self-contradiction because of its reliance on the apparatus of terms and relations -- notions which Bradley has proven (or thinks he has proven) to be self-contradictory. The only thing free from contradiction is the Absolute, in which all contradictions are resolved, yet we have no means of describing the Absolute in language. We can only know it negatively.

My hunch is that if we could put Heraclitus in a time machine, he would feel right at home with these thinkers, and scorn the laxity of the analytic approach which tries every means to defend our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking.

All the best,