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Heraclitus on the unity of opposites


To: Ruy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus on the unity of opposites
Date: 19th March 2010 13:09

Dear Ruy,

Thank you for your email of 13 March, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the two questions, 'In what sense or senses does Heraclitus believe in the 'unity of opposites'?' and 'How should we understand Heraclitus' claim that opposites are one? Does this claim commit him to inconsistency?'

First of all, in your email you expressed the worry that 'time is not on my side'. My advice to you would be to not panic.

It is very important at this stage that you carefully review the parts of the syllabus which you have covered, in relation to the usual (and to a considerable extent predictable) spread of examination questions. Which kinds of question, or what topics, would be your first choice? or your second choice? Don't lose what you already have -- your understanding of the topics you have covered in attempting to cover new ground.

Your answer to the two questions is good so far as it goes, but it doesn't really tackle the issue of logical consistency. What you do, is offer thoughts on the nature of the Logos, which would be an answer to a different question, such as, 'What does Heraclitus mean by the Logos?'

A good answer to either of the two questions about the unity of opposites would review the different kinds of 'unity of opposites' that Heraclitus refers to in the fragments, with an example of each. What is the principle illustrated behind each example, or set of examples? I can't write this essay for you, but you will find it in my notes, and also in a text book on the Presocratics. There are at least three distinct kinds of example.

Having analysed the different ways in which for Heraclitus opposites form a 'unity' the next task is to decide whether he is in fact falling into inconsistency (or, in some versions of this question, 'denying the law of non-contradiction'). To say that A is 'the same' as not-A in the sense in which this entails a logical contradiction, Heraclitus would have to be committed to holding that A and not-A are the same in the same respect, at the same time, and from the same point of view. The standard defence of Heraclitus would be that he never says this. There is always a change in time, or respect, or point of view.

That would earn you a mark in the mid-60s. However, you could go on to consider whether that defence of Heraclitus is just a little bit too 'easy', and whether, in fact Heraclitus did in fact intend to make a stronger claim, to the effect that the world somehow defies ordinary human logic (as hinted in your second paragraph) so that any attempt to describe reality in its fundamental aspect in some sense requires that we make contradictory statements.

With regard to the traditional interpretation of Heraclitus, as a defender of the traditional view I would argue that Heraclitus is not well served by his student Cratylus, or Plato for that matter. We need to distinguish levels when talking about the world or reality. There is the mundane level, where we identify objects or entities such as 'a river', 'a tree', 'a chair', 'a man', and the metaphysical level which exhibits the true nature of reality which cannot be approached using ordinary descriptive language. Hence the need to resort to metaphors and images.

The examples of a fire, or a river, are images for what exists at the fundamental level -- a constant process of change. A philosopher I mention in the unit on Heraclitus is Whitehead, who evidently saw his theory of process as in some sense vindicating Heraclitus' view.

For Whitehead, reality is composed of events at the fundamental level. This gives rise to the world of 'objects' that we know and describe in language. The Logos fulfils the same function as is served by the eternal Forms in Plato's two world theory.

Whitehead in fact claimed that all Western philosophy is 'merely footnotes to Plato'. Whitehead's process philosophy is Platonic insofar as the world we know arises out of two elements, the flow of events and the universals which give rise to repeatable patterns which we discern in language.

All the best,