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Does Heraclitus deny the law of non-contradiction?


To: Egor S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does Heraclitus deny the law of non-contradiction
Date: 14th April 2010 13:55

Dear Egor,

Thank you for your email of 3 April, with your one hour timed essay question for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Does Heraclitus deny the principle of non-contradiction?'

Your essay does contain one 'howler'. This is where you say, 'Heraclitus identifies the driving forces of Flux as love and strife -- one driving the parts together, another pushing them apart.'

The view that Love and Strive are the two forces which account for change in the universe (and indeed explain how the 'cosmic cycle' occurs) is not Heraclitus but Empedocles. According to Heraclitus, one might say, the only driving force is strife. Where balanced states of affairs are achieved, this is the result of opposing forces more or less temporarily cancelling one another out.

Examiners will make allowances for the fact that writing a one hour timed essay is a stressful experience, but even so I think that you must try to avoid serious errors of this kind because you will lose marks.

So far as the rest of your essay is concerned, I agree that something needs to be said about the theory of flux generally and also about Heraclitus' monism. I will get onto that in a moment. However, the central issue turns on what Heraclitus actually says about the various alleged cases of 'opposites' being 'the same'.

The first thing you need to do after stating the principle of non-contradiction, is consider what would contradict it. This is the key move. The standard way to defend Heraclitus is to take the different kinds of example and show how the apparent assertions 'x is F', 'x is not-F' do not in fact attribute F and not-F to x at the same time, or in the same respect, or from the same point of view.

In the exam, you would gain credit for giving examples each of these kinds of case and explaining why they do not violate the principle of non-contradiction. (You will gather from what I have written that there are three basic kinds of case. However, that is something you need to verify for yourself. I wouldn't rule out that there might be more than three.)

Your point that Heraclitus' examples are 'missing additional detail which, if present, would make them logically sound, but much less thought-provoking' is consistent with what I've said above. However, this leads one to question (at least it leads me, at any rate) whether that's all there is to say. On this view, Heraclitus can easily be defended against the criticism that he has denied the principle of non-contradiction. He was merely trying to be provocative!

Is that what so impressed Hegel? Surely not.

The challenge here is to find something that we can reasonably attribute to Heraclitus which is sufficiently remarkable and original while not going over the top and saddling him with a view which is patently incoherent. What could he have meant by his examples of the 'unity of opposites'? What was he trying to achieve?

One gets a flavour of this in the first part of your essay, where you write that, 'The Theory of Flux states that everything... at all times is unstable'. This is the traditional, Platonic reading of Heraclitus according to which a rock is no different in principle from a river or a raging fire. What we see is a stable image, a 'thing', but what there is in reality is a constant process of struggle or change.

You are right to ask, of this view, 'Would PoNC hold in such an unstable reality?' Really, what the question comes down to is whether it makes sense to deny that we can say, of any object x, that x IS F, without any further qualification.

Following this line of thought, the examples of opposites which Heraclitus gives, far from being merely intended to be thought provoking, are attempts, by means of metaphor, to get across the idea of a real 'contradiction' which exists in reality, in every single 'object', such that nothing 'is' simply what it is without also, in some sense, being its 'opposite'.

For Heraclitus, human language merely gives a superficial view of reality, according to which there are 'things' with 'properties', but underneath what there is cannot be described in literal terms, so one can only resort to metaphor. That would be a consequence of the Platonic reading.

Plato's own response was to accept that the very possibility of language depends on something else, apart from the world of ever-changing and contradictory phenomena, namely the stable and permanent world of Forms.

It should be said that the majority of commentators no longer agree with the Platonic reading. For me, at any rate, this makes Heraclitus a more tame, less interesting philosopher, who merely observed that everything changes, although some things (like rocks) only change very slowly and imperceptibly. Hardly a thesis to get excited about.

All the best,