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Heraclitus, Aristotle and the problem of change


To: Richard K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus, Aristotle and the problem of change
Date: 18th October 2011 13:50

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your email of 9 October, with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'Heraclitus, Aristotle and the Problem of Change'.

This is an excellent piece of work with which I have few disagreements. As you may have gathered from the program, I am one of those who espouse the 'strong version' of the theory of Flux as the interpretation which makes the best sense of what Heraclitus wrote, in the context of the ongoing dialectic.

Kirk, Raven and Schofield disagree, holding that Heraclitus merely meant that everything, even a rock, is in a continual, if sometimes slow and imperceptible process of change. That's the point about the example of the farmer. It's news, not merely a truism, that even a rock changes. But it doesn't seem enough to explain why Heraclitus got so agitated about his theory, nor does it explain the subsequent dialectic through Plato to Aristotle.

Can the strong theory be defended? You seem to hedge on this, agreeing with Plato in the Cratylus that if everything really is like a river, then we can hardly speak of 'things' at all. But here is a finesse which I think you've missed. We can still talk of rivers because irrespective of their ontological constitution they are relatively constant features of our experience. And the same can be said of a tree or a rock, if these too 'flow' like rivers, lacking any enduring substance of their own.

What Plato (or, rather Plato's Cratylus) should have said is that it's perfectly OK to discourse about rivers, trees and rocks, so long as we remain at the level of appearances or phenomena. But when you try to describe how things are at the *ultimate* level, in reality, then there is nothing to say, nothing to describe -- literally, no *things*.

But we're forgetting the Logos. Why not say that ultimate reality is the Logos, and nothing but the Logos? Isn't that what Heraclitus wanted to say?

You ask, 'how does the Logos interact with all the things that change, and where does this Logos reside with respect to the things which undergo change?' Why is that different from asking, 'How does the Law of Gravity interact with masses whose motion is affected by gravitational force, and where does this gravity reside with respect to the masses whose motion is affected by gravitational force?'

One possible answer would be 'gravitons'. However, it is an empirical claim, at best, that there exist such entities, not a logical or metaphysical presupposition of making the existence of a law of gravity intelligible.

But I get your point, that an analogous problem (how Forms interact or affect appearances) motivated Aristotle to reject Plato's two-world metaphysic, claiming that things are a compound of matter and form, that form is in things themselves not in a second, non-physical world.

Which brings us to Aristotle. You've put your finger on the key problem for Aristotle's theory of matter and form, which concerns 'unqualified' change. By chance, I was marking an essay by one of my University of London students last week on the question whether Aristotle can account adequately for 'substantial change'. The vulture eats the carcass of a goat, and the dead flesh of the goat is transformed, in a manner which we are unable to observe or indeed comprehend, into the living flesh of the vulture. What is going on here?

Aristotle is led to posit that there is 'something' constant through the change, but this something is not identifiable as any kind of substance or quality. It is sheer formless matter.

This begs a huge question why Aristotle was so hostile to the Atomist theory of change (according to which all changes are ultimately reducible to locomotion). This would take an essay in itself. However, I have an interesting vignette regarding this.

In my first or possibly second year as a graduate student at Oxford University (somewhere between 1976-8), I attended a seminar on the philosophy of quantum mechanics for advanced students, given by Prof Michael Redhead. The level of the discussion was way out of my league. However, there came a point where Redhead was considering the problem of change at the subatomic level, when there doesn't seem to be any ready candidates for 'things' undergoing the changes. 'Well, of course, you could always take an Aristotelian view -- if that made any sense at all,' Redhead says causally, to titters from the knowledgeable audience of mathematicians and physicists. I just gripped my seat and said nothing.

Well? Maybe you could? Could it be that Aristotle was right all along?

All the best,