- Fl. 500 B.C. in Ephesus, north of Miletus in Asia Minor. He was known in
antiquity as the obscure. And even today, it is very difficult
to be certain what Heraclitus was talking about. As Barnes says (Presocratics,
Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty
jampot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.
The reason for this is Heraclituss dark and aphoristic style. He
loved to appear to contradict himself. Some of his doctrines sound incoherent
and self-contradictory even if he did not perhaps intend them that way.
- One thing seems certain: Heraclitus had an extremely negative reaction
to Milesian thought. For the Milesians, what is real is fixed and permanent;
change somehow had to be explained away. They understood changes as
alterations of some basic, underlying, material stuff which is, in its own
nature, unchanging. Heraclitus reversed this: change is what is real. Permanence
is only apparent.
- Heraclitus had a very strong influence on Plato. Plato interpreted Heraclitus
to have believed that the material world undergoes constant change. He also
thought Heraclitus was approximately correct in so describing the material
world. Plato believed that such a world would be unknowable, and was thus
driven to the conclusion that the material world was, in some sense, unreal,
and that the real, knowable, world was immaterial.
The unity of opposites
A number of fragments suggest that Heraclitus thought that opposites are
Main fragments: RAGP numbers 67, 66, 78, 77,
82 (= B61, B60, B88, B67, B62)
See also: 80 (=B111), 53 (=B84a).
What does this mean? Does Heraclitus think that hot = cold, that mortality
= immortality, etc.? Does he think, in general, that each property
F that has an opposite
F' is identical to its opposite?
Is the unity of opposites thesis best understood (in logical symbols) as:
∀F(F = F)?
This is not likely. The fragments suggest, rather, that he thinks that
opposites may be present in the same thing, or coinstantiated. That is, that
one and the same thing may be both hot and cold, pure and polluted, etc.
But what claim is Heraclitus making about the coinstantiation of opposites? Here
are a couple of possibilities:
Some object instantiates at least one pair of contrary properties.
∃x ∃F (Fx & Fx)
Every object instantiates every pair of contrary properties.
∀x ∀F (Fx & Fx)
Of these, (a) seems insufficiently general to be of much interest, and (b)
seems too strong to have any plausibility.
Barnes suggests that the unity thesis can be represented as a conjunction
of the following two claims:
Every object instantiates at least one pair of contrary properties.
∀x ∃F (Fx & Fx)
Every pair of contrary properties is coinstantiated in at least one object.
∀F ∃x (Fx & Fx)
And this is what I shall take it to mean. But what is it for contrary properties
to be coinstantiated in an object? One possibility is that it is for the
object to manifest both of the opposed properties simultaneously and without
But if this is Heraclituss conclusion, his argument for it is weak.
He argues that sea-water can be both pure and polluted since it brings life
to fish and death to humans. But if he thinks that sea-water is therefore
both pure and polluted, full-stop, he has committed (what Barnes calls)
the fallacy of the dropped qualification. Sea-water is good for
fish and bad for humans, but from this it does not follow that
it is both good (simpliciter) and bad (simpliciter).
Similarly, he contends that day and night are one and the
same thing is both living and dead. But here he is describing cases
in which one opposite succeeds another, not cases in which a single
object is simultaneously characterized by both opposites.
This succession of opposites (day following night, death following life)
gets to the key idea: change. To say that every object manifests some
pair of contrary properties in this sense (successively) is just to say that
every object undergoes change. So the doctrine of unity of opposites
is , for Heraclitus, a way of making the point that every object is subject
to change and is, indeed, always undergoing some kind of change or other.
Its possible, however, that Heraclituss idea of a unity of opposites
involved more than just the succession of opposed states that occurs in cases
of change. His example of a bow or a lyre may illustrate a kind of opposition
in which the opposites are simultaneously compresent in a single object.
Cf. fr. 59=B51:
They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it agrees
with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and
The point comes out more clearly in Freemans (slightly less literal)
They do not understand how that which differs with itself in is agreement:
harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.
Here the tension between opposed forces - the string being pulled one way
by one end of the bow and the other way by the other - enables the bow to
perform its function, to be the kind of thing that it is. It seems
static, but it is in fact dynamic. Beneath its apparently motionless exterior
is a tension between opposed forces. Cf. KRS, 193:
... the tension in the string of a bow
or lyre, being exactly balanced by the outward tension exerted by the arms
of the instrument, produces a coherent, unified, stable and efficient complex.
We may infer that if the balance between opposites were not maintained,
for example if the hot began seriously to outweigh the cold,
or night day, then the unity and coherence of the world would cease, just
as, if the tension in the bow-string exceeds the tension in the arms, the
whole complex is destroyed.
We should not be surprised to find this, for, as Heraclitus tells us,
nature loves to hide (12=B123) and An unapparent
connection (harmonia) is stronger than an apparent one
These two themes - the tension of the bow and the opposites -
are tied together beautifully, if somewhat metaphorically, in fragment 64 (=B48):
The name of the bow (biós) is life (bíos), but its work is
[The accent is on different syllables in the two Greek words, but they are
spelled the same.] The bow in tension represents the tension between opposites
in conflict; the opposition is expressed metaphorically in the name of the
bow, which (with the help of a pun) means just the opposite of what the bows work is.
- Heraclitus stresses the importance of (what he calls) the logos.
This term can have a variety of meanings: word, statement, reason,
law, ratio, proportion, among others. (Barnes translates
it as account.) It is related to the verb to say -
a logos is something that is said.
- Consider fragments 1, 2, 11, 42 (=B1, B2, B50, B45).
We are told that a (or the) logos can hold and be heard
and understood and things come to be in accordance with
it (1), that it is common (2), that it is wise to
listen to it (11), and that it can be so deep
(42) that its limits can never be discovered. What kind of a thing,
then, is a logos?
- Barnes thinks there is no special importance to be attached to Heraclituss
use of this term (see Presocratics p. 59) a logos is just what
is said. But this strikes me as too deflationary. There does seem to
be some genuine content to Heraclituss notion of logos. These
are its main ingredients:
- There is an orderly, law-governed process of change in the universe.
(Compare fragment 55=B80 with Anaximander, who equates strife with
injustice; for Heraclitus, strife is justice, and is ranked along with
necessity as that in accordance with which all things happen.)
- The unity of diverse phenomena is to be found not in their matter,
but in their logos. Indeed the very identity of an object depends
not on the matter that composes it, but on the regularity and predictability
of the changes it undergoes. (Again, a huge departure from the Milesians,
who emphasized the material unity of all things.)
- The lyre (cf. above) is a good example of a logos in action.
The orderly balance of opposed forces is what keeps the lyre functioning.
The harmony of the lyre is an instance of the logos.
- Another good example in which the nature of a thing is given by its
logos, and by the changes it undergoes, rather than by a list of
its ingredients, is found in his discussion of the mixed drink that the
Greeks called kykeon (here translated posset)
a mixture of wine, barley and grated cheese (54=B125):
even the posset (kykeon) separates if it is not
His point is that the continued existence of a certain kind of thing
depends on its undergoing continual change and movement. What makes
something a posset is not just what its made of (not just any
collection of wine, barley, and cheese is a posset), but how it behaves,
what kind of process it undergoes.
In a way, then, the logos for something is rather like a recipe.
That is, it is more than a list of ingredients. It includes an account
of how they are put together, and how they interact.
Puzzles about Identity and Persistence
The puzzling doctrine for which Heraclitus is best known is reported by Plato
Heraclitus, you know, says that everything moves
on and that nothing is at rest; and, comparing existing things to the flow of
a river, he says that you could not step into the same river twice.
Plutarch, no doubt following Plato, also ascribes this idea to Heraclitus
(39=B91). The idea is this: since the composition of the river changes
from one moment to the next, it is not the same (numerically the same) river
for any length of time at all. Note that Plato thinks that Heraclitus uses
the river as an example of what he takes to be a general condition:
everything is like a river in this respect. That is, nothing
retains its identity for any time at all. That is: there are no persisting
Indeed, according to Aristotle, there was a follower of Heraclitus who carried
it even further (Metaph. 1010a7-15):
Seeing that the whole of nature is in motion, and that nothing
is true of what is changing, they supposed that it is not possible to speak
truly of what is changing in absolutely all respects. For from this belief flowered
the most extreme opinion of those I have mentioned that of those who
say they Heraclitize, and such was held by Cratylus, who in the
end thought one should say nothing and only moved his finger, and reproached
Heraclitus for saying that you cannot step in the same river twice
for he himself thought you could not do so even once.
Did Heraclitus mean to say that there are no persisting objects? Not likely.
What Heraclitus actually said was more likely to have been this:
Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different
waters flow. (38=B12)
This sounds more like a genuine quotation from Heraclitus. It fits the pattern
of the unity of opposites fragments: suppose you step in the
water of a river. What you step in is both the same and
different. So the pair of contraries - same and different - are
coinstantiated in the same object. And, once again, it exhibits
Heraclituss familiar tendency to appeal to different qualifications
when applying a pair of opposed concepts: what you step in is
different water but the same river.
Moreover, Platos idea seems to get Heraclitus backwards. If Heraclitus
thought, as Plato suggests, that a compound object does not persist if its
component parts get replaced, then he would be making the matter,
rather than the orderly process of change, the logos of that object.
[For more on puzzles about identity and persistence, read about the famous
case of the Ship of Theseus.]
The Flux Doctrine
This is the view that everything is constantly altering; no object retains
all of its component parts, or all of its qualities or characteristics, from
one moment to the next.
Plato attributes the Doctrine of Flux to Heraclitus. And it is because he
thought Heraclitus was a Fluxist that he thought Heraclitus denied that there
were any persisting objects.
But even if Heraclitus was a Fluxist (which is far from clear) it does not
follow that he had to deny that there are persisting objects. If an object
is more like a process than like a static thing, then one and
the same object can endure even though it is undergoing constant change.
Further, there are different degrees of Fluxism:
Extreme fluxism: The most extreme is: at every moment, every object
is changing in every respect. Perhaps an extreme Fluxist is committed
to the denial of persisting objects.
Moderate fluxism: A less extreme version of Fluxism: at every moment,
every object is changing in some respect or other. A proponent of this
less extreme Flux doctrine could well allow for the persistence of objects
It is unlikely that Heraclitus was an extreme fluxist. His discussions of
change in general, and the river fragments in particular, suggest that he
thought that change and permanence could co-exist, that is, that an object
could persist in spite of continually undergoing change in some respect
If you step in the same river, you step in different waters: the river is
still (numerically) the same river even though it has changed (compositionally),
in that it (the same river) is now composed of different waters.
So it is unlikely that Heraclitus denied that there are persisting objects.
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Parmenides, Stage I
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For more on
Heraclituss epistemology, see James Leshers
Presocratic Contributions to the Theory of Knowledge.
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Copyright © 2002, S. Marc Cohen