1. 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, p. 57):
    “Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jampot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.”

    The reason for this is Heraclitus’s 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  1. A number of fragments suggest that Heraclitus thought that opposites are really one.

    Main fragments: RAGP numbers 67, 66, 78, 77, 82 (= B61, B60, B88, B67, B62)

    See also: 80 (=B111), 53 (=B84a).

  2. 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.

  3. But what claim is Heraclitus making about the coinstantiation of opposites? Here are a couple of possibilities:

    1. Some object instantiates at least one pair of contrary properties.
      xF (Fx & Fx)

    2. Every object instantiates every pair of contrary properties.
      xF (Fx & Fx)

      Of these, (a) seems insufficiently general to be of much interest, and (b) seems too strong to have any plausibility.

  4. Barnes suggests that the unity thesis can be represented as a conjunction of the following two claims:

    1. Every object instantiates at least one pair of contrary properties.
      xF (Fx & Fx)

    2. Every pair of contrary properties is coinstantiated in at least one object.
      Fx (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 qualification.

  5. But if this is Heraclitus’s 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.

  6. 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.

  7. It’s possible, however, that Heraclitus’s 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 lyre.

    The point comes out more clearly in Freeman’s (slightly less literal) translation:

    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’ (37=B54).

    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 death.

    [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 bow’s work is.

The Logos

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. Barnes thinks there is no special importance to be attached to Heraclitus’s 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 Heraclitus’s notion of logos. These are its main ingredients:

    1. 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.)

    2. 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.)

    3. 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.

    4. 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 being stirred.

      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 it’s 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 (Cratylus 402A):

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 objects.

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 Heraclitus’s 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, Plato’s 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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 through time.

  4. Heraclitean Fluxism

    1. 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 or other.

    2. 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.

    3. So it is unlikely that Heraclitus denied that there are persisting objects.

Go to next lecture on Parmenides, Stage I

Go to previous lecture on Anaximenes

For more on Heraclitus’s epistemology, see James Lesher’s Presocratic Contributions to the Theory of Knowledge.

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Copyright © 2002, S. Marc Cohen