Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Heraclitus and the unity of opposites

To: Dennis T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus and the unity of opposites
Date: 29 September 2006 11:27

Dear Dennis,

Thank you for your email of 21 September, with your essay in response to the University of London 2004 Plato and the Presocratics exam question, 'In what sense or senses does Heraclitus believe in the 'unity of opposites'?

This is a clear and well written essay, which offers a concise answer to the question. According to your interpretation, Heraclitus' doctrine of the 'unity of opposites' is intended to convey the 'relativism of different frames of reference'.

As an interpretative theory, his has the advantage of great simplicity and also seems consistent with the evidence. All the examples of 'unity of opposites' cited by Heraclitus can be subsumed under this general description.

Heraclitus has been accused of 'denying the principle of non-contradiction'. Clearly, on your interpretation, this accusation has no basis whatsoever. 'The sea is pure and polluted' is not self-contradictory, when the meaning of the statement is fully unpacked.

The next question to ask, however, is why Heraclitus expended so much effort saying something which seems rather obvious to us.

You hint that the idea of different frames of reference is the forerunner of Einstein's theory of relativity. This is a good reason for being interested in Heraclitus' theory. In a similar way, it is interesting that the Greek atomists the atomic theory. However, just as the motive and reasoning behind Greek atomism - as a reaction to Parmenidean monism - was very different from modern atomic theory, so we might expect that Heraclitus was not really thinking of the kinds of issues that Einstein addressed in his critique of Newtonian mechanics, but was onto something different - something which makes more sense in terms of his own philosophy.

The question is what this could be. While noting the positive strengths of your essay, an examiner would feel that you ought to have pursued this question.

According to Heraclitus the world is an 'everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures'. He also talks of a 'backstretched connection, as in the bow or the lyre'. In Heraclitus vision of the world, there is a fundamental tension between opposites, and it is this tension which is the source of ultimate unity. 'It is wise to agree that all things are one.'

In view of this, I would question whether the interpretation that you have offered could be the last word. We are looking for strife, tension between opposites but all that the theory of relative viewpoints has to offer is, 'one world which can be seen from many viewpoints'. So we have unity, but not the tension.

Here is one possible answer. Heraclitus was not the first to question the idea of 'opposites' existing in their own right. Anaximenes' theory of condensation/ rarefaction effectively demolished the naive theory of 'the hot' and 'the cold', 'the rare' and 'the dense' conceived as entities existing in their own right. All the different qualities that we see are in fact different degrees on a single scale. There is just one stuff, air, which gives rise the differentiated world through a simple, intelligible process.

Heraclitus substitution of 'fire' for 'air' was not just the expression of a preference for a different fundamental 'stuff' but the rejection of the very idea 'stuff' or 'substance' as such. This is, arguably, the point of famous passage about the river. Unceasing change, brought about by the tension of opposites, creates a stable image of a world where we are able to identify rivers, mountains etc.

I described this as 'one possible answer'. The view I have described is the more traditional, Platonic reading of Heraclitus which brings him close to the 20th century philosopher Whitehead's theory of 'process' according to which the fundamental entities of which the world is composed are events rather than things.

This interpretation has the merit of explaining why Heraclitus made the statements that he did about opposites. I am not saying that it is the correct one, but merely citing it as an example.

The general point is that in giving an answer to the question set, you have to consider how the interpretation that you offer relates to a philosopher's views as a whole. If you say that X said ABC, then why did X say that? what point was he making? how does this relate to other things that X said?

A good essay, nonetheless.

All the best,

Geoffrey