Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites

To: Paul B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites
Date: 12th September 2009 12:13

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 2 September, with your essay in response to a question from the University of London Greek Philosophy paper, 'Explain the content and importance of Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites'.

This is an impressive first essay, which shows mature judgement and a good understanding of the texts, as well as an appreciation of the problems in interpreting Heraclitus.

As you have correctly grasped, the question is asking for two things: an exposition of Heraclitus' doctrine of the unity of opposites, as well as an account of the place of this doctrine within his philosophical system. Generally, when you get a 'double barrelled' question such as this, you can assume that the examiner is looking for an equally substantial answer to both parts.

It hardly needs stating that the question of the importance of Heraclitus' doctrine of the unity of opposites depends very much on how one interprets that doctrine, which in turn depends on the account which one gives of the various examples cited by Heraclitus as supporting his case.

You mention Heraclitus' predecessors. A good question to ask is how Heraclitus advanced, or thought he was advancing the argument; what innovations his theory introduces. The Presocratic philosophers talk a lot about 'the hot' and 'the cold', 'the wet' and 'the dry', 'the heavy' and 'the light' etc. almost as if they are entities in themselves. To us, the idea seems merely quaint, but at the time the idea that you could separate out these aspects as if they were separate entities or elements was taken seriously.

The first step towards undermining that idea was made by Anaximenes, in his theory of condensation and rarefaction. On Anaximenes' theory, the difference between 'the dense' and 'the rarefied', 'the hot' and 'the cold' etc. is merely one of degree, of different positions on a scale of condensation-rarefaction. We can see that he was indeed well on the way to appreciating Heraclitus' point that what we term 'opposites' are not separate entities but rather aspects of a whole.

In these terms, what exactly did Heraclitus add, if anything? Has he, indeed, seen something that Anaximenes missed?

As you show, the examples of opposites considered by Heraclitus go well beyond the range that Anaximenes considered. Take the point that the same thing, e.g. mud, presents different aspects depending on whether you are a man or a pig. You call this example 'dubious'. But what point do you think Heraclitus thought he was making? This seems to be about value judgements. We think in terms of things that are 'good' and things that are 'bad' but on the basis of this example, that is merely an illusion. Nothing is 'good' or 'bad' in itself but merely in relation to the entity which makes the evaluation. That's a pretty radical idea which goes far beyond anything that Heraclitus' predecessors considered.

Is that what Heraclitus wanted to say? How does that fit in with his monism and his theory of flux? Heraclitus strikes us as a man who is not afraid to make value judgements. It is 'good' for a soul to remain dry (so drunkenness is 'bad'). Indeed, 'most men are bad'. Are we more right in our judgement about mud than pigs? If not, does that mean that all value judgements are thoroughly subjective?

On the question of flux, you argue for the more conservative reading, according to which Heraclitus did not hold the theory of 'Heraclitean flux' attributed to him by Plato. I'm not fully convinced of this although you make a good case and a significant proportion of scholars would agree with you. If we are asking the question of how Heraclitus went beyond Anaximenes, it seems to me that the conservative view, according to which all things are subject to change, some more quickly and some more slowly, was not such a novel idea. Whereas if there is no 'stuff' that changes, contrary to Anaximenes belief that everything we see IS more or less condensed air, then that would be something new. When we see a flame, we imagine that we are looking at 'hot stuff' whereas in reality a flame is just a stable image produced by constant change, in exactly the same way as a river. You don't need 'stuff'.

The 'scary' part, of course, is the leap from this to the idea that if there is no 'stuff' but merely 'process', then a chair or a table is just like a flame or a river. However, it's not my role to try to persuade you to change your opinion. In any case, there are probably more scholars who would support your interpretation. For a long time, the 'heraclitean flux' interpretation was the orthodox view, but on admittedly scant textual evidence.

All the best,