Thursday, June 16, 2011

Heraclitus and Parmenides: the paradox of change

To: Jurgen L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus and Parmenides: the paradox of change
Date: 15 February 2003 09:31

Dear Jurgen,

Thank you for your e-mail of 14 February with your second piece on the Presocratics for the Associate Award, 'The Paradox of Change'.

First, a note about my comments. I will pick on any claim or argument which I disagree with or which seems to me to require a response. That is not necessarily a recommendation for change. You have to persuade me (or the examiner) that you have made a case. It is not necessary that I should agree with everything that you say.


I took issue with your two questions, 'Why the nature of things is what it is rather than something else, or nothing' and 'Which of the mediating agencies of the human creature, sense or thought, deserved priority if they clashed'.

The first question is far more sophisticated than any question raised by the Presocratics. A lot of philosophy has to happen before we reach this stage. Of course, we can trace what give rise to that question back to the Presocratics, but that is only because - as you have successfully argued - the roots of metaphysics can be traced back there. There is not the slightest inkling that the 'no more reason' (ou mallon) principle would give rise to the principle of sufficient reason as Leibniz applied it in his powerful proof that this world must be the best of all possible worlds.

The second question looks to me too much like a formulation of the clash between empiricism and rationalism. From Thales onwards, the Presocratics were united in their belief that thought can and should overrule the deliverances of sense perception: this is an idea which defines the stance of the philosopher. In particular, Parmenides and Heraclitus are united in their contempt for the unthinking multitude who do not see the truth of things for what it is.

There is an issue with regard to the interpretation of Heraclitus which you have neatly skipped over. This concerns the question whether Heraclitus actually held the doctrine Plato attributes to him, that all things, including a stone or a tree, 'flow' like rivers. Both Barnes and Kirk prefer a less extreme interpretation, according to which Heraclitus merely held that all things are constantly subject to change. I think they miss the force of Heraclitus' attack on the notion of 'enduring stuff'. According to Heraclitus, there is no substance, only the logos and the phenomena.

If the more extreme Platonic interpretation is correct, however, one still has to reckon with the language which we actually use, which relies on substantival expressions, both for individual 'substances' (in the Aristotelian sense) and different kinds of material, like clay or water. The theory of Heraclitus has nothing to say about 'identity through change' on this level (which Aristotle was later to account for in terms of accidental and essential properties). What Heraclitus says does imply, however, that we need to take a dual view of mundane discourse and metaphysical discourse. This is the same table that I sat at yesterday (mundane truth) yet at the same time there is nothing 'the same' in this table but the law of process itself (metaphysical truth).

What you say in the first paragraph on page 2 looks like an attempt to stretch the Heraclitean doctrine to explain 'identity through change' in the mundane sense. I don't think that this was Heraclitus' view. (This also applies to your (6)-(8) on page 3.)

It is worth noting that Anaximenes had a perfectly good explanation (in his theory of condensation and rarefaction) of why the so-called 'opposites', e.g. the hot and the cold are not really separate kinds of 'stuff'. Heraclitus goes one step further in rejecting the idea of a single underlying 'stuff' to account for the unity. The Logos does it all.


I was impressed by your original explanation of the Goddess. But is it true?

One paper which you should try to get hold of is G.E.L. Owen 'Plato, Parmenides and the Timeless Present' (cited in Barnes and in Kirk). The picture you describe fits perfectly the view of the Deity viewing the world in temporal process 'sub specie aeternitatis'. Here we have a sophisticated metaphysical theory seeking to account for the reality of both a world in time, and a timeless realm from the point of view of which our awareness of the passage of time is mere illusion. Owen traces this view back to Parmenides. But that does not require that Parmenides held this theory, nor is there any textual evidence to support that view.

Even with time removed, we still have variation in quality from one spatio-temporal location to another. This is explicitly denied by Parmenides in his deductions from 'It is'. It follows that the 'logic of locomotion' (Barnes) cannot be reconciled with Parmenides.

Is that so bad? Melissus had already set the trend for quibbling with the Parmenidean view, holding that the world is spatially and temporally 'infinite' (not spatially finite, not 'all at once', i.e. in one single time). Parmenides would not have accepted the views of his successors as capable of representing how things are *in reality*, because they transgress his fundamental principle. If you want to domesticate Parmenides, a better way (given the Way of Opinion) would be to read him as saying, 'Hey, you want a theory? I can give you a theory. But don't make the error of thinking that my theorising is any more than an interesting redescription of the illusory phenomenal world.'

All the best,