Saturday, March 22, 2008


Heraclitus of Ephesus (Ancient Greek: Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος — Hērákleitos ho Ephésios, English Heraclitus the Ephesian) (ca. 535–475 BC) was a pre-Socratic Ionian philosopher, a native of Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. Heraclitus is known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe, and that the Logos is the fundamental order of all.

Panta rhei, "everything is in a state of flux"

Πάντα ῥεῖ (panta rhei) "everything is in a state of flux" either was not spoken by Heraclitus or did not survive as a quotation of his. This famous aphorism used to characterize Heraclitus' thought comes from Simplicius. The word rhei, adopted by rhe-o-logy, is simply the Greek word for "to stream."The closest quote from Heraclitus is provided by Plato:
"πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει"
"Panta chōrei kai ouden menei"Instead of "flow" Plato uses chōrei, to change chōros, or ground, and not to "remain", with which menei is cognate. Just previously Plato explained:τὰ ὄντα ἰέναι τε πάντα καὶ μένειν οὐδέν
ta onta ienai te panta kai menein ouden
"All beings going and remaining not at all" At first thought Heraclitus might be supposed to be asserting nothing more profound or obscure than that we exist in a field or continuum in which everything is constantly in flux or process: a non-remarkable observation for such a famous philosophy. However the assertions of flow are coupled in many fragments with the enigmatic river image:"Ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν."
"We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not." As a fellow Ionian, Heraclitus was certainly familiar with the preceding substance solution of the Milesian school to the problem of change. The problem only exists under the law of identity, one formulation of which is the law of excluded middle. The classical formulation of that law had to wait for Aristotle but it was nevertheless known and operant in pre-socratic philosophy. In the fragment above Heraclitus is proposing that another law also is in effect. The law of identity states that an identity, say A, is identical to itself, is not non-A, and is not both A and non-A. Heraclitus affirms the middle in the passage above, that the A is both A and not-A. As far as the assertion is true, the change problem disappears and does not need a solution. According to fragment DK B91: "nor is it possible to touch a mortal substance twice" and DK B6: "The sun is ... not only new each day but forms continually new ...." the Heraclitean law only applies in cases where the identity is sampled diachronically. The sampling rate can be adjusted to as rapidly as an object can be touched, or to the rate of flow of the stream, or daily, or by extrapolation to the frequency at which a photon can be perceived. Heraclitus just said "continually" and theorized: "simultaneously it forms and dissolves."It seems clear that the stream of the metaphor is time and that the stepping in it is the instant of the present. Heraclitus is therefore asserting that an object is and is not identical with itself of x instants ago.
Heraclitus, along with Parmenides, is probably the most significant philosopher of ancient Greece until Socrates and Plato; in fact, Heraclitus's philosophy is perhaps even more fundamental in the formation of the European mind than any other thinker in European history, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Why? Heraclitus, like Parmenides, postulated a model of nature and the universe which created the foundation for all other speculation on physics and metaphysics. The ideas that the universe is in constant change and that there is an underlying order or reason to this change—the Logos—form the essential foundation of the European world view. Everytime you walk into a science, economics, or political science course, to some extent everything you do in that class originates with Heraclitus's speculations on change and the Logos.

Despite all this, and despite the fact that the ancient Greeks considered Heraclitus one of their principal philosophers, precious little remains of his writings. All we have are a few fragments, quoted willy-nilly in other Greek writers, that give us only a small taste of his arguments. These passages are tremendously difficult to read, not merely because they are quoted out of context, but because Heraclitus deliberately cultivated an obscure writing style—so obscure, in fact, that the Greeks nicknamed him the "Riddler."

As interpreted by the later Greek philosophical tradition, Heraclitus stands primarily for the radical thesis that 'Everything is in flux', like the constant flow of a river. Although it is likely that he took this thesis to be true, universal flux is too simple a phrase to identify his philosophy. His focus shifts continually between two perspectives – the objective and everlasting processes of nature on the one hand and ordinary human beliefs and values on the other. He challenges people to come to terms, theoretically and practically, with the fact that they are living in a world 'that no god or human has made', a world he describes as 'an ever-living fire kindling in measures and going out in measures'. His great truth is that 'All things are one', but this unity, far from excluding difference, opposition and change, actually depends on them, since the universe is in a continuous state of dynamic equilibrium. Day and night, up and down, living and dying, heating and cooling – such pairings of apparent opposites all conform to the everlastingly rational formula (logos) that unity consists of opposites; remove day, and night goes too, just as a river will lose its identity if it ceases to flow.

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