Monday, October 3, 2011

Dirty Herry

Since I don't have much time these days for much of anything, rather than write a blog post I've decided to post a little paper I wrote on Heraclitus. My ancient philosophy professor liked it so it must not be too bad. I'm certainly no expert on the pre-socratics and I'm just going on some of Herry's fragments. However, I don't think this interpretation is too far off the mark:

On the face of it, Heraclitus seems to be saying that opposites are one and the same. This is a flat absurdity. However, Heraclitus is one of the first great thinkers, and when it comes to great thinkers we should assume they are making a more profound point than at first sight. I think what he is really trying to say is that it is a curious fact about the universe that the things in it are constituted by having seemingly opposite properties, though not at the same time and in the same respect. For example, water wouldn’t be water unless it was life for some (fish), deadly for others (humans). The most interesting example is the river; a river is a river only if its parts are different over time. Not only does a river retain identity through not having the same parts, its identity depends on not having the same parts at every moment.

Now, if one of the quotes from Aristotle (B8) is genuine, it seems that Heraclitus is making a more general point about the world as a whole. After all, he says, “Everything occurs in accordance with strife,” strife being the seeming tension between opposites. But if strife is a general principle of the universe, how can this be consistent with his claims about the logos? The logos, according to Heraclitus, is a unifying principle of the universe. He says himself in (22B1) that all things come to be in accordance with the logos. So then how can both strife and unity be fundamental principles? I think there are two ways to interpret this, both of which are interesting.

One is the more paradoxical route. If the fundamental principles are strife and unity, then the fundamental principles themselves are in accordance with this law. After all, they unify everything because literally everything is in accordance with them. However, they are also in tension with each other; hence, both strife and unity. While on the one hand this is an interesting thought, on the other it sounds a bit like profound nonsense.

I think there is another, more coherent interpretation of Heraclitus to resolve this tension, and that is to say that the most fundamental principle is really this unifying logos. In fact, although it can’t be proved from the texts, Heraclitus could have made the following argument: (1) Opposites by their very nature do not come together to form coherent wholes. (2) However, the universe is made up of coherent wholes which are constituted by opposites. (3) Therefore, there must be some underlying reason, or logos, which explains the fact that the universe is made up of coherent wholes which are constituted by opposites. If we put this argument into a more rigorous form it would be clearly valid. For its time, I think it would’ve been a good argument, and I would even argue that some form of this argument holds true.

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