Transcript: 6 - MM McCabe on Heraclitus

Peter's colleague Professor MM McCabe joins him in the first interview of the series of podcasts, to talk about Heraclitus.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Today we're going to be talking about Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher. So could you just remind us quickly who he is?

So, Heraclitus from Ephesus, 6th century BC, Presocratic philosopher, maybe the guy who changed the face of it all.

Right. So that's actually the first thing I wanted to ask you. I wanted to ask you whether you think Heraclitus really represents something new in the history of Presocratic philosophy or whether he sort of just carries on what the Milesians had been doing, so Thales and Anaximander, these guys.

So, sometimes people represent him as just being one in a line. So you've got the eenie-meenie-miney-moe choice of what you're going to use as your material principle. So Thales says water,  Anaximander says the indefinite, and Anaximenes says air, and Heraclitus kind of runs out of things to say. So he says fire. Earth is no good after all because it's inert. So you need something that's kind of active. And a lot of the time that's how it's represented, but it seems to me that that's a mistake to see Heraclitus as only doing that, maybe he's partly doing that, but what he's doing is something much more radical, which is to make us think about how we think about these questions. So you might understand the Milesians as just thinking about what the principles are but what Heraclitus is trying to get us to do is to think about how we should do the thinking itself.

So, maybe that relates to something else I wanted to ask you, which is the way that he seems to do philosophy. Most of the evidence that we have about Heraclitus' philosophy is in the form of what in the last podcast I was calling one-liners, so these aphorisms, and I guess someone might read these aphorisms and think “Well, that can't be philosophy because it's just one sentence at a time. How could that be philosophy?”.

Right. Okay. So suppose you think about the aphorism “The road up and down is one and the same”. You might think: oh, well, what this is supposed to be is a metaphor for some general theory that he's supposed to be enunciating. So it kind of encapsulates whatever it is he's trying to say. You might think that that, and a lot of people do indeed think that that's what he's doing, in which case you might see him as being entirely continuous with his predecessors, just says a lot more things. So the aphorisms then would just be aphorisms. But it seems to me that that underestimates the paradoxical element of the aphorisms and the very complex way in which Heraclitus actually writes. So it seems to me that there's a great deal more to be said about it than that. I think it's much more argumentative.

So you might think that when he says the road up and the road down are one and the same, it's just supposed to be a doctrine. And the doctrine would be something like “Everything is one” or something like that?

Right. You might think that. And I think a lot of people do think that. But suppose you imagine not just somebody announcing that as a philosophical principle, but suppose he thinks quite hard when he says whatever it is he says about his audience. So you can see that all the time, that the very careful way in which it's written makes it clear that he's thinking about how people read it. When you think about what his predecessors said, you can see that it actually wouldn't matter how they put it. Somebody is going to say: “Everything's made of water” for example. You can say that in all sorts of different ways, and it means pretty much the same thing. When somebody says “This logos being one and the same, everybody behaves as if they don't understand it” it looks as though what he's trying to do is to make us think about the actual words in which he says what he says. If that's right, then maybe he's much more interested than his predecessors were in the effect of what he's saying on his audience.

So could you maybe illustrate this? So let's just take as an example his most famous fragment, this thing about the river, “You can't step into the same river twice” or however it's put, so how would that work as an argument as opposed to just an aphorism?

The received wisdom is that there's only one river paradox, but in fact there are several and one might be able to reconstruct something that looks much more like an argument if you suppose that we don't have to eliminate any of them. So suppose somebody comes into the room and says: “You can't step into the same river twice”. And you go, “Yeah, I can. I did it yesterday. I can do it again tomorrow”. And Heraclitus says it again, “You can't step into the same river twice”, and you think about it a little bit and you say to yourself, “Hum, hum, well, maybe he's right”. And Heraclitus confirms what you say by saying, “Well, to those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters flow”, he says in another fragment. At that point, you might find yourself saying, “Oh, well, yeah, maybe I can't step into the same river twice”, and you then end up feeling kind of anxious about whether there are any rivers out there. Then he might say, again, “You can't step into the same river twice because in the same rivers, different and different waters flow” and you understand that actually it is the same river because you couldn't say that unless it was the same river, but it's a different river because of the different waters. Now, what have you understood? Well, you haven't understood anything particularly about rivers, but you've understood quite a lot about the way in which the qualification “same river” and the qualification “different waters” work.

OK, that's really interesting. So I guess the question that arises there, well, maybe there's a couple of questions. One is, is this supposed to be a general message to us about the nature of reality if it's not just about rivers? And if it is supposed to be a general message, then is he sort of cheating because he picks these examples? There's the river, there's the road up and the road down, there's the seawater, which is poisonous and healthy. So is he just cheating by picking these examples or do you think that he can legitimately infer some general thesis about reality from this sort of argument?

Right. So it might be that you think about the seawater fragment. The seawater is poisonous and healthy, poisonous for men and healthy for fishes. You might think that this is supposed to be an inference from the fact that seawater is poisonous for men and healthy for fishes to the claim that seawater is somehow or other both poisonous and healthy, which looks kind of worrying. And then it might be that he draws an inference from that, that everything behaves like that. And as you say, it may be that he's using, using specialised examples to make a general point and he can't justify the general point from those specialised examples. But you could turn it on its head. You could suppose that what he imagines is that you say something to yourself like, “Oh crikey, seawater is poisonous and healthy. Oh, that worries me because it's a contradiction, just like the road up and down. What happens when I stand on the road and the up and down is one and the same? Which way do I go?” That kind of anxiety.  So that the very practicality of the examples makes it seem that once again, if you're speaking to an audience, the audience might go, “Oh, goodness, I'm really in trouble here”. And then what Heraclitus does is say, “No, no, no, no, don't worry because seawater is poisonous for men, but healthy for fishes”. So you might think that what he's observing there is not so much some kind of awful conglomeration of reality, but something about the way we think about reality. So something about how we think, for example, about problems of the metaphysical and logical problems of contradiction. What is it for seawater both to be poisonous and healthy? What is it for a road both to be up and down?

So that's, I think, interesting because that would give him something in common with Parmenides who also says that most people's way of thinking about the world is beset by contradictions and his philosophy will come along and resolve it. And so if you're right, actually Heraclitus and Parmenides who are usually contrasted to each other, turn out to be doing something rather similar.

I think that's right. And I think that if that's right, you might think that Parmenides is actually referring to Heraclitus at one or two occasions. That he's asking us to think about what Heraclitus seems to have said. Supposing you think about it in those terms, you might then say, well, what Heraclitus is trying to make us see is that we don't need to worry about contradictions because you can always unravel them. You can always say poisonous for men and healthy for fishes, up from this end and down from the other end. But he was often understood to be doing the reverse and it may be that that was upsetting Parmenides. So some of the tradition, Aristotle in particular and maybe Plato too, has Heraclitus asserting that contradictions turn up without qualification. So think about the sea water again. I suggested that he might work on his audience by putting: “Sea water is poisonous and healthy”. Audience goes, “Oh crikey, can't bear it. Help, help!”. And then Heraclitus helps them by saying “Poisonous for men, healthy for fishes.”, might work the other way around. Supposing somebody comes along and says, “Oh, funny thing about sea water, you know, it's poisonous for men and healthy for fishes”. And Heraclitus might then draw the inference, as sometimes he was thought to do, that sea water is contradictory. And so the law of non-contradiction, as Aristotle suggested, might be somehow or other, in its qualified form, being denied by Heraclitus.

Right. So I guess the question then, if you were thinking about the way Plato and Aristotle talk about Heraclitus, and especially Plato, is that whether you go from the contradiction to the resolution of the contradiction or the other way around, it still doesn't sound like he's obsessed with change. So one thing I'm wondering is why in Plato do we get this idea that Heraclitus is all about what's sometimes called flux, so this kind of radical change where nothing is ever the same from moment to moment. Because what you're talking about sounds more like contradictory principles that are true of the same thing at the same time.

Right. There's an extra question there in the interpretation of Plato, because some versions, some interpretations, of what Plato says has Plato saying that Heraclitus was interested in contradiction, not change, and that change is just an aspect of contradiction rather than the other way around. So that's a possibility. A different possibility is that, of course, Heraclitus leaves these things open. So if I'm right about the way that he uses paradox, he uses paradox by getting his audience to respond to what he said. But if he's going to do that, then he does it by leaving them open, to go back to what you said about aphorisms, by saying, “Well, you can't step into the same river twice, dot, dot, dot”, and then all the work is being done by the audience. If that's right, then he can hardly complain if the audience interprets him in lots of different ways. And it's certainly true that there are lots and lots of fragments in Heraclitus that make one think that he does suppose that things are changing all the time, whether they're changing radically all the time, so fast that we, as Plato complains, we can't ever even talk about them, seems to me to be unlikely. It doesn't seem to me that that is what Heraclitus' line is on change. He's much more. The obvious example is fragment 31, where he seems to be talking about cosmic change and he talks about Earth changing into sea and being measured to the same logos. And it's very interesting that he uses the same word there, logos, as the word that he uses to introduce his whole theory. Something is going on in the play that he's making between different senses of logos or different ways in which we might think about logos in different fragments that he's launching at us.

So that goes back to something you were saying before about him actually thinking carefully about the way that he's presenting his own philosophy.


So we're supposed to attend to the exact words that he's using.

I think that's right. So for example, there are three logos fragments one might think of. The first one where he says, “this logos is always like this, but nobody pays any attention to it”. So it looks as though what he's describing is what he's saying. The second one is fragment 31, where he's talking about what seems to be a regular and balanced way in which the changes between earth and water are somehow rather managed or measured. The third one, brilliant fragment, says, “going after the limits of soul, you wouldn't find them even although you went along every road. Such a deep logos does it have”. So you can use logos for what one might say about souls, what one might say about oneself and never being able to reach the end of it. And then there's this other one that the logos that he describes that nobody's ever going to find out about. And then somehow or other, there's something that organises the measure of cosmic change. Now between those, it can't be an accident, first that he's asking us to think about how he writes, second that he's using the same word in all of those contexts to make us think about whether what we're looking at here is something inexhaustible as it would be in the case of soul or something that somehow or other properly balanced and measured and well organised. It's not terribly clear which of those we're supposed to think or maybe we're supposed to think both. Maybe we're supposed to end up by saying, “Well on the one hand … and on the other …” and the burden is put on the reader or the audience. To go back to your question about what makes this philosophy, for my money that's what makes it philosophy. That it's got this dialectical quality that means that you can't read Heraclitus without engaging with him or if you don't engage with him then there's no point in reading it.

So what makes it philosophy is not just that it's arguments but that it's arguments with somebody, namely the person reading it.


That's nice. I like that.

I think that's where construing him as a cosmologist comes into difficulties because that represents him as being somehow or other an objective set of views and that's not quite how it works it seems to me.

So before we conclude I wanted to ask you about one other thing because you're the only person I know personally who has changed the text of a Heraclitian fragment. So could you tell us about the fragment and the text that you changed?

I'm going to tell you about fragment 125. Fragment 125, the received version of fragment 125, it's about a disgusting Greek drink. The disgusting Greek drink is called a posset which sounds kind of a good thing but it's actually rather nasty. It's oil and wine and sometimes cheese and bits of old grain.


And the point about it is it's a bit like salad dressing, so you have to shake it in order to make it stick together. So the received version of the fragment goes like this: “and the posset separates if it's not stirred”. So people I think have been excessively taken over by images of James Bond when they think about this! So the idea is that it's the sort of object that you have to keep shaking it otherwise it falls to pieces. The Greek of the fragment goes like this: καὶ ὁ κυκεὼν διίσταται μὴ κινούμενος. So that's how it looks. Now I think that that's not nearly as interesting as it could be because the two central verbs are: a verb about standing still, and its opposite, a verb about moving, and the way that the received opinion has it that the standing still bit has been changed into something that's translated as separates by the addition of a prefix to the verb. Then in order to fix that you have to put a negative in front of the moving bit so you get: “the posset separates if it's not moving”. So my suggestion is get rid of the prefix on the standing still bit and get rid of the negative and you have: “the posset stands still when it's moving”. So just like the question about rivers it's a paradox about identity: “it's really a posset only when it's moving”, so it's really standing still as a posset only when it's moving. So that's my emendation.

Brilliant. So that shows us that, very appropriately, the texts of Heraclitus themselves are changing all the time.

Absolutely! I hope that's finished changing now!


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