12 February 2007

Deep or Shallow?

Today's comment risks seeming nit-picky, I acknowledge. However, I did wish to make this point before proceeding. And, in any case, it raises a perplexing question about what makes a viewpoint interesting philosophically, and how exactly the 'principle of charity' works when we are interpreting a philosopher.

My concern centers on this paragraph from Graham's article:

According to Barnes’ version, Heraclitus is a material monist who believes that all things are modifications of fire. Everything is in flux (in the sense that “everything is always flowing in some respects,” 69), which entails the coincidence of opposites (interpreted as the view that “every pair of contraries is somewhere coinstantiated; and every object coinstantiates at least one pair of contraries,” 70). The coincidence of opposites, thus interpreted, entails contradictions, which Heraclitus cannot avoid. On this view Heraclitus is influenced by the prior theory of material monism and by empirical observations that tend to support flux and the coincidence of opposites. In a time before the development of logic, Barnes concludes, Heraclitus violates the principles of logic and makes knowledge impossible. Obviously this reading is not charitable to Heraclitus.
Graham then goes on to ascribe to Heraclitus the view that a river is "a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains (cf. Hume Treatise 1.4.6, p. 258 Selby-Bigge)". This is a view which, he thinks, is "much more subtle and profound":
On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all). In general, at least in some exemplary cases, high-level structures supervene on low-level material flux.
Now my question for today concerns an ambiguity in Graham's discussion. Does he hold:
1. Graham's interpretation of 'the river fragment' should be favored, because Barnes' interpretation simply cannot be charitably ascribed to anyone. The reason is that it ascribes contradictions to Heraclitus.
2. Graham's interpretation of 'the river fragment' should be favored, because it is more subtle and profound than Barnes'.
(By the way, by "Graham's interpretation" I mean the interpretation he favors; it is of course not original with him, and he follows others in advocating it.)

Graham seems to begin his discussion of the 'river fragments' as if he believes 1., and that the purpose of his exercise in interpretation is simply to find some interesting view in the fragments. But he seems to conclude his discussion as though he thinks 2.

Now I doubt we should accept 2. That is, unless on the proposed interpretation Heraclitus gives some interesting account of 'high-level structures' and 'supervening' (compare: Aristotle on form), then Graham's interpretation would seem, rather, pedestrian. Wouldn't it simply be a view that avoids the really deep difficulties? And I don't see that Heraclitus gives any such account. (More on this tomorrow.)

(By the way, can someone please explain what "In general, at least in some exemplary cases, ..." means?)

However, as regards 1., putting aside the question of whether Barnes' interpretation is a fair representation of Plato's (as Graham presupposes), there would still be several places at which that sort of interpretation could, in principle, be contested, short of rejecting the doctrine of flux--in which case 1. is not sustainable. That is, one could hold that contradictions are assertible only of non-ultimate reality (as many Idealists held), or that knowledge of material reality is in one sense is impossible, but in another sense is possible (much as Plato in the Timaeus holds), or that knowledge is impossible, but that that's not a difficulty, because something other than knowledge is most desirable. And so on.

Graham cites Hume as holding the "subtle and profound" view he finds in the river fragment, and I suppose this functions as an argument from authority: we are to think that it's charitable to ascribe to Heraclitus any doctrine found in Hume. But Hume also held in the Treatise (as did Wittgenstein in the Tractatus), that a changing object is not identical to itself at different times--the very interpretation of the river fragment that Graham supposes it would be uncharitable to accept!