28 February 2007

Flux and Opposites

I want to say more about MM's interpretation, but for today, here's a thought about flux and the unity of opposites.

It would seem that no interesting view results if either is asserted of some things only. It's not interesting to say that some things change (nor, pace Graham, that some things remain the same by changing); and it's not interesting to say that some things show (in some way) a unity of opposites.

One gets an interesting, metaphysical view, it seems, only when a claim is extended to everything--to cover being qua being, as it were. Now if we were to entertain thus extending one of these ideas, presumably our first choice should be the flux idea, since that is what the tradition reports.

So then the question becomes: on the supposition that Heraclitus held that "everything gives way, nothing remains the same", what work could the thesis of the unity of opposites be doing?

Now we might want to pause and call into question whether there is simply one thesis of the unity of opposites. That is, Heraclitus might be appealing to opposites for a variety of purposes, and it would be a mistake to assimilate them all together.

For instance, one use: appeal to coexisting opposites as a confirming sign of change. Why? Because whatever changes, changes from F to something non-F, but if it were entirely F, or entirely non-F, it would not be changing. Thus: anything that shows coincident opposites is likely to be changing; change is the best explanation of this.

Another use: appeal to opposites to make it seem more likely that something that appears to be stable is in fact changing. For example: the wholesomeness or foulness of water depends upon the condition of the living thing in water; thus, although the quality of the water seems stable (quantity is admitted to be unstable), it is in fact exceedingly liable to change, as those living things are exceedingly liable to change. Again: the lyre and other structures are stable because they are composites, and composites are liable to change. (Admittedly in view of the tension of the parts they tend to equilibrium, yet precisely because of that they alter easily, through vibration, etc.)

Each of these lines of thought is a recognized topos after Heraclitus. (e.g. to_ de\ xrh&simon ou) diame/nei, a)ll' a1llote a1llo gi/netai. Aristotle, Nic Eth 1156a21-22, supposing that usefulness is a trait that a thing has only in relation to other things; ta_ de\ a1llot' a1llwj kai\ mhde/pote kata_ tau)ta&, tau~ta de\ su&nqeta, Plato, Phaed. 78c, supposing that composite things are more likely to alter and be dispersed.)

And I wonder if all of the appeals to opposites can't be sorted into kinds which correspondingly underwrite flux.