21 February 2007

Unflustered about Flux

I seem to be refuting the doctrine of universal flux all by myself, as I remain unchanged in my acceptance of a Guthrian interpretation of Heraclitus.

I ask: Why shouldn't one hold that, for Heraclitus, "everything is changing constantly"? (The authority of Plato and the tradition, to my mind, implies that the burden of proof goes that way.)

You cannot reply: "That's uncharitable. The view is full of absurdities. And it makes Heraclitus out to be holding contradictory things about the world."--since that's too strong. On the same grounds we should deny (e.g.) that Bradley was an Idealist; and we would need to dismiss half of Plato's philosophy. What is at issue, surely, is whether Heraclitus might have proposed a doctrine of universal flux in the service of some deeper point.

In recent posts I examined KRS' more focussed arguments and found them wanting.

Here are a new batch of arguments, from Mary Margaret MacKenzie's "Heraclitus and the Art of Paradox". Once again, I merely state these today. Are these arguments any stronger than those of KRS? I suspect not, and I'll tell you why--tomorrow. In the meantime, please feel free to share your judgments.

There are two difficulties in saddling Heraclitus with flux or total indeterminacy. In the first place, the surviving evidence does not support it. His cosmology has internal problems, as we shall see; none the less, it does not present us with a flux-ridden view of the world, but rather one in which the elements change in a regular cycle (cf. e.g. 31). It is of course begging the question to say that the river paradox is an analogy for the flux of the world; and even if it were, the river is conceded to remain stable and determinate ('the same river') even while the waters change.

Secondly, if things are indeterminate, whether over time or at a time, then nothing at all can be asserted to be true, not even the theory itself (cf. Plato, Theaetetus (Theat.) 181e ff). So the consequence, not to say the objective, of such theories of indeterminacy is scepticism or nihilism. As Aristotle points out (Metaph. 1005b 19 ff) if nothing is true of anything, then no utterance can be meaningful; not even the utterance. So the assertion of total indeterminacy amounts to the destruction of dialectic; and it is refuted dialectically, so that it is dialectically self-refuting. Now it is true that Heraclitus could have proposed a thesis of indeterminacy without recognizing its consequences for the proposal itself, and without realizing that this commits him to self-refutation as soon as he opens his mouth; so that this is only indirect evidence against this interpretation of the paradoxical arguments. None the less, it amounts to a prima facie reason against interpreting them that way, since it is clear enough that Heraclitus wishes to assert, not to deny, the possibility of dialectic, even if he allows that the truth is generally inaccessible (the complexity of his position will be further investigated in what follows).

2 comments:

JIW said...

On the first point: 'It is of course begging the question to say that the river paradox is an analogy for the flux of the world; and even if it were, the river is conceded to remain stable and determinate ('the same river') even while the waters change.' The 'flux' reading would say that the cosmos (the analogue of the river) is indeed stable and determinate, at least insofar as a river is also stable and determinate. But, as in the case of the river, that stability and determinacy is produced only by a constant process of change. Or have I missed something?

Michael Pakaluk said...

James,

That seems right--if the river's being the same is its changing (as would be the case on the flux interpretation), then clearly to concede that the river remains the same would not rule out its changing.

One might think that it does if one presumes that the river remains the same in virtue of something distinct and inherent which remains the same (its 'structure' that 'supervenes'). But I don't see that we need to understand the river fragments in that way, and of course a flux advocate will deny that we should.

The point is that there is nothing in the concession of 'sameness' in the river that compels a flux advocate to budge.

M