14 March 2007

Good and Bad Humour

Q. What's black and white and red all over?
A. A penguin with a sunburn.

(A.) What's most wholesome and most foul?
(B.) Sea water--wholesome to fish and foul to men.

This pair leads to my question. Suppose we take Heraclitus to be inviting us to reason from paradoxes to their resolution (as we saw MM was proposing). Then why isn't he simply making bad jokes?

MM says: because his paradoxes encourage us to work out the Law of Non-Contradiction (LNC) and the distinction between substance and accident, on which their resolution depends. Thus:
My theme so far has been to show how Heraclitus offers us two different perspectives on the paradoxes, corresponding to the subject on the one hand and the predicate on the other. The solving of the threatened contradiction in the predicate shows us the workings of the law of non-contradiction; and the dialectical effect of this is to make us see, as a general principle, that LNC is true. At the same time, the subject, which underlies the contradiction, is seen to resist disintegration, since the paradox exploits our intuition that the subject is indeed 'one and the same'. The effect of this is to reassure us that there are individuals underlying the opposite properties of the phenomenal world. So the paradoxes, at the object level, have a double metaphysical effect: firstly, they establish LNC elenctically; secondly, they expose and confirm the assumption that there are individuals in the world which are self-identical at a time, which persist over time, and which can be reidentified--rivers, roads, and possets.
But mightn't we claim that the joke does the same? It causes us to reflect that the black and the white cannot really coincide; moreover, it causes us to reflect that one and the same thing, the penguin (a 'substance'), is white on its belly (an 'accident') and black on its wings and back (another 'accident').

Or, if we want to insist that the joke does neither of these things, because it resolves the paradox with which it begins straightforwardly and unreflectively, why wouldn't we say the same about Heraclitus' aphorism--if indeed its direction is really toward the resolution of any sense of paradox?

Of course the following sequence would be interesting:
Sea water is both most wholesome and most foul.
--The complete apparatus of Aristotle's Categories, including especially its discussion of relatives and opposition--
Sea water is wholesome to fish and foul to human beings.
But we find nothing like that in Heraclitus--nothing at all to suggest a deliberate theory of substance and accidents. MM attributes this to him, of course, but to me her conjectures along these lines seem to be no more than ingenius invention--of the sort that no one could supply who had not already studied Aristotle.


Leon said...

That Herakleitos pointed toward an underlying unity in all phenomena is undeniable, but to suggest that he intended to reassure anyone that there are persistent 'individuals underlying the opposite properties of the phenomenal world' seems absurd to me. I like what Nietzsche wrote (Pre-Platonic Philosophers, trans. G. Whitlock, p.65) "If everything is in Becoming, then, accordingly, predicates cannot adhere to a thing but rather likewise must be in the flow of Becoming. Well, Heraclitus perceived that contrary predicates imply each other, something like what Plato says about the pleasant and unpleasant in the Phaedo: they are intertwined like a knot."

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Leon,

I find your quotation from Nietzsche interesting, because it reminds us that "everything is in Becoming"--whatever its ultimate coherence, and however we spell out its details--is an identifiable philosophical position, with definite power and appeal. Nietzsche could see this; so could Plato.

To my mind it is antecedently much more plausible to hold that this identifiable and powerful view originates with Heraclitus than with some mistake of Cratylus or Plato. And I have seen no good arguments to the contrary.

By the way, I agree with what I take Nietzsche is suggesting, and regard that remark in the Phaedo as an expression of "Plato's Heracliteanism".