02 March 2007

On What There Is, and Isn't, in Heraclitus' 'Ontology'

I'll be on vacation this coming week. Although I'll try to post, I can give no guarantees.

What I would plan to look at, if you wish to join me, are the two paragraphs below from the article on Heraclitus in SEP. (I also have a follow up remark about the MM article.)

Consider it a game, to see if you can guess what I'm thinking about. I find almost nothing in the paragraph I can agree with, and have marked with numbers those points I would wish to dispute. (The original is of course here.) Do you see difficulties also?

Now, remember the terms of the discussion: this is meant to be an encyclopedia article, and, therefore--one would presume--authoritative and in its way definitive.

3.3 Ontology

The standard view of Heraclitus' ontology since Aristotle is that he is a material monist who holds that fire is the ultimate reality (1); all things are just manifestations of fire (2). According to Aristotle the Milesians in general were material monists who advocated other kinds of ultimate matter: Thales water, Anaximander the boundless, Anaximenes air (Metaphysics 983b6-984a8). So Heraclitus' theory was just another version of a common background theory (3). There are problems already with Aristotle's understanding of the Milesians: Aristotle lacks any textual evidence for Thales’ view and must reconstruct it out of almost nothing; he sometimes treats Anaximander as a pluralist like Anaxagoras who thinks the boundless is a mixture of qualities; at most Anaximenes might exemplify material monism–but Plato reads him as a pluralist (Timaeus 39 with Graham 2003b; Graham 2003a). In the case of Heraclitus, his own statements make material monism problematic as an interpretation. According to material monism (4), some kind of matter is the ultimate reality (5), and any variation in the world consists merely of qualitative or possibly quantitative change in it; for there is only one reality, for instance fire, which can never come into existence or perish, but can only change in its appearances. Heraclitus, however, advocates a radical kind of change:

For souls it is death to become water, for water death to become earth, but from earth water is born, and from water soul. (B36)

(Here soul seems to occupy the place of fire. (6)) The language of birth and death in the world of living things is precisely the language used in Greek metaphysics (7) for coming to be and perishing. (8) It implies a radical transformation that rules out continuing identity (cf. B76, B62 (9)). Indeed, interpreters of Heraclitus cannot have it both ways: Heraclitus cannot be both a believer in radical flux (the change of everything into everything else (10): fire into water, water into earth, and so on) and an advocate of monism. Either he must believe in a merely illusory (11) or at most a limited kind of change, or he must be a pluralist (12).

One further difficulty remains for the monist reading. In his alleged version of monism, fire is the ultimate reality. Yet fire (as the ancients recognized) is the least substantial and the most evanescent of elemental stuffs (13). It makes a better symbol of change than of permanence (14). Other alleged cases of material monism offer a basic kind of matter that could arguably be stable and permanent over long periods of time; but fire manifests “need and satiety” (B65), a kind of ongoing consumption that can live only by devouring fuel (15). Is not Heraclitus' choice of a basic reality itself paradoxical? At best his appeal to fire seems to draw on material monism in a way that points beyond the theory to an account in which the process of change is more real than the material substances that undergo change (16).

1 comments:

Ocham said...

I don't see anything exceptionally wrong about some of these statements. E.g. a standard view (which may be the wrong view) is that he IS a material monist who holds that fire is the ultimate reality. "This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be eternal fire."

And isn't material monism the view that some kind of matter is the ultimate reality?

"The language of birth and death in the world of living things is precisely the language used in Greek metaphysics (7) for coming to be and perishing. (8) It implies a radical transformation that rules out continuing identity (cf. B76, B62 (9))." I can't see anything grossly wrong with these two sentences. So I'm intrigued what the problem is.