02 March 2007

Toward or Away from First Principles?

Are we heading toward, or away from, first principles? Are we drawing a conclusion, or aiming to support one?

MM's interesting article on Heraclitus raises just these questions. Suppose one finds in Heraclitus a paradoxical assertion coupled with some more general claim:

(A) You would not step into the same river twice.
(B) Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters flow.
Is this meant to be an argument from (A) to (B), thereby perhaps resolving a paradox, or rather from (B) to (A), so as to reinforce the paradox and make it seem inescapable? Clearly, any pair of this sort admits of either interpretation.*

MM recognizes the difficulty and favors the 'resolving' interpretation, on two grounds:
1. Heraclitus would argue from (B) to (A) only if he wished to argue for universal flux. But that's not what he believed.
2. Like any other paradox, (A) invites the listener to respond with a countering 'doxa', which then provides the occasion for (B) to function as a resolution.
But we saw that the first reason may be put aside.

And the second reason seems strained to me. My difficulty? Generally, paradoxical statements do not invite us to counter with a 'doxa'; rather, they invite us to search for the argument, or reason, why someone would want to assert the paradox in the first place.

Test this for yourself with a few Heraclitean paradoxes:
The road up and the road down are one and the same.
Are you tempted to say in reply, "No, they are not. They are different roads"?" Or would you rather be inclined to think, "What do you mean by that strange saying?"
The sea consists of water which is both most wholesome and most foul.
You might even think that true. (Try also: "Pigs like mud", or "Donkeys prefer rubbish". --"Yes, and so ... ?") But I think you are not inclined to contradict it, until you know what it means. And then you are looking for something which supports it.

In fact, I wonder if there is another paradoxical claim in the fragments which has the effect that MM attributes to "You would not step into the same river twice."

*That one sometimes finds ga/r ('for') in the second claim, as in Plutarch's version (which Vlastos follows in his reconstruction), would not be decisive--
di\j ej to\n au)to\n potamo\n ou)k a)\n e)mbai/hj,
e(/tera ga\r kai\ e(/tera u(/data e)pirrei=.
--as ga/r could be either introducing the premise of an inference (reinforcing), or clarifying the proper ground on which one wants to say something (dissolving).