The purpose of the following essay is to research one of the central ideas of the Heraclites philosophy – the doctrine of flux, and to argue whether that doctrine undermines the possibility of knowledge. The particular attention is paid to the ideas of the Heraclites` follower, Cratylus, which form the main opposition to the doctrine. The theory is also evaluated through its relation with other ideas and doctrines of Heraclites, like the idea of singularity and the unity of the opposites.
“Everything flows” is one of the most famous sayings of Heraclitus which serves as the basis for a so-called theory of flux. Plato indicated the essence of that theory: “Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things go and nothing stays, and comparing existents to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river”However, there are still a lot of controversy about the authenticity of Heraclitus` words, as much as about the validity and certainty of his theory. There are at least three different sayings which are considered to be the original words of Heraclitus:
“We both step and do not step into the same rivers: we both are and are not”
“It is not possible to step into the same river twice” (Barnes, 65-66)
Despite the differences in the formulation, these quotations, in short words bear the essence of the Heraclitus views on the fundamental laws of the universe. Heraclitus employed the image of the river as it symbolizes both constant change and movement, as well as it signifies stability and permanence of the nature and universe. At first sight, it might seem that the river is stable and constant in its essence. But if we take a closer look we can observe a ceaseless flow or “flux” of its waters. That is why it is impossible to step into the same river twice; it is constantly subjected to the changing flow of the waters, influenced by the forces of the nature. The first and the third quotes do not seem to be essentially different. The basic connection between those sayings can be formulated as follows: it does not seem to be possible to step into the same river twice, as even in the same river different waters always flow. The second version of the quotation: “We both step and do not step into the same rivers: we both are and are not” should be interpreted more thoroughly. How is that possible that we step and at the same time do not step into the same river? This seeming contradiction can be easily explained by the application of the principle established by the Heraclitus: superficially, it seems that the river is the same as it was before, however as the waters of the river are constantly “changing”, the essence of the river has changed too. At the same time, we stepped into the same river as before because it has retained its primary geographical disposition, as well as the essential element of the river – water, has remained unaltered in its physical and molecular state.
The image of the river seems to be the most appropriate when it comes to the interpretation of the flux theory proposed by the Heraclitus. A “river” serves as the metaphorical image of more global and fundamental processes which constantly occur on the Earth and in the whole universe. Also, the image of the river serves as a mundane example and the main argument which supports the validity of the Heraclitus theory.
The proposed theory argues that all the nature`s phenomena and processes, according to the fundamental laws of the universe, are constantly changing and never remain the same. Naturally, such theory caused many contradictions and disputes between scholars and philosophers of the time. Different interpretations of the Heraclitus idea of flux can be found in the positions of Heraclitus` followers like Cratylus, whose vision of the flux theory later substantially influenced the views of Plato. According to Aristotle, in his youth, Plato was a companion of Cratylus who acquainted him with the Heraclitus theory that all things and phenomena which are perceptible to human being through the senses, are subject to constant change and flux. However, the Cratylus`s interpretation of the Heraclitus theory seems to be rather extreme and even radical. Cratylus states that if all things are in the state of constant change and flux, it is almost impossible to clearly determine and define the nature of those things and therefore, we cannot actually grasp the true essence of processes and things that surround us. All the attempts to define or categorize the objects and phenomena will fail, which will eventually lead to the rejection of the validity of reasonable knowledge itself.(Warren, 2007, 71)
Cratylus states, that as the attempts to comprehend and to explain the world are futile, it is better not to speak at all, but raise a finger instead, as both of these actions will be equally useless in the attempt to conceive the world and articulate its true nature. One can only “point a finger” at the object to identify its location, but no one is able to describe its essence. In his reflections he goes even further, stating that you can step into the same river neither twice nor even once. As soon as you step into the water, it is no longer the same water you intended to enter. Between the moment you make a decision and the actual move, the water you intended to step into has already flown away and changed. Since the world does not manifest any kind of stability, there is no need to name and describe the things, as by the time you name or find an appropriate description or explanation of particular properties of that thing/phenomena it will inevitably change its form, making any kind of prior definition or description completely inadequate and useless. (Warren, 2007, 71)
Owen in the article on Plato`s Timaeus stated:
“Plato points out if anythingwere perpetually changing in all respects, so that at no time could it be described as being so and so, then nothing could be said of it at all – and, inter alia, it could be not said to be changing. If an object moves, we can say what sort of object is moving only if it has some qualitative stability; conversely to have complete qualitative flux ascribed to it, a thing must have locationSo no description of any process is possible if we can say only that its constituents are changing from or to something and never that they are something.” (Owen, 1953, 85)
Certain views of the Aristotle may be relevant while evaluating the flux theory. When meditating on different categories of entities, Aristotle distinguished between the substance and the quality of that entity with the corresponding questions of “What is it” and “What is like”. This distinction is very important in the course of the interpretation of the Heraclitus flux theory. The change or flux, in most cases, means the qualitative change of the entity which cannot be equated to any alteration of the fundamental category of its substance. Indeed, different waters are flowing in the river but the flux does not influence the substance of water and river itself.(Wiggins, 26)
Some interpretations of the flux theory raise significant questions in regard to the essence of that philosophy. One of the questions is how can a thing change without the changing of its identity? Considering the postulates of the theory, the most appropriate answer to that question is that there are no changing things, but only changes. Things may change their form or state, but not the essence. Generally, the Heraclitus` theory suggests that the world is full of things and phenomena which constantly undergo different changes.(Barnes, 68)
One of the most important parts of the Heraclitus doctrine is the doctrine of cosmos and fire. Heraclitus considers the fire to be the most substantial element of the cosmos, as well as a kind of currency which serves as an elemental exchange in “universal” transformations:
“All things are repayment for fire and fire for all things, just as goods are for gold and gold for goods”. This means that when in global transformations, the fire turns into the sea, that sea in its amount is equivalent to the amount of fire which was “used’ to create that sea. This indicates the balance and stability that exists during the massive transformations of the constituent elements of the cosmos: fire, water and earth. The Heraclites philosophy suggests, that all the things in the cosmos came into being from the fire, and everything will eventually return into the fire, completing the full cycle of transformations. As we can see, according to Heraclites, the cosmos (universe) is a regulated system which consists of different constituent elements of fire, earth and water. Each of these elements has a certain place and functions, and all of them are united in constant transformations and change. (Warren, 65)
Heraclites sayings also reveal that similar transformations occur on the Earth, on mundane levels and in simple phenomena which are close to our understanding. These observations lead us to the acknowledging of yet another principle of Heraclites philosophy - “all things are one”, as well the principle of the unity of oppositions. (Warren, 67) The latter principle states that all the things in the universe are united together due to their inner opposition. The forces that bind things together are often diverse in their nature. The Heraclites dictum “The road up and down are one and the same” vividly illustrates that principle, implying that despite the fact that the roads have two opposite directions, they still constitute one inseparable thing. The question is how can these postulates be applied to the doctrine of flux and whether it is possible to combine those principles at all? As discussed before, in the Heraclitus philosophy, the fire plays a key role in the formation and further transformation of all fundamental elements of the universe. The fire is the unifying element of the cosmos. Thus all the changes which occur in nature are evidence of certain transformations and movements. The flux is a direct result of interaction between opposite forces which strive to co-exist and eventually become united in their diversity. This struggle takes place at different levels of being, and as a result it forms a single, stable system (“all things are one”), which nevertheless continues to move and change within itself.
Having examined the Heraclites doctrine of flux, we can say that it does not undermine or in any other form diminish the possibility of knowledge. Basically the only scholar who has expressed doubts in regard to the role of knowledge in that doctrine was the follower of the Heraclites, Cratylus. He construed the doctrine as being rather extreme and radical in its views on the significance of constant changes and which overestimated the actual place and role of these changes. In his reflections, Cratylus reached the point of nihilism, denying any kind of certainty and stability, and stating that “change is essentially the only stable thing”.
This position of the Cratylus can also be refuted by the reference to other doctrines of the Heraclites, which are all essentially interconnected. The ideas of the constituent universal elements, singularity of all things and the idea of the unity of opposites support the doctrine of flux and eternal changes. The basic elements of cosmos are constantly transforming, creating new forms and elements. This process might seem chaotic when in fact it is a subject to the fundamental laws which strictly regulate the cycle of changes, proving the universe to be stable and harmonic in its everlasting flux.
Undoubtedly, Heraclites never meant to undermine or depreciate the significance of knowledge in his theories, especially in the flux doctrine. His philosophical endeavors had the main purpose of discovery of a universal knowledge which would eventually explain the foundations of our existence, as well as true essence of all things and phenomena which surround us.
1.Barnes, J. (1982) ‘Ch.13. The Natural Philosophy of Heraclitus’. In: The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge & Keagan Paul.
2. Warren, J. (2007) ‘Ch.4. The Oracles of Heraclitus.’ In: The Presocratics. Stocksfield: Acumen.
3. G. E. L. Owen. “The Place of Timaeus in Plato`s dialogues” Classical Quarterly, London (1953), 85-6.
4. Wiggins, D. (1982), ‘Heraclitus’ Conception of Flux, Fire and Material Persistence’, In:
Schofield, M. & M and Nussbaum, M, Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Greek
Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.