Friday, 9 March 2012

Heraclitus (C.535-472 BC)

Julia Alsop continues her exploration of early metaphysical philosophers with Heraclitus.

In my second article following the development of metaphysical philosophy we look to Heraclitus, and his theories that everything is constantly changing; in a permanent state of flux as such.

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Heraclitus was a native of a Greek city on the Asia Minor coast called Ephesus and came from a well-distinguished family. Like many early philosophers, we know very little about his early life – only that he regarded himself to be a self-taught “pioneer of wisdom. He lives a lonely life – and spent his days, full of contempt for humankind, contemplating  - he was often known as the "Weeping Philosopher".

Heraclitus saw explanations for the physical nature of the cosmos as being governed by a divine logos ( logos is the principle of reason and judgment), as opposed to seeking more scientific explanations like other earlier Greek metaphysicists. He saw it as a universal, cosmic law – from which all things come into existence, and hold the universe in balance. This is shown in the balancing of opposites – day and night, hot and cold – which he believed led to a certain unity in the universe, or made from a single process or substance, a view central to monism.


He also believed there was great tension between opposites and so everything must therefore be constantly changing or, as he is more infamously quoted “in a permanent state of flux”.  We can see that day changes to night, then back again to day, which reiterates this possibility.

Heraclitus used the analogy of a river to explain it in the well-known phrase “You can never step in the same river twice.”  He explains that, as soon as you step into the water of the river the water particles will move and be replaced with others, but still the river is represented as being an unchanging and fixed thing. 

This view very much contradicts that of the philosopher, Thales, whom I wrote my first article about, who along with others of the Milesian school, defined all things by a  quintessential, permanent essence with in.

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