Philosophical Principles of Flux: Heraclitus

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river. (Plato - Cratylus 402a = A6)

The established scholarly method is to try to verify Plato's interpretation by looking at Heraclitus' own words, if possible. There are three alleged “river fragments”:

B12. potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei.

On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow. (Cleanthes from Arius Didymus from Eusebius)

B49a. potamois tois autois … 

Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not. (Heraclitus Homericus)

B91[a]. potamôi … tôi autôi …

It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state. (Plutarch)

If B12 is accepted as genuine, it tends to disqualify the other two alleged fragments. The major theoretical connection in the fragment is that between ‘same rivers’ and ‘other waters.’  B12 is, among other things, a statement of the coincidence of opposites. But it specifies the rivers as the same. The statement is, on the surface, paradoxical, but there is no reason to take it as false or contradictory. It makes perfectly good sense: we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river, but a lake or a dry streambed. There is a sense, then, in which a river is a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains (cf. Hume Treatise 1.4.6, p. 258 Selby-Bigge). Heraclitus derives a striking insight from an everyday encounter. Further, he supplies, via the ambiguity in the first clause, another reading: on the same people stepping into rivers, other and other waters flow. With this reading it is people who remain the same in contrast to changing waters, as if the encounter with a flowing environment helped to constitute the perceiving subject as the same. (See Kahn 1979.)  B49a, by contrast, contradicts the claim that one can step into the same rivers (and also asserts that claim), and B91[a], like Plato in the Cratylus, denies that one can step in twice. Yet if the rivers remain the same, one surely can step in twice–not into the same waters, to be sure, but into the same rivers. Thus the other alleged fragments are incompatible with the one certifiably genuine fragment.

In fact, Marcovich (1967) has succeeded in showing how a misreading of B12 could lead to an interpretation such as that embodied in A6 and B91[a]. It is possible to see Cratylus, a late follower of Heraclitus, supplying the wayward reading, and then adding his famous rejoinder that one cannot step into the same river even once (although the reading may go back earlier to Hippias:  Mansfeld 1990: 43–55). Since Plato is alleged to have heard Cratylus’ lectures, he may well have derived his reading from Cratylus’ criticism. 

If this interpretation is right, the message of the one river fragment, B12, is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it.  On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all). In general, at least in some exemplary cases, high-level structures supervene on low-level material flux. The Platonic reading still has advocates (e.g. Tarán 1999), but it is no longer the only reading of Heraclitus advocated by scholars.

© Harry Benedict Arthur Coday, all rights reserved