HERACLITUS

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In this guest piece, read about Heraclitus, the first Greek to place such attention on the idea of the Logos, or the rational underlying structure of the universe, a concept which later underpinned the practice of ancient Stoicism.

Heraclitus - Bibliography - PhilPapers

Read and post your thoughts! One of the great philosophers before Socrates and Plato, Heraclitus was the eldest son of the leading family of Ephesus, one of the main cities of the ancient Greek world and famous for its temple of Artemis. We do not know a huge amount about Heraclitus, except that he avoided involvement in politics, was something of a loner, and, at a time when it was normal for philosophers to play a part in politics and communicate their ideas in speech, he focused on the written word.


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As a result, his thoughts survived him and his book of sayings became famous in the ancient world. Plato and others discussed him, but his influence was greatest among the Stoics. Humans can only act in a right way if their actions are in attunement with the Logos.

Most people, however, do not understand it, even if it is the force that regulates their lives. They believe their own opinions instead of seeing things in their true light.


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Staying blind to this fact is the cause of our suffering. Those unmindful when they hear, for all they make of their intelligence, may be regarded as the walking dead. Many fail to grasp what they have seen, and cannot judge what they have learned, although they tell themselves they know. Air dies giving birth to fire. Fire dies giving birth to air.

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Water, thus, is born of dying earth, and earth of water. The river where you set your foot just now is gone— those waters giving way to this, now this. Although we need the Word to keep things known in the common, people still treat specialists as if their nonsense were a form of wisdom.


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Always having what we want may not be the best good fortune. Health seems sweetest after sickness, food in hunger, goodness in the wake of evil, and at the end of daylong labor sleep. You can spend an hour reading Fragments and a lifetime thinking about it. The quality of the answers we get are directly correlated with the quality of the questions we ask.

This is the most intense event we […].

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Heraclitus and the Birth of the Logos

Why did Homo sapiens diverge from the rest of the animal kingdom and go on to dominate the earth? Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river or the constantly changing flux of river-like moments, if you prefer with his friend Parmenides, who says that change is impossible. They might have a heated argument about whether the so-called river is many or one, but afterwards they can both go for a swim, get a cool drink to refresh themselves, or slip into some waders for a bit of fly fishing.

None of these activities is in the least bit altered by the metaphysical commitments of the disputants.

W ittgenstein thinks that we can get clearer about such disputes by likening the things that people say to moves in a game. Just as every move in a game of chess alters the state of play, so does every conversational move alter the state of play in what he calls the language-game.

The point of talking, like the point of moving a chess piece, is to do something. But a move only counts as that move in that game provided a certain amount of stage-setting. To make sense of a chess game, you need to be able to distinguish knights from bishops, know how the different pieces move, and so on.

Heraclitus

One way we get confused by language, Wittgenstein thinks, is that the rule-stating and place-setting activities happen in the same medium as the actual moves of the language-game — that is, in words. Heraclitus is recommending a new language-game: one in which the rule for using the word river prohibits us from saying that we stepped into the same one twice, just as the rules of our own language-game prohibit us from saying that the same moment occurred at two different times. But if we dismiss the remark about rivers as a naive blunder, we learn nothing from it.

Heraclitus and Parmenides might not do anything different as a result of their metaphysical differences, but those differences bespeak profoundly different attitudes toward everything they do. What, then, inclines us — and Heraclitus — to regard this expression of an attitude as a metaphysical fact?

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Recall that Heraclitus wants to reform our language-games because he thinks they misrepresent the way things really are. But that makes no sense: how can you represent to yourself how things look free of all representation? The fact that we might even be tempted to suppose we can do that bespeaks a deeply human longing to step outside our own skins.

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