The presocratic philosophers recognized the world is diverse, dynamic, and that human beings were prone to illusions. At the same time, they at least tried to understand the world in a coherent manner. The context of the presocratic, ancient world was one suffused with narrative mythologies to solve this problem and others. Yet, around the time of Heraclitus of Ephesus in 500 BC Greece, the presocratic philosophers distinguished themselves from the storytellers of mythology by using reason and logic to evaluate their experience of the world in a critical way. Specifically with Heraclitus, there is a shift to an evaluation of human experience and a consistency to his epistemological approach. If we encounter a world of opposites, change, and multiplicity, then how do we explain unity, permanence, or harmony? He tried to identify in the idea of logos the principle which underlies the diverse, empirical, and dynamic sets of phenomenal data in human experience. What can we as modern people take from Heraclitus? Does he present a refreshingly old view of the human psyche that resonates with our experience in 2022? To discover the possible gold in Heraclitus, we first have to see how revolutionary his view of the world was in ancient times, and perhaps even in our times.
Unlike Xenophanes who denied humans the ability to have anything more than opinion, Heraclitus posited that intelligibility permeated the universe and could be grasped by the individual. He coined the term κόσμος, that is, the ordered world or harmonious world (B30)1. The world for Heraclitus was intelligible and ordered through the principle which he called logos. The logos, variously meaning account, word, reason, or explanation, is the principle of intelligibility that can be found in all of reality. There is a bridge between divine knowledge of the world (things as they are) and what humans can come to understand. He says in fragment 22B1, “For although all things come to be in accordance with this logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each thing in accordance with its nature and saying how it is”. The logos present in all things and at the same time enlightens the rest of the cosmos. The person who enters the logos enters through “right thinking” (B113) a rational pattern “by which all things are steered through all” (B41). In fragment B49a, Heraclitus says, “We are and we are not” and in fragment B115 he says, “the soul is a self-increasing logos”. Can we understand fragments B49a and B115 of Heraclitus as true not only of rivers and the real world, but also of human persons? Although fragment B115 is doubted as authentically attributed to Heraclitus, it still aligns with the theories of logos. Namely, that by saying something about human experience in comprehending the logos, we can understand Heraclitus as establishing a theory of human psychological (soul) identity that is a self-reflective image of the pattern described in the fragments about rivers and dynamism of the logos.
In terms of the state of human understanding, there is a dichotomy set up between those who Heraclitus says are “Listening not to me, but to the logos” (B50) and those who “are at odds with the logos” and for whom “the things they meet every day appear strange to them” (B72). This is a shift from explaining the world in terms of the apeiron or the material, cosmological origins in favor of a philosophy centered on human affairs and what man can know, even if with great difficulty. For Heraclitus, there are those who are connected, coherent, and awake to the patterns of logos, but there are others who are asleep, “being present they are absent” (B34). Thus, the establishment of the “common” world is opposed to the “private” world. Even though the divine knowledge of the universe is objective, independent, and available to humans, true knowledge requires a connection to a common world and a disrobing of idiosyncrasies or knowledge of facts for their own sakes. The logos reveals the world in a holistic manner that connects seemingly disparate experiences into a unity, not through private revelations or individual opinions. Fragments B49a and B115 make an even more startling claim. Logos is not merely a tool or convention for understanding the world. It is also not merely a feature of the objective world humans observe. The logos is present or imaged in persons and things.
To understand how one might establish a reasonable account in defense of fragments B49a and B115 as establishing a claim about human psychological identity requires an understanding of dynamism and permanence. Experience reveals a world that is changing. Dust blows in the wind, people grow and change, and water flows in a constant shift and flux. Heraclitus uses an example of this in the fragments regarding the river. Scholars are not certain about the authenticity of fragment B49a, but fragment B12 is agreed to be a genuine writing of Heraclitus2. It reads, “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow”. How can we explain this seeming paradox of the same river and yet different waters always flowing through it? Heraclitus argues that what makes the river a united thing, a perceivable and single identity, is not about the molecules of water being always the same. The more profound statement is that what makes the river a single perceivable identity is the dynamic web of relationships between the flowing water, the riverbank, the rocks in the stream, etc. This pattern is logos of the river. In the river, the observer perceives a thing that is in flux, and by virtue of that flux maintains its identity through a series of relationships at variance with each other.
This phenomenal approach to identity can be applied to persons as well. People name, or give a logos (word) to, not only other identifiable persons but also to themselves. The stuff or material that constitutes a person’s physical body, whether molecules or cells, shifts and changes. This is even true for such things as personality and emotions. What remains the same as the pattern of a distinguished identity is the relationship of the powers and potentials of the person. It is the description of a person which binds that person into a unity. Hence Heraclitus says, “We step into, and we do not step into the same rivers. We are and we are not [emphasis added]” (B49a). The river is like a person. Their identities or logoi are images of each other. Humans describe themselves and others in terms of relationships, contrasts, and comparisons, but also uniquely condensations of meaning into a singular “name”. Thus, the grocer down the street is represented by the name Dino Cantelmi to symbolically capture his identity as it is perceived by others. Analogically, fragment B61 says, “The sea is the purest and most polluted water: to fish drinkable and bringing safety, to humans undrinkable and destructive”. This expresses that the logos is not only dynamic but also has relative elements. These relationships are both relative to the observer and universal, while the sea itself remains the same perceivable identity.
There is something about the human person that has the capacity to perceive unity in persons and natural objects despite the apparent plurality and mutability. A person’s participation in the logos is in a process of active becoming and not just in terms of an increase in knowledge. For this reason, Heraclitus says, “The soul is a self-increasing logos” (B115). A person’s logos is different because it has the unique ability to intentionally become more of what it is. To be self-increasing is to be a self-transcending thing. We can have a capacity to transcend because we can gather together knowledge of different logoi. We can internalize the logoi. But the self-increasing is not merely this collection of logoi. It is the capacity to represent to ourselves the whole process of gathering logoi in ourselves. So now we have a picture of the human person that not only gathers knowledge of logos, but also can represent to himself this whole process of gathering and collection of the things gathered. We can transcend the mere process. By gathering the logoi together in itself, in connection to the “common” world, it can represent itself to itself and therefore become something that transcends the mere operation of being “something that detects patterns”. Animals detect patterns too but they cannot represent themselves as “pattern-detecting things” to themselves. Logos is no mere conventional usage for convenience. This establishes a theory of psychological identity, that the human psyche is logos, and it has an intelligible affinity with other logoi in persons and things.
Heraclitus also established a symbolic framework regarding the practical relationship of humans to the logos. While this interpretation of logos might cascade into a radical subjectivism about personal identity or the identity of natural objects, other fragments provide context that show logos as the divine grounding for human phenomenal experience of reality. Subjectivism is certainly a natural objection to make to Heraclitus if one is inclined to preserve objectivity in human experience. This objection is addressed within Heraclitus’ writings and it does not need to be a reason to reject a Heraclitean phenomenology. Radical subjectivism would be what Heraclitus called being in a private, disconnected world. This pattern of “privatization” is also substantiated when Heraclitus says that “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to people if they have barbarian souls” (B107). Since barbarians (barbaros), as the footnote in the text clarifies, originally meant those who do not speak Greek, the relation to the distracted or inattentive is even more clear. The barbarian is cut off from the unity of the Greek language, which allows for successive, common, and mutually understood communication of thoughts. From the perspective of the Greeks, the barbarian is culturally chaotic, dysfunctional, disunified, deconstructed, and lacking central identity. Therefore, the barbarian soul is not merely a people of a different tongue, but rather it is anyone disconnected from the common rationale or the logos as a unified pattern. Eyes or ears for such a soul are “bad witnesses” because they are tyrannized by a mob of idiosyncratic thoughts. Hence his charge against Pythagoras’ “own wisdom” (B129). It is his “own” because it is disconnected from the unified pattern of logos. It is private. It is fragmented. The true knowledge is of the unified logos that enlightens the cosmos.
One must also acknowledge the alternative reading of these passages that lends itself to a stark subjectivism. If one cannot step in the same river twice, then what makes us think we can call it an identifiable, unique thing even if we acknowledge that it is a nexus of relationships? This might lead the observer to claim that perceivable unity is arbitrary and only imposed. First, much like the fragment about the sea as polluted and pure, the relationship that persons have with other persons or things may be relative, but they are not entirely subjective. For Heraclitus, “this logos holds always” (22B1). There are objective aspects of something like the sea even if those aspects are dependent on the relationship of the actor. For fish it is pure and for humans, it is polluted. Secondly, Heraclitus admits, and even belabors the point, that humans are constantly absent from logos (B34). The logos remains, but humans fall out of alignment with it without proper attention and thought. Thirdly, against such a reading into the text of radical subjectivism, Heraclitus claims that fundamental unity is a harmony of things in opposition. A few observations can help in evaluating this claim. There is something about the world of experience that is intelligible. This intelligibility is dependent on stable definitions, or one might say dependent on “names”. Whether it is a rock, a stream, a person, or a bird, definitions not only establish a unity of a certain thing, but they also establish the difference by contrast. This is what Heraclitus means in talking about strife. Fragment B8 reads, “What is opposed brings together; the finest harmony is composed of things at variance, and everything comes to be in accordance with strife”. Without variance or difference, there is no way to perceive a unified thing. But the difference is that in a more ontological sense dependent on rational discursive thought, it is not necessary that there be “other things” just because one rationally apprehends some particular “thing”. At least, this is not obvious in my opinion. But in the phenomenal process of perceiving an already existing cosmos, “strife” represents the contrast between different logoi. A single identity is perceived by its distinction from other identities and in relationship to them. Again, one is reminded of Heraclitus’ insistence on flux. There is something of a paradox. Everything changes, and yet, there is an intelligible, and therefore stable, objective reality in the logos.
As William Desmond notes in his article, Flux-Gibberish: For and Against Heraclitus3, there is an inclination to say “yes” and “no”. Persons, like objects, both are and are not. As Desmond notes, does this pose a significant problem? Is this Heraclitean way of dealing with flux really gibberish? We can reflect again on the relationship between rivers and personal identity. A river is both a unified set of fluctuating relationships and a vast, even infinite multiplicity of parts. When one encounters another person, one is faced with infinite potential features to describe that person. But rather than attempting to describe everything about the person, one describes the person through metaphorical terms that condense the multiplicity into something identifiable. These condensed terms of meaning do not, and cannot, highlight every detail about the person. When one is self-reflective, one recognizes there are features of oneself that are seemingly different from the unified “Myself”. One might be carried away by emotions, feelings, and thoughts that are beyond our control. One’s body is made of multiple parts and features. What can one know about the seemingly disparate and seemingly unified identity that is the self or other persons? Heraclitus spoke as if such an understanding is crucial when he said, “It belongs to all people to know themselves and to think rightly” (B116). Perhaps the genius of Heraclitus lies in his insistence that the answer is “yes” and “no”. There is a paradox in the experience of persons and natural things that is only resolved in light of the logos, the common pattern inherent in the world. It is a common pattern because if one were to try and focus on individual features of a person or the increasingly minuscule facts without reference to the whole, one would not find a person. One would experience mere features without identity if it were possible. Much like the river that is the same river, but different waters, so also a person is variable yet remains in the same web of relationships or logos-imbued structure that is personhood. This is illustrated in fragment B51 where it reads, “They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backward-turning attunement like that of a bow or a lyre”. Persons are and are not, and the variance, that is the experience of the different faculties of another person, is how one perceives the unity in a logical context. Our own likeness is perceived in other persons. In Heraclitean terms, a person’s logos perceives other logoi through an affinity that like things have for like things.
There is something like a psychological disposition required of those who wish to be awake and aware of the common world of logos. Heraclitus says of true (divine) knowledge that “Divine things for the most part escape recognition because of unbelief” (B86). From this one understands that divine knowledge is not applied or laid over the world as a convention since it is “recognized”. Secondly, if divine knowledge escapes by unbelief, then it also is held through belief. This disposition is an affirmation that despite the problems of mutability and plurality, the project of understanding the reason of things is possible, and even if difficult, the world is fundamentally intelligible through the logos. Furthermore, it is a project which requires one to discard idiosyncrasies and knowledge of the world that are out of tune with logos since logos permeates the material world as well as persons.
- All fragments are referenced from: Cohen, Marc, et al. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy. at 20-25. Van Haren Publishing, 2016.
- Graham, Daniel W. “Heraclitus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 3 Sept. 2019, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/.
- Desmond, William. “FLUX-GIBBERISH: FOR AND AGAINST HERACLITUS,” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 70, no. 3, 2017, pp. 473-505. ProQuest, https://gonzaga.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.gonzaga.idm.oclc.org/scholarly-journals/flux-gibberish-against-heraclitus/docview/1879063906/se-2?accountid=1557.