Heraclitus on temporal flow, identity and change

Lauren asked:

I have a question in my textbook that I was wondering if you could help. The question is:

How would Heraclitus have responded to the following statement? ‘Heraclitus’ theory is wrong because the objects we see around us continue to endure throughout time; alhtough a person, an animal or plant may change its superficial qualities, it still remains essentially the same person, animal or plant throughout these changes. In fact, we recognize change only by contrasting it to the underlying permanence of things. So permanence, not change, is the essential to reality.’

Answer by David Robjant

He would have responded that he was talking about flow, not change.

Possibly he would also have pointed out that the final line of the statement is somewhat silly, since both permanence and change seem to be observable features of reality, and it is hard to know what sense to attach to the claim that one but not the other is ‘essential’. And beyond the fact that enduring and changing are ordinary enough, change and endurance are also grammatically necessary to each other. This is because you cannot have any ‘it’ that is changing, outwith something that endures through that change.

This grammatical point is made by both Plato and Wittgenstein, and ad nauseum in modern discussions of Heraclitus. But presenting it as the last word would seriously misdirect the argument, if Heraclitus were talking about something other than change. And in my view (and the view of Iris Murdoch), Heraclitus was talking about something other than change. That, in short, is my argument in ‘Nauseating Flux; Iris Murdoch on Sartre and Heraclitus’ at the European Journal of Philosophy 21, 2013 http://philpapers.org/rec/ROBNFI.


Answer by Peter Jones

Good question. But it contains an error, and the error is the solution. The objects we see around us do not endure through time. They change in every moment. You may say that it is their attributes that change and that there is some underlying ‘essence’ that is unchangeable, but you will never find this persisting object. It is not there. This is the ‘problem of attributes’. An object is made out of attributes, but to what do those attributes belong? They must belong to a phenomenon that has no attributes. How can a phenomenon have no attributes and yet nevertheless be a phenomenon? The obvious answer is that it cannot.

It is consciousness that perceives permanence, or thinks it does, when it reifies successive momentary states by grouping them together as persistent objects. It is a high level view that breaks down at smaller scales. Here is Colin McGinn as a teenager, trying to figure out which part of an object actually is the object. Like everyone else he is unable to find any such object. (From The Making of a Philosopher). He has no better idea these days having become a professor.

“[P]icture me sitting on a bench staring at a British mailbox on a blustery spring day in Blackpool. I had just been reading about the questions of substance and qualities, and was suitably transfixed. Is an object the sum of its qualities or does it have an existence that is some way goes beyond its qualities? The mailbox had a variety of qualities – it was red, cylindrical, metal, etc. – but it seemed to be more than just the collection of these; it was a thing, a ‘substance,’ that had these qualities. But what was this substance that had those qualities? Did it lie behind them in some way, supporting them like the foundation of a house? If so, what was this underlying thing like – what qualities did it have? If it had some qualities, wouldn’t there be the same problem again, since it would also have to be distinct from these qualities? But if it had no qualities, what kind of thing could it be? How could these be something that had no qualities? So maybe we should say that there is nothing more to a mailbox than the qualities it manifests. And yet how can an object be just a set of abstract qualities? Isn’t it more solid and concrete than that?… I had a vague mental image of a grey amorphous something that constituted the underlying mailbox, to which its various manifest qualities mysteriously were attached… Yet as soon as I replaced this fuzzy image with the qualities by themselves, trying to think of the mailbox as just a ‘bundle of qualities,’ the object itself seemed to disappear.”

If there is no object there can be no unchanging object. Yet I think you are right to say that we see change against a background of permanence. So what is unchanging? If it is not the object nor the subject then what is it? This is a question that cannot be answered once we have rejected the answer given by mysticism. Heraclitus answers it when he says ‘We are and are-not’. His point is that objects do not exist as we usually think they do, and this includes you and me. To the extent that we ‘are-not’ we may be unchanging. But in this state we would not be objects or subjects. Objects and subjects would be impermanent.

Obviously this needs to be a much longer discussion, probably an endless one, but I hope this sheds some light on Heraclitus. If you study the Buddhist notion of impermanence it will help make sense of him. Perhaps Parmenides and Zeno also. Bon voyage.


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