Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Heraclitus and the Possibility of Metaphysics

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Heraclitus and the Possibility of Metaphysics

Article excerpt

Aristotle claims that Heraclitus asserts the reality of contradictions. (1) Since Aristotle thinks a contradiction cannot be known and that metaphysics knows all things, the existence of contradictions would undermine the possibility metaphysics. Hence, he argues vigorously against Heraclitus. This paper begins by identifying the type or, at least, one type of contradiction that Heraclitus propounds. I think that Aristotle's arguments for the principle of noncontradiction are directed against a different class of contradictions. They depend on the possibility of posing Heraclitus's claims in a formulation that, as I understand him, Heraclitus aims to reject. Once we understand the peculiar sort of contradictions Heraclitus is advancing, we can appreciate what he proposes to do about the contradiction. Expounding his "solution," if we can call it that, is the task of the second part of this paper. The paper's third part explores three other approaches to avoid the type of contradictions Heraclitus propounds, approaches that span the history of philosophy. In the fourth and final part of the paper, I take some tentative steps toward a different sort of resolution.


Most readers have assumed that Heraclitus roots contradictions in the necessity of change because change entails that something both be and not be. The idea is that when Socrates learns to play the electric guitar and, thereby, comes to be musical, it is true to say that Socrates is musical, but also true to say that the same Socrates is not musical, for Socrates is indeed both over the course of his life. Aristotle avoids contradiction by noticing that Socrates does not have both characters together, at the same time. On this view, we need only distinguish between the respect in which Socrates is and is not musical to avoid a contradiction. More profoundly, Aristotle argues in Physics 1.8 that change does not entail contradiction even though one and the same individual acquires or loses contradictory characters.

There is some question whether Aristotle's move is successful, because the subject Heraclitus has in mind is not an individual like Socrates but something that is, in principle, stable and persisting, like "the all." The all does not have attributes that belong to it; what we usually think of as attributes are, rather, included within it. So, to say that the all is hot and cold is problematic, even if it is both at different times, because it implies that one and the same persistent, self-contained entity be both together.

Let me set aside the question of whether a subject that has contraries within itself constitutes a threat to metaphysics, because this is not the sort of contradiction that I want to focus on here. Heraclitus propounds a different, more challenging type of contradiction in the following key fragment:

   Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all
   things are one [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (2)

The passage begins by distinguishing between the authorial speaker and the Logos, but this distinction is immediately undermined if, as the end of the passage claims, "all things are one." (3) How can there be a distinction between the author who asserts the Logos and the Logos he asserts if, as claimed, all things are one? It would seem to make no difference whether I listen to the author or the Logos: it would all turn out to be one and the same. On the other hand, how can a listener have the option to whom to listen, to one or the other, if the Logos is indeed one and governs my action as well as everything else? If I can choose to whom to listen, then there is no single Logos that is governing my action, and all could not be one. Again, if listening to the person asserting the law differs from listening to the law, then the law is not one and does not govern everything. In short, the multiple options offered or implied in the first part of the fragment are at odds with the unity asserted in its second part. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.