Flux-Gibberish: For and against Heraclitus

By Desmond, William | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Flux-Gibberish: For and against Heraclitus


Desmond, William, The Review of Metaphysics


I

This reflection is occasioned by an impression gleaned from Aristotle's Metaphysics. It is a not a reflection on Heraclitus in the mode of straightforward scholarly or philological study but one inspired by, companioned by, Heraclitus. In a companioning approach the thinker who occasions the reflection is less an object of scholarly research and more one who brings forth connatural thinking in us, as we try to understand him and the matters that engage him. Such a companioning approach has not been uncommon with Heraclitus, since he seems to be just the kind of thinker who calls forth such a response. There is another approach that I call the "ventriloquizing" approach, which makes the thinker a medium on whom to project the favored ideas of the interpreter. Companioning can become ventriloquizing, and then the words we have of Heraclitus function like such a medium: Rorschach blobs or indeterminate pictures onto which we project ourselves. I have that worry with some of the important interpreters of Heraclitus, at times with Heidegger, for instance, though he might well make claim to epitomize companioning thought with Heraclitus. (1) I will look at aspects of the respective approaches of Hegel and Nietzsche, both of whom witness to a sense of Heraclitus's companioning presence. (2) And yet here too one senses some element of ventriloquizing, and the voice of Heraclitus comes to sound not entirely unlike the voice of Hegel or of Nietzsche. Admittedly, there may be an inevitable temptation to find in Heraclitus what one brings to him. It may be impossible to avoid ventriloquizing entirely. At the same time, there is something resistant in Heraclitus's mode of articulation that makes one diffident in (pro)claiming that now, at last, one is the privileged interpreter to understand him and fully take his philosophical measure. Heraclitus offers us striking thoughts that strike one into thought--thought that opens up philosophical porosity to the deepest perplexities. He can be challenging as a companioning thinker without necessarily being made an object of scholarly research, which, of course, is not to gainsay the need to learn from the scholars and philologists.

I will explain presently the impression gleaned from Aristotle, but overall I am interested in the relation of becoming and intelligibility, in how the identification of Heraclitus as a thinker of flux has been understood as undermining the stability of intelligibility. Pure flux without stable intelligibility would seem to lead to "flux-gibberish," as I am inclined to call it. In the final analysis becoming would seem devoid of an abiding intelligibility, while our efforts to articulate it without falsification would seem to lead to gibberish rather than articulate speech. I think of Socrates in the Theaetetus, where he connects the position that all is motion with Protagoras's view of man as the measure: "If all things are in motion, every answer, on whatever subject, is equally correct." (3) If all things are equally correct, all things are equally incorrect (a view that comes alive again and again, in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, for instance). The threat of flux-gibberish does not seem so far away. I will come again to what I intend by "flux-gibberish" and how this bears on the determinacy and constancy of intelligibility. But if some pervading sense of the flow of becoming must be granted, how does this bear on the constancy of intelligibility? My guiding question: How to think the flow and the constancy together? And can we look less askance on gibberish and what its equivocal promise communicates? If we have to speak against Heraclitus, do we need also to speak for him--even more for than against him? My reflections will be as much about flux and gibberish as about the inspiring companionship of Heraclitus.

II

Aristotle's Irritation. Reading Aristotle's Metaphysics one can be struck by what seems like an irritated tone in his presentation of thinkers whom one can take to be the defenders of the flux. …

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