“Heraclitus the obscure said ‘We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and are not’”.

The modern definition of a river is a body of water with copious flow; the water must always be moving, thus distinguishing it from a lake or puddle. So if a person steps into the river at point A at one time, and then steps into it at point A an hour later, they are not stepping into the same water and thus one may argue it is not the same river.

However, if a river is by definition ever changing, then the fact that the water is different does not denote a change in the conduit, the riverbed, and so it is the same river. Then one must wonder whether it is the water or the bed that makes a river a river, it is on this point that the answer truly hinges. This is a question that has been asked throughout the ages, one even finds it addressed in Disney’s Pocahontas where the eponymous character claims that “what she loves most about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice, the water’s always changing, always flowing”.

One may argue this is irrelevant but it illustrates the fact that in this case, it is considered that the water is what constitutes the river, not the bed. But Heraclitus says, according to Maximus of Tyre, the opposites will always be evenly balanced so this tells us that the water and bed are equally important in defining a river, so it is the same yet different at all times. Heraclitus casts doubt on the validity of sensory information, just as Descartes does some fifteen hundred years later.

If the former argues along the same lines as the latter then one can wonder if the river exists at all, we cannot trust our senses so the fact that the eyes are telling the brain that we see a river is obsolete. If there is no river we cannot step into it twice. Yet the Greek philosopher claims that sense data is ineffectual because he believes that people do not truly know themselves and only once they understand their true nature can they begin to understand the world around them. He illustrated this point by saying, “Poor witnesses for men are their eyes and ears if they have barbarian souls”. Aristotle comments on the radical position of Heraclitus’ view: “the view is actually held by Heraclitus that not merely some things but all things in the world are in motion and always in motion, though we cannot apprehend the fact by sense perception”.

One may argue that Aristotle thinks the idea of something moving even though we cannot perceive it is preposterous, but an animal may stop his body from physically moving and appear still to the onlooker, yet its blood continues to pump, around his body, our senses do not detect it but movement occurs. Or one may see Aristotle’s words as a clarification of Heraclitus’ intentions for his river argument that is the idea of constant yet sometimes imperceptible flux.

Heraclitus talks of how we cannot touch “mortal substance twice in the same condition. By the speed of its change it scatters and gathers again”. Again, as with Descartes’ wax, one can question one’s senses in that although something appears completely different our brain still tells us it is the same thing. Descartes’ wax is still wax in solid or liquid form even though all the sensory information contradicts the fact, so the Thames remains the Thames even though the water is different. However, Aristotle had a problem with Heraclitus breaking the law of non-contradiction because by identifying opposites Heraclitus makes each of his statements true, “We do step and do not step into the same rivers” is one such statement. But it has been argued that while the river argument appears on the surface to be suggesting a state of flux, it is rather alluding to the underlying stability or unity of things, if everything is in flux then everything is unified. The water is changing but the river is constant. It is difficult to verify this because Heraclitus’ work was indistinct by its nature, Diogenes Laertius claims this is a result of the philosopher’s misanthropic character; he apparently deliberately made his writings obscure wanted his work because he wanted them to only be accessible to the hoi dunamenoi, already competent thinkers.

Plato points out that Heraclitus “says that all things go and nothing stays, and comparing existents to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river”. Plato sees him “as a teacher of the metaphysical doctrine of flux” only and contrasts him to Parmenides and his theory of oneness, thus denying any inference in Heraclitus’ work to an underlying unity. Heraclitus’ theory of constant change cannot coexist with Parmenides’ unified world because change is impossible in the latter. But like Parmenides deductive reasoning, one can reduce the question to the fact that we do not constantly rename rivers every second because it is no longer the same river as before, the Thames has been the Thames for hundreds of years, if one can never step into the same river then the name of this geographical feature would have had to be changed each instant, probably more quickly than a person could come up with each name! Others still have said that Heraclitus is not claiming that everything changes.

They say the point is that “the fact that some things change makes possible the continued existence of other things”, that is to say that the changing water allows the continued existence of the same river. Thence it can be argued that Heraclitus does not hold with the theory of universal flux but acknowledges the principles of the flux of elements. With this line of argument one can conclude that it is possible to step in the same river twice. The ho skenteinos, as Heraclitus was known, also talks about the unity of opposites; in this case one may apply it to the question and concede that the moving water and stationary bed that unite in definition of a river. However, this unity exists in nature and the philosopher said, “Reality or Nature loves to conceal itself”. If this is indeed the case then one finds it difficult to answer the question, if one cannot be sure of the true nature of this self-shrouded Reality then an educated answer cannot be ventured.

The rationality of Heraclitus’ argument can be questioned when one considers that he says everything is in flux and yet claims the world “always was and is and will be an everlasting fire”, which suggests a lack of change. But fire is an element that is constantly changing yet it is always fire; he said the sun is new each day. So Heraclitus chooses a contradiction to illustrate his contradicting theory, he wanted to illustrate that change is real and stability is illusionary, it may still be fire but it is not the same as it was. It must be noted that he chooses an ever changing element as a simile for the world with fire, and for man with water, they both are in constant flux but do not cease to be what they are. He seems to say that the world is unintelligible by man, that we can only observe a world that we cannot make sense of. He argues for the diversity of the world and so says that we cannot understand something that is constantly changing.

From this we can see that any rational claim with regards to the world is true and false, true for the instant that the world is in that particular state, and then obsolete as the world becomes something else. Therefore one can say that one does in fact step and not step into the same rivers.

Another example to illustrate Heraclitus’ flux theory is that of the seed growing into the tree; the seed has changed from what it was into the tree but the tree is not a different entity, it is the seed and yet not the seed. The seed does not cease to exist when the tree is created and the tree is not an independent thing that replaces the seed entirely. In the same way the river remains the river even though the water is different and yet it is not the same river for the same reason. It must be remembered that the river is a metaphor for people; we are constantly changing and yet remain the same throughout our lives.

Heraclitus causes us to wonder how we are able to maintain our identity when our experiences and physical maturity cause us to change so dramatically. However, it can be argued that change cannot possibly occur as for change to happen it has to stop being what it was, then become something else. For something to stop being what it is it has to be nothing, things cannot become anything because nothingness does not exist. Likewise, for the thing that has ceased to be what it is, that has become nothing, to become something else means that something will have to come from nothing, and things do not come from nothing because there is nothing for it to be created with.

Therefore the river must always be the same river because change is impossible so one can step into the same river twice. In order to counter this one can highlight the fact that the world does change, people move around, live and die, plants germinate, live and die, earthquakes shift rock masses, and volcanoes create new rocks entirely. It is a constantly changing environment in which no thing stays the same for an extended period of time, and time passes so even when objects remain an identical state they are in a different instant of time and so not in the same situation they were an instant before.

But it is possible for one to accept the concept of an ever-changing world without agreeing that it is impossible to step in the same river twice. For example, I am constantly changing, my cells divide and die, I digest different foods, I get a tan in the sun, I am influenced by the opinions of people around me and personal experiences, but I remain myself with the same designation and individual traits. It could be argued that the same is true of the river; change is a necessary element of its definition, so this does not dictate that one river ceases to exist and another appears in its place, just as I remain the same person even though I bear little resemblance to myself as a child, physically or mentally.

According to Wikipedia Heraclitus said, “No man can cross the same river twice, because neither the man nor the river are the same”. This offers an interesting focus on the state of man, that he can never cross the same river because he is no longer the person he was when he last crossed it; physical processes and experience have altered him. This negates the problem with deciding whether the river is the same, its water changing but bed remaining, and moves to the stability or flux of the man who steps into the river, the onus is on the “you” of the question rather than the “river”.

This brings us to the point above that a person remains the same person despite growth and knowledge; one might say that it is development rather than change, so the person is fundamentally the same thus making it possible for them to step into the same river twice. Movement is an essential part of change; things scatter, gather and swirl. However, Zeno argues with his paradoxes that movement does not occur, possibly the most famous of which is “Achilles and the Tortoise”, in which he demonstrates that the faster runner can never overtake the slower one if f the latter has a head start because as long as the tortoise continues to move Achilles must first make it to the last position of the creature before he can catch it, and so he never will.

If one agrees with Zeno then movement, and thusly changes, is impossible so one can indeed step into the same river twice. Heraclitus counters this by displacing Zeno’s concept of movement as a transition across instants with one of continuous change, but this seems a very simple counterargument, yet it is difficult to reconcile the views of a two philosophers who oppose and favor Parmenides. They primarily disagree with the idea of panta hrei, everything flows, like our proverbial river. But they may be trying to gain the same conclusion by taking very different routes, while Parmenides’ underlying oneness does not allow for change, Heraclitus claims that it is change that is the underlying stability, it can be depended upon that everything will change, that is what unites all things and makes them one. It may sound contradictory that flux betrays the unity of the world but Heraclitus does this successfully, just as the ever-changing river does not cease to be a river because the water is different, so the world remains the same even though it is in constant flux.

One may note that the phrase “constant flux” is at first oxymoronic, but in context it embodies the theory in question. Despite this link between Parmenides’ and Heraclitus’ dogmas the latter was apparently “philosophically insular and isolated” and insisted “that he ‘inquired of himself’ (Frag. 10), and learned everything from himself”. Heraclitus called the wisdom necessary to understand the world Logos and said, “It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to the Logos and confess that all things are one”. It is the reconciliation of his ideas of unity and flux that presents the philosophical problem. But once one can understand that it is the change that unifies everything then the question is obsolete because if everything is one then the river cannot become a different entity, but it is the change of water that defines a river, the answers are antithetic. It is not important that we find a solution to the problem he sets us, but rather that we engage in the mental exercise and wake from our dogmatic slumbers.

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Name: Melissa
Uploaded Date: Sep 19,2014

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I am a Shakespeare fanatic with six years` classroom experience. I enjoy reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction and became a teacher to share my passion for language. Now that I have a young family, I have decided to indulge my love of teaching outside the classroom to fit arou.... Read More