Change & Motion in Pre-Socratic Philosophy

Introduction

The Pre-Socratic philosophers were involved in a search for the true nature of reality.  One of the questions they looked for answers to was the problem of change.  On one hand, change seems obvious; sensory experience provides ample evidence for change.  On the other, change is a denial of stable identity and knowledge.  The primary two philosophers who wrestled with this problem, Heraclitus and Parmenides, positioned themselves at opposite ends of a continuum; at one end, with change as a ‘constant’, there is Heraclitus, while at the other end, with a total unity, and only apparent change, there is Parmenides.  Through an examination of their remaining fragments, their arguments for, and against change will be highlighted, and some interesting similarities mentioned.  To close, a brief summary and evaluation will be presented.

Heraclitus

Change is fundamental to Heraclitus’ system, however his thoughts are as interconnected as his theory.  To enable a full appreciation of his change doctrine, mention must be made of his epistemological stance and his views on ‘the one and the many’ (McKirahan, 2010, p. 129).  This will proceed into his discussion of change, and the Logos which orders it.

Heraclitus leans towards empiricism; he tells us that ‘All that can be seen, heard, experienced – these are what I prefer’ (DK22B55, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 115).   The correct use of the senses can provide useful information, which must then be analysed through the understanding of the Logos.  This is because some, even after they have heard the truth, are like the deaf; they fail to comprehend (DK22B34, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 114).  Sensory experience must be supplemented through the Logos, which is ‘common’ to all, just as thinking is. (see DK22B2 & DK22B113, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 112, 114).  To speak with understanding, one must rely upon this Logos (see DK22B114, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117).

‘Listening ….. to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one’ (DK22B50, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116); however this unity is not a simple one.  It is a unity comprised of many interconnected parts, and can be separated and re-formed.  Things taken together are whole and not whole, <something that is> being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity and out of a unity all things’ (DK22B10, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116).  While it is important to see the diversity in the nature of things, it is just as necessary to see the unity which underlies it.  Likewise, it is important to see the diversity within the apparently unified whole.  These connections are not always obvious, however this does not deny their power (see DK22B54, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117).

This unity in diversity concept is highlighted in several statements made by Heraclitus.  Whilst seeming to be contradictory, by looking for the unapparent connections, through changing perspective, the unity becomes apparent.  While ‘the road up and down is one and the same’ appears contradictory, by understanding it in context of perspective between two places, the contradiction dissipates, and the unity becomes clear.

Heraclitus also brings the world’s dichotomous nature to the fore.  Without knowledge of injustice, it would be impossible to understand what justice is.  Without disease, health would be unappreciated; without hunger, satiety would be meaningless (see DK22B23 & DK22B111, in McKirahan, 2010).  This is not just a feature of language; it is a fundamental opposition driving change.  All things come to be through opposition, though a constant, equal exchange like ‘… goods for gold, and gold for goods’ (DK22B80, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  This is a constant feature of the cosmos; ‘… the ever-living fire is kindled in measures and extinguished in measures’ (DK22B30, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120), just as the turnings of the cycle of elements are exchanged for one another, in the same ratios  (DK22B31, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  This constant war of all things is entirely necessary (DK22B80, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).

This constant cycle of change and motion, with opposites constantly vying for supremacy, is epitomised in Heraclitus’ river fragment ‘Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow’ (DK22B12, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 118).  While the identity of the river is somewhat constant, this quote suggests that the rivers very identity relies upon the constant flow of water.  The river could not actually be a river if it was not constantly in motion (Kirk & Raven, 1957, p. 194).

The change Heraclitus sees has both randomness and order.  While ‘the most beautiful kosmos is a pile of things poured out at random’ (DK22B124, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117), there is an underlying unified order, the Logos.  The logos, therefore, also represents Heraclitus’ ultimate metaphysical principle, in addition to being an epistemological one.  It is an incarnation of ‘the ever-living fire’, the true nature of the soul, the ultimate power, and the law which judges (DK22B66, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 120, 141).

For Heraclitus, then, the cosmos is in a constant and dynamic cycle of change and motion.  However this view was challenged by the arguments put forward by Parmenides, who considered rational thought to be superior to sensory experience.  This rationalism led him to the belief that there was no becoming, only ‘what-is’, which remained static.

Parmenides

Change and motion are impossible for Parmenides.  To understand why, his epistemological position must be considered, along with his distinction between reality and the world of appearances.  Then his argument on the true nature of reality will be presented, leading into a discussion of his argument against change and motion.

Parmenides rejected the notion that the senses could be used to gain true knowledge, which places him firmly with the rationalists.  He considered the senses to be a source of illusion, causing the ‘real world’ to appear different to its actual nature.  His goddess warns him not to follow the path which his senses lead him, as this will send him to the path of mortal opinion, instead of Truth.  For truth, he must ‘not let habit, rich in experience, compel [him] along this route to direct an aimless eye and an echoing ear and tongue, but judge by reason the much contested examination spoken by me. (DK28B7, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147).  This is not a typical goddess; he is not asked to blindly follow her dictates, but instead is required to critically evaluate the reasoning she provides, and judge by reason.

The path travelled by sensory experience is the world of appearances, to be understood as the ‘mere opinions of mortals, in which there is no genuine conviction’ (DK28B1, in Smith et al., p. 31).  This route allows all manner of incorrect assumptions, including the belief that it is possible to know ‘what is not’.  However, it is impossible to ‘know what is not […] [or] declare it’ (DK28B2, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 146, 154).  Instead of this path, he is told he should follow truth.

The truth is ‘that what-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, steadfast, and complete’.  It has no beginning, nor end, because this would require it to come from ‘what is not’, that is, nothing; there is also no reason for it to begin at one time, as opposed to any other (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147).  These comprise the first components of the argument against genesis, that ‘nothing comes from nothing’, and an early form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.  Parmenides’ goddess follows this up with the impossibility of generation; since if something came to be, then this would mean there was a time where it did not exist, and would require creation ex nihilo.  This argument can be summarised as follows:

  1. Nothing can come to be or cease to be
    1. If it did, must be a time when it did not exist
    2. If it did not exist at a prior time, it must have been created from nothing
  2. Ex nihilo nihil fit (nothing comes from nothing)
  3. There is no sufficient reason for anything to begin at any one time, as opposed to any other
  4. what-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, steadfast, and complete

The goddess goes on to claim that this totally unified reality is indivisible, because it is entirely the same as everything else.  There is no space, no gaps; ‘what is draws near to what is’ (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147) and it is motionless, ‘without starting or ceasing’ since without a coming to be, or passing away, there is no change; and motion is essentially a type of change.  This is essentially the refutation of change and motion; it could be standardised as follows:

  1. There can be no change
    1. Change implies difference from one time to another
    2. There is no difference, it is entirely the same, and indivisible.
  2. There can be no movement
    1. Movement implies a ceasing to be (in one place) and a coming to be (in a different place)
    2. There is no space within ‘the limits of great bonds’ (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147)

This leads us to the conclusion that change and motion cannot exist, since they entail difference and a ceasing to be of one kind, and a coming to be of a different kind.  This is impossible, because Being is inviolable (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147), and genesis is impossible from nothing (Kirk & Stokes, 1960).

Analysis

From the outlines above, the differences between these two accounts of change are highly visible, though it makes it easy to draw the conclusion that Heraclitus and Parmenides have nothing in common. However they do have some commonalities, even if they use these towards opposite ends.  Two similarities which become apparent are the distinction between appearance and reality, and the necessity of the conservation of mass and energy.

Firstly, both Heraclitus and Parmenides drew a distinction between appearance and reality. Heraclitus found that ‘humans are like the inexperienced’ when trying to understand him, and the Logos (DK22B1, in McKirahan, p. 112), just as they are unable to grasp how a bow, ‘though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself’ (DK22B51, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116).  This is similar to the conception found in Parmenides Proem, where his Goddess tells him that there are different conceptions of reality; a ‘Truth’, and the way of mortal opinion (DK28B1, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 145,146).  This is compounded by the lack of judgement that the mortal ‘hordes’ have, in their inability to use reason (DK28B6, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 146).

Secondly, Heraclitus and Parmenides both appear to agree with an early conception of the ‘law of the conservation of mass and energy’, though they take this concept towards opposing ends.  Heraclitus uses the idea of conservation several times; firstly with the notion that the elements are transformed in accordance with the measured ratio of its quantity prior to transformation (DK22B31, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120), and secondly, that the cosmos is kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures (DK22B30, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  While all things change, or are transformed, these are done in equivalent measures.  Parmenides, on the other hand, uses the concept of conservation to argue against generation or perishing.  With the unspoken premise that there is something which exists, any generation or perishing would mean creation ex nihilo, or perishing into what-is-not.  Since Parmenides believes he has provided strong reasons for discounting these possibilities, the essential unity of being must be conserved eternally, and so discounting any possibility of change or motion.

Conclusion

There are substantial difficulties in analysing the Presocratics, not least the fragmentary nature of their writing.  Heraclitus and Parmenides each offer individual challenges, with the lack of explicitness in their writing, it becomes possible to put forward various alternative interpretations.  However, their contribution to science and philosophy has been profound.  They presented new ways of thinking, highlighting the ways in which the world is viewed, and forcing a reinvestigation of those beliefs.  They challenge all of science and philosophy to account for their findings, and the fact that these ideas, in some respects, are still relevant to ongoing discussion on the possibility of change after more than 2000 years is testament to their worth.

 

 

Bibliography

Curd, P. (2009) ‘Parmenides and After: Unity and Plurality’ in M. L. Gill & P. Pellegrin, (eds.), A Companion to Ancient Philosophy, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 34 – 55.

Curd, P. & McKirahan, R. D. (2011) A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, 2nd ed.,  Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co.

Graham, D. W. (2008) ‘Heraclitus: Flux, Order, and Knowledge’ in P. Curd & D. W. Graham, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 169 – 188.

Kirk, G. S. & Raven, J. E. (1957) The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection Of Texts, London: Cambridge University Press.

Kirk, G. S. & Stokes, M. C. (1960) ‘Parmenides’ Refutation of Motion’, Phronesis, 5 (1), 1 – 4.

McKirahan, R. D. (2010) Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with texts and commentary, 2nd ed.,  Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co.

Roochnik, D. (2004) Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Smith, N., Allhoff, F. & Vaidya, A. J. (2008) Ancient Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary, Blackwell Readings in the HIstory of Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

 

 

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