Heraclitus Down Under

Here’s Alan Saunders, host of the Australian program The Philosopher’s Zone, reflecting on the influence of Heraclitus on Australian philosophers John Anderson and John Passmore.

I find that what Passmore talks about most is not so much Anderson as Anderson’s lectures on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and in fact not so much Anderson’s lectures on Heraclitus as Heraclitus himself. About Anderson, I’m still a bit in the dark, but Passmore has convinced me of why Heraclitus mattered to him and why Heraclitus ought to matter to me.

As presented in ‘Memoirs of a Semi-Detached Australian’, Heraclitus is a philosopher of flux: change, the conflict of contrary things, is the essence of life. We cannot impose order from above; order emerges, in the way that it should emerge in democratic societies, when, as Passmore puts it, ‘contrary interests achieve a degree of balance without losing their distinctiveness.’

“Balance” is an apt enough term, I suppose, but I might have used “harmony.” The key here is that socially and politically, there is no one universal foundational truth. Truth is emergent.

Saunders continues, explaining how Heraclitus saw us as distinct, yet entangled to the point that we compose a kind of social organism that transcends individualistic notions such as active and passive individuals.

But however distinct we may be, we are inevitably entangled in all that lies around us. We can be spectators, says Passmore, but even a spectator can have an effect on the game: the way I look at you may have consequences for you and your behaviour.

Such a social dialectic has been infamously misinterpreted by Marxists to undermine the individual in society. Where they have failed to follow a truly dialectical model is in imposing a universal foundation upon society, and not allowing change to emerge organically, in a free society. The individual must be defended against all powers, whether those powers be kings or mobs, for the collective to thrive.

And what I see when I see you, or what you see when you see me, will be the result of whatever information we have and our earlier histories, all of which makes for a complex tangle of relations, which is why, Passmore remarks, Heraclitus warns us to expect the unexpected. We can never possess certain knowledge or make entirely reliable predictions.

This is a useful philosophy to have. I for one find it entirely congenial, and it tends to encourage a certain pluralism, or at least anti-dogmatism, of outlook…

See Ockham’s Razor, Aug 22, 2004

I agree with Saunders, though I do regret that dialectical thinking has too often been made the servant of dogmatism. Self-professed dialecticians since Hegel have oft as not failed to go the distance with the Heraclitean dialectic, and settled for the comfortable security of foundationalism. By employing dialectical thinking as a philosophical PR representative for universals, they have missed the point at best, and have at worst been guilty of philosophical deceit.

This reminds me of how Heraclitus, having evident respect for the genius of Pythagoras, called him “the prince of impostors.” Pythagoras was a mathematical genius who has had great influence on western thought, science, and Heraclitus as well, but who enslaved his genius to a dogmatic agenda.

“Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus pursued inquiry further than all other men, but choosing only what he liked from these compositions, made a wisdom of his own: much learning, artful knavery.” —Heraclitus

2 comments on “Heraclitus Down Under

  1. Dan Jensen says:

    I’m not sure I think too much of John Gray’s notion of “agonistic liberalism”, AKA “agonistic pluralism”, but I love the oppositional, even combative terminology. It reminds me of Heraclitus and John Anderson.

  2. Dan Jensen says:

    “Anderson thought that, I think, the only philosopher that he didn’t think made fundamental errors was Heraclitus … He had very little time for any philosopher except Heraclitus and his own views!”

    —David Armstrong (philosopher and student of John Anderson, on the Philosopher’s Zone, Sep 8, 2007.

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