Heraclitus – An Introduction to Flux and Logos

Heraclitus is known for his obscure and elliptical style of writing. What perhaps makes Heraclitus’ oracular pronouncements difficult to deal with is that they cannot be analyzed into arguments and, in some measure, in his seemingly wilful violation of the most elementary principle of intelligibility: the law of non-contradiction. It has been suggested that his statements are symbolic of the nature of the world and the process he writes about. Heraclitus has a very poetic style of using language: rhetorical effects, puns, riddle, syntactical and semantic ambiguities, metaphors, are characteristic of his style. One view of such use of language is that they are deliberately paradoxical because his central thesis of the world being paradoxical: the coexistence of opposites. His paradoxical language mirrors a paradoxical world, one which is impenetrable by ordinary experience but requires something beyond what is in the realm of experience to understand it. What one must look for is the hidden or invisible harmony and what is visible is a clue for those who have the ability to look beyond the evidence of the senses. However the fragments are to be understood, they are both arresting as well as puzzling. Both these qualities make Heraclitus’ statements not to be taken as straightforwardly true or false, but require reflection and interpretation; they are like signs pointing to a meaning beyond themselves.

The Doctrine of Opposites

The opposition between elements becomes a central problem in Greek philosophy after Heraclitus. While the Milesians referred to the elements which seemed to be naturally opposed, Heraclitus has expanded the nature of opposition to include not only the elements with their correlated powers, but generalized it to include everything from natural processes (the seasons), the products of human invention, as well as abstract terms like beauty and justice. Heraclitus use of the opposites will not put them at the beginning of the process of creation (as the Milesians) but at the very centre of nature. Opposites and opposed processes characterise the very nature of things: not only of events, but also of objects. The opposites become not just the signs but also the agents of all kinds of change. Aristotle rejects this conceptualization of the coexistence of opposites, as, he believes, they are violating the principle of non-contradiction: it is impossible for contraries to belong to the same thing at the same time. But does Heraclitus really violate the principle of non-contradiction? What Heraclitus says may turn out not to be violation of the law at all. Opposites, even if they are contraries, can replace each other or transform from one to the other, or may even be simultaneously present (unless they are predicated in the same respect and at the same thing), without logical contradiction. We perceive night and day, hot and cold, dry and wet and at moral levels we also good and bad. To deny the existence of opposites (in the-world-as-we-know-it) is to deny the existence of the world itself. Where there is existence opposites exist. If Heraclitus’ sayings can be shown not to violate the principle of non-contradiction then the whole air of paradoxes disappears; what is then to be understood from his sayings? Certainly the intimate relationship between opposed properties or predicates that constitute the world. What appears to be static and stable conceals a dynamic condition, what is changing reveals order and harmony. For Heraclitus it is in this understanding of the world that knowledge lies, beyond the obvious (represented by the senses) contradiction of opposites. In asserting the unity of opposites, Heraclitus does not point the impossibility of knowledge but only its difficulty. Heraclitus is no sceptic, though he may have been the ancestor of some form of skepticism.

The Doctrine of Flux and the Underling Unity

The world is the theatre of opposites and these opposites, for Heraclitus, are always in continual tension in the constitution of things: they try to change into each other. To change from one form (thing) into another there must be some kind of change, something similar to a motion of change and if the world is in continuous change there must be a continuous motion underlying such change. The doctrine of opposites leads us to the doctrine of flux. There is a controversy about whether Heraclitus ever held such a doctrine and if he did in what form; since Plato is our principal source for such doctrine and uses this premise to draw the conclusion that knowledge is impossible from such a premise. “One must know that war is universal, justice strife, and everything happens by strife and necessity”. Change is caused by strife, the necessity of strife. Heraclitus uses the river is used as a metaphor for a world in a process of continual change. Everything flows, “you cannot step into the same river twice”, “into the same river we step and do not step, we are and we are not, if something is now it won’t be later, nothing is. All is flow, all is becoming. But war is common, it is universal, so is there something in this world of change that is unchanging, something which does not-change? It seems that the unchanging nature of things is permanent, as if the world is becoming and Becoming is the unity of opposites. When change occurs it looks like the identity of the changing or moving object is preserved, in the sense that it can be identified as the same object, persisting over time and through some qualities. While things may be changing in some respect at all time, it would not seem immediately true to say that they were changing in all respect at every moment of time. To say that things are changing in some respect is true as well as trivial. To say that things are changing in all respect seems to be false. “All things are one”. Those who know this, says Heraclitus, are wise. How does the notion of the essential unity of all things develop and not contradict the thesis that everything is characterized by opposites and so in a state of flux? There are two claims that need to be distinguished here: a strong identity thesis, that opposites are equal, and a weaker thesis, that in a sense opposites are the same. The unity thesis is a global claim about the whole, the world order as it were, where as the identity of opposites is a claim about objects and events in the world. Heraclitus has left it unspecified in what way they are one. If Heraclitus is not to be read as a material monist, all things come only from one element, as the Milesians, how else might we understand ‘all things are one’? We can interpret all things are one in the sense of ‘all things are ultimately derived from one source’. This unity of the source may not itself be one thing, but may be a plurality or itself a unity. Or perhaps, what Heraclitus means when he says all things are one is that there is some genus or some description under which everything can be subsumed.

Logos and Knowledge

Behind the universal flux of things there are invariable relations of regularity and succession that law like govern the order of the world: an order that is uncreated and which is common to all. It is this law, common to all, this underlying genus which Heraclitus calls Logos. It is the hidden structure or formula of all things which lies behind the flux of appearances. The unity of all things is expressed by the logos which hold forever whether we hear it or not, in a sense it is the speech of things, or of the cosmos. Even after we have heard of the logos we cannot comprehend it. Logos is that which is ‘common’, or perhaps public, but though common to all it is by no means easy to know. Knowledge is knowledge of the logos and though difficult it is not impossible. The failure to understand is the failure to see and understand the connection between things: to grasp what is common, the logos. Though men are physically present in the world, not all of them are connected with it, they are absent, though present, inexperienced, though experiencing. Understanding for Heraclitus is a kind of mindfulness, an insight into the nature of things, which grasps oppositions and change in the phenomenal world as well as unity which lies behind them. The senses are a tool towards such understanding , they act as a sign, but the logos is beyond them. The unity of things is not the unity of opposites but connected to the thesis that opposites go together in a regulated way: there is an harmony, even if it is hidden. It is the harmony of opposites the cause of the-world-as-we-know-it. In Heraclitus we also see the use of fire. Some interpretations, as Aristotle does, claim that for Heraclitus fire is that from which all the other elements have originated, it is the primary element of the world creation. Some suggest that fire is symbolises flux, it can be linked to the harmony which underlines the changing world. It may also be that since fire is regarded as the finest and most pervasive of all the elements it may be the most predominant in the cycle of elemental transformation. What real meaning does fire have for Heraclitus is yet to be answered. There are also some interpretation which consider logos as Heraclitus’ god, since it is uncreated and ever-existent. Unity of things is not simply that they are changing. It is also the claim that all change is bounded, and behind the apparent opposition of things there is the principle of change, the logos, that men must know if they want to understand the world. The logos of the world is unity and difference, without benefit of any specific connectives of conjunction or disjunction or inclusion.


In summary, Heraclitus has extended the Milesian concept of nature and natural change. From the force of opposites which create the world to the force of opposite which create change. From the concept of change as progression and regression to the concept of change as a layer over unity. From only one force (the opposite) which creates the world as we know it to a combined force of unity and opposites to create such a world. It is the understanding of the opposites that we understand flux, from the understanding of flux we understand the logos, and from the understanding of the logos we understand the coexistence of the logos and the world of change.

This entry was posted in Western Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Heraclitus – An Introduction to Flux and Logos

  1. Snobster says:

    Big thanks : ) It’s really sweet of you to post your academic work.
    One explanation for the notion of “fire” can also be that he has been inspired by Zoroastrianism.

  2. faustoaarya says:

    I don’t know if we can make a relation between the Heraclitus’s fire and Zoroastrianism. Historically we would need to verify what links there were between the two civilizations and how much each other influenced the other. Surely what we can say is that fire was always seen as a very important element on earth and one which can cause creation and destruction…. and it is very flickery.

  3. Steve Gabor says:

    Aristotle says that a coin is either heads or tails from a perspective at an instant. Heraclitus say that it must be both or neither at all times in all respects. These are logical opposites, or rather, logical complementaries. Of the four possibilities of truth values in binary logic, Aristotle prefers either-or, Heraclitus both-neither.

    The difference is that Aristotle’s model is 2-dimensional, like charioteers in battle frozen on the frieze of the Parthenon, but Heraclitus’s remains 4-dimensional like one’s life, but, on the surface, just as complicated. However, that rusting and spinning coin can be reduced to manageability by reducing its dimensionality. It can be Aristotelean, or Newtonian perhaps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s