The “Epistemology” of Heraclitus

Finally. Philosophy has returned.

In previous writings, I didn’t give a shit about ancient Greek philosophy. I made no secret about it. I don’t know why. Get off my back, okay? But now I’m reassessing that opinion.

So I’m starting with Heraclitus.

The fun thing about the pre-Socratics is that we can only speculate as to what their philosophy actually was. In fact according to some YouTube video with some professor (this isn’t college, I don’t have to reference my work), what we know of the first so-called philosophers (Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander) are based on 8 or so sentences. I should remind you that this isn’t a history blog so you should probably always question my historical research. BUT, that just goes to show you how little information we have in making grand generalizations about these thinkers.

Heraclitus comes from my favorite school of philosophy: vague and difficult to understand. On it’s surface, as in the way how Plato and Aristotle possibly understood him, he appears to have denied the possibility of permanence, and in result, the possibility of true knowledge. The stereotypical image of Heraclitus is that he supported a so-called “unity of opposites” with his many clever sayings, but that’s a misunderstanding (if I’M understanding it correctly). In other words, it’s not all ONE thing, it’s a series of transformations of one thing to another. His use of paradoxical sayings is not a proclamation of philosophy, but are instead intended to jolt us into thinking about problems. Socrates would do something similar later on.

Heraclitus’ most famous “saying” is “you can’t step into the same river twice”. That’s a powerful idea, and perhaps that translation would later influence other schools of thought, but that’s not actually what he said. According to this, the literal translation is “on those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” Almost meaning that you CAN step into the same river twice, it’s just different water you’re stepping into. The river doesn’t change, just what flows through it. (The post I linked would extrapolate from that saying that water must flow if there is to be a river at all, as opposed to other bodies of water) Thus, change is embedded into the nature of things.

As stated previously, nearly everyone got Heraclitus wrong. Plato included when he thought Heraclitus denied the possibility of knowledge with his haphazard philosophy. In fact, why I wanted to start with Heraclitus was because he seemed like he was really “out there” with his epistemology. As I’ve said before and I’ll continue to say: even though evidence continues to pile against me, at the heart of my philosophy, I want to deny the possibility of absolute truth. But as for Heraclitus, it doesn’t appear that he shared that enthusiasm.

It appears as though his thoughts on this subject were mostly directed against his contemporaries and predecessors. Although Heraclitus embraces sense perception to receive knowledge, more is required. He infamously said that “learning things does not teach understanding”, and then fired shots at Pythagoras, Hesiod, and others. If you’re an 18th Century philosophy snob like me, this sort of reminds you of rationalism. But in truth, his philosophy of knowledge isn’t all that clear.

HOWEVER, Heraclitus does seem to think that we have the capabilities of having true knowledge, we just have to prepare ourselves in a way to receive it. I suppose it’s here that we can introduce his use of logos, which I’m not entirely certain that I understand (along with many others). I suppose that we can think of it as our path towards understanding the nature of the universe.

It’s with the introduction of this logos (commonly translated as “word”) that Heraclitus is his most influential while simultaneously most cryptic. The infamous introductory verse to the Gospel of John appears to borrow from this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

During my Bible school days, this verse was oddly harped upon. My teacher wanted it to be clear that the Word is in fact the Bible, whose teachings have always existed, and the teaching and knowledge ITSELF is a part of God. It was odd because it seemed like such a simple concept, but they kept harping on it. Luckily for me, I later became interested in philosophy and now that verse takes on a new meaning….or at least it makes more sense for the reason why it was written that way.

Early Christians were attempting to appeal to the Hellenistic world and Greek speakers (again, not a history blog) by stating that Jesus Christ was the Logos…or the wisdom, path of knowledge, etc…that allows us to have an understanding of the world. Christ and His message is the final Word and has always BEEN the Word….therefore the final piece to the puzzle in regards to Greek philosophical discourse.

“What’s your point?” you’re asking.

At least under this interpretation, Heraclitus’ logos is a revelation of truth. And he seems to believe that it is something independent of us. It’s something that we ignore or fail to appreciate. Nevertheless, it’s truths persists. Which is why, according to the Christians, the words logos, Gospels, Bible, etc, are all easily interchangeable. Which is why we have to be properly prepared to receive and decipher such information….why “learning things does not teach understanding”. (Which is why to be a Christian, one must accept Salvation. In Gnosticism, one must access their “divine spark”, etc…)

But of course, Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic. He might not have believed any of this shit and academics and half-assed intellectuals like me are pulling this out of our behinds. Just keep that in mind.   




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