Heraclitus, Fragment 7 (D 18)


“If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored” (Wakefield 9; cp DK 9, LM D37)

If one does not hope one will not find the unhoped for–it is inscrutable and impracticable.” (Sweeet 17)

“He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored.” (Kahn 7)

“Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find [truth], for it is hard to discover and hard to attain.” (Wheelwright 19)

There are stark differences in translations. Wakefield’s translation, which has by now made its way on to many a coffee mug, is probably the most easily misunderstood. As thrown around in pop culture (which quickly forgets the last part of the phrase “since it is trackless and unexplored”) it often means “expect good things.” It’s a motto of those who believe they are manifesting their own realities.

Kahn interprets the statement, together with D22, D35 and D123, as one of the fragments most relevant to the search for truth. Wheelwright’s translation here also directly understands the quote to be about the expectation of truth. This is surely a fruitful route for exploration. Isn’t it through expecting to find something not known (thus not able to be expected) that we have in fact made scientific advancements? Or discovered fruitful interpretations of works? Or of we’d like to broaden the scope a bit — found ourselves able to create a new musical composition or able to paint a new painting?

None of these things comes easy. The truth is hard to attain, to quote Wheelwright’s translation. The deeper meanings of things, the principles guiding actions — these are under the surface. They will only be uncovered with the right attitude, and as various other passages make clear, with the right form of inquiry (see D 35). The deeper meanings, the principles at the root of things–these are not the well-“explored.” So thinking about them is not habitual.

Nonetheless, when we do explore them — when we aim at truth — we bring an expectation or a hope of finding something. We don’t know however precisely what we will find. If we did we wouldn’t have to look for it. So we set out expecting or hoping to find what we aren’t expecting — finally to get our heads around the deeper, the hidden meaning, the principle guiding the action and so on.

While this is a helpful interpretive framing, Heraclitus clearly didn’t have anything like modern science in mind. He was looking for the Principle, or an Account, or the Logos in a much different way.

I’d thus like to explore whether we might also view the passage in reference to a question of ontology that is at the heart of process views of reality like Heraclitus’ — namely, in reference to the question of whether the reality around us is full of the unexpected, because it is ever-new (even if certain laws mean that a certain replication and repetition of the past occurs).

In our own context this makes sense as well: We now obviously see a social world around us that shifts and changes at a pace unprecedented in human history. In contrast to Heraclitus, we also know that animal and plant species and the very physical structure of the universe undergo change continually. These realities should, it would seem, predispose us to be open to a process view of reality like that Heraclitus proposes.

Indeed, the universe appears to be an open system, where each moment is in some sense unique and unlike every moment before it. Heraclitus conveys this sense; and certainly we can experience it this way. But what often prevents us from doing so is a certain laziness of thought, or habitual character of thought. Rather than exploring the new, we very often rely on ideas we have inherited, preunderstandings, prejudices about how to understand the world around us, as well as our place and the place of others in it. Maybe this bit of Heraclitean wisdom can serve to jolt us out of complacency and serve as a helpful reminder to search for the ever-new, to see the creative, the contingent, the continual difference in front of us. Indeed, this may be also seen to wake us from a kind of slumber of being dominated by reified, unexamined ideas of reality.

Or if we are to take this is a direction perhaps as much Toaist, Buddhist, or Stoic and Christian, as Heraclitean, we might attempt to be awake to “true” actions, or a authentic way of dealing with those around us, again, pulling ourselves from our routine habits of thought, or habits of thoughtless action, to direct our minds to the uniqueness of each moment, and be cognizant of all the things, unplanned, unasked for, unexpected, that fill the moments of our days but that we sleepingly walk by and rarely notice. Acutely aware of how, at least from our perspective (I will not speak of a god’s-eye view here), something new and unexpected continually occurs, the later Stoics and Christians began daily reflections with the intention of calling to mind moments of encountering the Logos or Truth throughout the day and daily examinations of conscience about whether one was living in alignment with the principle, living authentically or “truly.” Expecting the unexpected, aligned as it may be with trying to be awake to the ever new, is hard even if not connected with the search for scientific principles.

In step with Heraclitus we may still emphasize the benefit of looking for the rational principle that guides the change, the laws that are thought to steer the unfolding of the natural world and that should guide the unfolding of the social world. But it is not yet so clear how Heraclitus understands the understanding of that principle.

In sync with a view of philosophy more aligned with Deleuze and Guattari, who see philosophy as fundamentally about the creation of concepts for framing and experiencing reality, we would want to reconceive of reality in enlightening and potentially emancipatory ways. Our cataloging of experience will then allow a repetition with difference. This is aligned with a more nominalist or instrumentalist epistemology (in some sense aligned with the epistemological spirit of Toaism or Buddhism). But in accord with it, we will search for new patterns and also be attentive to how old ones might help or hinder us, but in any case are always inexact fits to reality.

Whether one opts for one or the other of the above depends in part on how open this open system is thought to be and how determinate the law-like character of change.

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