Heraclitus, Fragment 12 (D A23)


“To cite the testimony of poets and mythographers regarding matters of which we are ignorant is to take, as Heraclitus says, untrustworthy and disputable claims for facts.” (Wheelwright T13).

“Polybius: [It would no longer be fitting to take poets and storytellers as witnesses for things unknown, as our ancestors did in most cases, citing untrustworthy authorities on disputed points as Heraclitus says]” (Kahn, 12)

The argument from authority is one of the best known of the informal logical fallacies. Philosophers have long raged against it with vehemence. The problem with it is not the trust in authorities, but as Heraclitus here notes, the trust in untrustworthy authorities.

Heraclitus speaks in the last Fragment (11) of the need to avoid concurring casually on important matters. The good judgment of which he speaks will evidently not be achieved by reliance on authorities. But how will it be achieved? He has indicated the need for “good inquiry into many things” (F 9). He has indicated it will be difficult to unearth the truth (F 8). He has hinted that good inquiry might require concurrence, which may be pointing to a dialogue among at least those aiming at truth. But he hints at these points rather than explicitly developing clear criteria for determining truth.

The poets’ claims are untrustworthy and disputable. It appears realistic to presume, given the phrasing here, that other claims can be trustworthy and reputable. Those, I think, can be laid out in reference to his earlier statements on good inquiry that looks into many things. The problem with the poets, as Plato later describes it and as Heraclitus suggests here, is that rather than investigating nature, they simply make proclamations about it; and they are not able to explain what they have said. The concern here, though, it may be good to bear in mind, is not with any claims whatsoever but especially with claims “regarding matters of which we are ignorant.” If we know something already, it may not be a problem to use the poets to underline it or explicate it. The problem comes with a dogmatic overreach, a kind of theologizing of poets and story tellers. Things unknown will be known not through returning to oracles but through other means.

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