Heraclitus, Fragment 36 (D 50)


“After you have listened not to me (emos) but to the account (logos), it is wise to recognize that all things are one” (Robinson D46; cp. K 37, W 118, R, S, DK 50)

“It is wise for those who listen not to me but to the principle to agree in principle that everything is one” (WF 10)

Heraclitus here is pointing to a truth beyond his own perspective. To acquire truth we are to learn from experience, but this includes reflecting on the experience of others, the accounts of those experiences that others offer us. Here we are to reflect on the account offered by Heraclitus.

It is worth nothing that universal truth speaks through singular individuals. Heraclitus offers us an account–one we ought listen to. But it’s truth is not due to the authority of Heraclitus. If Heraclitus has anything authority it should be because of truth of his account.

What does Heraclitus mean when he says all things are one? He would apparently believe that we live in a world where there is ultimately one right account of things, not in a world where incommensurable worldviews ought continue in existence. But here we do have to be careful, because Heraclitus is a dialectic thinker who does integrate conflictual interpretations into a more comprehensive account. The sea is the dirtiest and the cleanest of things–dirty for humans, who can’t drink its water, clean for fish, for whom its a habitat (F70). For the ass, gold is of less worth than garbage (F71). Not so for humans. The sound judgment that Heraclitus seeks recognizes the partiality of perspectives. But his meta-account of a dialectical reality would then apparently lead to consensus that includes these partial perspectives. We should be able to recognize that this one world of separate individuals is one in which light is linked to darkness, day to night, good to bad.

But what is the nature of this one–other than being a dialectical unity? Is it numerical, complete in itself? Or does Heraclitus merely mean to say that reality is an interlinked unfolding whole in which all parts are connected to one another but the future is open?

The former view entails a view of a fixed, determinate future. One would have a vast, it would appear finite, whole, with future realities somehow fixed before they occur. The latter would admit the possibility of an open world. This “one” would not be mathematical. It would be a way of saying that everything that is is interlinked. It would not mean that everything that can be in the future already exists. It appears, though, from a mathematical perspective that this view would imply that the world is two or three or four or simply of unlimited number, with ever new future possibilities–that is, it would be an unfolding one, plus whatever is continually added to it. And there could be no certainty what that future would be.

The view of the numerical unity of all things, for its part, has it’s own difficulties. If it has a limit, that is, if it’s finite, then it would have a boundary; and it would appear that there might be something beyond the boundary. Doesn’t every boundary exist by delimiting itself from something else? If it has no limit, hence is infinite, then is it a numerical unity at all? A numerical one has a boundary.

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