The First Dialecticians -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The First Dialecticians

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Over a hundred years after Darwin, the idea that everything changes is generally accepted among educated people. It was not always so. The theory of evolution by natural selection had to fight a long and bitter struggle against those who defended the biblical view that god created all species in seven days, and that the species were fixed and immutable. For many centuries, the Church dominated science and taught that the earth was fixed at the centre of the universe. Those who disagreed were burnt at the stake.

Even today, however, the idea of change is understood in a one-sided and superficial way. Evolution is interpreted to mean slow, gradual change which precludes sudden leaps. Contradictions are not supposed to exist in nature, and where they arise in human thought are attributed to subjective error. In point of fact, contradictions abound in nature at all levels, and are the basis of all movement and change. This fact was understood by thinkers from the earliest times. It is reflected in some elements of Buddhist philosophy. It underlies the ancient Chinese idea of the principles of ying and yang. In the 4th century B.C., Hui Shih wrote the following lines:

"The sky is as low as the earth; mountains are level with marshes.
The sun is just setting at noon; each creature is just dying at birth."
(Quoted in G. Thomson, The First Philosophers, p. 69.)

Compare this to the following fragments of the founder of Greek dialectical philosophy, Heraclitus (c. 544-484 B.C.):

"Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire;
Water lives the death of earth, and earth lives the death of water." And
"It is the same thing in us that is living and dead, asleep and awake, young and old; each changes place and becomes the other."
"We step and we do not step into the same stream; we are and are not."

With Heraclitus, the contradictory assertions of the Ionian philosophers for the first time are given a dialectical expression. "Here we see land," commented Hegel, "There is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. one, p. 279.)

For all his importance, Heraclitus’ philosophy has only come down to us in about 130 fragments, written in a difficult aphoristic style. Even in his lifetime, Heraclitus was known as "the Dark" for the obscurity of his sayings. It is almost as if he deliberately chose to make his philosophy inaccessible. Socrates wryly commented that "what he understood was excellent, what not he believed to be equally so, but that the book required a tough swimmer." (Schwegler, p. 20.)

In Anti-D¸hring, Engels gives the following appraisal of Heraclitus’ dialectical world outlook:

"When we reflect on nature or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless maze of connections and interactions, in which nothing remains what, where, and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. (At first, therefore, we see the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, change and are connected.) This primitive, naÔve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away." (Engels, op. cit., p. 24.)

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus in the violent period of the 5th century B.C., a period of war and civil strife. Little is known of his life, except that he came from an aristocratic family. But the nature of the period in which he lived is well reflected in one of his fragments: "War is the father of all things and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free." (The fragments are here quoted throughout from the Baywater edition, reproduced in Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophers.) But Heraclitus here does not just refer to war in human society, but to the role of inner contradiction at all levels of nature as well. Indeed, it is better translated as "strife." He states that: "We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife." All things contain a contradiction, which impels their development. Indeed, without contradiction, there would be no movement and no life.

Heraclitus was the first to give a clear exposition of the idea of the unity of opposites. The Pythagoreans, in fact, had worked out a table of ten antitheses:

1) The finite and the infinite
2) The odd and the even
3) The one and the many
4) The right and the left
5) The male and the female
6) The quiescent and the moving
7) The straight and the crooked
8) Light and darkness
9) Good and evil
10) The square and the parallelogram

These are important concepts, but they were not developed by the Pythagoreans, who satisfied themselves with a mere enumeration. In fact, the Pythagoreans had the position of the fusion of opposites through a "mean," eliminating contradiction by seeking the middle ground. Polemicising against this view, Heraclitus uses a most striking and beautiful image: "Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre." Contradiction lies at the root of everything. The desire to eliminate contradiction would actually presuppose the elimination of all movement and life, consequently, "Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away…"

These are profound thoughts, but are clearly at variance to everyday experience and "common sense." How can something be itself and something else at the same time? How can a thing be both alive and dead? On this kind of argument, Heraclitus poured scorn: "It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Word, and to confess that all things are one." "Though this Word is true evermore, yet men are unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, though all things come to pass in accordance to this Word, men seem as if they have no experience of them, when they make trial of words and deeds such as I set forth, dividing each thing according to its kind and showing how it truly is. But other men know not what they are doing when they awake, even as they forget what they do in sleep." "Fools when they do hear are like the deaf; of them does the saying bear witness that they are absent when present." "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand their language."

What does this mean? The Greek for Word is "Logos," from which logic is derived. Despite its mystical appearance, Heraclitus’ opening remark is an appeal to rational objectivity. Do not listen to me, he is saying, but to the objective laws of nature which I describe. That is the essential meaning. And "all things are one?" Throughout the history of philosophy, there have been two ways of interpreting reality—either as one single substance, embodied in different forms (monism, from the Greek word meaning single); or as two entirely different substances, spirit and matter (known as dualism). The early Greek philosophers were materialist monists. Latter, the Pythagorians adopted a dualist position, based upon a supposedly unbridgeable gulf between mind (spirit) and matter. This is the hallmark of all idealism. As we have seen, it has its roots in the primitive superstitions of savages who believed that the soul left the body in dreams.

The above passage is a polemic against the philosophical dualism of the Pythagoreans, against which Heraclitus defends the position of earlier Ionic monism—that there is an underlying material unity of nature. The universe has not been created, but has always existed, in a process of continuous flux and change, whereby things change into their opposites, cause becomes effect, and effect cause. Thus contradiction lies at the root of everything. In order to get at the truth, it is necessary to go beyond the appearances, and lay bear the inner conflicting tendencies of a given phenomenon, in order to understand its inner motive forces.

The ordinary intelligence, by contrast, is content to take things at face value, the reality of sense perception, the "given," the "facts," are accepted without more ado. However, such perception is at best limited, and can be the source of endless errors. To give just one example—for "sound common sense" the world is flat, and the sun goes around the earth. The true nature of things is not always evident. As Heraclitus puts it, "nature loves to hide." In order to arrive at the truth, it is necessary to know how to interpret the information of the senses. "If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it," he wrote, and again, "Those who seek for gold dig up much earth and find a little."

"Everything flows," was the basis of his philosophy, "You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you." This was a dynamic view of the universe, the exact opposite of the static idealist conception of the Pythagoreans. And when Heraclitus looked for a material substance to underpin the universe, following in the footsteps of Thales and Anaximenes, he chose that most elusive and fleeting element, fire.

The idea that everything is in a constant state of flux, that there is nothing fixed and permanent, except motion and change, is an uncomfortable one for the ordinary cast of mind to accept. Human thinking is, in general, innately conservative. The desire to cling to what is solid, concrete and reliable is rooted in a profound instinct, akin to that of self-preservation. The hope for an after life, the belief in an immortal soul, flows from a rejection of the fact that all things come into existence, and also pass away—"panda rhei," everything flows. Man has stubbornly sought to attain freedom by denying the laws of nature, inventing certain imaginary privileges for himself. True freedom, however, as Hegel explained, consists in correctly understanding these laws, and acting accordingly. It was the great role of Heraclitus to provide the first more or less fully worked-out picture of the dialectical world outlook.

Heraclitus’ philosophy was greeted by incredulity and hostility even in his own lifetime. It challenged the assumptions, not only of all religion and tradition, but of the "common sense" mentality which sees no further than the end of its nose. For the next 2,500 years, attempts have been made to disprove it. As Bertrand Russell comments:

"Science, like philosophy, has sought to escape from the doctrine of perpetual flux by finding some permanent substratum amid changing phenomena. Chemistry seemed to satisfy this desire. It was found that fire, which appears to destroy, only transmutes: elements are recombined, but each atom that existed before combustion still exists when the process is completed. Accordingly it was supposed that atoms are indestructible, and that all change in the physical world consists merely in re-arrangement of persistent elements. This view prevailed until the discovery of radio-activity, when it was found that atoms could disintegrate.

"Nothing daunted, the physicists invented new and smaller units, called electrons and protons, out of which atoms were composed; and these units were supposed, for a few years, to have the indestructibility formerly attributed to atoms. Unfortunately it seemed that protons and electrons could meet and explode, forming, not new matter, but a wave of energy spreading through the universe with the velocity of light. Energy had to replace matter as what is permanent. But energy, unlike matter, is not a refinement of the common-sense notion of a ‘thing’; it is merely a characteristic of physical processes. It might be fancifully identified with the Heraclitean Fire, but it is the burning, not what burns. ‘What burns’ has disappeared from modern physics.

"Passing from the small to the large, astronomy no longer allows us to regard the heavenly bodies as everlasting. The planets came out of the sun, and the sun came out of a nebula. It has lasted some time, and will last some time longer; but sooner or later—probably in about a million million years—it will explode, destroying all the planets. So at least the astronomers say; perhaps as the fatal day draws nearer they will find some mistake in their calculations." (B. Russell, op. cit., p. 64-65.)

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