Excerpts: Ice-Bath in Heraclitus’ River

Just as an human individual undergoes fundamental changes between the various periods of her life, so too does the worldview of humankind experience similar metamorphoses. One of the most important transitions in recent Western history transpired in the development from the Medieval to the Modern world-conceptions. In particular, we will consider the change in the concept of motion as an expression of this evolution.

It is important to recognise that the science of the Middle-Ages was almost entirely a continuation of Aristotle’s physics, which Western European thinkers inherited as a transmission via the scholars of Arabia. Thus the Scientific Revolution represented a transition whose significance was amplified by the fact that the new thinkers were overturning notions that had persisted not only for centuries, but for millennia. Furthermore, one should not overlook the fact that the Scientific Revolution represented far more than a revolution of knowledge. Instead, 17th century thinkers like Galileo and Newton truly ushered in a revolution of consciousness. One especially important hallmark of this development was the reification of processes. We might call these reifications “the ice-cubes in Heraclitus’ River,” but instead we call them “bodies,” “things,” “objects,” or “res extensa.” The process whereby an event becomes an object consists in an intellectual analysis that cleaves a body from its context and qualities. Before Galileo, motion was experienced as an immanent quality of a given body. Specifically, motion was conceived of as a mode of change. Change, in turn, was conceived of as an entity becoming more fully itself—potential becoming actual. Thus, as a mustard seed becomes a shoot, stems, leaves, and blossoms, etc…, so a bust of Dionysus falling off of a stone altar and shattering into bits was experienced to be undergoing a comparable development.

To illustrate the difference between the Ancient and the Scientific modes of cognition in a more essential aspect, we could again consider a river. We can say: “the water flows.” It would make little sense, however, to make such a claim about the river itself. To claim that the river flows is problematic precisely because to flow is immanent to the concept of a river as such. When we abstract the material substance of dihydrogen-oxide from its context as a river, then we are compelled to append a predicate which the phenomenon otherwise would have born inherently.

In the Ancient and Medieval modes of cognition, one experienced this immanence of motion in all of Nature. The motion of a body was taken to be no less essential to the latter than the flow of a river, the growth a plant, the obliteration of pottery, or the change of seasons. Galileo’s revolutionary achievement was to reimagine the solar system as an aggregate of inert bodies, which just happened to be in motion. Galileo’s way of thinking was to become the new standard for Western consciousness. In a general sense, the Scientific Revolution ushered in a new conception of Nature wherein change was no longer intrinsic to bodies, but rather circumstantial. One can scarcely overestimate the significance of this difference, since it is not merely a new idea, but a new world conception, which to this day defines our lived experience.

I think “a general characterisation of Western thought is that it consists in one-sided footnotes to Plato.” For instance, Plato describes vision as the confluence of effluent and influent light (in Timaeus, I think), but obviously we only take one side of this process to be real and ignore the other. In a related conception, we imagine colours are “secondary qualities” that are like accidents of the organisation of the human eye. But we could also take the other side and say that no such eye would have been born in a world without colours. So in the same way, we sometimes think ideas are accidents of the organisation of the human mind, but also no such human mind would be born out of an idea-less world. With our sight we can grasp a drop of greenness and with our mind we grasp the idea “leaf.”

Someone wrote that Heraclitus said (and so this reflection is like a footnote a Heraclitus):

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet although the Lógos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of their own.

Thanks to Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, & A. N. Whitehead


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