Episode 79: Heraclitus on Understanding the World

Eva Brann discusses her book The Logos of Heraclitus (2011).

What is the world like, and how can we understand it? Heraclitus thinks that the answer to both questions is found in "the logos," which is a Greek word with multiple meanings: it can be an explanation, a word or linguistic meaning, science, rationality (the Latin word is "ratio"), the principle of exchange between things... So the world is logos, in that it behaves in a lawlike manner so that mathematics and science can describe it. His physics imagined a basic material (he calls it fire, but clearly doesn't mean the same thing as ordinary, visible fire) that transforms in lawlike ways (in definite ratios) into all the different parts of the world, and that it's these cycles of transformation, driven by the logos itself, that make the world the moving system it is.

The world's intelligibility--its singular logos--doesn't mean it's peaceful, though. The world is held together by tension; the logos is force. Confusingly to modern readers, Heraclitus believes that paradoxes really exist, that what in this discussion we call "stable ambivalences" hold, e.g. that relationships are made up of both love and strife, not in alternation but both, essentially, at the same time. Should this "logos" be thought of as God? Does it have a personality, a will? Is it immanent in the world or a transcendent force shaping the world? Heraclitus says that the logos "is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus." It's a stable ambivalence! Is your MIND BLOWN YET? Read more about the topic.

End song: "Trading Away" by New People, from Impossible Things (2011), written by Matt Ackerman. Why this song? Because fire is traded/transforms into everything else, and Heraclitus was a misanthrope.

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  1. dmf says

    this is fantastic and really should be the starting place for newcomers to the podcast, I worry that blogging in general feeds the trends/tendencies against close readings of works but if people might be inspired by what can come from intensive and long-term wrestling with texts by the kind of careful yet productive engagement performed here by Eva Brann than that’s all to the good.

    • dmf says

      this question of metaphors, neologisms, and mathematics is fascinating (was just reading Lightman’s “a sense of the mysterious” where he talks about this in the development of modern physics) and I think is part of why much of continental philosophy is hard for many people to read/grasp as those authors are often hyper-conscious of the limits and powers of language/description and try to write in ways which both perform/show these understandings/powers as well as “say” them, make them explicit. How do we come to understand something new when we are so bound/pre-judiced by our habits/expectations?
      Down the line perhaps Donald Davidson’s work on metaphors might come in handy as would Andy Pickering’s work on science-studies/engineering.

      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        This podcast is AWESOME–but have to finish listening–and might bump the Buber podcast (close) in a second spot!

        (On a side: I think that might be what Heraclitus suggests is a false premise–ranking parts of a whole.)

  2. David Hansen says

    You talk about all details ok. But you didn’t mention where he was born and what was the structure of the society in his time even for a single sentence. The lady is talking abut him as he was just a sudden existence. No single mention of where he lived how was the others ect. Strange.. Seems you guys think he was born, he thought and he died.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Nonsense. We didn’t prevent a straightforward autobiography at the beginning because none is historically available (and because we don’t always do this; it matters more for some thinkers than others… e.g. why would it matter for understanding the Turing test to know the details of Alan Turing’s life, interesting as it was?), but Eva brought up several stories about what we do know: that his countrymen (that he despised) were Ephysians (sp?), that his father was a businessman, that currency had just been invented. There are other podcasts linked from the topic announcement post for this episode that give more such anecdotes; our point was to discuss the content and style of his philosophy.

  3. Asgard von Grünewald says

    Great podcast– one of the best so far. This one really piqued my interest as I have been curious of Heraclitus ever since reading Nietzsche elevating him to the sky (and I try to research anyone that is subject to Aristotle or Plato/Socrates strawman-attack). Trying to read his “fragments” however proved too much of a probing challenge that I eventually gave up– thus this sat perfectly well with me. (Eva was really charming as well, you should have her again should opportunity arise!)

    Terrific job!

  4. Profile photo of Lynda says

    I just finished listening. Wonderful in so many ways — I smiled all the way through.
    I’m bummed out that I’ll never get to sit in one of Eva’s seminars and that I didn’t know about her until now, but better late…
    For me existentialism is life-affirming and when I get too down from reading the news I turn it off and aim for Nietzsche, now I’ll reach for Eva’s work too.
    Thanks to you all.

  5. qapla says

    Awesome podcast!! Eva Brann seems like an amazing human being and it’s seems like a book I’ll have to read in the near future.

    I kept thinking about Nietzsche and then that connection was mentioned.
    Phenomenology was mentioned but I think Marleau Ponty in his essay the Intertwining – The Chiasm in his book The Visible and the Invisble really has some connections to Heraclitus with his ideas of the flesh and the chiasm and the visible and invisible.

    The are so many connections that came to mind in Buddhism about the problem of the One and the Many. And shunayata and prajna.

    Buddhism’s primary doctrine is Pratitya samutpada (Sanskrit), often translated as “dependent arising,” is central Buddhist insight. Common to all schools of Buddhism, it states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. It is variously rendered into English as “dependent origination”, “dependent co-arising”, “interdependent arising”, or “contingency”.

    Which is like Merlaeu Ponty’s Intertwining – chiasm.

    In Zen Buddhism there is a poem that’s chanted at every service called the “Harmony of Difference and Sameness” or “Oneness of One and Many” or “Identity of relative and absolute”. In Japanese the Sandokai.

    Heraclitus’s talking about fire and then an ultimate substance fire made me think of the Buddhist doctrine of the two truths. The relative and the ultimate/absolute truths. The One and the Many.

    Relative or common-sense which describes our daily experience of a concrete world, and
    Ultimate truth, which describes the ultimate reality as sunyata, empty of concrete and inherent characteristics.

    But this is not by accident

    Of course the many connections of Heraclitus’s fragments with Hindu thought from the Rig Veda and the Upanishads comes to mind.

    “That which is One the seers speak of in various terms: they call it Fire”
    Rig Veda I.164.45

    Elsewhere fire is said to contain all gods i.e. all parts of nature and manifest each of them in turn as its process unfolds Rig veda V 3.1.
    In the Mundaka Upanishad II 1.1. fire is seem as the source and goal of all things.
    heraclitus’s image of the lightning bolt as the force behind ( Fr. 64) the process of change, creating and annihilating has Upanishadic parallels. The Kausitaki Upanishad declares, “in the lightning flash is truth” (IV.2) The Katha Upanishad says that all things in the universe are set in motion by “the great fear of the upraised thunderbolt” (II3.2)

    “Time is a child playing a game of draughts; the kinship is in the hands of child”. (FR. 52)

    The Hindu book Visnu Purana

    “Visnu, being thus manifest and unmanifest, spirit and time, sports like a playful boy” (VP I.2)

    “All things that we see when we have wakened is death” (FR. 21)

    “He, on becoming asleep, transcends this world and the forms of death” (BU IV.3.37)

    “To souls it is death to become water; to water it is death to become earth. From earth comes water, and from water soul (again)” (Fr. 36)

    Orphic fragment
    “Water is the death of soul… and from water comes earth, from earth again water, and from it the soul restored leaps to aehter” (OF226)

    In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, for example Yajnavalkya expounds a system of elemental transformation in which fire is considered the prime element and is declared to change directly into water (BU II2.10)

    In the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddalaka who is thought to have taught around Taxila university that had Persians and Yona/Ionians-Greeks there.

    “The One thought: May I be the many, may I grow forth. It sent forth fire. That fire thought, May I be many, may i grow forth. It sent water.. That water thought, May I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth food plant food-earth element.” (CU VI 2.3)

    In the Chandogya Upanishad there is the Doctrine of the Five Fires, fire being seem as the basis or ground for the system as whole.

    Most of the different schools of Indian thought had developed versions of atomic theory at one time or another: Ajivika, Jain, Carvaka, Buddhist, and Nyaya-Vaisesika. The last two mostly developed after the large scale settlements by Greeks in India. The Ajivika, Jain, and Carvaka brands of atomism seems to date around the sixth century B.C.

    The earliest documented materialist in India is Ajita Kesakambali, a senior contemporary of the Buddha (sixth/fifth century BCE)(who in the earliest Pali text mentions the Yona/Ionians/Greeks, well actually the Yona/Ionians/Greeks are mentioned in the Mahabharata which may have been written around 8th and 9th centuries BCE). The basic tenets of Cārvāka philosophy, of no soul and existence of four (not five) elements were probably inspired from him. Although materialist schools existed before Cārvāka, it was the only school which systematized materialist philosophy by setting them down in the form of aphorisms in the 6th century. There was a base text, a collection sūtras or aphorisms and several commentaries were written to explicate the aphorisms

    In Shaivism Shiva is the “the Destroyer” or “the Transformer” or “the Creator”. And the primary element is fire. The fire myth of Rudra-Śiva plays on the whole gamut of fire, valuing all its potentialities and phases, from conflagration to illumination. And there is the connection to Indra and his vajra=lightning bolt.

    There come to mind some paralells with Zoroastorianism, which might be why the Persian king wanted to talk to Hreaclitus. The Achaemenid emperor Artaxerxes II (as it is rendered in Greek) had ‘Vohu Manah’ as the second part of his throne name, which when “translated” into Greek appeared as ‘Mnemon’

    Zoroastrianism, is an ancient Iranian religion and a religious philosophy. It was once the state religion of the Achaemenid Empire and Sassanid Empire.

    The temporal fire was also the symbol of the cosmic fire of creation, a fire that continues to pervade every element of creation. In this sense, fire takes on a much broader meaning than a flame.

    Zarathustra refers to the Divine Fire as the agency that derives its power from Asha (Truth, Immutable law) (Vedic rita) and rewards the righteous and the truthful. Asha is the faculty of Ahura Mazda that guides, illuminates and protects those who use their Vohu Mano (Good Thinking) to understand Asha and can only help those who work to promote Asha.

    Asha derives from Indo-European *sat- “being, existing”. The Sanskrit cognate sátya- means “true” in the sense of “really existing.” Fire is grandly conceived as a force informing all and giving them warmth and the spark of life. In Yasna 31.19, “the man who thinks of aša, […] who uses his tongue in order to speak correctly, with the aid of brilliant fire”. In Yasna 34-44 devotees “ardently desire mighty fire, through aša.” In Yasna 43-44, Ahura Mazda “shall come through the splendour of fire, possessing the strength of aša and good mind (=Vohu Manah).” That fire “possesses strength through aša” is repeated again in Yasna 43.4.

    Oh and I can’t forget to mention the linguistic relationships of ancient Greek, Persian, Armenian, and Sanskrit.

    “Whatever concerns seeing, hearing, and learning, I particularly honor” Heraclitus fragment 13

    great podcast so much respect

    • qapla says

      I was listening to this podcast yet again and thinking of how it ties into much of what I’ve been thinking about lately and how it ties into quite a few podcasts and blog posts.

      I thought it was just genius and brilliant to tie Heraclitus’s idea of conflict or strife as a creative process and emergence with Madison and democracy and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, capitalism/free markets.

      That move is so beautiful and so right on.

      There have been many critiques of democracy and one of the reasons is that it is conflict. With each party or faction and factions within a party all voting, campaigning, and legislating for their self interests or interests that they have an attachment to.

      And that it is because capitalism is conflict/strife that many people dislike capitalism/free markets.

      Each individual or group is acting in a self interested way and inevitably there will be conflicts of interests and competition. ( Some individuals are selfless/altruistic in that they are taking care of children or caring for a sick, elderly, etc. loved one or friend or give to charities to help others)

      But liberty or liberalism = equality before the law and equal opportunity for all men and women regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. does not produce nor guarantee equal out comes for all.

      Unequal out comes from unequal production/work. A kind of Randian selfishness.
      (I’m not talking about when people gain money by fraud, theft, etc.)

      Ideas like communism/socialism and totalitarian regimes seek to guarantee equal out comes and remove distinctions between people, usually by use of force.

      Equal out comes from unequal production/work. A kind of reverse Randian selfishness which is perhaps more selfish in a way.

      About Heraclitus’s style being paradoxical aphorisms, I thought of zen koans and the Tao de Ching.
      And the reasons for their paradoxical styles.
      The thing of the wrestlers, in Taoism there is, like paratitya samutpada in Buddhism, Hsiang Sheng which is mutual arising, inseparability, co-dependent origination/arising. A creative process and emergence from opposites interacting.

      And the part of the discussion on who was his audience and the Persian king wanting to talk to him. And I forget who mentioned it but it’s obvious he had some thing to say and was saying it to people and other people were communicating this to other people.

      And the I thought of how often with the Ionian schools as Eva Brann points out in her book page 5 “An aside: My priority implies that our philosophical West began in Asia Minor” as did our poetical West.

      We or some think in a kind of Eurocentric manor about Greeks because of movies like 300. It is thought of as European Greeks contra asiatic Persians. But if the dates and locations for Heraclitus are some what correct then he was born and lived inside of the Achaemenid Empire and was an asiatic Greek.

      The Achaemenid Empire c. 550–330 BC. And the king who wanted to talk to him might have been Cyrus II “the Great” 600 BC or 576 BC–530 BC or Darius I “the Great” (r. 521–486 B.C.)

      There were large numbers of asiatic Greeks throughout the Persian empires. As soldier/mercenaries, as traders and craftsmen/women, the Hetaera (Pāṇini the great Sanskrit grammarian 4th century BCE had a thing for Greek women), the Persian kings valued Greek sculptors and architects (it’s not by accident that Persian sculpture and architecture and columns look very Greek, and as teachers and philosophers (Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BCE) who was part Greek had Greek philosophers as tutors and his edicts one tablet is in Aramaic and Greek).
      Many Greeks, such as the Persian admiral Scylax of Caryanda 6th century B.C. were present in Gandhara/India as co-citizens of the Persian empire, well before the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 330s BC.

      And I think of the telling of the story of the Persian king wanting to talk to Heraclitus and him not going. European Greeks (contra asiatic Persians) would like that telling of the story. That the great Persian king wanted to talk to him and gain some Greek wisdom and Heraclitus just ignored the king and didn’t give him the time of day. I could be wrong, but I suspect Heraclitus wasn’t talking only to Greeks.
      (scroll up to table of contents: Greeks in the Persian empires and Persian in Greece)

      I can’t help but wonder if we had the contents of the library of Alexandria and/or the collections at Serapeum would we have more than fragments from Heraclitus. Would we have something like the book or scroll that was left at the temple.

      much respect

  6. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Quotes (more or less) from Eva on the podcast: For Heraclitis, contradiction, strife, stress and war makes the world alive, not reconciliation–like wrestlers pushing against each other. The world is being unified by a synthesis of two opposites that abut each other. Wrestlers stand up because they are falling into each other. Heraclitis is deeply interested in the force of tension and being held together by opposition. He thinks that fire permeates all things, but it is not material. He is a philosopher of oppositions. He is interested in whether rationality, the ability to answer to mathematical formulas is immanent or comes from the outside–whether the logos is inbuilt in the matter itself or comes from the outside. Does the ability to give a mathematical account of the world come from an extra physical or from the natural being of the world?

    Having just worked through Difference and Repetition, there is a fundamental commonality with Heraclitis in Deleuze’s concept of transcendental empiricism being both transcendental (logos) and immanent (fire), which Deleuze also called virtual and actual, and in constant tension.

    While Eva is not happy with how Nietzsche used Heraclitis for his own purposes, the commonality appears to be Nietzsche’s beyond good and evil, in that he affirms everything, the good and the bad.

    Eva was an excellent guest and very well supported by everyone. Thanks for another enjoyable window on the philosophical world.

  7. Profile photo of Tony Gilkerson says

    I am only half way through the podcast and I think it is great so far. I like Eva. I was not interested before but now I think I will get her book and read up. Very good. –Thanks

  8. says

    Again, proof positive you are not only philosophy porn, but the most desirable and kinky kind! And I’m addicted!

    I particularly enjoyed the links back to Nietzsche and getting a Heideggerian angle on it, but most of all a timely reminder that all philosophers have something important to say, even those brushed off as “pre-Socratic”. And how much truer to the concept of fuzzy naturalism can you get than the ill-conceived (IMHO) virtue thinking? This fit extremely well into what I think we now know of all things evolving in and out of existence, structures and organisms alike.

    “Stone tablets if I can get them” :) Loved it!

  9. Bruce Adam says

    Thanks everyone , for one of the most enjoyable podcasts to date.
    Eva Brann was charming , witty and sharp. But the main attraction was the content of the discussion.

    If I follow correctly , and I’ve ordered the book, Heraclitus comes across as not just as the first philosopher but rather the first “Perennial Philosopher”.
    The concept of “Tat Tvam Asi” or ” thou art that ” was covered and the non-definition of “Logos” was pointing in the direction of Pirsig’s “Quality”.
    The repulsive attraction or attractive repulsion is, to my mind, pure “Complimentarity” as described by Niels Bohr. His colleague Heisenberg brought himself into the discussion also and he like many scientist/philosophers can be seen as Perennial Philosophers or Mystics.
    So how amazing that while I’m seeing all these similarities , Freeman Dyson enters the discussion and we’re treated to the beautiful analogy , in Dylan’s description of Dyson’s work, of the perennial form underlying the three competing descriptions of QED.
    And I’ll never think of wrestling the same again.

  10. Randy says

    This was a really enjoyable episode and probably my favorite of the ones you did with guests (though the Owen Flanagan one remains excellent too).

    A couple of things: to the poster above who asked for biographical detail, the entry for Heraclitus in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives remains fun:
    It includes the bit about H, having come down with dropsy, coming down into the town to cover himself in manure in order to dry out his wet soul, only to be devoured dogs.

    You guys mentioned Ephesus a couple of times. To contextualize that town for those who went to Sunday school, that’s the same Ephesus that centuries later would have St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians written to them.

    Unfortunately, having not read Brann’s book, I am not sure if she treated Fragment 67, on God, which on one reading may be subtly monist. I’ll likely pick up a copy.

    Finally, I loved her comments in closing, particularly the agenda of “detemporalizing” the engagement with her predecessors. Reminded me of Machiavelli’s letter to Vittori (“I enter the ancient courts of ancient men…”) http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/politics/vettori.html

    Wonderful job, thanks again.

    – Randy

    • Profile photo of Tammy says

      I really enjoyed this particular podcast and will read the book. It is funny though–will mention since you hit on contextualization of Ephesus and St. Paul–I learned something new (theologically) looking up Heraclitus, which is rather funny in my attempt to keep my comments philosophical (not theological).

      “It is in Heraclitus that the theory of the Logos appears for the first time, and it is doubtless for this reason that, first among the Greek philosophers, Heraclitus was regarded by St. Justin (Apol. I, 46) as a Christian before Christ. For him the Logos, which he seems to identify with fire, is that universal principle which animates and rules the world. This conception could only find place in a materialistic monism. The philosophers of the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ were dualists, and conceived of God as transcendent, so that neither in Plato (whatever may have been said on the subject) nor in Aristotle do we find the theory of the Logos.”


  11. phil says

    I have been listening to the podcast for quite some time now and must say that this one was brilliant. The guest Eva was wonderful to listen to and the actual topic and discussions was very insightful and profound to me. Eva, as others have mentioned, strikes the wonderful balance between being passionate, witty, informed, funny & highly intelligent on the one hand and on the other hand being modest, humble and above all else…sincere on the other. This was probably one of my favourite episodes thus far, if not my favourite. Not just for the guest, but for the excellent and very fascinating topic/content/discussions (to me at least). Thank you for all involved in making this happen. I will be making a sizable donation soon as well to show my support for what you guys do…and for my love of the philosophical enterprise and its underpinnings.

  12. Simon Borrington says

    A great episode and I felt it was a return to previous outstanding form – a nice balance between focused conversation and enlightening (and entertaining) digression.

    Eva Brann – what a gal!

    Well done chaps.

  13. Mike says

    Are you going to address the (kinda overblown) feud between Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky? It largely centers around the relationship between ‘theory’ in the sciences. Chomsky argues that Zizek is an “extreme example” of post-modern/continental tradition posturing.

    • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

      I find it interesting that Chomsky also considers Lacan as one who postures in this debate. Ok, that’s two professionals he has simply labeled as “posturing.” Who does that? Lacan certainly is extremely difficult to decode (anyone have difficulty decoding Freud, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre?). What could we do with the brilliant transformational grammarian of the theory of innate grammar? Chomsky posturing? I do not think so. Nor is it meaningful to label Zizek or Lacan as posturing. The most anti-philosophical position I can imagine is labeling–how juvenile, and not at all up the brilliance of the once genius of grammar. Sad that his time has passed, that he is dying an ignoble death, and that embodied cognition has taken him over. –Wayne

  14. Johannes says

    If it’s wrong to label someone as a poseur, as Chomsky does, why isn’t it equally wrong to label someone as a genius, as you do Wayne? Is positive labeling qualitatively different from negative labeling?

  15. Johannes says

    And let’s just assume for a moment that Lacan IS a fraud (this need not actually be true). How can it be “juvenile” for Chomsky to state a fact? Or is “juvenile” just a pejorative that indicates people you don’t agree with?

  16. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    You are on point.
    When the manner of speaking over-rides the content, the manner must be addressed, as there is no content, just as there is no content in this reply. I am equally unimpressed with Zizek’s contentless responses to Chomsky and addressing each other as 12-year-olds. I’m sure their conversations at 12 would actually have been better than now.

    • Glen says


      It is a conversation between a twelve year old and an adult

      It really is amazing anyone can doubt Chomsky’s philosophical, scientific, and political credentials.

      Literally, comparing Zizek and Chosmky as if there is a debate is like how the media fabricates a “debate” between climate change denies and the vast majority of scientists.

      There is no debate; there’s just a charlatan obscurantist on the one hand and a person who is committed to common sense on the other. Not surprising the latter has actually contributed to the intellectual advancement of humanity by more or less singlehandedly destroying behaviorism in psychology and structuralism in linguistics (and without structuralism, everything Derrida, Lacan, or Zizek says is without any bases whatsoever).

      Look at these talks and decide as if from first impressions (actually listen to the whole things for God’s sake)

      for Chomsky: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGs-4h0wQj4

      for Zizek: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddctYDCTlIA (I draw your attention to the description)

      nuff said

      • Glen says

        I just realized that near the end of the Chomsky talk I linked, he actually mentions Derrida in response to a question and you get the same sort of response he has given the postmodernists in general.

        What I would mention is that Chomsky incorporates notions of the interestedness of theory which we would normally attribute to postmodernists.

        Chomsky’s main point is not that the postmodernists are wrong, it’s just that it is common sense. For instance, it is common sense that the criteria we humans apply in every field of inquiry is in large part determined by our interests and therefore notions of “truth” or “reality” just do not make sense except insofar as they are honorary terms only (which sounds like Rorty). Chomsky simply has no patience for people who try to argue for these views in excessively overblown, overwrought ways; people who use words with ten syllables over and over again in order to explain that there is no such thing as truth or “anything outside of the text” are just charlatans who could have said the same thing using much simpler language. This is why Chomsky has more respect for people like Richard Rorty, who at least try to stick to a more or less analytic-philosophy style, even if they end up making classic postmodern assertions.

        Maybe it’s just temperament?

  17. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Your concerns are well voiced and understood.
    As an English major I felt liberated from traditional grammar by Chomsky’s transformational grammar as a tribute to rationality over the arbitrary. Chomsky did indeed contribute to the destruction of behaviorism (RIP Skinner, et. al) and the rise of cognitive innateness. Historically, Chomsky was a linguist whose star rose to balance out the behavioristic with the cognitive.

    Chomsky is now as outmoded as Skinner in the scientific community (my opinion based on my readings of neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy and politics). I certainly understand the draw of Rorty over Zizek for sheer clarity.

    However, the sheer complexity of reality resists reductionism to to the behavioral, or the cognitive as reflected in phenomenology which requires integration of all the above, not sheer clarity, nor sheer obscurity.

    Glen, perhaps you can review the following coverage of Metzinger on Brain Science Podcast for an update on the state of the art, now referred to as embodied cognition:


    or his Ted-X presentation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFjY1fAcESs.

    I share a common temperament for clarity, but a stubborn insistence on the big picture.

    Regards, Wayne

    • Glen says

      “However, the sheer complexity of reality resists reductionism to to the behavioral, or the cognitive as reflected in phenomenology which requires integration of all the above, not sheer clarity, nor sheer obscurity. ”

      Chomsky would agree. Methinks you haven’t read much of Chomsky. Chomsky is one of the biggest enemies of reductionism, in fact he is a mysterian about higher mental faculties. He revived mentalism after it went into exile due to the influece of the behaviorists.

      It is the people Chomsky criticizes, like Daniel Dennett for instance who are the vulgar reductionists. In my opinion most of the scientific community are who are out of step. They don’t know their philosophy, so they end up falling for the dreaded scientism. Chomsky has always opposed this, and in that sense he is out of step, but that’s because he’s not insane as most scientists today are.

  18. Johannes says

    Glen: I share many of your suspicions about some of these so-called intellectuals, and there is of course plenty of pernicious nonsense in “postmodern” continental philosophy. But I do disagree (perhaps only slightly) on two counts.

    One, I don’t believe Derrida and Zizek are worthless. I’ve used Zizek when trying to come to grips with all the usual suspects, and when it comes to Lacan, Hegel, Schelling, etc., Zizek is just about the only interpreter who uses EXAMPLES to make his meaning concrete and unambiguous. For this reason he ought to be the sort of Continental philosopher analytic types approve of: if continental philosophers are cynical svengalis, they would presumably avoid like the plague anything concrete enough to prevent them from weaseling out with a snide “you just misunderstood me.” This is indeed the case with at least 99% of Hegel scholarship, e.g., and in this context Zizek stands out like a beacon of clarity and precision.

    Derrida is more ambiguous. Some of his stuff is fantastic: White Mythology, The Ends of Man, and Signature, Event, Context are great examples of close, careful reading, and I love this Derrida because he really is more close and careful a reader than anyone else I know: this stuff should be a model for freshmen learning how to parse a text (rhetorical flourishes always excepted).

    On the other hand, I recently read some of Spectres of Marx, and it looks to me like he takes 200+ pages to unburden himself of the daring and controversial conclusion that—spoiler alert—Marxism is the “other” of capitalism. I can’t reconcile these two Derridas, but I can say Derrida isn’t ONLY a charlatan. (BTW, Rorty wrote an essay in praise of Derrida’s White Mythology, and like me he found more in it than just a Google Translation of “common sense” into Sesquipedalian.)

    Second, your way of attacking Derrida and Zizek resembles a little the Fox News style of debate, the very thing you mention as a shortcoming of these guys. Before you think I’m clucking my tongue at you, I repeat that I share many of your suspicions about some of these people; I agree with much of what you say, I just don’t like to embrace the vantage from which you launch your criticism as itself unassailable. For example:

    1. “It is a conversation between a twelve year old and an adult”

    Argument from authority: Chomsky is right because he’s an adult, and he’s an adult because he’s right.

    2. “there’s just a charlatan obscurantist”

    Ad hominem. Again, I’d bet we’d agree at least 8 times out of 10 on who’s a charlatan and who’s not, and that’s fine for casual conversation; but actually SUBSTANTIATING a charge like that requires more detailed critique.

    3. “a person who is committed to common sense on the other”

    On the one hand we need something like “common sense.” But for me, if we accept common sense as an unassailable base of operations, we might as well not do philosophy. I have no bright ideas on how to resolve this paradox; I just try to have as much patience as I can, and show a bit more than you do for people like Zizek and Derrida. And for what it’s worth, I feel that extra patience has paid sufficient dividends.

    4. “Not surprising the latter has actually contributed to the intellectual advancement of humanity by more or less singlehandedly destroying behaviorism in psychology and structuralism in linguistics”

    Isn’t there a utilitarian assumption in this that reflection is only valuable if it “gets results” or “makes a difference”? Almost all philosophy could be discounted by these standards. It all depends on how you define “results” or “contribution”: If you’re as hard-nosed about this as you sound, then we should burn Van Gogh’s painting of peasant’s shoes, because it doesn’t actually keep anyone’s feet warm. Surely an idea is not valueless just because it fails to cure cancer or improve my car’s gas mileage.

    5. “Look at these talks and decide as if from first impressions”

    This line about “first impressions” and the appeal to “common sense” are the ones I really don’t like. Given the political perspective suggested in your post, I think you would recognize the parallel to Colbert’s “truthiness”: go with your gut; these fancy Frenchies are just effete city slickers trying to take your six-shooter away. If you let assumptions like these metastasize, you end up with Searle’s cranky Walter Mitty fantasies. As I said, I agree we need something like common-sense lest we lose ourselves in fashionable nonsense, but surely the solution is not just a reflexive asseveration of doxa, or a denial that anyone who uses a four-syllable word could ever have anything meaningful to say.

  19. Glen says

    I didn’t know anyone would actually give the formal names of the fallacies. I never really considered online comments section to be the place for extended debate so I never felt the compulsion to provide much more than a blurb.

    First of all I can’t blame you for what you say since my post invites a particular image of me. Let me try to explain in more detail what my position regarding this “debate” is. But seriously, this is a website for a blog and a podcast, it is not the arena for much high “debate” so I repudiate your description of my attack as a “Fox News style of debate”; I understand exactly what you meant but be careful, someone could get seriously offended by that sort of riposte. I could easily turn around and say that that sort of remark is more indicative that you took what I said much too seriously, given the context of a website such as this.

    I’ll vaguely follow your points.

    1. The argument from authority is only a fallacy if you have nothing other than the person’s word. Well, since I briefly mentioned why I thought Chomsky is in fact an actual authority we should take seriously, it is not a fallacy. I know dick about the details of evolutionary biology, but would be an argument from authority of I invoked the authority of say a Richard Dawkins or a John Maynard Smith, particularly if I was comparing him as well as his professional reputation and influence with a fraud like Michael Behe?

    2. Can’t say much more than you did. I still submit that Zizek is a charlatan, which is the assertion you disagree with. If you want a detailed explanation beyond the pretty cursory remarks I can offer at a pretty informal place like this, you’ve got the wrong idea of where we are. Ad hominen? You are right insofar I didn’t explain myself, but again, I thought I did provide a bit of an explanation, explanation enough to show that my feeling about this isn’t as simple as “I just don’t like the guy.” No. Just read Slovoj Zizkek and tell me he’s not a charlatan. If you think he’s right as rain, then that is perfectly alright and I salute you. I just disagree.

    3. What I said about common sense presupposes that human understanding is very limited and tends to go awry if we stray very far from what seems manifest to us, which is an assumption I share with Chomsky. This in no way is to suggest that common sense is right or that it is even usually right. It is a fact that our common sense is systematically misleading in many different ways.

    Philosophy is in large part about taking pretheoretical understanding of everyday notions and theorizing about them rigorously to see if we can achieve new understanding, but because it operates at such a level of generality as to be only somewhat amenable to empirical investigation, it all has to be taken with a grain of salt, which certainly doesn’t stop us from doing philosophy anyways. I advocate probing common sense heavily, it is just that some people seem to do a terrible job of it, and Zizek definitely fits in that category for me. Moreover if you’re the type of person to let your philosophical speculations run wild, then that’s okay. I’ll still dismiss you.

    4. I am the biggest critic on the planet of scientism, vulgar reductionism, etc., or emphasizing results over pure conceptual analysis.

    I never mentioned the word “results.” I’d prefer to use the word “influence” for a number of reasons. The word “influence” is more what I had in mind when I was thinking of Chomsky. While it is true that his influence did lead to many tangible “results” in everything from linguistics to computer science to psychology, in the realm of philosophy I’d say the right word is influence. Take an analogy: did Wittgenstein produce many “results”? Hardly. “Results” conjures up in one’s mind the hard sciences. I’d be skeptical of using that word since we are talking about philosophy. It would be better to talk about influence and “paradigms” when we are talking about philosophy as opposed to something else since philosophy is more oriented towards raw conceptual analysis. With that in mind there is no question that Noam Chomsky will go down in history as an intellectual juggernaut on the order of people like Bertrand Russell or Wittgenstein. That is indisputable and I think he deserves it. Zizek on the other hand? I’d need a powerful argument for that.

    The real issue is the comparison of the two thinkers in order to get a handle on who is more venerable philosophically.

    In my follow up post I pointed out that Chomsky incorporates some postmodernism into his remarks about truth, reality, metaphysics, and so on. What’s important for me is that he just doesn’t feel the urge (as apparently thinkers like Zizek and Derrida feel the need to do) to dress it up in ridiculously fancy language and pretend it is a radical position they are taking; Chomksy thinks it’s common sense that basically everything we “know” is mediated by theory that is infected by our interests, our culture, and so on. But he says it in about as many words as I have expended here. Why do we need texts upon texts of impenetrable prose to tell us things that we can know upon just a little reflection? I’m not saying the issue is simple, only that the basic idea need not be hopelessly obscured (hence the charges of obscurantism).

    5. You know your philosophers. John Searle is notorious for his sardonic attitude. Frankly his attitude wears on me just as fast as it probably does on you. I’m not like Searle. I like Derrida, Heidegger, Hegel, and other such thinkers. But there is a strain in “continental” philosophy that is typified by Derrida (which I think for separate reasons he is absolved from the negative implciations) which is found in the likes of Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Jaques Lacan, and Slavoj Zizek. Basically if I were to summarize what I think it is that there is a limit I have to the obscurity of language tolerable in philosophy and that to be scornful of a Zizek, or a Lacan, or an Irigary does not automatically put you in the John Searle camp.

    John Searle is wrong to dismiss Heidegger, but he is definitely on to something in dismissing Derrida, which I ultimately disagree with, but I am completely on board with anyone who dismisses Zizek. There are major differences between a Heidegger and a Zizek.

    That’s my view. I hope I am more clear and forthcoming this time around.

    By the way, I’m a left winger, so thanks for the six-shooter remark and the various insinuations. Next time be more forthcoming yourself. It’s okay to let people know what you really think.

  20. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    I much more appreciate your comments that add information to the topic, viewpoints and concerns, as a lot of this current response contains. It reveals what is important to you and why, which informs and includes rather than ridicules, criticizes and excludes –although you still include these aspects as well, which I would ask you to minimize in order to maximize the understanding and valuing of your comments by myself and others on this blog.

    I like how you said “someone could seriously [get] offended by that sort of riposte” in reference to “I repudiate your description of my attack as a “Fox News style of debate.” Getting seriously offended is exactly the problem with making critical, rather than discerning statements.” Repudiate” is critical and offensive as are the following comments from your post which I would ask you to consider changing to descriptions of your concerns so as not to seriously offend:

    “a fraud like Michael Behe?” (I don’t know who he is actually)
    “Just read Slovoj Zizkek and tell me he’s not a charlatan.” (This following part is fine:” If you think he’s right as rain, then that is perfectly alright and I salute you. I just disagree.”)
    “I’ll still dismiss you.”
    “ridiculously fancy language and pretend”
    “scornful of a Zizek, or a Lacan, or an Irigary”
    “completely on board with anyone who dismisses Zizek”
    “six-shooter remark and the various insinuation[s]”

    These are just my opinions/suggestions which would help me better dialog with you, and your understanding, which I do value, Glen. –Sincerely, Wayne

    • Glen says

      The reason I said “repudiate” is because the fox news comment was unfounded given the context of a pretty informal blog like this. This is the Partially Examined Life, not the Fully Examined Life In Every Possible Way Philosophy Blog, so basically I didn’t understand why you wasted time commenting at the end of your post more about my style of presentation than the views I touched upon. My post was obviously biased in its language and tone. The definition of repudiate is to reject the validity of a comment or statement or view, so I reiterate that what you said made no sense to me given that we are commenting on this website; what we engaged in is hardly more than an informal chat. I’m not offended or angry at you in any way.

      Michael Behe is the brainchild behind the irreducible complexity argument used by advocates of intelligent design to bolster their case. So the analogy holds that taking a serious biologist’s side (say John Maynard Smith or Stephen Jay Gould) against Behe is not an argument from authority that is fallacious.

      When I say things like “I’ll still dismiss you” I’m just saying that if you or anyone flies of the philosophical handle in the way that I perceive someone like Zizek does (which you can disagree with of course), I will dismiss you, nothing more or less. Does that really sound as potentially offensive as comparing someone’s style to fox news?

      I stand behind what I said about ridiculously fancy language. I’m not sure what’s wrong with calling Derrida, Zizek, or Irigaray’s language as ridiculously fancy. To me this is transparent, and the best I can do is to realize that it’s just not that transparent to you, which, while amazing to me, is not something I can push. I guess all that I want is for other people to see where I am coming from, that they entertain the notion that Zizek’s language may be a little too idiosyncratic.

      Your comment implying that I am somewhat of a philosophical curmudgeon in the same vein as a Searle I thought was a poorly veiled insinuation that I am a sort of philosophical philistine in your eyes, and I think anyone reading that section of you comment can see that it is easily interpreted in that way, so I thought I should mention it as a kind of meta-commentary, much like what you are doing by point out my language. What would have been better is if you had accused me of hypocrisy in the sense that someone coming from your angle in fact does see me as a philistine because I reject the methods and style of Zizek, but I in no way provide a well reasoned argument for why I reject them, and therefore am open to a simple rejoinder from someone like Zizek he just as strenuously thinks of me as a philistine in turn, for opposite reasons. But again, this is not the place for extended argument (which is why I feel absurd at this very moment in typing these pointless meta-comments in response to yours).

      I tire of this discussion, in fact we have both wasted comment space. If I were PEL I’d delete everything we have said other than our initial posts because what has been said after them has been trite and no doubt annoying to everyone.

      What have we talked about other than about the style of our comments? It’s pointless. I’m not looking for excessively sharp argumentation at a blog that I go too mostly for unwinding. But I felt compelled to respond to your meta-commentary because it involves more a clash of personality than anything else, and that is always fun.

      What I find strange is that suddenly things seemed reversed: I respond to Zizek because of his style. Then you inquire about my views and my style, critiquing them, and pretty soon I remark that the context of a blog such as this leaves room for vaguely argued and mostly polemical statements such as mine, and it is you, the fan of Zizek of all people, who ends up apparently insisting that I be precise, clear, very deliberate, and unemotional in my “argumentation” and presentation of my views. See the irony?

      I love philosophy

      No seriously though, these posts seem like an utter waste and should be deleted. I’d much rather be scrolling down the page and read comments that are talking about heraclitus or Zizek or someone directly rather than getting off the trail. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised though, Zizek is kind of polarizing. Didn’t the Ayn Rand episode have a million comments?

      I just got off work so I am nto up to continuing this rant of mine.

      It’s good talking to you though; I usually piss people off so much they run away.

  21. Akiva Mattenson says

    As a young student of philosophy soon to enter collegiate life, I must thank you for your wonderful podcasts. All of you are very articulate, humorous, and thoughtful. This episode was particularly fascinating for a variety of reasons – the participation of Eva Brann, the talk of St. John’s in all its glory, and the actual subject matter – and I wanted to congratulate you on another wonderful addition to the series. As I am an observant Jew, the characterization of Heraclitus’s thought that Brann presented reminded me of the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In an essay entitled ‘Majesty and Humility,’ Soloveitchik expresses his central attitude that “Judaic dialectic, unlike the Hegelian, is irreconcilable and hence interminable. Judaism accepted a dialectic, consisting only of thesis and antithesis. The third Hegelian stage, that of reconciliation, is missing.”

      • Akiva Mattenson says

        What do you mean by “in that light”? Do you mean do I believe Buber to be a proponent of the ‘Judaic dialectic’ as a method of approaching the world? Or do you mean as an Orthodox Jew, how do I respond to Buber?

  22. Chris Araujo says

    Brann is incorrect/ Aristotle/Plato referred to the “professed Heracliteans” when they claimed (i.e., Aristotle) that “one cannot even step into the same river once.”

    Aristotle and Plato both accept the concept of generation…but somethings, as Socrates says to Cratylus, the professed Heraclitean, are not changing…but fixed….FOr example, the Idea of Beauty….Or Truth….etc.

  23. A.K. Lumpentroll says

    Best show ever!

    Awesome. Really, thank you.

    Several days before listening to this episode, intent on delving more deeply into the origins of the great ideas themselves, I aquired a copy of Thomas McEvilley’s “The Shape of Ancient Thought.” This quote is from page 282:

    “About a century ago, Comford argued that, in terms of their modes of understanding, the Bronze Age was primarily a myth-making, image-using phase of culture, and the Iron Age was primarily a philosophy-making, logic-and-abstraction-using phase. He felt the transition between the two involved the development of monumental abstract ideas like “being” and “nothingness” or “necessity” from mythological images like Brahma, Humbaba or Eumenides. Philosophy, “the latest of man’s great achievements,” did not appear suddenly but developed with a smooth continuity out of earlier ages of thought.”

    Thanks to your wonderful guest, Ms. Brann and the way you all raised your already inpressive game, my enjoyment of McEvilley’s magnum opus has been greatly enhanced. You did transcend and in doing so inspired my own reading.

    If you’re still interested in investigating the pre and also the pre pre Socratics, Mark, McEvilley’s book is the place to start.

  24. Nick says

    Hey guys, I really enjoyed this as, oddly enough, Heraclitus came shortly after Plato for me as I started to think about philosophy. I intend to purchase the book, but I would really appreciate it if you could communicate to Eva that there are young people who are interested in this. I actually have a Heraclitean-inspired Latin adage tattooed in a circle around my forearm which reads “Tempora mutantur, nos et mutameer in illis” or “The times are changed, and we too are changed in them”. It’s maybe more correct to say that the adage resonated with me in my Buddhist phase and brought me to Heraclitus. I’m twenty four now, but this was important to me at oh, I guess twenty. I really appreciate her scholarship here, and I’d like her to know that.

  25. Dennis Matthews says

    What a treat. I came across Eva’s book independently via my Heidegger studies, as well as my interest in the intellectual history of archaic Greece. After reading her book, I wondered if PEL had any discussion on Heraclitus, and found this gem of a podcast. And for once, the discussion didn’t devolve into Kantian Metaphysics! :) Really good job all around.

    I want to take away from this an openness to listen to and learn from the unsettling “newness” of Heralitus’ Logos as indelible strife, tension and ambiguity, and to never let determinations of Being cover up the fire of transformation.

  26. Kevin Flowers, Jr. says

    I just wanted to let you guys know that the recording keeps skipping to the next track once it hits 21:50. I deleted it and and re downloaded it twice just to make sure it wasn’t my connection. If I jump past 21:50 it continues as normal. Anyway, keep up the great work.


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