Heraclitus and Parmenides – an ontic perspective

Scientific Essay, 2008

13 Pages



1. A seeming controversy – flux versus static

2. Heraclitus – constant change

3. Parmenides – constant being

4. Being and becoming from the ontic point of view

5. Literature

1. A seeming controversy – flux versus static

In his famous novel ”Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“, the author Robert M. Pirsig states that early ”Greek philosophy repsented the first conscious search for what was imperishable in the affairs of men. Up to then what was imperishable was within the domain of the Gods, the myths.” (Pirsig 1999, p. 371f.) The emergence of systematic thinking has to be attributed to the movement of the Presocratics, although calling them a ”movement” can only occur in retrospect: for their thoughts already reveal an intensive diversity. Yet what many of these early philosophers attempted was to grasp the basic structures of the universe, of the world we live in – they did not necessarily shun deities, but initiated, as Waterfield points out, ”a shift from mythos to logos” (Waterfield 2000, p. xxxiii), laying the groundwork for a philosophy of nature.

A relatively well-spad controversy within the Presocratic movement is the seeming contrast between the ideas of Heraclitus and those of Parmenides. While the former is summarized with ”Everything flows”, the latter’s basic idea is paraphrased as ”Everything rests” – this is, if you like, the popularised version of this seeming controversy. Constant change versus absence of change, this is how one could easily understand the opponent schools of thought in question here. However, it is probably not as simple as that. In the following paragraphs, I would like to explicate a perspective on the aforementioned supposed controversy that could be called ”the ontic perspective”, i.e. a descriptive, phenomenologically oriented view which interpts Heraclitus’ and Parmenides’ theories on the level of mere being there, of mere psence, the level which Heidegger called ”Vorhandenheit” (Heidegger 2001, p. 42) – and which can illustrate that the perceived diametrical positions can to some extent be reunited in this ontic perspective. With all that, of course, the aforementioned perspective can by no means claim to be a ”definitive” interptation and integration of the thoughts of these early Greek philosophers. Rather, it might be taken as a particularized approach as to what Parmenides and Heraclitus might point us at when reflecting on the level of mere being there, on the ontic perspective.[1]

History books of philosophy do not have an unanimous take on this apparent controversy of change versus static: Parmenides view is repsented as eliminating ”non-being” completely in favour of an eternal ”what-is” so that there were no possibility of change, of becoming. Hence the world of change that the human being experiences were only figment, no “real” being. Parmenides would duly appear as a philosopher who refused to take the phenomenal world for real, postulating a non-empirical entity, whereas Heraclitus’ world-view would coincide with the ongoing process of change we can witness in nature, in movement etc. - though the principle of flux is based on an underlying divine, eternal principle.[2]

Yet, if we decide for the ontic perspective, it can easily be grasped that the contradiction apparent at first cannot be maintained throughout when we actually consider the fragments left by Heraclitus and Parmenides.

2. Heraclitus – constant change

Even bearing in mind that, as Ludwig Marcuse (1981, p. 24f.) pointed out, our understanding of the Presocratic fragments is inevitably tinted by our psent view of the world, it appears safe to say that Heraclitus, in his descriptions, is mainly referring to the world of our experience: “The things I rate highly are those which are accessible to sight, hearing, apphension.” (Heraclitus, in Waterfield 2000, p. 41, F28). Furthermore, he is describing changes of state, changes in quality occurring with the phenomena of our daily experience: “Cool things become warm, warm things cool down, moist things dry out, parched things become damp.” (Ibid., p. 40, F20). In addition to that, there are the famous “river fragments”, which serve to emphasize Heraclitus’ point of view, for example: “On those who step into the same rivers ever different waters are flowing.” (Ibid., p. 41, F33). The following cryptic line is also attributed to Heraclitus: “We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and are not.” (Ibid., p. 41, T3). Now this, on the surface, implies two disjunctively separated if not contradicting statements, and might serve to underline why Heraclitus was called “the obscure”.

And yet, if we take into account the aforementioned quotes, light may be shed on the seeming contradiction: The river is the same, identical with itself, because it rests at its position. A Londoner can be relatively certain to find the River Thames at the very same place he witnessed it the day before. As to that, it is still the same river. On the other hand, the river may be static when its geographical position is in question, but it is not a static, unchanging entity: Clearly, the essence of a river can be easily described as continuously containing flowing water, a moving substance obvious to the human eye, and thus at the same time remaining the same river Thames, but in an ever-changing state, i.e. not being the same. Heraclitus gives another example: “Road: up and down, it’s still the same road.” (Ibid., p. 39, F14). This illustrates that the directions we take may differ according to our destination, but regardless of that, the road itself remains… the road, though the perspectives and contextualizations unavoidably vary. Be it a river or a road, be it a moist object drying out: the qualities of objects change all the time.

But as we have seen, this does not only refer to our natural world, but also to human beings, who “are and are not”. Now this might appear much more confusing to an observer: surely we, as human beings, are continuously psent, there, existent within our lifespan? Certainly, a human being cannot alter states between being and non-being, like falling into some diffuse state of “nothingness” (which, again, would be something). Our conscious ”lifeworld”, to use Husserl‘s term, has an aspect of permanence about it; when I walk to the bus stop, I happen to be the same person who has just left the house two minutes earlier. Still: when we reconsider the example of the river, which is at the same time permanent and changing, it could be a possible interptation of Heraclitus that human beings change and do not change at the same time, since my state of being is in continuous development – I am aging, my hair is growing, I breathe in and out, my heart beats… but it is always a new breath, a new heartbeat, a new state, so that, along with a permanence, each moment brings an amount of change.


[1] I have also discussed this apparent controversy in Sötemann 2006, p. 51ff.

[2] See for example Rehmke / Schneider 1983, p. 16 (Parmenides) and p. 13 (Heraclitus). See also Sandvoss 1989, p. 251ff. and Waterfield 2000, p. 53 (Parmenides) and p. 33f. (Heraclitus).

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Heraclitus and Parmenides – an ontic perspective
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ontics, being, presocratics, heraclitus, parmenides, ontology, ancient philosophy, Vorsokratiker, Philosophie der Antike
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Dr. Christian H. Sötemann (Author), 2008, Heraclitus and Parmenides – an ontic perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/120913


  • sherifff sheku on 1/15/2011

    it is not the fact which is required,but how convincing are their philosophies?

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