Reflections on Unity and Diversity

“Unquestioning acceptance of an original position, either through ignorance of alternatives or through refusal to consider them, not only leads to forgone conclusions…but it leads to the acceptance of a system without taking into account several weighty objections that ought to be faced.” Gordon H. Clark

One of the books I am currently re-reading is Thales to Dewey (a history of philosphy) by Gordon Clark. I have just completed the sections including presocratic philosophers Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus. It is pretty amazing to read about the discoveries and insights of some of the greatest minds in history as they wrestled with and attempted to explain their observations of the world around them. One of the greatest problems in philosophy is the question of the one and the many. i.e. unity and multiplicity. For the presocratics, multiplicity was obvious but they wondered whether there was any unity at all. They observed that world seems to be made of a multiplicity of things- people, rivers, rocks, air, stars, insects, etc. but they supposed that a universe with a limited number of particulars would necessitate an essential unity. They figured that the universe could only contain a limited amount of things and if those things were broken down into their elements, there would only be a limited number of elements. Perhaps that number is only fifty. But why only fifty? Why not some other amount? There must be a “reason.” They figured that if there were no reason then the universe would be irrational and could not be understood. Only the rational is capable of being understood and to “understand” necessitates reducing multiplicity to unity. Therefore even in view of the vast amount of particulars in the cosmos, in order to understand them, the universe rationally must be a unity. Hence the term universe (unity in diversity). Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes all explained the unity in material terms- i.e. as a corporeal unity. 

Heraclitus, however, saw the unity as change or motion. He gives the famous example of a mighty river into which a man can never step twice. He argues that the river into which the man steps is never the same river the second time because it constantly changes with new water and an eroding bank and bed. He argues that if the river is the water, banks, and bed, then it is never the same river and ultimately there is no river because the name “river” applies to something that will remain for a time which the “river” does not do- It changes in the midst of our pronouncing the name. He makes matters worse by resoning that the man himself is unable to step into the same river twice because even the man is not there twice. The man is constantly changing physically in a simlar way as the river. Heraclitus suggests that to say something exists means to say that something does not change. The problem therefore is that if a thing is constantly changing and moving then we can call it nothing, non-being, unreality. If all is unreal because everything changes then nothing can be known because there is no-thing to know.

According to Heraclitus, then, our knowledge comes from what is unchanging or what is meant by reality. Heraclitus saw that everything changes like a river flows and yet he could not excape the reality of at least one absolute/unifying truth- the law of change itself which he called Logos. The word Logos often means an expression of thought: e.g. book, word, ratio, argument, etc. Heraclitus concluded that there was something that does not change: a truth, a law, a Logos. Although it would be dishonest for us to force a Christian interpretation upon Heraclitus who did not distinguish between an an immaterial law and a corporeal stuff, his ideas are nonetheless intriguing especially in view of his idea that wisdom is to understand the intelligence that steers all things.

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