Generic Science

Heraclitus, Intelligence, and the Common

28 March 2021

Having used Badiou to think through the Pythagoreans, I wanted to return to the beginning of his lecture and try to deal with the question of why we would want to begin with void at all.1 Certainly, it is conceivable in the abstract, but why ought we do so? I intended to use Heraclitus and Parmenides to this end, but when I returned to Heraclitus, not just to invoke him as a premonition of the likes of Derrida and Deleuze, but really to make a return, to suspend my preconceptions of his philosophy and begin again,2 it became clear to me that the Badiousian connection would have to wait.

I have always been cautious of setting up Heraclitus and Parmenides as opposites to each other, as Plato did, taking my cue from Peter Adamson that they are more alike than not.3 However, even in treating Heraclitus’s philosophy as a palintropic monism, I nevertheless positioned him, like Plato, as the prophet of flux, but felt absolved of this gesture insofar as it allowed me to find an ancient ground for my efforts to position difference, rather than identity, at the origin of being.

However, in the interim, my research took me through the work of François Laruelle, whose Philosophies of Difference thoroughly dismantled my philosophical project, preempting my arguments long before I made them, and indeed, before I had even been born.4 Inverted Platonism5 remains yoked to Platonism, and as such, is nothing but a “syntax,” a philosophical decision that splits philosophy from the real, organizing this “duel” in a matrix of correlations.6 To position difference as origin rather than identity makes the work of philosophy an “interminable effort,” denouncing the violence of the “scission” originally effected by philosophy while perpetuating it with finer and finer cuts.7

So, reading Heraclitus again, approaching the fragments as a beginner, I find my old interpretations profoundly unseated, my attention drawn to arguments over which previously I had glossed, captured as I was by his “back-turning harmony.”8 Now, this palintropos finds its proper footing, a footing which I hope to demonstrate with a fuller reading of Heraclitus that I intend to situate in the continuum from Anaximander to Pythagoras that I identified previously.

Heraclitus’s philosophy is determined by the logos which, in the Presocratic mode, functions as his “principle” of being.9 Heraclitus contends that “everything happens in accordance with this principle,” and yet, because human judgment can be incorrect, it is possible for judgment not to accord with the logos.10 This possibility of a failure in judgment is not a problem for Heraclitus, except when people begin to “live as though they had private understanding,” reversing the determining relationship between the logos and human judgment.11 As Pseudo-Plutarch reports, “Heraclitus says that the universe for those who are awake is single and common, while in sleep each person turns aside into a private universe.”12 It is for this reason that “one ought to follow what is common.”13 In these first fragments and testimonials, we see quite clearly that, for Heraclitus, philosophy, or human judgment more generally, is ineluctably determined by the logos, and that the universe, insofar as it is “single and common,” is our teacher.

Though Heraclitus can come across as a sage or oracle by virtue of the fragmentary transmission of his ideas, Heraclitus himself challenges this position, arguing that it is not he but the logos that teaches: “It is wise for those who listen not to me but to the principle to agree in principle that everything is one.”14 This is not a mystical unity handed down from the “private universe” of the enlightened teacher, but the fact of the unary singularity that is self-evident in being, which is to say, its mere being—single to be sure, but singularly generic, without reference to a universal singularity, and therefore truly to be termed the unary multiple.15

Certainly, one might challenge this argument as just another distortion of Heraclitus, Laruellian rather than Derridean or Deleuzian, but I think the text furnishes this reading with ample support. An endnote from Waterfield helps us on the way. Heraclitus writes: “Those who speak with intelligence must stand firm by that which is common to all.”16 Waterfield remarks that “with intelligence” and “common” are in fact deployed here as “an untranslatable pun.”17 In Heraclitus’s Greek, “with intelligence” is xun noōi and “common” is xunōi. This homophony is deliberate: “similarity of sound” in Heraclitus always “implie[s] similarity of meaning.”18 Waterfield overstates the point, however, arguing that this means that “what is common or universal is what can be apprehended with intelligence,” but what the words themselves go on to say is that “all human laws are in the keeping of the one divine law; for the one divine law has as much power as it wishes.”19 Heraclitus does not say that “what is common or universal is what can be apprehended with intelligence”; instead, what is “common or universal” is fundamentally determinative of intelligence.20 This is why intelligence “must stand firm” by the common, and not the other way around—it is an irreversible relation.

Heraclitus’s emphasis on waking and sleeping and his privileging of sense perception as a means for understanding the logos help us avoid converting the “common” into a transcendental “universal” as Waterfield does. Heraclitus “rate[s] highly … those which are accessible to sight, hearing, apprehension,”21 because these are accessible to all in wakefulness, verifiable by anyone, for “[e]veryone has the potential for self-knowledge and sound thinking.”22 One need not be inducted to a mystical school of knowledge to recognize that “[o]rder was not made by god or man. It always was and is and shall be”23—one need only open one’s eyes.

Now, indeed, anyone with their eyes open should immediately object, does not this position serve to validate the present (i.e., human) order of things? And they would be correct. Heraclitus himself did so. Though he refuses philosophical or pedagogical privilege, his philosophy allows him to reify his social and political privilege as a necessary consequence of the order of the logos. Waterfield notes that Heraclitus had a “reputation in antiquity … as a haughty aristocrat,” and in the fragments on politics, Heraclitus is indeed an unabashed traditionalist.24 He praises the one “outstanding” man, rails against the radical egalitarianism of the Ephesians, and calls for the “quench[ing]” of “insolence.”25 Heraclitus the obscure, Heraclitus the oracle of change, is, in the end, no revolutionary. And yet his philosophical commitment to the common provides us with a potential path out of the correlationist domain of ontopolitics, restoring the possibility of saying what is without referring that statement back to a human universal.

To say what is should not be treated as a trivial work. We would not want to carelessly fall into another mode of traditionalism whereby politics might be denied while at the same time carried out under the guise of common sense.26 To say what is without referring back to a human universal is “to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not.”27 Such work does not deny the epistemological fact that science is construction28 and achievement.29 It is possible to say what is but this saying is always secondary to that of which it is said. What is more, though the saying is always secondary, it is not in any way guaranteed or justified by that of which it is said, and so stands utterly without alibi.30 To keep our eyes open, to say what is, is to refuse at every point that which is believed to be “established” and to deny the authorization of our understanding on the basis of any such establishment.31

We see, then, that when Heraclitus says that the “true nature of a thing tends to hide itself,”32 that “non-apparent” harmony is “better than apparent,”33 that he is not denying the primacy of sense perception as a means for understanding the logos. Heraclitus does not contradict himself when he says that the road is the same road regardless of the direction one travels along it, but the river into which one steps is never the same river.34 Heraclitus is simply indicating that a road is an inert pathway and direction a qualitative experience of the one walking upon it, while a river consists of both water and banks, the former of which is always running while the latter provides its shape. Heraclitus is not hinting at some mystical unity here. Such would be a Platonic misreading. On the contrary, the real is “single and common” because it is “right there, before our eyes.”35 Some regions of the real are simply more complex, requiring more careful scrutiny or more nuanced consideration.

If we continue in this reading of Heraclitus, we recognize that intelligence “stand[s] firm” by the common because intelligence is common, which is to say, real. Intelligence does not exist somewhere out there; it, too, is right here. Heraclitus makes the point as follows, reported by Sextus Empiricus:

Just as cinders which are brought close to a fire undergo an alteration and start to glow, but are extinguished when they are separated, so the fraction of what surrounds us which is in exile in our bodies becomes more or less irrational in a state of separation, but in a state of union, which is achieved through the numerous sensory channels, it is restored to a condition of similarity to the whole.36

The “state of union” between intelligence and the common is not a mystical unity. It is a union effected by the “numerous sensory channels” that makes communication possible between “what surrounds us” and the “fraction” of this surround that is “in our bodies.”37 In modern terminology, we can say quite plainly: neurology is real, the apparatus of sensation is real, the body is real, the experiencing person is real. More philosophically, we might say that depth is folded into surface and being into appearance. Regardless of phrasing, what Heraclitus affords us is a (non)philosophical position that is “direct or radical, not reflective or mediated,” a “generic science” that persistently demands to know the answer to the question “x is what.”38 There is no ideal form of the “road” or the “river” because the real is “without doubling, existing in itself only,” “simple, particular, unique.”39

What remains, then, is to extend the continuity previously established between Anaximander and Pythagoras to Heraclitus. I argued that with the Pythagoreans’ use of “unlimited” and “limit,” we witness the abstraction of Anaximander’s terms “boundless” and “motion,” an abstraction that makes possible “substantive difference,” as opposed to the “qualitative difference” of Thales and Anaximenes.40 Using Badiou to help make sense of this peculiarly substantial abstraction, I argued that limit functions as {Ø}, a closure of Ø, the void, the indeterminate, the boundless. This closure is not yet a being, but is rather a set, a determination, an individuation, whereby the 1 proper might be counted (because {Ø} has a value of 1). So we see that in the Pythagorean school the Milesian intuition that there is a dual at the origin of being—being and motion—is preserved while being reformulated in a way that protects the “abstraction of pure indetermination” against the cosmological distortions that followed, such as Anaximenes’ speculations that ultimately lead to the conflation of being and motion.

The additional claim that I made with respect to the Pythagoreans was that, in their understanding of the “unit-point,” the belief that geometric points are numeric units, we see how they understand that “cognition is the real itself.” In the terminology employed above: “intelligence is common.” Aristotle struggled with the idea that “the elements of numbers are the elements of all things,”41 but as I argued, this struggle arose from his inability to conceive of abstraction itself as real. Badiou, however, demonstrates how something might come from nothing, how the abstract can in fact be real, and if we retroject this understanding to antiquity, Anaximander’s signature abstraction, the boundless, and the general abstractness of the Pythagorean system, are made plain. Heraclitus is no different. Heraclitus begins with an abstract principle, the logos, toward which he adopts the theoretical posture characteristic of a generic science, standing in direct, radical relation to this principle, which is itself the real.42 We can say of the logos, then, that it is. The logos is not the double of the real; it is the real, and as such, it merely is. Thus, contrary to my own earlier readings of Heraclitus that prioritized the deconstructive flux of his aphorisms, this new reading finds Heraclitus participating in the “abstraction of the natural and naturalization of the abstract” that I previously highlighted in Anaximander and Pythagoras. Our continuity expands to three.


Notes

  1. Alain Badiou, “Infinity and Set Theory: How to Begin with the Void,” European Graduate School Video Lectures, YouTube, January 12, 2012 [2011], https://youtu.be/I1G_SI1-W-4

  2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), trans. Donald A. Landes (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012), lxxviii: “If we were absolute spirit, the reduction would not be problematic. But since, on the contrary, we are in and toward the world, and since even our reflections take place in the temporal flow that they are attempting to capture (since they sich einströmen [flow along therein], as Husserl says), there is no thought that encompasses all of our thought. Or again, as the unpublished materials say, the philosopher is a perpetual beginner. This means that he accepts nothing as established from what men or scientists believe they know. This also means that philosophy itself must not take itself as established in the truths it has managed to utter, that philosophy is an ever-renewed experiment of its own beginning, that it consists entirely in describing this beginning, and finally, that radical reflection is conscious of its own dependence on an unreflected life that is its initial, constant, and final situation.” 

  3. Peter Adamson, “Old Man River: Heraclitus,” History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, December 28, 2010, https://historyofphilosophy.net/heraclitus

  4. François Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-philosophy (1986), trans. Rocco Gangle (London, UK: Continuum, 2010). 

  5. A phrase Martin Heidegger pulls from Nietzsche. See Nietzsche, vols. I and II (1961), trans. David Farrell Krell (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1991), 154. 

  6. François Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference, 16. I use the word “correlation” to point toward Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (2006), trans. Ray Brassier (London, UK: Continuum, 2009), but also to harken back to Jean Paul-Sartre, who is consistently critical of philosophies that rely on a “table of correlations” for a standard of judgment. Subjective and objective cannot be correlated because the split itself is unreal. “Subject” and “object” are mere names. The real “is everywhere,” but understood as “being,” the real is “transphenomenal,” i.e., not accessible to consciousness as a unity, but only in the multiple being of concrete appearance (which Laruelle might describe as the “non-thetic transcendence” of each real). See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943), trans. Hazel E. Barnes (Abindon, UK: Routledge, 2003), 246, 18. For non-thetic transcendence, see François Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference, 202. Gilbert Simondon is also helpful in understanding the order of precedence between “being” and “beings” in Sartre, insofar as preindividual being can be understood as transphenomenal, the in-itself properly, and as such inaccessible to phenomenal individuated beings, in which the preindividual is yet conserved, but to which prior phase state they cannot be reversed. See Gilbert Simondon, “The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis,” trans. Gregory Flanders, Parrhesia 7 (2009), 4-16. To again draw Laruelle into the fold, this irreversibility of individual to preindividual being is the “unilaterality” of the “individual implying the immediately absolute,” the “singular that is no longer or not yet a singularity,” the “diversity of the contingency that refuses itself absolutely to any idealization whatsoever.” See Philosophies of Difference, 200-201. Finally, then, in this citation of “contingency,” we can return to Meillassoux and his critique of correlationism and properly grasp the fact that “the realist meaning of the ancestral statement” (i.e., “Event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans”) “is its ultimate meaning—that there is no other regime of meaning capable of deepening our understanding of it, and that consequently the philosopher’s codicil [to the ancestral statement]” (i.e., “—for humans”) “is irrelevant when it comes to analysing when it comes to analysing the signification of the statement.” This is the titular “necessity of contingency” that organizes Meillassoux’s book. See Meillassoux, After Finitude, 13-14. 

  7. François Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference, 19, 6. 

  8. Heraclitus, F21, in The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford, UK: Oxford World Classics, 2000), 40. 

  9. Heraclitus, F1, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 37. 

  10. Heraclitus, F1 and F2, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 37, 38. 

  11. Heraclitus, F6, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 38. 

  12. Pseudo-Plutarch, On Superstition, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 38. 

  13. Heraclitus, F6, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 38. 

  14. Heraclitus, F10, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 39. 

  15. Thomas Sutherland makes this point nicely in his essay “Authoritarian and Minoritarian Thought. François Laruelle, A Biography of Ordinary Man,” Parrhesia 32 (2020), 253-262. “Western philosophy” is the “‘unitary’ paradigm of thought” while what Laruelle proposes is “a concept of unary multiplicities, to which he grants the name minorities, that have been ‘forgotten’ by philosophical discourse, and which can be thought prior to and independent of any and all universals, and thus in their very essence,” i.e., as non-thetic singularities or “unreflective” individuals (Sutherland, 256). 

  16. Heraclitus, F12, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 39. 

  17. Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 317. 

  18. Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 317. 

  19. Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 317, and Heraclitus, F12, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 39. 

  20. Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 39. 

  21. Heraclitus, F28, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 41. 

  22. Heraclitus, F31, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 41. 

  23. Heraclitus, F36, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 41-42. 

  24. Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 36. 

  25. Heraclitus, F55, F56, and F58, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 45-46. These are quite clearly “authoritarian” rather than “minoritarian” statements. 

  26. As Jacques Rancière powerfully argues, politics is about the “distribution of the sensible,” the determination of what is visible and thus intelligible to the system, and what is not. ‘Common sense’ politics is, in fact, not politics at all but policing, while proper (capital P) Politics is an “intervention” in the police order. See Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (2000), trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2013), 7, xiv. 

  27. Meillassoux, After Finitude, 27. 

  28. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986 [1979]). 

  29. Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux 36 (July 2012), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/

  30. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 62: “As a being by whom values exist, I am unjustifiable. My freedom is anguished at being the foundation of values while itself without foundation.” See also Nicolas Bourriaud, The Exform (2015), trans. Erik Butler (London, UK: Verso, 2016), 19: “Telling oneself tales means maintaining an illusion, or a bundle of illusions, that only serve to legitimate or explain our actions … these ‘stories’ amount to a posteriori justifications; that is, they cannot constitute an ‘origin’ in which a people or an individual might find support.” 

  31. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, lxxviii. 

  32. Heraclitus, F25, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 40. 

  33. Heraclitus, F24, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 40. 

  34. Heraclitus, F14 and F34, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 39, 41. 

  35. Bourriaud, The Exform, 21. 

  36. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 45. 

  37. Merleau-Ponty terms this communication “naïve contact.” See Phenomenology of Perception, lxx. 

  38. Alexander Galloway, “Superpositions,” Culture and Communication, October 11, 2014, http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/superpositions

  39. Bourriaud, The Exform, 21. 

  40. Eric Stein, “Pure Indetermination,” March 5, 2021, https://steinea.github.io/notes/2021/03/05/pure-indetermination

  41. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 985b23-986a26, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 102. 

  42. Of Laruelle, Galloway writes: “what Laruelle calls generic science also comes under another name, I think. No longer philosophy, but ‘theory.’ Philosophy is always inflationary and maximalist. Even the most hard-nosed skeptics are philosophical because they remain sufficient unto themselves—this is skepticism as an “adequate” response to the problems of thinking. By contrast, theory creates a minimalism in thought. Theory is a rigorous science of the inadequacy of material life.” See Superpositions, 2014.