In our dynamic world, it is easy to misunderstand things, to believe fake news, to allow oneself to be misled. Sometimes it happens due to conscious manipulation by others, other times – all too often – due to our own biases. One of such biases is something I would like to call a trap of easier interpretation. We all know it. Whenever we are faced with various options of understanding something, the simplest one of them frequently seems most alluring. Simplicity per se is not a negative thing and unnecessary complication is, by definition, superfluous. However, when we feel attracted to a certain way of interpreting things because of its perceived simplicity in our mind, it would be reasonable to pay extra attention and assess other merits of this “easy way” before granting it our support and agreement. That is, of course, if the circumstances allow such closer reflection. Luckily, they allow it at the moment of my writing this, so I would like to present a short example of falling into the trap of easier interpretation based on the case of Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.
Based on various sources*, Heraclitus lived between the second half of 6th century BCE (before common era) and the first half of the 5th century BCE. This would mean that the peak of his philosophical activity probably came during the turn of the centuries (so, around 500 BCE). He is one of the so-called “pre-Socratic” thinkers (those Ancient Greek philosophers who were active before Socrates). All those who have heard the famous statement “You cannot step into the same river twice” have, in fact, heard something of Heraclitus – this statement is attributed to him. Let’s pause here. When you read that short assertion how do you interpret it? What is Heraclitus saying here? The first thing that comes to my mind is that his point is that everything is changing constantly, that change and flow are all there is and that nothing ever persists. Sounds reasonable and easy to remember. This is the simple version of interpretation. But let’s not call it a day just yet. What other options could there be? If you think about it, does the river really change? For instance, isn’t the Nile same river today as it was yesterday? If not and it is a different river every instant, can we keep calling it by the same name for hundreds of years? In other words, what exactly was the argument of Heraclitus when making this statement?
To start our closer consideration of this philosopher’s point, it is worth taking a look at another version of his river-statement: “Different waters flow over those who step into the same rivers”. In this case, Heraclitus asserts explicitly that the rivers are the same but the waters change. Moreover, what he seems to point out and try drawing our attention to is the concept of simultaneous opposition. I perceive the Nile to be both the same river as yesterday and to have different waters flow in it at the same time. How can this be? If something is the same as it used to be, how it can simultaneously be different? Here we come face-to-face with the main argument of Heraclitus, one which is not easily conceivable from the first simple interpretation. Namely, Heraclitus argues that reality itself is a unity of opposites. With this core principle in mind, it would not make much sense to interpret the philosopher’s argument as a claim that there is nothing but constant change and that’s it. Such interpretation would leave out any kind of opposition – something that was central for Heraclitus. What is the opposite of change? That’s right – stability. The river is both the same and different at the same time. The fact that we can perceive only one side of the opposites (either/or) serves as proof to Heraclitus that our understanding of reality is limited. His idea is that reality is, in fact, a multiplicity of various opposites that are united together in one, all at the same time.
The philosopher gives some examples of this unity of opposites: seawater is at the same time good for fish and dangerous for humans; gold is at the same time useless to donkeys and valuable to humans; road up is at the same time road down. Importantly – in all of these examples the state of affairs does not depend on our perspective as we might assume. No, Heraclitus asserts that regardless of whether you are on that road – it is simultaneously a road up and a road down. Regardless of whether we use the gold – it is simultaneously valuable and worthless. Finally, Heraclitus gives an example of a bow to demonstrate how we fail to notice this truth about reality – that things are held together by being in tension. For him, the opposition, the tension between the opposites is what makes up the reality in a unified whole. We just need to understand and notice it.
As you see, the case of Heraclitus serves not just to stimulate your thoughts about the ultimate nature of reality, but also to show how we are sometimes lured into the trap of easier interpretation all too easily. If the circumstances allow it, take your chance to stay curious also when things seem straightforward.
*Following sources were used for this article:
- “Classical Philosophy. A history of philosophy without any gaps” by Peter Adamson, 2014
- In German “Die philosophische Hintertreppe. Die grosse Philosophen in Alltag und Denken” by Wilhelm Weischedel, 2018
- A Russian university-level philosophy textbook “History of Philosophy” by Vasiliyev V.V., Krotov A.A., Bugay D.V.