5 - Old Man River: Heraclitus

Peter discusses the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, and tries to discover whether it's possible to step into the same river twice.

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Further Reading: 

R. Dilcher, Studies in Heraclitus (Hildesheim: Olms, 1995).

H. Granger, “Argumentation and Heraclitus’ Book,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 26 (2006), 1-17.

C.H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

M. Schofield, “Heraclitus’ Theory of Soul and its Antecedents,” in S. Everson (ed.), Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 13-34.

Stanford Encyclopedia: Heraclitus

History of Philosophy's Greatest Hits: Peter discusses Heraclitus on video

Anonymous's picture

What is was, and was is.

Nothing changes. There is nothing which was, which already is. Listen not to me but the logos. What is right, and what is wrong. The logos is telling you the truth but you won’t hear it unless you are part of the stable change.

Malcolm's picture

Does modern physics agree with Heraclitus?

Is everything fire? Is everything unchanging *and* in continuous flux?

Fire is energetic matter. Matter is energy, and energy is matter, so everything is one (matter or energy or both).

Everything is changing. Matter-energy is in continuous flux. But nothing, fundamentally, is changing; it's still the same, unchanging, conserved matter-energy.

Aaron Hald's picture

know yourself first, if you would know the universe

"You talk about redefining my identity. I want a guarantee that I can still be myself."

"There isn't one. Why would you wish to? All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you."

Somebody's picture

Unless that quote was

Unless that quote was referred to in the episode (did not yet check, just arrived here), it would not have hurt to mention its source (Ghost in the Shell) while at it.

Aaron Hald's picture

You're right: a little

You're right: a little citation is rarely a bad thing (blame my oversight on that trippel ale I was enjoying a little too much. ;) )

To be honest, that movie was what introduced me to the fascinating philosophical subject of change, and I thought it proper homage to quote it here.

As for the late response, there's a Shinto poem I tried so desperately to cite, for your sake I searched--I really did, (from memory, forgive me if incorrect.): 'The petal that is on the ground is the petal that is on the blossom.'

Peter Adamson's picture


Good aphorisms, folks! I have seen "Ghost in the Shell" once upon a time, I think, but it was a long time ago so if I ever cite it in the podcast it will be by mistake. (Actually I often worry I will mistakenly use someone else's wording without realizing it, especially writing at the speed I need to for this series... so if anyone ever notices that please let me know.)

JKE's picture

Matter and energy

Actually, matter≠energy. The upshot of general relativity is that *mass* and energy are equivalent (which isn′t even to say that they′re identical). It′s amazing how often people make this mistake!

TD's picture


Doesn't this mean everything is energy and its finite?

TD's picture


Malcolm, when you said "But nothing, fundamentally, is changing; it's still the same, unchanging, conserved matter-energy" it sounds like Parmenides.

Renee Vaughn's picture

Heraclitus and the alligators

I wanted to thank you for your excellent summary on Heraclitus. I just entered a short story contest using his philosophy from an alligator's persepctive. If I win I'll have to burn some incense to his bust. or yours!

I really love this podcast. I can send you the story if you are interested.

Td's picture

Sound great. Where is it

Sound great. Where is it posted. I did something similar but from a Parmenides perspective.

Peter Adamson's picture

Heraclitus and alligators

Oops! Sorry folks, I just mistakenly deleted the link to the alligator story. Here it is again:


TD's picture

The link worked

A great way of presenting philosophic ideas! You should have a contest - the listeners pick their favorite PreSocratic and then write a short story based the philosophers propositions. You could even turn it into a University course, where one day the philosophy prof lectures on the teachings of a philosopher, the next day the creative writing prof lectures on writing technique. I'd take that course.

Peter Adamson's picture

Philosophy fiction

Yes, that's a good idea! Actually there is a book called "Thinks..." by David Lodge where pretty much exactly that happens: one of the characters is a creative writing prof and assigns the students to write pieces based on famous philosophy thought experiments (like Mary the color scientist).

Renee Vaughn's picture

It'd be an interesting

It'd be an interesting challenge and a lot of fun to do and teach. I hope I interpreted Heraclitus correctly!

I got the idea from reading George Eliot who was very big into philosophy, science, politics etc. Though I don't think she was all that good at alligator behavior.

Philosophy and good literature go hand in hand.

Have you any good literature professors who might guest lecture on this topic?

I can't wait for your next series even though I'm slow-walking through this course. I also sent it to a Philosophy professor friend for her students.

Keep spreading the wisdom!

TD's picture

Maybe the easiest way to beta

Maybe the easiest way to beta test that idea is through online course sites like Coursera - there, there are creative writing lecturers teaching writing techniques and professors teaching philosophy - all they need to do is put the two groups of teachers together and generate the course.

These podcasts must be the best source on the Internet for such a vast undertaking. I'm slowing working through them too and trying to read the works as it flows along so I'll be through it all in about twenty years. All the while flowing from one mind state to another and at the same time not moving and always the same , Becoming in our world of sense but always Being in the finitude of infinity.