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30 November: Rich Neels

“Opposites and Explanation in Heraclitus”

Abstract: In this paper I offer a new interpretation of Heraclitus’ use of opposites. I argue that Heraclitus’ use of opposites was a reaction against the way opposites were being used by his Ionian predecessors, Anaximander and Anaximenes. Opposites, for the earlier Ionians, seem to have been explanatory principles. For them, the physical world, which includes stuffs, things and events, was explained by a limited set of oppositional pairs (e.g. hot and cold, condensation and rarefaction). Heraclitus’ use of opposites, I submit, is best understood in relation to these earlier schemes of philosophical explanation. I argue that Heraclitus was the first to treat opposites, not as explanatory principles, but as problemata in need of explanation. Hence opposites are primarily explananda for Heraclitus, not explanantia. In addition to this, his Ionian predecessors seem to have held the explanatory principle of Strict Partial Order (whereby explanatory relations are irreflexive, transitive and asymmetric) following from a principle of Well-Foundedness (whereby for all x, x is either grounded by some fundamental entity or entities, or is itself a fundamental entity). Heraclitus seems to have held some explanatory principles which contrast these earlier Ionian principles. These are the complementary principles of Non-Well-Foundedness (whereby for all x, x is neither explained by some fundamental entity or entities, nor is itself a fundamental entity) and Reciprocal Explanation (whereby x partially explains y and y partially explains x). In other words, Heraclitus denies explanatory fundamentality, but promotes the idea of a cosmos whose various parts explain its other parts.