Heraclitus and Thales' Conceptual Scheme

A Historical Study

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Aryeh Finkelberg
Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture


Aryeh Finkelberg’s reason for focusing on Heraclitus is disarmingly simple, but it has important implications for the study of ancient texts. The reason, Finkelberg says, is “the state of the evidence.” Given that Heraclitus’s book was “widely read throughout antiquity,” there is a good deal of authentic material written by Heraclitus as well as extensive secondary evidence drawn from a variety of perspectives. This combination of primary and secondary sources makes a “fairly comprehensive” reconstruction of Heraclitus’s thought possible, and that reconstruction becomes a vantage point from which to assess the evidence relevant to other thinkers of the period.

Finkelberg says this research approach runs counter to the prevalent assumption that we have enough of Heraclitus’s own words “to recover the essentials of his teaching.” It is “preposterous,” he writes, “to demand that the knowledge of Heraclitus (or for that matter any other author) be based on a limited and random collection of authentic statements to the exclusion of other available evidence” (1). Finkelberg maintains that it is equally preposterous to assume that ancient readers, fluent in the language and familiar with the cultural context, did not understand their own texts. An interpretation of any thinker, he insists, should take the whole body of available evidence into account. That is precisely what he sets out to do in Heraclitus and Thales’ Conceptual Scheme.

That Finkelberg makes an effort to attend to the whole body of available evidence is reflected in the extensive bibliography and notes that document his reading of a remarkable range of sources. This documentation alone would make the book an important contribution; but the way in which he puts the documentation to work sheds new light on Heraclitus and Thales as well. Finkelberg accomplishes this, in part, by stepping out of Aristotle’s shadow to read Heraclitus. Aristotle, Finkelberg notes, was a philosopher using the work of his predecessors to make a philosophical argument, and that involved a selective reading that skewed subsequent readings of those predecessors. Aristotle’s reading of his predecessors as “students of nature” was critical to his own philosophy of nature, but it was anachronistic. To read these earlier thinkers as “philosophers,” Finkelberg says, is to read history backwards. This calls Søren Kierkegaard’s living forward, understanding backward to mind but here Finkelberg makes an important point. Heraclitus, and other early Greek thinkers, did not set out to found philosophy and science, or pave the way for Aristotle—who has long been criticized “for reading his philosophical concerns into the early thinkers” (12). Finkelberg then says, “modern scholars adopt his teleological perspectivism.” Abandoning that “perspectivism” frees Finkelberg to concentrate on the matrix within which early Greek thinking developed. This matrix is driven by the assumption, for which Finkelberg makes a persuasive case, that Heraclitus was a coherent thinker, not a maker of fragments. Considering that the matrix was shared by his contemporaries and near contemporaries, articulating it clearly sheds light not only on Heraclitus, but also on other early Greek thinkers, understood not as predecessors of Plato, Aristotle, and modern science, but as important thinkers in their own right.

Based on page count, one might assume that this is a book about Heraclitus. It is that, but it is more. As Finkelberg suggests, that he begins with Heraclitus and dwells on him at length is due to the state of the evidence. But, because this creates a place from which to view other thinkers of the period, it is also integral to Finkelberg’s case for a “Thaletan conceptual scheme” that runs from the Milesians through Heraclitus.

Finkelberg opens with evidence that Heraclitus’s book was widely read, and was available to Aristotle, who read it as the work of a physikos and was disappointed by its obscurity. This established a pattern followed by many subsequent readers; but Finkelberg maintains that those readers who read the work on its own terms did not find it obscure and were not disappointed. What they found was a shift from a theology of distance to a theology of kinship between humans and gods that takes the form of a cosmic cycle, “the story of a fiery God who creates out of himself a living thing, whose soul he becomes, and then, by undoing the creation, becomes himself again.” This God “handles created things like pieces on a draughts-board” (108), not a game of chance, but a rule-governed contest involving calculation and forethought, a game of war between soul and body. To fight the body is to conquer desire, releasing the soul from the body in this life. Finkelberg finds traces of this moral doctrine in Plato, who, like Heraclitus, articulates an ascetic morality. “Presocratic philosophy” is an invention of Aristotle, who used it as a stepping-stone to his own philosophy of nature. It is better understood as a “cosmo-eschatological and pantheistic doctrine” that began with Thales, and developed through the Milesians to Heraclitus and his contemporaries.

Together, the beginning and ending of the book comprise a methodological discourse in which the case for a Thaletan conceptual scheme—which includes the long discussion of Heraclitus—is embedded. This discourse on method joins a long argument on the relationship between history and philosophy. Finkelberg takes the position that history of philosophy is not philosophy, and insists on the importance of reading Heraclitus on his own terms—which, by extension, means reading through Heraclitus and his contemporaries to the Thaletan conceptual scheme. Aristotle’s long shadow reappears in this philosophy of history, and one is reminded of Richard McKeon’s “Truth and the History of Ideas,” a sympathetic reading of Aristotle in which he maintained that philosophy determines history “since the philosophic assumptions of the historian enter into his choice of facts and his use of contexts.”

Finkelberg’s use of contexts is masterful, and this lends credence to McKeon’s argument that history also transforms philosophy, not because it is “unconstrained by the present-day perspective,” but because it sheds new light on past thought in a philosophical argument that brings thinkers like Heraclitus and Thales to the table where the argument goes on, lively as ever.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schroeder is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aryeh Finkelberg is senior lecturer in ancient philosophy at Tel Aviv University (retired); he is the author of many articles on the Presocratics published in leading professional journals.

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