Not just according to my old tutor, Eva Brann, but according to the thing itself, the most interesting word in Western philosophy is logos. I’ve just read Brann’s book The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West on its Most Interesting Term. The Ancient Greek “pre Socratic” philosopher Heraclitus may be best known for saying that you can’t set foot in the same river twice. Among other things, Brann makes the case that to remember him for this doctrine that “everything flows” is to misunderstand him.
I feel I should make the probably unhelpful confession that I am not quite on board with metaphysics. That is, I feel a restlessness come over me when I am faced with a statement like “all is one”, or an argument in favor of accepting paradox. Great, you might say, why should I hear your thoughts on this book when you admit you’re prejudiced against it? Well, this isn’t a deliberate position of mine, but a vague state of mind that troubled me as I read. I think it’s to Brann’s credit that no sooner had I begun to fret over this than I was drawn in by some striking arguments.
What if, for example, the usual translation of hen panta, all is one, misses the mark somewhat? Brann’s contention, well within the realm of grammatical possibility, is that Heraclitus intended something more like “one: everything”, the colon being the same notation used to denote mathematical ratios, or in Greek, logoi. I find it much more plausible that Heraclitus is drawing our attention to the relationship, whatever it may be, between one and many, than that he is simply identifying them. Brann draws our attention to two examples of relations, ratios, or logoi: that which obtains between numbers, and that which makes a poetic metaphor. They seem to be of two different sorts, but where is the boundary? Is it always easy to say where that boundary lies in science, or rhetoric, or law? Is one sort more fundamental to our thinking?
There’s a lot to the book I haven’t said much about. Does Heraclitus somehow think the world is made of fire? Why is War king of all? I could easily stand to read it again, and follow up with the rest of the pre Socratics, Plato, Euclid, maybe even Aristotle. It’s worth thinking about.
One last thought: Is logos really an English word? Should it be? And how?