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2.4 Heraclitus and becoming

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus approximately in the years 550 – 480 BC. He observed that everything flows: rivers flow, time flows, all the things that exist change and age; he explained, as an example, that it is not possible to bathe twice in the same river, since the second time the water, due to the current that makes it flow, is no longer the one in which one has bathed before. It would be easy to object to this philosopher that a river is always the same, always keeping the same geographical name, regardless of the flow of its waters; or we could tell him that his observation is too obvious, like the discovery of Columbus’ egg or reinventing the wheel. But if we try to generalize his philosophy, that is, to rethink all the things we have thought of so far, reconsidering them under the light of this continuous flow and change, we will realize that he actually has much to teach. It is a philosophy that can cause us a sense of insecurity, uncertainty, things that do not last, disorder; but it is also a very interesting philosophy, because one can see that, at the same time, it expresses an invitation to dynamism, movement, life, in opposition to a stagnant existence; moreover, it has certainly a value for its effort to say something that reflects, as faithfully as possible, the facts of the world as they actually are in reality.
A radical consequence of Heraclitus’ way of thinking would be having to eliminate all names from the language to replace them with verbs: in fact, a chair is not continuously a chair, but it goes, even if very slowly, towards being a non-chair, that is worm-eaten wood, consumed, then dust and then who knows what else; for this reason we should say not that “it is a chair”, but that “it becomes, it is transforming how a chair is transformed”; however, besides the fact that it would be impossible in practice to convert totally the language according to this criterion, we must also bear in mind that, in our human experience, there is the perception of a certain permanence of the identity of any object along time; only a very fine analysis allows us to notice that in reality every object changes without stopping; we can better understand this situation by thinking about what happens with the hands of the clock, or with the stars, the moon or the sun: at an immediate glance they seem stable, steady, but to a just a little more accurate observation it is easy to prove that they are on the move. The fact that the hands of a watch are in constant motion does not prevent us from having time to say what time it is; but what happens jokingly, if we try to say what time it is now, also indicating the seconds, can help us to understand in what situation we are: any of us may have tried sometimes to joke by saying or hearing that “it is ten o’clock and twelve minutes and fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen … seconds”. That is, if we want to indicate the seconds, we don’t have the time to do it because, at the same time as we say it, the flowing of time belies too soon what we have just said, so as to force us to update it immediately, without being ever possible coming to a definitive conclusion as to what time it is, with accuracy of seconds. This situation actually applies to all our statements; in most cases we have the possibility to speak because we limit ourselves to an approximate meaning of what we say, as well as when we say what time it is limiting ourselves to hour and minutes and ignoring the analytical and dispersive precision of seconds. Since our most immediate human experience is made up of unitive associations, rather than disintegrating analyses, our language, which in first place serves us to live humanly, rather than to analyze nature scientifically, reflects our need for life; so it peacefully contains many names, rather than just verbs indicative of movement, because this is how our most immediate human experience of reality is made. But we will have to be careful not to forget this approximation contained in the language, when we will want, by using the same language, to express a more in-depth idea of what the world is: we will have not to forget that we will be using words, expressions, ideas, that actually were born to express reality in an approximate and not scientifically precise way.

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