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A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science

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Volume 51, Issue 4


Elements and Opposites in Heraclitus

Richard Neels
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  • McMaster University Philosophy, 1280 Main Street West University Hall 310, Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4L8, Canada
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Published Online: 2018-06-05 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2017-0029


In this paper, I discuss the various characteristics of Heraclitus’ theory of elemental transformation that can reasonably be gleaned from the extant fragments. While there has been some recent work on Heraclitus’ theory of elemental transformation, there has been a lack of discussion concerning the properties of the particular elements and their relation to the cardinal opposites. In this paper I argue that fragment B126 (“Cold things warm up, warm things cool off; wet things dry up and dry things moisten”) is an explanandum for Heraclitus. It is meant to invoke certain questions in his readers’ minds: How is it that cold things come to hold an opposing property (i. e. “hot”)? What type of change occurs such that a wet thing can become dry? How is it that things hold these properties in the first place? I argue that Heraclitus’ theory of elemental transformation (B31, B36 and B76) is the explanans for B126 and is capable of answering these questions. That is, the observable change evident in B126 is explained by a set of transformations between elemental stuffs. Because of this connection between B126 and his theory of elements, Heraclitus’ theory of elemental transformation is rightly understood as a ‘unity of opposites’ thesis. However, I argue that the transformation of opposites can only be one opposites thesis among several opposites theses.

Keywords: Heraclitus; elements; transformation; opposites


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About the article

Published Online: 2018-06-05

Published in Print: 2018-10-25

Citation Information: Apeiron, Volume 51, Issue 4, Pages 427–452, ISSN (Online) 2156-7093, ISSN (Print) 0003-6390, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2017-0029.

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