Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ethics Lecture March 12: Perspective, Heraclitus, Zhuang Zi and Hegel

BCC Ethics
Eric Gerlach


Perspective is not simply individual, but social. We share reality in so far as we share perspective. This means that we should not only try to see as many perspectives or as much perspective as we can, but also resisting the tendency to accept one’s own perspective as reality or the whole truth. Truth is in each and every perspective, but it is also always beyond and outside of each and every perspective. Focusing on the concept of perspective forces us to affirm our views as truths but also deny our views as the Truth (with a capital T).

Two of the greatest ancient thinkers on perspective are Heraclitus from ancient Greece and Zhuang Zi from ancient China. To consider perspective as an ethical concept we will be looking at the strikingly similar things that these two ancient thinkers say and then end with some insights of the German philosopher Hegel and discoveries of modern psychology.


Heraclitus’ most famous idea is a memorable image: you can never step in the same river twice. Just as a river is always flowing and changing, so is reality always flowing and changing, such that nothing stays exactly the same for any two moments. You step in a river, then step out, then step back in the same river, but it is no longer ‘the same river’. Heraclitus says this is also true of himself.

According to one source, Heraclitus was a king who abandoned the title to become a philosopher. This has been identified as a close resemblance to the story of the Buddha in India, and some scholars have argued that Heraclitus was in fact the Buddha from India while others have argued that the Buddha was in fact Heraclitus from Greece. Both thinkers were mythologized as a king who left powerful king position and became a sage, and both believe in the enlightening sun rising above the watery chaos of reality and human perception, but it is quite likely the two were not the same individual.

Heraclitus is a very skeptical thinker. This does not mean he saw all things as negative. He was convinced that wisdom and inquiring within show us that all is one big cosmic fire, and things that unify the community and the individual bring wholeness and true happiness. However, he believed that humans are often foolish and let their minds divide themselves from the whole and from each other such that their understandings are disjointed and ignorant.

This is very typical thinking of skeptics the world over. A positivist would say that there are specific truths that are certain and must be separated from the uncertain, specific goods that must be separated from the evil. A skeptic would say, like Heraclitus and the Daoists from China, that the truth and the good is the whole and the great One, and the tendency of the mind to divide the good and the true from the rest is the opposite of true understanding and wisdom.

Heraclitus was not a fan of experts and specialists, and he ridiculed the cultural leaders of his time. He says that the common people are completely asleep, but far more dangerous are the experts who have a small piece of the puzzle and say that they know the entire truth. He calls the poets (Hesiod and Homer) and the Pythagoreans frauds, and says that there are no permanent truths or laws other than the constant formation of watery chaos by the sun and cosmic fire.

Notice that this does not question the set up of the cosmos as we have studied it everywhere (and what the Persians gave to the Eastern Greek city states). Many often ask, “Why, then, should I listen to Heraclitus, since he is simply an expert?”. Heraclitus replies as most skeptics do: don’t take my word for it, but look into the world and within yourself and you will find that it is true.
This is a psychological skepticism that is criticizing the human ability to know particular things as permanent that are able to be separated from the One and All (the cosmic fire). Only the All is permanent. All the other things are wandering temporal forms. The many beings arise from the energy of Being, and then they fall back into the fire and disappear. The cosmos resembles the chaos yet order of the human community centered on authority by spoken word. The LOGOS, the word/plan/order/command, is the formative force in the cosmos, the force of fire and light in the watery chaotic world. The cosmic fire speaks with its ever-present Logos (fire over air) and this brings about the firmament in the chaos (the earth rising out of the water). This process, however, does not bring about eternal or stable beings, but chains of beings that are in flux and interdependent.

This goes also for laws, which Heraclitus says have to be defended as if they were city walls. This is sometimes read that Heraclitus thought human law was important and had to be defended, which he did, but in fact he is also telling us that human laws are impermanent like walls made out of earth. They may seem eternal and permanent, but as any former citizen or city of the Persian empire knows, empires fall and impressive city states are overthrown and change hands. The eternal word of the fire forever forms the cosmos, but human speech and walls are temporary, and therefore take force and effort to maintain. As a skeptic, Heraclitus believes that the divisions made by the mind are mortal, not eternal, like the human body. Our knowledge and laws are impermanent like mounds of dirt.

Heraclitus was one of the most famous thinkers of the Greek and Roman world. He was a big influence on Plato, though Plato is very much opposed to his thinking as we will see next week. Both Heraclitus and Plato were big influences on Christianity which initially flourished not in Israel but in Greece and Syria. If a primal speaking of the Word or Logos sounds familiar, Heraclitus was a central influence on the Greek and Roman stoics, and the author of the Gospel of John was almost certainly a Greek stoic writing in Roman times. The opening of the Gospel of John famously reads: the Logos/Word/Order was with God (Fire/Cosmos), and God spoke (“let there be light”) and light was separated from darkness.

It was only in the late 1700s and 1800s that German scholars rediscovered the presocratics and gave them attention and study. Before this time, Greek Philosophy was considered to have originated with Socrates (hence, “presocratics”) and most scholars were only versed in the surviving writings of Plato and Aristotle. Schleiermacher, one of the most famous and central protestant theologians and an opponent of Hegel, was a major force in bringing popularity to Heraclitus and a major translator of Plato. The philosopher Hegel, who we will study later, saw Heraclitus as a skeptic who is put in balance with Plato and other positivists by the course of history itself. Nietzsche, the great skeptical philosopher who we will also study, wrote that he felt closer to Heraclitus than any other thinker. Nietzsche believed, like Heraclitus, that we are proud of our learning and achievement but we are in fact little better than apes.

We are going to go through the fragments according to themes, that show how Heraclitus sees the individual within the cosmos.

(1): The word from which all things follow (Fire-air(spirits)-earth(firm) in water.
Criticism of the experts and knowledge holders, who try for separate essences.
(92, 97, 98, 119, 121, 125)
Criticism of the commoners, asleep and isolated in otherness, (94)
(2): Listen to the great word and all is one, beyond experts and common
(5, 6) Many say they know (certain) but can’t speak and listen (give and take)
(7) Seek the unknown- Knowledge is a blockage (18,19- wisdom beyond- wisdom lit)
(10) Things keep their secrets- unknown in all things
Fire as all things (20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28)
(25) Air-Fire, Water-Earth (with fragment of souls smell- smoke by both)
Contending tensions/powers set all things (24, 25, 29, 31)
Hot cold and wet dry (39, 40)
Dry soul good, Wet soul pleasured, bad (72)
War is father of all, thus harmonies (46, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61)
(41) River twice, (81) I am and am not like the river (unknown)
(52, 53) Everything has qualities by perspective (relativity)
(71) No depth to soul- explored forever, (80) inquire within
(130) Silence- Healing (Note the parallels with Buddhism out of Jainism)


Zhuang Zi, the second patriarch of Daoism, lived from 370 to 301 BCE and worked as a manager in a lacquer warehouse, a large ‘factory’ for making vases, bowls and general wood products (like bento boxes). Other than this, we know little of his life other than his work. Daoist tradition holds that Zhuang Zi wrote the ‘inner chapters’ of his work, and that the anecdotes about him and other stories were added by his disciples, the early proto-Daoists.

In several places, we see the idea of perspective which we encountered in Heraclitus. Mao Quiang and Lady Li were famous beautiful women, but fish, birds and deer were frightened by them. Heraclitus said that all human beauty and achievement is nothing but apes to the gods as apes are only apes to us. Who knows what is beautiful, humans, birds, fish, or deer? Which of them knows what tastes good?

Another great passage is the Peng bird who migrates for the Winter, an act which the dove and the cicada (a large insect) find ridiculous. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act. This suggests that the wisdom of Daoism will sound ridiculous and foolish to those who are not experienced and wise. We read in the text "Truth sounds like its opposite!", just as Heraclitus said "The way forward is the way back".

In the Chapter, The Secret of Caring for Life, we meet Cook Ting and his famous butcher’s knife. Cook Ting tells his master that his blade never goes dull, for he can always find the hidden spaces in things, and then his blade goes right through. This is very much like the reasoning of the wise mind, that can use reason to chop anything up easily and naturally, without striking up against anything in opposition.

Notice that Confucius appears many times in the Zhuang Zi, used to argue AGAINST his own position and in favor of a Daoist position. Many times Confucius says that his own way is inferior to the Daoist way. Clearly, these are texts written by Daoists who appreciate the good in Confucianism but think their own school to be superior. For example, page 65, in the chapter ‘The Sign of Virtue Complete’, Confucius says of Wang T’ai, “If you look at them from the point of view of their differences, then there is liver and gall, Ch’u and Yueh (two warring kingdoms in China). But if you look at them from the point of view of their sameness, then the ten thousand things are all one.” I still use this contradiction of one and many to this day. It shows you much about how people make judgments and arguments.


Hegel, a German philosopher who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s, believed that the history of the world and the process of thought in history and the individual was an evolution of perspective that works from opposite sides to bring itself to greater completion. One of the most famous parts of his Phenomenology of Spirit, a history of the evolution of thought, is the Master/Slave dialectic. This concept became very important for anti-sexism (like the feminist De Beauvoir), anti-racism (like Franz Fanon and Angela Davis) and anti-class thinkers (like Hegel’s student Karl Marx). These will be the last three topics for this class, the “Big Three” in universities since the sixties.

Hegel argues that as the self or identity (like a nation) comes into the world, it cannot understand how there can be others like itself that are not itself and so it tries to fight and kill its others. Then the self figures out that it does not have to kill its others and that it is more productive to enslave them (consider that the most selfish individual would tell everyone else “You are wrong” but the slightly smarter but still selfish individual would tell everyone else “That is just what I have been saying”, neither capable of tolerating opinions other than their own).

At first, the master is in the superior position. However, over time, the slave comes to do everything for the master and thus learns through experience while the master grows lazy and ignorant. The slave comes to realize that he can do things he never thought of for someone or something else, comes to grasp subjectivity and perspective, and thus overturns the master and becomes the greater and more highly developed master.


Modern Psychology has learned much from experiments in recent years about how individuals tend to interpret reality. This teaches us many things about perspective that extend and develop what Heraclitus, Zhuang Zi and Hegel had to say.

Internal vs. External Attribution:
Many experiments have confirmed what is often called the actor/observer bias or internal vs. external attribution. If an individual succeeds at a task, they often attribute the success to themselves or the group to which they belong (internal attribution – “I/We are really good at that”). If an individual fails at a task, they often attribute the failure to the situation (external attribution – “It was because of that thing”). However, if the same individual watches another (especially someone disliked or ‘other’ to the individual) succeed at a task, they often attribute the success to the situation (external attribution – “They just got lucky”, or “It was easier that time”), and when they watch another fail at a task, they often attribute the failure to the other person or the group to which they belong (internal attribution – “That shows they are stupid”).

Notice the complete reversal and the contradiction of opposite perspectives given the same evidence. The attribution and perspective is one way or the complete opposite depending on who does the task and whether or not they succeed.

The Hostile Media Effect:
Other experiments have confirmed that both sides of an issue view media coverage and moderation (judges, referees) as hostile to their side. For example, liberals are angry that the media is conservative, and conservatives are angry that the media is liberal. One study at Stanford showed American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to pro-Israeli students and pro-Palestinian students, and both sides said the coverage was clearly biased in favor of the other side. Another study had students from Princeton and Dartmouth (a big East Coast rivalry) view a Princeton vs. Dartmouth football game, and each group saw more illegal moves on the other side and each said that the referees missed more of these for the other side.

If we consider perspective, anyone in the middle of an issue is to the opposite side of anyone on the edges. I have a card I like that shows children on a see-saw with one standing on the middle, and it reads “I know I am being fair when both sides accuse me of unfairness”. Unfortunately, this is often true in the world of competing and opposite perspectives.