Can you step in the same river twice? Wittgenstein vs. Heraclitus

Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river...

Wittgenstein versus Heraclitus on can you step into the same river twice.
Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash
'I am not a religious man,' the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said to a friend, 'but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.'

These problems that he claims to see from a religious point of view tend to be technical matters of logic and language. Wittgenstein trained as an engineer before he turned to philosophy, and he draws on mundane metaphors of gears, levers and machinery. Where you find the word 'transcendent' in Wittgenstein's writings, you'll likely find 'misunderstanding' or 'nonsense' nearby.

When he does respond to philosophers who set their sights on higher mysteries, Wittgenstein can be stubbornly dismissive. Consider: 'The man who said one cannot step into the same river twice was wrong; one can step into the same river twice.' With such blunt statements, Wittgenstein seems less a religious thinker and more a stodgy literalist. But a close examination of this remark can show us not only what Wittgenstein means by a 'religious point of view' but also reveal Wittgenstein as a religious thinker of striking originality.

'The man' who made the remark about rivers is Heraclitus, a philosopher at once pre-Socratic and postmodern, misquoted on New Age websites and quoted out of context by everyone, since all we have of his corpus are isolated fragments. What is it that Heraclitus thinks we can't do? Obviously I can do a little in-and-out-and-back-in-again shuffle with my foot at a riverbank. But is it the same river from moment to moment – the water flowing over my foot spills toward the ocean while new waters join the river at its source – and am I the same person?

One reading of Heraclitus has him conveying a mystical message. We use this one word, river, to talk about something that's in constant flux, and that might dispose us to think that things are more fixed than they are – indeed, to think that there are stable things at all. Our noun-bound language can't capture the ceaseless flow of existence. Heraclitus is saying that language is an inadequate tool for the purpose of limning reality.

What Wittgenstein finds intriguing about so many of our philosophical pronouncements is that while they seem profoundly important, it's unclear what difference they make to anything. Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river (or the constantly changing flux of river-like moments, if you prefer) with his friend Parmenides, who says that change is impossible. They might have a heated argument about whether the so-called river is many or one, but afterwards they can both go for a swim, get a cool drink to refresh themselves, or slip into some waders for a bit of fly fishing. None of these activities is in the least bit altered by the metaphysical commitments of the disputants.

Wittgenstein thinks that we can get clearer about such disputes by likening the things that people say to moves in a game. Just as every move in a game of chess alters the state of play, so does every conversational move alter the state of play in what he calls the language-game. The point of talking, like the point of moving a chess piece, is to do something. But a move only counts as that move in that game provided a certain amount of stage-setting. To make sense of a chess game, you need to be able to distinguish knights from bishops, know how the different pieces move, and so on. Placing pieces on the board at the start of the game isn't a sequence of moves. It's something we do to make the game possible in the first place.

One way we get confused by language, Wittgenstein thinks, is that the rule-stating and place-setting activities happen in the same medium as the actual moves of the language-game – that is, in words. 'The river is overflowing its banks' and 'The word river is a noun' are both grammatically sound English sentences, but only the former is a move in a language-game. The latter states a rule for using language: it's like saying 'The bishop moves diagonally', and it's no more a move in a language-game than a demonstration of how the bishop moves is a move in chess.

What Heraclitus and Parmenides disagree about, Wittgenstein wants us to see, isn't a fact about the river but the rules for talking about the river. Heraclitus is recommending a new language-game: one in which the rule for using the word river prohibits us from saying that we stepped into the same one twice, just as the rules of our own language-game prohibit us from saying that the same moment occurred at two different times. There's nothing wrong with proposing alternative rules, provided you're clear that that's what you're doing. If you say: 'The king moves just like the queen,' you're either saying something false about our game of chess or you're proposing an alternative version of the game – which might or might not turn out to be any good. The trouble with Heraclitus is that he imagines he's talking about rivers and not rules – and, in that case, he's simply wrong. The mistake we so often make in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, is that we think we're doing one thing when in fact we're doing another.

But if we dismiss the remark about rivers as a naive blunder, we learn nothing from it. 'In a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth,' Wittgenstein cautions. Heraclitus and Parmenides might not do anything different as a result of their metaphysical differences, but those differences bespeak profoundly different attitudes toward everything they do. That attitude might be deep or shallow, bold or timorous, grateful or crabbed, but it isn't true or false. Similarly, the rules of a game aren't right or wrong – they're the measure by which we determine whether moves within the game are right or wrong – but which games you think are worth playing, and how you relate to the rules as you play them, says a lot about you.

What, then, inclines us – and Heraclitus – to regard this expression of an attitude as a metaphysical fact? Recall that Heraclitus wants to reform our language-games because he thinks they misrepresent the way things really are. But consider what you'd need to do in order to assess whether our language-games are more or less adequate to some ultimate reality. You'd need to compare two things: our language-game and the reality that it's meant to represent. In other words, you'd need to compare reality as we represent it to ourselves with reality free of all representation. But that makes no sense: how can you represent to yourself how things look free of all representation?

The fact that we might even be tempted to suppose we can do that bespeaks a deeply human longing to step outside our own skins. We can feel trapped by our bodily, time-bound existence. There's a kind of religious impulse that seeks liberation from these limits: it seeks to transcend our finite selves and make contact with the infinite. Wittgenstein's religious impulse pushes us in the opposite direction: he doesn't try to satisfy our aspiration for transcendence but to wean us from that aspiration altogether. The liberation he offers isn't liberation from our bounded selves but for our bounded selves.

Wittgenstein's remark about Heraclitus comes from a typescript from the early 1930s, when Wittgenstein was just beginning to work out the mature philosophy that would be published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1953). Part of what makes that late work special is the way in which the Wittgenstein who sees every problem from a religious point of view merges with the practical-minded engineer. Metaphysical speculations, for Wittgenstein, are like gears that have slipped free from the mechanism of language and are spinning wildly out of control. Wittgenstein the engineer wants to get the mechanism running smoothly. And this is precisely where the spiritual insight resides: our aim, properly understood, isn't transcendence but a fully invested immanence. In this respect, he offers a peculiarly technical approach to an aspiration that finds expression in mystics from Meister Eckhart to the Zen patriarchs: not to ascend to a state of perfection but to recognise that where you are, already, in this moment, is all the perfection you need.Aeon counter – do not remove

David Egan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

How tiny bioelectronic implants may someday replace pharmaceutical drugs

Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.

Left: The vagus nerve, the body's longest cranial nerve. Right: Vagus nerve stimulation implant by SetPoint Medical.

Credit: Adobe Stock / SetPoint Medical
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
  • Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
Keep reading Show less

Half of evangelicals believe Trump is anointed by God

A recent survey also found that political messaging from the pulpit increased the likelihood of believing presidents to be ordained by God.

President Trump and faith leaders say a prayer during a signing of a national day of prayer for people affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Culture & Religion
  • Evangelical support of President Trump has baffled many who find his conduct at odds with core Christian values.
  • A recent survey found that 49 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe Trump was chosen by God.
  • Additional data found evangelicals are mixed on his moral character but view him as critical to political victories.

For non-Trumpists, one of the most baffling qualities of his presidency is the overwhelming support received from evangelical Christians. A record 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, more than George W. Bush, and that support has grown into a fervor over the years.

As Reza Aslan, author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," told Big Think in an interview: "This makes no sense to people, especially when you consider that Trump is not just the most irreligious president in modern history. His entire worldview makes a mockery of core Christian values like humility and empathy and care for the poor."

While Jesus taught humility (Philippians 2:7), Trump is braggadocios. While Jesus taught us not to covet earthly possessions (Matthew 6:19), Trump built his reputation on worldly riches. While Jesus taught his followers to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44), Trump tweets vitriol at his opposition.

So how can so many Christians support two men with diametrically opposed worldviews? The answer is multifaceted, but a recent survey may have found a crucial element in understanding this ostensible discrepancy. According to the results, a healthy number of evangelicals believe Trump to be anointed by God.

A divine mandate

Two graphs showing how church attendance increases the likelihood that someone will believe all presidents (blue) or Trump (orange) were anointed by God. The graph on the left shows the survey's 2019 results, the right its 2020 results.

(Photo: Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge)

Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge, associate professors of political science at Denison University and Eastern Illinois University, respectively, noticed a spate of pastors, pundits, and politicians exclaiming Trump to be God's chosen one. To pick one example, televangelist Pat Robertson has claimed that Trump received a mandate from God.

"I think, somehow, the Lord's plan is being put in place for America and these people are not only revolting against Trump, they're revolting against what God's plan is for America," Robertson said during a February 2017 broadcast of "The 700 Club."

The two sociologists wanted to see if such beliefs were widespread among America's Christians or just the hyperbolic musings of ratings-hungry talking heads. In May 2019, they surveyed just over 1,000 church-attending Protestants and asked them two questions: First, did they believe all presidents were anointed by God; Second, did they believe President Donald Trump was specifically anointed by God?

In their sample, about a third of white evangelicals agreed that Trump was ordained by God to win the 2016 election. Djupe and Burge also found that as church attendance increased, so did the percentage of those who agreed with both questions.

For example, among white Protestants who attended church less than once a month, only 9.4 percent agreed that Trump was anointed by God. But among white Protestants who attended church more than once a week, that number leaped to 29.6 percent. When Djupe and Burge looked specifically at Pentecostals, they found 53 percent connected Trump's presidency with divine design.

Djupe and Burge ran their survey again in March 2020, asking the same questions to a quota-sampled cohort that matched the previous study in gender, region, and age. As with the previous study, they released their research as a teaching resource on their blog, Religion in Public.

They found belief in Trump's anointment had risen across their sample, again increasing in proportion with church attendance. Among white Protestants who attend church once or more a week, belief in Trump's anointment rose to 49.5 percent. Their sample also showed a rising belief that all presidents were anointed.

Other surveys have shown similar results. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey asked Americans, not just church-attenders, about God's role in recent presidential elections. They found that 32 percent of the more than 6,000 respondents, a sizable minority, believed Trump's election must be part of God's overall plan—though only 5 percent of those respondents believed God chose Trump because of his policies.

The survey found similar opinions regarding Obama's election, suggesting a not insubstantial belief that God involves himself with American elections but remains fiercely nonpartisan.

The political pulpit

A graph showing how political speech from clergy correlates with increased belief that Trump was anointed by God. The correlation proved strongest among Republicans.

(Photo: Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge)

Evangelicals believing God chose Trump may go some way in explaining their support of him, but it doesn't relieve the perceived cognitive dissonance between Trump's values and those of core Christianity.

In his interview, Reza Aslan argued Trumpism had become a cult for fundamentalists. For these fundamentalists, Trump became a warrior under the auspice of God to fight on behalf of evangelical beliefs. A "salvific character" to worship, as Aslan put it.

Bruge and Djupe don't go so far as to call Trumpism a cult; However, their data back the idea that Trump's rise can be linked to defensive circling against perceived threats and repeated messaging.

"We were quite surprised by the result that 49 percent of those frequently attending worship services believed that Trump was anointed by God to be president," Bruge and Djupe told Fox News in an interview. "At least until we examined the evidence that suggested religious and secular elites continue to claim that Trump has a religiously significant role to play."

The sociologists also asked their 2020 respondents whether they heard clergy mention political topics at the pulpit. They found a strong correlation between church attendance with political messaging and a belief in Trump's anointment among Republicans (see the above graph). That correlation was not as strong among Democrats or Independents.

Belief in Trump's anointment similarly climbed if respondents heard messaging that Democrats threatened rights and liberties. When hearing such arguments, even Democrat Christians were more likely to agree in Trump's anointment.

"We are not the first to note that right-wing media are having a profound effect on public opinion, serving to insulate Trump supporters," Burge and Djupe write. "We are some of the first to document how this is built and sustained from the bottom up. That is, political churches, among Republicans especially, reinforce the argumentation that is also coming from above."

They conclude, "But it is important to see that this is not just an evangelical Republican problem. The religious significance of the presidency is swelling across the board for the religious, indicating further polarization along religious and partisan lines is continuing."

The King David defense

As for Trump's moral conduct, evangelicals don't maintain the cognitive dissonance that Reza Aslan and other non-Trumpists perceive would be necessary. The same 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that white evangelicals were mixed on Trump's personal conduct and moral qualities—with only 15 percent agreeing that the phrase "morally upstanding" described Trump well.

Where there is more agreement, however, is the belief that Trump's administration is on the evangelical side of the culture war. Fifty-nine percent of white evangelical Christians believe that the Trump administration has helped their interests, and 63 percent say their side has been winning politically, which according to Pew is "triple the share who said this in May 2016, six months before Trump's election."

Rick Perry summed up this worldview last year when he told Fox News: "Barack Obama didn't get to be the president of the United States without being ordained by God. Neither did Donald Trump." He added that God has used "individuals who aren't perfect all through history" such as King David and King Solomon.

In the evangelical mindset, support for Trump isn't a moral inconsistency. They perceive the President's moral character to be lacking in fiber, but still believe he was chosen to fight the good fight with the blessing of God's will.

Whether that fight matches the will of the people, we'll have to wait until November to find out.

How religion changed the presidency—and vice versa

Toward a disease-sniffing device that rivals a dog’s nose

Trained dogs can detect cancer and other diseases by smell. Could a device do the same?

JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

Numerous studies have shown that trained dogs can detect many kinds of disease — including lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, and prostate cancers, and possibly Covid-19 — simply through smell. In some cases, involving prostate cancer for example, the dogs had a 99 percent success rate in detecting the disease by sniffing patients' urine samples.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists are building Earth’s virtual twin

Their goal is a digital model of the Earth that depicts climate change in all of its complexity.

Credit: Theis/Adobe Stock
Technology & Innovation
  • The European Union envisions an ambitious digital twin of the Earth to simulate climate change.
  • The project is a unique collaboration between Earth science and computer experts.
  • The digital twin will allow policymakers to audition expansive geoengineering projects meant to address climate change.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

New research shows that bullies are often friends

Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.

Quantcast