In this essay I will be discussing ‘We step and we do not step into the same river, we are and we are not’ (Heraclitus) and explaining why I consider the doctrine of flux to be correct and this fragment (The River) to be a prime example of the reality we live in. Furthermore, I will be attempting to point out that Heraclitus’ river fragment is not a contradiction, but a paradox.

To begin with, what does Heraclitus mean by such a statement? He is well known for having two meaning for each of his fragments. By stepping into the river you’re experiencing it, it is where it is and is the same river, but consider the flowing waters. Which part of that water makes that river the river you stepped in? Surely the water that you actually stepped in has flowed on and now you’re standing in another section of water? This fragment brings up the problems of the simple way we look at the world and can often be saying far more than we seem to be, while apparently uttering contradictions when we speak in every day ways.

The statement is an example of his doctrine of flux. That is to say that something may change while at the same time remaining what it is. This at first seems like a contradiction but it is not a contradiction to talk about one thing in two different ways when the context is not the same. The two contexts in this case being geographical and identity.

‘Both Plato and Aristotle may have been misled and had a misinterpretation of Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux’.(1) They seem to believe that Heraclitus was saying that change is the ‘ultimate reality while what he may have really meant was that change is the manner in which ultimate reality manifests itself.'(2)

As you step into a river you’re both stepping into the same geographical river, while at the same time being in ever flowing and changing waters. A river may shrink or widen and contain ever changing water, but it is still a river and geologically the same one. The change is part of what it means to be a river.

Much in the same way we think of ourselves as the same person, even though we are constantly changing and our blood that flows is never the same. ‘A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it.'(3) As with our thoughts and experiences. The self in the world is more complicated than a foot simply stepping into a river. It is more akin to a small river which represents the ever changing self, stepping into the ocean which represents the ever changing world and reality. Or to say that clearer, the river that leads into the ocean. When the self steps into reality it takes part in the reality and in a sense is absorbed, but not in a way that separates the self from reality, nor in a way that destroys either one of them. They are participating in each other, while one is far vaster than the other.

‘Mortal nature seeks…to be forever and to be immortal. But it can only do so by…leaving something else new behind in place of the old…as when a man is called the same from childhood to old age. He is called the same despite the fact that he does not have the same hair and flesh and bones and blood and all the body, but he loses them and is always becoming new. And similarly for the soul: his dispositions and habits, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears, none of these remains the same, but some are coming-to-be, others are lost. (Symposium 207D)'(4)

There is not anything in the material world that we know of which can escape the doctrine of flux. While it seems like a contradiction, it is that contradiction of nothing ever being the same as it just was while remaining what it is that is evidently the way the world we live in works and is undeniable. Take the example of the dog in evolution. Evolution works via change in generations, so over vast amounts of time the changes can become so different that the original animal becomes unrecognisable. Then there are two types of animals that are closely related to each other, such as the Wolf and the Dog. Via breeding for over ten thousand years the dog and the wolf have become separate animals with a distant relation. If over even more time the dog continues to prosper and breed while the Wolf becomes extinct, we would then lose a branch and have only the dog species to continue the tree. For example; humans being a branch of the ape family. How this fits into the doctrine of flux is like so: In this world right now, we can know and have knowledge of our reality, but that will not stay that way, it will change. Just as what we think of now as a dog will become either extinct or even more branches, becoming separate animals that can no longer breed with each other. The reality of being a dog makes no sense when it is ever changing. But these changes are so slow that in a human society, the changes will not be noticed and our concept of dog will gradually and without effort change to suit the current one.

So Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux makes sense when you use the river statement in order to show that change is the Logos (A reason why, an explanation) of our reality. We must consider that everything changes in our reality and not all things change at the same pace. We can say we know what a human being is and our biology, but ten thousand years from now and in the past, it was not that way and will not be that way. Our knowledge will change with the times as they no longer are exact to our reality, these things are so subtle and across generations that we as a whole do not notice that our knowledge has actually changed.

To conclude, Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux can be applied to everything and the river fragment is a prime way of expressing such a thing. The contradiction of this fragment is the same as the self, free-will and values. They are every changing concept but they do exist and are used by us with or without the apparent contradictions. Therefore the river fragment is not a contradiction, it is actually a paradox.

1. G. S. Kirk & J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), ‘Heraclitus of Ephesus. p. 187
2. Humphreys, ‘Heraclitus: Knowledge and the doctrine of flux, lecture handout, 2014, Humphreys references C. C. W. Taylor (ed), From the beginning to Plato: Routledge history of philosophy, Vol. 1 (London & New York: Routledge, 2003), ch. 3
3. Accessed on the 14th of February 2014.
4. Charles H. Khan and Heraclitus, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary, 1 edn (Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p.167

 – ‘Heraclitus’, in Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, accessed at
– Charles H. Khan and Heraclitus, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary, 1 edn (Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
– G. S. Kirk & J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), ‘Heraclitus of Ephesus.
– C.C.W. Taylor (ed), From the beginning to Plato: Routledge history of philosophy, Vol. 1 (London & New York: Routledge, 2003)


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