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Empedocles on Language, Nature and Learning

Leon Wash

University of Chicago

This paper will explore Empedocles’ remarks on language, nature and learning, arguing that one can deduce from them a set of radical doctrines: in spite of common usage, there is no real φύσις (“nature”), but every apparent φύσις is the result of learning, and indeed even the roots (or Empedoclean elements), in constituting and reconstituting the cosmos and all of the individual natures within it, can be said to learn. The general treatment of learning in Empedocles’ poetry has received some attention, e.g. from Trépanier (2004), and the identification of the learning to be undertaken by Empedocles’ pupil with the learning of the roots has also been considered, particularly by Rosenfeld-Löffler (2006). Yet no scholar has focused upon the relationship between Empedocles’ statements on learning and those involving φύσις, despite the fact that the debate about the relationship between the two was already well underway by the time Empedocles was writing (as seen in e.g. Pindar Olympian 2.86), and despite the mass of literature on that debate. An author notorious for his internal tensions as both an avant-garde natural philosopher and a magician in a grand and older style, Empedocles displays a subtler but perhaps related tension: a tension between a self-conscious and critical approach to language, involving his oft-quoted rejection of the word φύσις(“nature”) in B8, and the sanguine guarantee that his teachings, if received by an attentive pupil, “will grow into each character, according to the φύσις of each” (αὔξει / ταῦτ' εἰς ἦθος ἕκαστον, ὅπῃ φύσις ἐστὶν ἑκάστῳ, B110.4-5). Apparently assuming what Gorgias (reportedly his pupil) would soon explicitly declare, namely that language is not in a category different from “matter,” Empedocles would have one believe in the power of his teaching to draw one into a movement toward the Divine, toward Being. But if there is no φύσις, as he tells us, how is one to understand “the φύσις of each”? Does the repudiated term not vitiate his promise? An answer is found in his conception of learning, and its application to both the learning to be undertaken by his addressee and the learning of the roots. The elements themselves are said repeatedly to learn at the macrocosmic level, and one can infer from certain fragments that the formation of individual φύσεις (“natures”) is the result of said learning; at the microcosmic, human level, one’s learning can reliably incorporate even a concept which Empedocles critiques, the concept of φύσις, for that too is part of the universal learning in which he would have us participate. To employ some anachronistic categories, his critique of the word φύσις must be read in light of a conventionalist approach to language which is founded in a processual cosmology. 

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Language and Naming in Early Greek Philosophy

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