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The Physicality of Language in Gorgias and Heraclitus

Luke Parker

University of Chicago

Scholars have come to recognize that, for the archaic Greeks, words are physical things: they pass the barrier of the teeth or are fenced in there, fly through the air, and penetrate the body of their audience. (Nussbaum 1972a,b; Vivante 1975; Lesher 1983).  Less recognized, however, is the persistence of this conception of language throughout the classical period and its significance for early Greek philosophy. In looking specifically at Heraclitus and Gorgias, this paper argues for a materialist orientation towards language in the latter’s extant writings, a fact that may illuminate his insistence on the inability of speech (logos) to convey truth.  Heraclitus, on the other hand, discovers in discourse a powerful analogue for the organization of the kosmos, part and parcel of which is his novel location of linguistic meaning in grammatical relations rather than individual words.  It is crucial for this latter point, I argue, that we appreciate the absence of a strict ontological distinction between words and things in early Greek philosophy.

            In the Encomium to Helen, Gorgias points out that speech (logos) accomplishes the most divine works with “the tiniest and most invisible body,” σμικροτάτῳ σώματι καὶ ἀφανεστάτῳ.[1]  This characterization is only amplified further in Gorgias’ analogy of speech working on the arrangement (taxis) of the soul as drugs do on the nature (phusis) of the human body.  These key passages have hardly gone unnoticed, but I know of no commentator who considers the significance of Gorgias’ overtly physical characterization of language.  Charles Segal (1962), for example, takes note of the “quasi-physical” conception of the soul here, but leaves the physical nature of logos itself undiscussed.  As Aryeh Finkelberg (2017) has pointed out, the notion of immaterial, nonsensible intelligibles is simply not attested in Greek thought before Plato. Since Segal wrote, this has been thought through concerning soul, especially with respect to Heraclitus (Betegh 2007), but has hardly been acknowledged for language.

The physicality of language matters both for our understanding of Gorgias and for early Greek philosophy as whole.  According to the testimonia of Ps.-Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus about Gorgias’ lost work On Non-being, he emphasized that language cannot communicate the truth about things.  Once we see that language is simply one among many physical phenomena, we may appreciate that Gorgias is not separating mental from physical phenomena, but pointing out only that speech differs from its objects, just as audible from visible: ὥσπερ γὰρ οὐδὲ ἡ ὄψις τοὺς φθόγγους γιγνώσκει, οὕτως οὐδὲ ἡ ἀκοὴ τὰ χρώματα ἀκούει, ἀλλὰ φθόγγους· καὶ λέγει ὁ λέγων, ἀλλ’ οὐ χρῶμα οὐδὲ πρᾶγμα. (Ps.-Arist. MXG, 6.21)

            I turn to Heraclitus to show that this persisting physicality of language has significant consequences for how we understand the significance of logos in his thought.  Contemporary scholarship tends to ignore or dismiss a long-standing suggestion by Bruno Snell (1926) that Heraclitus’ use of logos draws on the idea that meaning is things just as in language (e.g., Johnstone 2014).  Yet scholars like Johnstone have lately, and rightly, insisted that Heraclitus’ use of the term logos draws primarily on its connection with discourse, arguing that it stresses the “self-presentation” of the world around us.  Once we appreciate that Heraclitus sees no ontological distinction between words and things, we may better understand the distinction of himself from the logos (“Listening not to me but to the logos…, DK B 50), which has always led commentators to puzzle over the status of his text in relation to the logos he announces.   Since his own written logos, like language in general, is not different in kind from other things, it may serve as a protreptic paradigm and not an isolated parallel for the way in which we must engage with the world around us.


[1]λόγος δυνάστης μέγας ἐστίν, ὃς σμικροτάτῳ σώματι καὶ ἀφανεστάτῳ θειότατα ἔργα ἀποτελεῖ·   Gorgias, Encomium to Helen, 8.2ff. 

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Language and Naming in Early Greek Philosophy

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