Heraclitus is recorded as saying:

Upon those who step into the same river, different and again different waters flow (Arius Didymus, Dox. Gr.)

It is not possible to step twice into the same river...it scatters and again comes together, and approaches and recedes (Plutarch, On the E at Delphi)

We step into and we do not step into the same rivers. We are and we are not (Heraclitus Homericus, Homeric Questions)

These suggest that Heraclitus viewed time as a river that flows; and staying with this metaphor, time moves around us. It's also comparable to Newtons view of absolute time (in fact three views of time - absolute, true and mathematical; which here, he identifies).

Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is known as duration.

However, in physical modelling of time, derived from Newton, it's generally taken that a particle 'moves forward' into time; this being consistent with its motion in space

This difference is taken into account in In the positivist/operational view of science, where it is measurements only that count; and by noting that the motion of a particle relative to absolute time isn't detectable.

Still, there is an ontological difference between the two views; is there an objective view of time that is consistent with Heraclitus's view?

One suggestion might be the 'moving block' view of time; where the present continually adds onto the past.

  • I think it's pretty obvious that things do change. But will they ever return? Nietzsche cited the "Eternal Return". Dao De Jing says "the movement of Nature (Dao) is the return". Would Heraclitus probably agree with that?
    – Rodrigo
    Sep 15, 2015 at 11:01
  • @rodrigo: 'it scatters and again comes together, and approaches and recedes' is gnomic, but might be interpretable on that fashion Sep 15, 2015 at 17:39

5 Answers 5


The aphorism "πάντα ρει" (everything flows) which is attributed to Heraclitus

τὰ ὄντα ἰέναι τε πάντα καὶ μένειν οὐδέν "All entities move and nothing remains still"// Plato's Cratylus

is related to the nature of the world and not specifically to "time" . The river is a metaphor and it means that "change" differentiates the being of things constantly. (γιγνεσθαι) The world is in a condition of constant change.

As Heraclitus is considered a dialectical philosopher his philosophical position is contrarian to the positivist /empiricist view. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unity_of_opposites

So no, the "moving/growing block" theory of the ontology of time is unrelated to the Heraclitian view as you can easily see from the quote at Plato's text I cited.

  • I didn't down-vote this; I up-voted but didn't accept it; I'm well aware that Heraclitus notion of change is extensive, and correlates with how Aristotle thinks on change. However this isn't the point of the question, which is more about discovering the ontological consequences of his metaphor; as I pointed out in the question, it has a certain affinity of Newtons conception of time when thought ontologically; if not mathematically. Sep 14, 2015 at 10:43
  • 2
    @MoziburUllah I agree with this poster that your question incorrectly changes a metaphor about the changing nature of the world into a metaphor about time, and then wrongly attributes that view to Heraclitus. As such, it isn't answerable in its original form. Sep 14, 2015 at 19:59
  • @Sunami: ok, I'll change the question; I was using Heraclitus to introduce an idea of time, rather than asking about Heraclitus - it looks like the emphasis of the question isn't right. Thanks for pointing this out. Sep 14, 2015 at 20:02
  • 2
    I've accepted the answer, given the critique of how ill-formed the question is. Sep 14, 2015 at 20:19

One crude answer is that any modern rejection of the Eliatic account (as preserved by Newton, Einstein, and most modern physics with its "timeless" mathematization of "spacetime") would count as Heraclitean, a recognition of the deep singularity of events and impossibility of endurance. After all, Heraclitus was not very specific.

You seem to be asking if there are models for the "reality of time" in science, as opposed to the Parmenidean "illusion of time" in mathematical physics. Physicist Lee Smollin ("Time Reborn") has recently made such an argument, in which even the "laws of physics" change through time. Darwin, of course, demonstrated the shocking instability and flux of biological time, a genetic "stream" in which species stability passes away.

The problem, as noted, is that science, by definition, utilizes mathematical models precisely to eliminate the absolute "flux" from nature in some system of measurement. Time chopped into reiterative units of any sort is not strictly Heraclitean. It is what enables us to "step twice" into the stream of accidents and retrieve patterns.

  • There's also Barbours argument for a timeless Eleatic universe. Sep 14, 2015 at 21:56

Newton's notions of time (and motion) were Aristotelian, a continuous magnitude, a continuum generated by motion. But that was not Heraclitus's flux. Plato kept it under the name of becoming, and only mediated between One and flux by inserting his immutable forms in the middle. Aristotle went where Plato did not, and merged them with it in his notion of entelechy, the embodiment of form into matter. Some even go as far as to say that Aristotle "refuted" Heraclitus by asserting invariance, form over flux, thus enabling scientific study of nature in motion. It is on this assertion that Newtonian physics rests.

But this tamed flow, tamed into motion by Plato and Aristotle, would have been anathema to Heraclitus. Everything flows, not just rivers but also their banks, swept away by winds and erosion. There is no fixed background against which something can move from definite here to definite there, like clock arms against the dial. The flux is bursting in and out of existence, the perpetual is and is not, the Plato's becoming. And its nature is recreated on the grand scale of eons: universe bursts into being in a violent and whimsical differentiation, diacosmesa, to be burned into nothing in equally violent ecpirosa. "Eon is a playing child casting dice, sometimes winning, sometimes losing".

There is one modern philosopher who is more in tune with Heraclitus, who even said he could include all of Heraclitus into his philosophy. In his Philosophy of Nature he calls time “Becoming directly intuited”, “precisely the existence of this perpetual self-sublation”. Time is the negation of differentiated indiffirence, Aristotle's invariance, which he identifies with space:"time is the immediate collapse into indifference, into undifferentiated asunderness or space, because its opposed moments which are held together in unity, immediately sublate themselves". And this leads Hegel, it is him of course, to identifying the nature of time's three dimensions, like Heraclitus he is a radical presentist. So "the past and future of time as being in Nature, are space, for space is negated time", Now he says "is only this vanishing of its being [the past] into nothing and of nothing [the future] into its being". This echoes also St. Augustine's observation that "time is almost non-existent, the past is no more, the future is not yet, and the present lasts but an instant".

Moreover, it is not time that derives from motion, but the other way around:"This vanishing and self-regeneration of space in time and of time in space, a process in which time posits itself spatially as place, but in which place, too, as indifferent spatiality, is immediately posited as temporal: this is Motion". But as expected from the spirit of Heraclitus this view of time and motion is incompatible with methodical study of nature, as advanced by Aristotle and Newton, and a Hegelian alternative appears unlikely for now.


I'm going to give you the physicists point of view.

As it seems, quantum mechanics suggests that time is in fact inexistent. It is an artificial construction that allows an effective model of what we observe. There are several arguments that suggest this:

1: Time is fundamentally unobservable, barring it from reality. This was proved in the early 20th century.

2: The concept of superselection suggests that if gravity works the way we believe it does, then there is nothing that can 'feel' or 'see' time at all.

3: Wheeler-DeWitt type equations suggest that the Universe as a whole is completely independent of time.

There has recently (2015) been a new go at formulating quantum mechanics independent of time (Maccone et al.). It's essentially a cleaner version of the Page and Wootters mechanism from the 80's, and several advances have been achieved. The main point of the mechanism is that watches don't approximate time, they define it. Temporal evolution is achieved via correlations between different states (e.g. the state of my watch and my position).

  • @engeler: Very interesting. 'watches don't approximate time, they define it'; I think this is the same point that Barbour makes. Jul 9, 2016 at 2:36

No, Heraclitus believed our world, the universe (or the cosmos) had no beginning nor end, "it always was and always will be", as he says here: "This world-order [kosmos], the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures." (From the stanford encyclopedia page on Heraclitus). What heraclitus focuses on is not time, but eternity. But philosophers have forgotten about the concept of eternity and don't pay much heed to it. (Plato, in fact, believed time to be finite and eternity to be infinite). Newton did not like eternity because it is not measurable- while even when time is absolute it is still measureable.

The quote mentioned above about the river is not a focus on time by heraclitus but a focus on personal identity. The man who steps into the river is changing as well... (but change as well could just be in our heads!)

  • I meant modern philosophers that are scientific.
    – Mr. Smith
    Aug 14, 2016 at 6:21
  • Well, there's Smolins reinvention of an eternal universe, but he's a physicist rather than a philosopher; he gets away with it by simply enlargening our universe. Aug 14, 2016 at 6:24

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