Often as a beginner, I wonder: who studies this idea?

Is there a body of literature on 'change', and if so, which discipline of philosophy is most interested in the nature of 'change' and truths related to propositions about it?

Note I'm not looking for specific references because I can use Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and PhilPapers.

  • 4
    Metaphysics - actually, the nature of change is a fundamental question of metaphysics. Nov 5, 2020 at 21:44
  • 1
    Change is a very general term, and which field will depend on context. Physical systems? Natural philosophy. Social & cultural change? Sociology & anthropology. Understanding what unifies the concept & is the most general understanding of change? Metaphysics - but Wittgenstein would challenge this, and look to use rather than abstraction. The I Ching or Book Of Changes seeks a metaphysics specically focused on change. Infinitesimals in maths came out of reasoning about change.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 6, 2020 at 1:25
  • Heracles maintained that, 'All is change.'
    – user37981
    Nov 6, 2020 at 3:58
  • Until the 17th century, change was studied by " natural philosophy" , that is, by physics, since this discipline was considered as a part of philosophy. After the 17th-18th century, physics separated from philosophy; a new organization of philosophical disciplines occurred wth a quadripartition of metaphysics into ontology, theology, psychology and cosmology ( theory of the world). It is in cosmology that change has been mostly studied since that tme. Nov 6, 2020 at 7:42
  • In the 20th century, this quadripartition lost somewhat its importance, and one can say that, nowadays, change is studied by ontology or metaphysics in general. Nov 6, 2020 at 7:42

2 Answers 2


Buddhism can be described as defined by it's acceptance of change, called there anicca or impermanence, and considered within that body of thought one of the Three Marks of existence, a core inextricable quality of being which cannot be avoided or ended.

Buddha was a contemporary or near-contemporary of Heraclitus. Buddhist thought avoids the problems of where things begin and end temporarily, by denying any essences or unchanging identities, in another of the Three Marks, anatma, or non-self. In the context of Indian philosophy this a denial of the atma or unchanging soul, the basis in mainstream Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, for reincarnation - in English Buddhist thought is typically distinguished as describing rebirth instead of reincarnation, and a core metaphor is a candle lighting another candle, that there is a transmission of causes and conditions, not of anything permanent or unchanging. This fits into the wider Buddhist concept of sunyata, or emptiness of inherent nature (in Mahayana Buddhism at least), and the idea of mutually coming to be, interpretation or inter-being, illustrated by the ancient metaphor of Indra's Net.

If everything is in flux, the problem becomes how is there ever any continuity? Buddhist thought relates coming to be, ie the illusion of having a seperate unchanging identity, as coming from the chain of dependent origination, which begins with ignorance about the true nature of things - and who's power is broken by awakening to the true nature of things: becoming an Arahant or a Bodhisattva.

It is a notable contrast to most Western philosophy and religion, that the Buddhist approach is about developing a practice, rather than discovering key truths, or joining with those who share a catechism. Western Buddhist Stephen Batchelor identifies a problem with the standard translation of The Four Noble Truths that are the heart of Buddhist teaching. Typically given as

  • dukkha (suffering, incapable of satisfying, painful) is an innate characteristic of existence in the realm of samsara
  • samudaya (origin, arising) of this dukkha, which arises or "comes together" with taṇhā ("craving, desire or attachment")
  • nirodha (cessation, ending) of this dukkha can be attained by the renouncement or letting go of this taṇhā
  • magga (path, Noble Eightfold Path) is the path leading to renouncement of tanha and cessation of dukkha


Batchelor shifts the understanding from these as truths to be believed, to recognising them as practices:

The Four Noble Truths are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. They suggest a course of action to be followed rather than a set of dogmas to be believed. The four truths are prescriptions for behavior rather than descriptions of reality. The Buddha compares himself to a doctor who offers a course of therapeutic treatment to heal one’s ills. To embark on such a therapy is not designed to bring one any closer to ‘the Truth’ but to enable one’s life to flourish here and now, hopefully leaving a legacy that will continue to have beneficial repercussions after one’s death." -Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist

The intrinsic unsatisfactorines or anguish of desire is to be seen in our lives, it's causes to be understood, that there is another way is to be recognised, and the eightfold way is the path to be practiced to attain that way.

You didn't ask for specific references, but I felt this presentation of Buddhist thought is likely under-recognised in the West, and provides an additional track to resounding answer so far of 'metaphysics'. There is a tendency tomput the complex and sophisticated thought of Buddhist philosophy in 'the religion box', but in fact many of it's questions, answers, and methods, are directly relatable to the Western tradition of philosophy. The parallels to Stoicism and Stoic practices are striking. And this article identifies a common tactic being used by Nietzsche, Rorty, Wittgenstein, and probably the deepest philosophical thinker in Buddhism & primary influence on Zen, Nagarjuna, nearly two millennia earlier.

  • 1
    Anything Eastern is underrecognized in the West. :D Thanks for a non-analytical response.
    – J D
    Nov 15, 2020 at 2:41

Short Answer

The concept of 'change' frequently falls under the study of metaphysics and ontology and is highly important in consideration of philisophical problems of identity.

Long Answer

According to WP: impermanence:

Impermanence, also known as the philosophical problem of change, is a philosophical concept addressed in a variety of religions and philosophies.

Further in the article:

Impermanence first appears in Greek philosophy in the writings of Heraclitus and his doctrine of panta rhei (everything flows). Heraclitus was famous for his insistence on ever-present change as being the fundamental essence of the universe, as stated in the famous saying, "No man ever steps in the same river twice"[24] This is commonly considered to be a key contribution in the development of the philosophical concept of becoming, as contrasted with "being", and has sometimes been seen in a dialectical relationship with Parmenides' statement that "whatever is, is, and what is not cannot be", the latter being understood as a key contribution in the development of the philosophical concept of being. For this reason, Parmenides and Heraclitus are commonly considered to be two of the founders of ontology. [emphasis mine]

Thus, ontology is that which might be viewed as the study of being or things (Gr. ontos) and their change. Broadly speaking, ontology is considered either part of or related to the philosophy of metaphysics. From the SEP article:

It is not easy to say what metaphysics is. Ancient and Medieval philosophers might have said that metaphysics was, like chemistry or astrology, to be defined by its subject-matter: metaphysics was the “science” that studied “being as such” or “the first causes of things” or “things that do not change”. It is no longer possible to define metaphysics that way, for two reasons. First, a philosopher who denied the existence of those things that had once been seen as constituting the subject-matter of metaphysics—first causes or unchanging things—would now be considered to be making thereby a metaphysical assertion. Second, there are many philosophical problems that are now considered to be metaphysical problems (or at least partly metaphysical problems) that are in no way related to first causes or unchanging things—the problem of free will, for example, or the problem of the mental and the physical. [emphasis mine]

Thus, we see a primary problem with classifying 'change' in a philosophical area of study specifically, and it quickly draws on other areas of philosophical discourse like taking into account that change occurs over time. Where do beings end and begin temporally? which is a fundamental question regarding identity. So, the nature of 'being', 'change', and 'identity' much like questions regarding 'truth', 'existence', and 'reality' are hard to disentangle and place in the locus of a single philosophical discipline and generally are lumped under the heading 'metaphysics'.

  • The metaphysics of time--presentism vs. eternalism, the A theory and the B theory--is also usually considered part of ontology, and seems very relevant to the nature of change. So you might consider adding a link to the Time article on the SEP.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 14, 2020 at 19:12
  • @Hypnosifl Done in the last paragraphy, thanks.
    – J D
    Nov 14, 2020 at 19:33

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