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  • The Task of the Name: A Reply to Carol Poster
  • Jason Helms

In the fields with which we are concerned, knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.

Walter Benjamin, Arcades N1, 1 (1999)

Logos, in whose lighting they come and go, remains concealed from them, and forgotten.

Martin Heidegger, “Aletheia” (1975, 122)

One of the first things learned in the most rudimentary attempt at stargazing is that the utmost effort must be paid in neglecting to gaze at stars. Instead, one must gaze near them. Owing to the physiological organization of the eye, night vision is enhanced toward the periphery of vision rather than the center. Consequently, one can actually perceive one’s own lack of perception by staring at a star, finding it disappear, and then staring near the star only to see it reappear. What follows, in this light or darkness or tension of these two extremes, is not empirical in any sense of the word, which is given to its own extremes. Rather, I hope through various a/(i)llusions and sidelong tangents to glance offthe surface of my target. As you may guess, superficial puns—like star(e)—provide one of the most reflective surfaces offof which to bounce/riff. [End Page 278]

Carol Poster’s recent article, “The Task of the Bow: Heraclitus’ Rhetorical Critique of Epic Language” (2006), provides much fruitful ground for a rhetorical critique of Heraclitus and a Heraclitean critique of rhetoric—many surfaces offof which to glance. However, her analysis is often in a decidedly unharmonious tension with itself. Accordingly, this essay constitutes an attempt to tune by ear. In the course of this response I will outline at which points I diverge from her argument, offering my own listening relation to, and consequently my own reading of, Heraclitus, and propose alternative, but perhaps corrective, views of Heraclitus’s relation to the Logos and his practiced rhetorics. Let us first start at the end before proceeding through Poster’s argument.

Poster’s Conclusions

At the end of her article, Poster offers five conclusions that afford us now an ingress for her essay. For the sake of brevity (and, of course, clarity and sincerity) I have shortened them and added a sixth with which she concludes the article:

  1. 1. Heraclitus focuses on the problem of correctness of names substantially before Prodicus and Protagoras. . . . Heraclitus thus prefigures two themes discussed more extensively by later writers. First, Heraclitus seems concerned with the art of what came to be called “orthoepeia” (the study of correctness of names) for which the sophists Prodicus and Protagoras later became famous. Second, he at least considers the possibility that one can learn something about the nature of things by examining the nonliteral senses of their names, a position that is articulated in its most extreme form by the Heraclitean Cratylus in Plato’s dialogue of that name.

  2. 2. Heraclitus is an early example of logos philosopher, in the Gadamerian sense, in that he believes that investigation of language can provide information that is not exclusively or trivially linguistic. He is an early example of the “linguistic turn” in Greek thought.

  3. 3. For Heraclitus, the instability of language is part of a radical instability of the world. Since things change too quickly to be examined, their stable names are all that is available for investigation. While surfaces change, hidden harmonies, which are both concealed and revealed in words, remain. And yet even names themselves, if temporally fixed, are still interpretively unstable. [End Page 279]

  4. 4. Each positively attributed name or statement should be read two ways simultaneously in a sustained and irresolvable tension, literally and nonliterally, with the opposing figurative statement both contradicting and yet sustaining the literal one.

  5. 5. These considerations lead Heraclitus, in his own prose, to a constant tension between rejection of epic vocabulary and ideas as inaccurate and frequent use of them; even when Homer and Hesiod are partially rejected, inquiry into them remains a valid means of investigation. Heraclitus does not simply suggest that epic should be entirely ignored in favor, for example, of direct examination of or experimentation on physical objects, nor purely internal (Cartesian...


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