In what ways do you think the ideas of Epicurus and Heraclitus are relevant to journalism?

Epicurus and Heraclitus represent two schools of thought which only until recent times, post-enlightenment have proven to be prominent and popular interpretations of the world. Heraclitus was an atheist, and Epicurus was branded as one in later years for his view of the gods not having influence over our world, both were materialists.

Although to many, their thoughts are far from relevant to the practice of journalism, they are in fact so important to the practice, they are as analogous to journalism as the act of breathing is to an Olympic sprinter. In this essay I will examine how Epicurus’ materialist conception of the world, based on the sensible and rejection of that which cannot be observed, forms the basis to theories of objectivity vs. subjectivity. I will then look at how Heraclitus’ notion of the universe being in constant flux is fundamental to how journalists follow series of events through time to present their stories with relation to Alfred Gell’s examination of the A Series and B Series conception of time.

 

During feudal times, Catholic dogma was the common understanding imposed on the western world. As such it was held up to be an unquestionable objective truth. Yet the writings of Epicurus and his emphasis on the sensible and material aspect of the world and the knowledge which could be acquired from it, clearly outlines a concept of modern subjectivity vs. objectivity which is integral to the modern day practice of journalism. As outlined in the ABC’s code of conduct “Principles: The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate according to the recognised standards of objective journalism. Credibility depends heavily on factual accuracy.” (ABC:2011) the concept of objective reporting of facts is paramount in the practice of most news agencies. News stories are published according to a standard of objectivity which must be met through the practice of fact checking and verification. One such practice is neatly outlined by Gaye Tuchman as the “Web of Facticity”(1978).

Epicurus believed that the senses relayed reliable and objective information to ones soul. “Sense impressions are never, in themselves, false, though we may make false judgements of the basis of genuine appearances. If appearances conflict (if, for instance, something looks smooth but feels rough) then the mind must give judgement between these competing witnesses.” (Kenny, 2004:95). Lets unpack this argument, the first sentence is hotly contested. For instance Descartes made many strong arguments in favour of the senses being fallible as he tackled the questions of epistemology (Ariew, Cress & Descartes 2006), however these aren’t objections similar to what Epicurus was proposing.

Epicurus’ conception of the senses is more understandable in light of modern technology. If one were to film or record an event, such as the speech by Alan Jones at the Young Liberal’s dinner where he made comments on the death of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father, then the audio from that recording is infallible. With this in light, we can understand how Epicurus has conceived of the senses; there is an outside external world which is true, and our senses are the instruments by which we sense them, however our “soul” which in modern times would be used as “mind” is what perceives the truth we have witnessed.

As that sentence continues we come to the fact that false judgements can be made from genuine appearances. What Epicurus is advocating for is that one’s mind is what interprets and then perceives that which has been witnessed, essentially clouding the subject in his own biases. While this is difficult to illustrate with the simple example of Mr Jones’ speech, it is more clear when one looks at how people interpret the housing market and industry. The common discourse of news papers on the housing market is nearly always positive, whether in periods of down turns or rises in the general strength of the housing market, the message is always a positive one. This is because genuine statistics are perceived through our senses, but our personal biases create different meanings of that which has been observed. News papers have a conflict of interest when reporting on the housing market, because a large portion of their revenue comes from advertising houses and other real estate firms.

Through this more complex illustration we can see how Epicurus’ concept of subjectivity and objectivity play hand in hand with our modern understanding of the practice of journalism. Journalists are to interpret their facts and attempt to make them as impartial as possible. The truth is then determined by the senses, concepts and feelings.

The first criteria, senses, I have already covered. However in the case that there are conflicting impressions of the senses, such as touching something which looks smooth and feels rough, we must refer to that of concepts. This is where the mind in then to make its understanding of what has been observed. The definitions of concepts in this sense is “An concept is a general notion of what kind of thing is signified by a word.” (Kenny 2004:169). Concepts in this case can be anything as simple as the concept of a cow, or the structure of the market based economy. Finally feeling is our emotional understanding of the concept, which again works to further our understanding of an event, but can also contribute to the clouding of our perception.

Epicurus’ and his followers left us with one great lesson on the notion of objectivity however: It is possible for incompatible theories to be consistent with evidence. Lucretius noted that there may be different explanations for the movement of the stars or that of how a dead body came to its end, in which case all those explanations should be accepted, “each of them is likely to be true in one or other of the many worlds in the universe, even if we do not know which is true in our world,”(Kenny 2004:169). The lesson to be taken from this is that an objective piece of reporting, which is true to the facts and that which is sensible, can still be biased. Objectivity in the sense of being true is possible, but escaping one’s own understanding of the concepts and the feelings which produce our perception, are inescapable, and as valid as any other perception which is consistent with the facts.

Heraclitus on the other hand is a philosopher concerned with the constant flux of the universe, “Change, perpetual and inescapable, was central to his theme,“(Stone 1988:69). Heraclitus is famous for the line “you can’t step into the same river twice,”. However it is crucial to understand, whilst something are in a constant state of flux, others may seemingly not be (which is later addressed by the coincidence of opposites) identity can remain. In other words, the river Nile may not be the same body of water it was a moment ago, but it is still the river Nile.

With this in mind, I will relate it after discussing the nature of A Series and B Series time as defined by Alfred Gell. Heraclitus is  at first glance most certainly a proponent of the A Series mental cognitive process of understanding time. According to Gell “We categorise events according to their being at any one time past, present or future events. All events are one of these, but not unchangingly, since any event which has occurred, has been a future event up to the time of its occurrence, a present event as it occurs, and past event thereafter. This differentiation among events according to criteria of pastness, presentness and futurity McTaggart calls the A-series” (1992:151). However, through his insistence on the coincidence of opposites (Kenny 2004:15), he famously summed up as “the way up and the way down are one and the same,”. Through this, it is feasible to infer that Heraclitus would be an advocate for B Series of time as well.

B Series is defined as “We also categorise events temporally according to whether they occur before or after one another. Events do not change with respect to this criterion in the way that they do with respect to the criterion of pastness, presentness and futurity. This before/after series McTaggart calls the B-series,” (Gell 1992:151). Thus we see that the A/B Series of time are incompatible with each other, one is ever changing like a river, and the other is static and unchangeable with respect. However Heraclitus through his understanding of the coincidence of opposites would have concluded they were the same. Perhaps then it is our understanding of time that changes according to our necessary situation?

Journalists must work across both understandings of the cognitive understandings of time. To illustrate this point, I will use the case of the September 11 attacks  on the Twin Towers, to show how a reporter working on the story would need to work with the concept of change within stable identity, and how the A/B Series time affects his/her work.

  • At 8.14am 11/09/2001 the first plane was reported as having been hijacked.
  • 8.46am Two fighter jets are scrambled to respond to Flight 11, at the same time Flight 11 hits the North Tower.
  • 8.51am Two other planes are feared hijacked.
  • 9.03am Flight 175 hits the South Tower.
  • 9.37am Flight 77 hits the Pentagon.
  • 9.59am South Tower Collapses after explosions.
  • 10.06am Flight 93 crashes in Pennsylvania.
  • 10.28am North Tower Collapses.

That timeline of events in the developing story of the 9/11 Attacks is a good example of how a journalist would have needed to use both A and B Series of time to report the story. The story is consistently developing and changing. In the early morning the story was that of a hijacked plane and fighter jets being scrambled to respond to the then uncertain threat. As the day progressed it became an attack on the North Tower of the World Trade Centre (WTC), yet then changed to that of a crises of numerous planes being hijacked all over the country and attacking prominent American landmarks.

The concept of change is apparent that over the course of A Series time, the story develops from one thing to something else. The story has changed, but it is still the same story. So like the river Nile may be different from one moment to the next, it is still the river Nile, the way in which the 9/11 Attacks developed, they were still the 9/11 Attacks.

A journalist must be able to respond to developments to update stories in the A Series but must then report them in the B Series. When a reporter files his story, or in the case of radio journalism, present his piece with reference to measurements according to B Series time. These are integral and fundamental aspects to the job of a journalist.

And again as Heraclitus because of the coincidence of opposites must conclude, the A/B Series of time are complimentary understandings of the same thing, they are the way up and the way down, and thus one and the same.

The ideas of Epicurus and Heraclitus form the foundations of journalism as a practice. Their ideas are so broad in scope, they are easily taken for granted and cast aside as obvious parts of the trade, as obvious and unworthy of further analysis. But Epicurus cleanly outlined a concept of objectivity and subjectivity, with an explanation for why partisan reporting exists in the media and Heraclitus outlined the concept of change, which is inherent to the development of stories and our understanding of the cognitive processes of time, which is outlines how a journalist must work within two conflicting understandings of time, to do his work.

References:

ABC, Code of Practice 2011, Retrieved from

http://www.abc.net.au/corp/pubs/documents/codeofpractice2011.pdf

Gaye Tuchman, “The Web of Facticity”, in Making News, New York: Free Press, 1978, pp 82-103

Kenny, Anthony, 2004: Ancient Philosophy, Vol 1, Clarendon Press, Orxford

Ariew, R., Cress, D. & Descartes, R. 2006: René Descartes: Meditations, Objections, and Replies

Stone I.F., 1988:  The Trial of Socrates, Little, Brown and Company, Boston

Gell, Alfred, 1992: The Anthopology of Time, BERG, New York, c.16 ‘Time in Philosophy: The A-series vs the B-series‘ pp 149-155

MattPaulKJFblackmaxpaxvector, Complete 911 Timeline All Day of 9/11 Events, Retrieved from

http://www.historycommons.org/timeline.jsp?day_of_9/11=dayof911&timeline=complete_911_timeline

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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