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Thinking in Opposites
An investigation of the nature of man
as revealed by the nature of thinking

by Paul Roubiczek

Part I:

Chapter 1


Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek

Section 1


If we try to develop a comprehensive idea of the universe and man's position in it, we are inevitably driven towards contradictory conclusions, which we can neither avoid nor reconcile.

The modern development of the natural sciences has made us very conscious of the enormous magnitude of the external world, which seems to destroy any importance we may want to attach to our human existence. In previous ages, infinity and eternity were metaphysical terms; the earth and the heavens, comparatively small, were safely embedded in a transcendental reality which was interpreted in religious terms; in modern times, however, infinity and eternity have been transposed to the material universe so that man is robbed of his proper status in an external world which, at the same time, has increased in importance. (Cf. Pascal, PenseÚs, Nos. 205-6.) It is true that recent developments in physics seem to imply some new limitations in the realm of space and matter, but man still remains infinitesimally small even when compared with the earth alone, which is itself nothing but a speck among millions of stars. Similarly, man's life seems scarcely a moment compared with the endless course of time. How can we maintain that man has any importance in face of this overwhelming vastness of our world?

Yet even if he is clearly aware of the magnitude of the universe, man cannot escape the urge to attribute importance to human existence; he feels compelled to consider himself as the center of his world. He experiences within himself a different world, that of thinking, feeling and willing, of moral laws, of truth and beauty, and this inner world seems as boundless as the universe. It seems, moreover, to point to another infinity, transcending the realm of space and time. But man's inner significance does not simply counterbalance his external insignificance, for these two infinities are not in equilibrium; he succumbs, time and again, to the impact of the external infinity, in spite of reassuring inner experiences whose importance is not diminished by knowledge of the external world. (This contradiction is most beautifully stated in the Conclusion of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, in the famous passage which contrasts 'the starry heavens above' with 'the moral law within'.)

We cannot avoid this contradiction by restricting our thoughts to the consideration of life on this earth, for the concept of evolution leads eventually to a similar contradiction.

We find that we are subordinated to a development in which the single human life evidently has no value as such. Every step of this development, however small, sensible or senseless, destroys legions of human lives. The evolution of life in general implies an enormous waste of life; how many species have disappeared without even leaving a trace! The theory that this evolution is brought about by the cruel struggle for existence may no longer be of undoubted scientific validity, but none of the possible theories is able to establish the importance of the single individual. This waste continues throughout the history of mankind; entire races and great nations have been wiped out completely. All events pass blindly and regardlessly over the single man; he can escape from their murderous grip only by mere chance; the rule is that even the smallest change demands the sacrifice of innumerable human lives. We have to neglect the individual if we want to understand evolution.

Yet this life, so demonstrably worthless, remains for every man of unique value, and everything else depends on it. With its loss all reality vanishes for him, the whole world collapses. He has to reconcile himself to the fact of natural death, and he is able to develop a faith in values which transcend life, so that he can give a meaning to death. Therefore he can even sacrifice his life for a cause, but its meaningless destruction remains unbearable. If his life is deprived of all meaning by the processes of evolution which destroy him, then evolution itself must seem meaningless to him. It could be justified only by values which are based on respect for man. Thus the development which disposes so lavishly and carelessly of legions of human beings is yet unable to make man accept the wiping out of a single human life.

Nor can this contradiction be resolved by concentrating on the history of mankind in its narrower sense.

Born as the children of an epoch which believed that mankind is necessarily and automatically progressing, we have been forced to stop identifying scientific and technical progress with general human improvement, for any survey of our history shows us with appalling distinctness that there is no such improvement. Since the earliest times humanity has tumbled from one terror into the other, form one war into the next, from destruction into destruction. Individual men or single epochs achieve grand and marvelous results, but even the religion of love unlooses the bloodiest wars, and the most overwhelming achievements of the natural sciences serve to make the age-old struggle for power enormously more destructive. There are, it is true, sporadic calm epochs in history, golden ages of culture, but even these seem to build up new strength for the barbarian evil instincts of man. By creating forms and rules which gradually become too rigid to serve human needs any longer, and by driving human thought into abstract regions, they clear the way for these instincts and enable them to break through just when we think they are overcome.

Yet in spite of these facts we are unable to believe that there is no progress at all. There is an enormous difference between primitive times and our highly developed civilization. The natural sciences, though they may not have changed man, have given him almost divine power over natural forces, they have abolished epidemics, prolonged human life and created technical possibilities which were unimaginable a short time ago. Apart from this, there is a slow accumulation of spiritual goods; whole worlds of art were inaccessible before Michelangelo and Shakespeare, before Rembrandt and Beethoven; the realm of thought has been transformed almost beyond recognition by such thinkers as Plato and Aristotle; and the religious possibilities of mankind were doubtless infinitely poorer before Buddha and Christ.

The life-story of the individual man, too, leads only to a further contradiction. Every man is compelled to recognize his own life as being a mere accident. His birth has placed him in a country, a people and family, which he could not choose; it has burdened him with a special heritage, with a mass exterior and interior conditions form which he cannot escape; and this birth which he could not influence depended on the most fortuitous contingencies; the most insignificant circumstances could prevent it or change fundamentally the conditions of his life. This life, too, is full of accidents. He has survived the war although millions succumbed to the same dangers; he has escaped death, the train-smash, the mortal disease, only because he met some ridiculous hindrance or because he lingered for a second; a single step more and he would have been run over or fallen over a cliff. And he cannot believe that these savings incidents were the instruments of a purposeful selection; among those who died prematurely were men at the beginning of a career which promised to bring blessing to the whole of mankind; and among those who have survived are men who are only a burden to themselves and to others, men who do not know how to make use of their lives.

Yet, at the same time, nobody can escape the conviction that his life has a meaning. He is bound to look for a meaning in everything he experiences; he will find no peace unless he discovers a meaning in all these accidents. If he denies this meaning, if he gives up his search for it in disappointment or despair, or if he is forced to live purposelessly, he will find that he reproaches himself for living in a false manner, for not fulfilling his real task, for not trying to find a meaning in his life. Even if he struggles with all his logical mind against these reproaches, he will still be compelled to believe that every human life has its meaning. In so far as he succeeds in destroying this faith he will only destroy himself. Meaning represents an integral part of this apparently senseless life.

We could go on adding examples of such inevitable contradictions almost at will. We are confronted, for instance, with the problems of evil and of suffering. The Christian has the greatest confidence that this world serves the final realization of good, but it is he who will be forced, time and again, to exclaim: 'If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and if He is love, why has He created a world which allows for evil, and why has He created men in such a way that they are bound to increase this evil infinitely?' We may be able to find convincing explanations for suffering, and many of these explanations carry great weight; yet if we are confronted with a woman who has lost her husband in the first and her children in the second world war, if we think of men who have been born with torturing diseases and yet grown old, or if we see that thousands of men are killed in an earthquake, and that the devastations due to man's lust for destruction or to his thoughtless indifference surpass the destruction wrought by nature; then even the most convincing explanation seems desperately inadequate and any answer we may be able to give will die on our lips. (For a further elaboration of this conflict, cf. H.H. Farmer, The World and God, pp. 92-102, or Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book V, Chapter 4.)

It is nevertheless undoubtedly true that we experience evil only because we know of good and because we believe in it. Our feelings may be blunted, we may become indifferent towards good and evil and destroy everything which is human within us. The pain, however, which we feel because of the evil and wickedness in the world presupposes the belief in goodness, in spite of the fact that the predominance of evil seems to rob this belief of its foundations. The recognition of evil, therefore, which cannot be reconciled with our belief in good, is yet impossible without it.

If we try to understand the facts on which our life is based and approach them without prejudice, we cannot escape fundamental contradictions which we are unable to resolve.

There are, of course, many unitary systems of thought, but all of them try to resolve these contradictions either by suppressing or by re-interpreting one part of these contradictions. None of these attempts, however, succeeds in hiding the fact that our experience and our perception have been unduly simplified or impoverished in the process, and that it is only thus that the system has become possible.

The natural sciences which establish for us the most important of these unitary systems of thought have indeed transformed our world; they work so exactly that, in some spheres, we can predict the future with their help; and technical achievements prove their power beyond any doubt. But these sciences are only exact while they confine themselves to inanimate matter; they become insufficient and inexact when they have to deal with life or with the human mind. The theory of evolution has made an overwhelming impact on our age, but has not been definitely proved; in spite of great efforts it still contains serious gaps. Psychology is divided into many schools and we are unable to decide which of the different interpretations of psychological processes is correct. Physiology may perhaps one day succeed in explaining the formation of thoughts by corresponding movements of particles or electrical impulses in the brain, but this would not help us in the least to understand the content of these thoughts. Material processes and meaning are so different that they cannot even be compared. (See J. Oman, The Natural and the Supernatural, pp. 9, 169, and C.E. Raven, Jesus and the Gospel of Love, p. 440) No belief in an impersonal necessity, moreover, can ever completely destroy our inner knowledge that we are more than mere tools of blind forces.

Nevertheless, it would be equally wrong to renounce these sciences because of their shortcomings, and to look instead to the inner experiences of man to achieve a unitary system of thought. In trying to do so, we only populate the external world with projections from our internal world, with gods and demons, or we renounce explanations where they are still possible, thus endangering the consistency of our belief. It is wrong to rely entirely on mechanical explanations; but it was just as wrong to think, as the Middle Ages did, that if we believe in Christ the earth must be the center of the world. We drag heaven down to earth or thrust ourselves up into heaven, and this makes any comprehension of either heaven or earth impossible. Nor can we replace the theory of evolution by laying stress on the importance of the single individual alone. Man is unable to free himself from external reality and he cannot escape from human society. If he tries to confine himself to his internal world, he will, in his neglect of the outer world, only impoverish those inner experiences which depend on his contact with nature, things and men. He will gradually destroy the life whose purpose he was trying to fulfill.

It is hardly necessary to explain at greater length that all unitary interpretations of human history also are bound to fail. We are unable to re-create past events in every detail; we must simplify history and interpret it to make it intelligible, and because of this necessary simplification we may find a unitary explanation which seems convincing. But for this very reason history is open to all interpretations. One philosophy of history indeed demonstrates convincingly that nations and civilizations are doomed to perish, while another proves equally convincingly that progress is inevitable.

The most torturing contradictions in our lives make this impossibility of a comprehensive unitary system most clearly visible. The meaning of our lives is to be found neither in success nor in external consistency, for we are confronted with utter injustice time and again; do not the wicked prosper and the good fail? It is wrong to seek a confirmation of the inner meaning in external events, because such a confirmation can only be found if we shut our eyes to facts. But it is also wrong to believe in ultimate chaos, because to do so we must destroy the inner world which we so clearly experience. Nor can we simply restrict ourselves to the appreciation of positive values; if we increase our sensitiveness to good, to truth and beauty, we shall become more vulnerable at the same time and experience evil, lies and ugliness more painfully. An increase in our ability to appreciate positive values cannot be separated from a clearer and more poignant experience of their negative opposites, or it is the same ability. (See J. Macmurray, Reason and Emotion, pp. 45-6) It is for this reason that the highest forms of human striving, such as religion, are those which are exposed to the greatest corruption. (See J. Oman, The Natural and the Supernatural, pp. 374-5) We must consider both these aspects of our lives and think two different thoughts at the same time, despite the fact that they contradict each other; it is only when we do not shun contradictions that we are able to do justice to the fullness of life.

Every man, however, in spite of these contradictions, longs to build up a unitary coherence of all his thoughts, feelings and actions. Every unsolved contradiction means mental discord and laceration and threatens, therefore, to destroy human life; it seems impossible that man could ever find peace except by establishing such a unitary coherence. Man craves for an explanation of all that he recognizes, feels, experiences, and an explanation seems satisfactory only if it means the fitting of each experience into a unitary system of thought.

This attitude seems to belong to man's very nature. On the one hand, it is based on the fact that he first perceives single objects; everything he can see and grasp appears to him as limited and as complete in itself. Even external events and inner experiences, although belonging to an unending flux of happenings, become intelligible by being isolated as unities. I see that tree in front of my window, a leaf falling slowly to the ground, I remember the last conversation with my friend—any such impression constitutes a unity, a whole. On the other hand, this impression is confirmed by our own personality. It is true that we experience ourselves as body and mind, and the body of whose organic and nervous activities we have no immediate knowledge is very different from our conscious activities; but both belong to our personality. We may be torn by contradictory intentions, thoughts and feelings and thus driven into painful conflicts, but all these experiences remain ours, even if we are unable to resolve their conflict, and this hurts us because it contradicts the unity of our personality. It is only because our being constitutes a unity that we are able to experience the most diverse impressions as our own, and to build up our lives and our knowledge with their help.

Yet we are only able to grasp finite unities, and the universe and our inner world are infinite. No unitary explanation, therefore, does justice to the whole of reality. But how can we reconcile the innumerable contradictions which we are unable to resolve with our longing for a unitary coherence which also seems an essential part of our true nature?

Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek

Section 2


Our longing for a unitary coherence of all our thoughts is prevented from reaching fulfillment, however, not only by the striking contradictions which we have considered, but also by some of the basic characteristics of our way of thinking , for we are forced to think with the help of opposites. This fact—the main subject of our investigation—will occupy us throughout the book; we shall return to most of the examples mentioned in this section and explain, too, our special use of the concept 'opposite'. (See Chapter 4, section 2) But even such a preliminary glimpse of this subject as does not need any special preparation, shows how many opposites in the ordinary meaning of this word are necessary to enable us to think clearly.

Let us begin with sense-impressions which are the natural starting point of our apprehension of reality and thus of thinking. A dazzling light will produce an overwhelming impression of brightness which neither contains nor needs any opposites, but we shall be unable to distinguish one object form another, or indeed to discern anything. If we are to see something clearly, the dazzling light must be pushed back with the help of darkness; we distinguish objects (Languages themselves seem to encourage us in our investigation. The words 'object' and 'subject' are derived from the Latin word for 'to throw', which presupposes an opposition. The German word 'Gegenstand' is even clearer, it comes from 'to stand against'.) only if contrasts within our field of vision enable us to perceive or to create boundaries. All the concrete objects we see become visible by some kind of opposition between different degrees of bright and dark.

Even if we want to clarify the undefined sensation originally produced by the dazzling light, we have to apply two different kinds of opposites. When light blinds us, the impression of brightness is inter-mixed with the pain of blinding. To conceive brightness itself, we must distinguish it from this pain; we have to oppose light as a pleasurable sensation to the pain which we feel at the same time. But this opposition is not yet complete, for both light and darkness can be associated either with pleasure or with pain. After a busy and harassing day we welcome the stillness and darkness of night as a great relief; after a sleepless night the first signs of daylight appear to us as a deliverance. Normal daylight, moreover, may produce neither pleasure nor pain. A clear conception of brightness will appear only after we have taken into account many such possibilities, and it will appear because 'bright' and 'dark' have emerged as the relevant opposites which enable us to concentrate upon this aspect of reality.

It may seem, however, that the clear apprehension of brightness and darkness, although originating in the contrast between them, eventually becomes independent of it, for we seem to be able to imagine brightness alone or darkness alone without the help of their opposites. Yet this is not correct, for we remain conscious of both. We can isolate brightness only because we have had the experience of darkness; we cannot exclude this experience at any time even if we do not direct our attention to it; it always remains present in our mind. Darkness, on the other hand, cannot be seen at all; it seems visible and thus becomes imaginable only because the eye automatically opposes to it the usual experience of light. (For the biological basis of this process see J.S. Haldane, The Philosophical Basis of Biology, p. 91)

The necessity of applying opposites is hidden in this case, because light and darkness are so familiar to us, and because sight immediately provides us with the vision of something else which leads to further consideration. We cannot even realize that if we were uninterruptedly surrounded by the same degree of brightness we should not notice light at all. Yet this is exactly what would happen, if darkness were not such an inescapable experience, and this sense not so highly developed. This becomes clear when we think of the senses which are less highly developed. If we enter a room filled with a weak smell, we notice it at first, because it forms a contrast to the air outside, but if we stay in the room we cease to notice it. We usually become conscious of a smell or a taste only when it is replaced by a different smell or taste; we do not smell and taste the air which normally surrounds us, because there is no opposite to create a sensation and make us conscious of the normal smell and taste of air.

It is only when we leave the sphere of unclear sensations in this way that we can proceed to the creation of concepts which our thinking can use, for the creation of concepts is entirely dependent on such opposites. It is generally recognized that we need opposites in order to define concepts, but their function is far more fundamental. We cannot separate the two at all, for we can give meaning to the concepts only by opposing these opposites to one another; their use is implied in the creation of the concept. (How closely connected the opposites are is shown most clearly in the oldest languages. The opposites 'strong-weak', 'light-dark', 'large-small' are expressed in them by the same root-words. In old Egyptian, e.g. 'Ken' means strong and weak. In the spoken language, the two meanings were distinguished by the intonation, in writing by putting behind it either a standing or a sitting man. Later, 'ken' (strong) and 'kan' (weak) were derived from it. In Latin some such ambivalent words exist too, e.g. 'altus' meaning high and deep, 'sacer' meaning holy and sacrilegious. There are also derivations from the same root with opposite meanings, e.g. clamare (shout) and clam (soft); siccus (dry) and succus (juice). See K. Abel, Der Gegensinn der Urworte, pp. 6, 13 ff., 23, 31-2, 41 ff.) We are unable to think of bright without thinking of dark at the same time, and this applies to all qualities whatsoever; we cannot think, for instance, of heavy without thinking of light, nor of warm without cold. We construct scales of degrees which seem to exclude the opposites; there are only degrees of hardness and not of softness. But these degrees, too, have been created with the help of opposites. We have to recognize that straw is hard when compared with cotton wool, but soft when compared with wood, before we can fit them into a single scale, and we have to return to these opposites if we want to understand the abstract degree of such a scale. ('We speak of getting hotter and hotter, and we think of what can be measured by a graduated scale of quantities. If, however, we isolate our sensations from the idea of a fire or a thermometer, the sensations of being frozen, chilly, tolerably warm, comfortably warm, hot, sweltering, burning are of different qualities, which, taken entirely by themselves, we could never have arranged in any scale of quantities.' J. Oman, The Natural and the Supernatural, p. 194)

We are also bound to use opposites when we try to get a clear idea of the object described by these qualities. It is an object within, and distinguished from, the space which surrounds it; we have to see it in opposition to the empty space. To make this distinction we have to recognize its boundaries, which we do by contrasting it with its surroundings. Inside the boundaries we find matter, and matter is nowadays explained by the theory of electrons. Here we must distinguish between positive and negative elements and consider their motion and the distance between their orbits, and for this purpose we have to apply scales of degrees founded upon the opposites of slow and quick, and of large and small. Each single electron, moreover, represents a part of a whole (whether of an object or of the entire material world) and one unit among many; and our concepts are based on both these opposites as well.

Each step forward in our thinking multiplies these opposites. If we consider the weight of an object, for instance, we not only need the opposites 'light' and 'heavy'; we also assume that two objects are in opposition to one another, for weight is the pressure exercised by one object upon another one, and it can only be measured if such and opposition is brought about. The pressure itself must be explained as a motion which has come to a stop, but which will continue as soon as the obstacle is removed; we have to apply the opposites 'rest' and 'motion', therefore, even if we are concerned with a state of rest. At the same time, the pressure is due to the power of attraction exercised by the earth; this is the cause and the weight is the effect—a further opposition. This power itself can be recognized only if there is something upon which it can exert an influence, and such a thing must be opposed to the forces working upon it, for it enables us to discern these forces by offering some kind of resistance. As soon as an object vanishes under the impact of a force, we cease to be able to detect the force.

Furthermore, all these concepts—motion, pressure, cause and effect, force—not only describe objects, but represent events. This leads to the recognition or application of further opposites. External events are based upon motions; we have just said that we think of motion even while thinking of rest, and we can see and measure it only if we are able to compare it with something which is a rest. We neither see nor feel the motion of the earth, for as we move with it, there is is no opposition which would enable us to apprehend it directly. Yet we can recognize and measure it, because we are able, by indirect observation, to put it in opposition to other stars which move differently, especially because the fixed stars can be considered as being at rest when compared with the motion of the planets.

Modern scientific theories do not alter this position in the least. The theory of relativity, for instance, is based upon the speed of light which is considered as something which cannot change and remains absolutely constant—that is, it is used in exactly the same way as the concept 'at rest'. This theory, therefore, does not imply that everything is relative, but presupposes the opposites 'absolute' and 'relative'. Nor does the calculation based on probability, which is increasingly applied in physics, exclude opposites. We have to bring into opposition the cases which really happened and all the possible ones, and we do not abolish causality, for the single events have to be explained with the help of it. The concept of contingency must be interpreted and used as the opposite of that of causality.

Nor can we escape the application of opposites when we leave the realm of inanimate matter and try to understand man. As we ourselves are human beings, we might expect that we have a more direct knowledge in this sphere and thus become independent of any laws force upon us by the nature of our thinking. Instead, however, we have to apply even more opposites here, and these opposites become even more complicated and involved as our knowledge progresses.

The activity of thinking itself is based on contradictory principles, on those of logic and mathematics on the one hand, which have to be applied to our external experience, and on values on the other, which often have to be accepted against all logical considerations, and we must apply both if we want to do justice to our lives. If we want to clarify our thoughts, we have to make clear distinctions between facts and theories, between sense-data and judgments, between knowledge and belief, and that means that we have to create a clear opposition between the thoughts due to our apprehension of external reality, and the thoughts due to the working of our minds or to our inner experiences. To understand thinking we have to separate our impressions from the laws of our thinking; to understand consciousness, we have to introduce the concept of the subconscious; to understand morality, we have to confront inner freedom with external causality or compulsion.

The realms of feeling and willing, too, do not make us free from the application of opposites. We speak quite automatically of pleasure and pain, of joy and sorrow, of love and hate. It seems that love can finally reconcile and transcend all opposites, but it presupposes them; it presupposes at least the confrontation of two separate entities. Our willing is determined by instincts and by intentions; the instinctive or conscious will to power struggles in each of us against our awareness of moral obligations; we experience in some ways the opposition between the impulses of our body and of our mind. Any action due to our willing, moreover, confronts us with the problem of necessity and freedom; we see that our human striving faces both external compulsion and a mysterious supernatural fate or providence. Actions themselves are useful or harmful, good or evil. Man, however, is not only active; he also succumbs to influences and events; nobody could understand his feelings and behaviour if he only paid attention to his activities without considering an opposite state of passivity or suffering.

The sciences dealing with life and with man are not so exact as those dealing with inanimate matter. This is partly due to the very fact that they cannot establish clear opposites. In biology, for instance, the boundaries between inanimate matter and living cells, or those between the animals and man, remain in many respects uncertain. In spite of this, however, we are bound to apply these opposites; no theory can stop us from seeing life in opposition to inanimate matter. Nor can we think of life without thinking of death, and we have to oppose death to mere dissolution; objects dissolve, living organisms die. Each single cell is a complete unit in itself, yet we have to see them, too, as parts of the whole of an organism which we have to oppose, in its turn, to some larger unit. It is true that the belief in a life force, representing life as a whole, has had to be abandoned, but our difficulties here are due to the fact that we are in need of such an opposite, without being able to describe it satisfactorily.

The transformation of our psychological knowledge into a reliable science is faced with similar difficulties. Most psychologists try to avoid them by excluding the possibilities of free choices and thus denying the moral nature of man. Yet no science can prevent us from regarding man as a sensual and a spiritual being, and from opposing his body to his mind or soul or spirit. We have great difficulties as the words themselves indicate, in defining these opposites properly, but, whatever words we choose, we have, if we want to understand man, to take into consideration some such opposition between his animal instincts and his moral impulses, or between external and internal compulsion and free decisions. Nor can we avoid seeing and applying the opposition between the single individual and society or mankind.

The development of philosophy confirms our belief that there is no acceptable unitary explanation. Neither an idealistic nor a materialistic or positivist philosophy can satisfactorily overcome these fundamental opposites; it is no accident that both these constant types of philosophical teaching continue simultaneously throughout the ages.

A perfect work of art, on the other hand, represents a complete unity which we cannot explain, but it remains inexplicable because we recognize, so far as we can analyse its composition, that it unites the most extreme opposites—opposites so contradictory that we are usually unable to reconcile them.

Any perfect work of art is conditioned by the period of its creation and yet valid far beyond it; to remain alive it must be firmly rooted in its contemporary world and yet transcend any temporal bondage. It is, at the same time, national and supranational, tied to both nationality and humanity; it expresses with equal strength the individuality of the artist and common human nature, and it is thus unique and yet general, an expression of general experiences and principles. It is conditioned by intuition which can be neither willed nor taught, and by intellectual intentions and endeavours; its technique is formally accessible to intellectual thinking and teaching and is, at the same time, the direct and inexplicable expression of feeling. It has entirely become part of the external reality, so that it can be grasped with our senses, and is, in spite of that, the frame of purely emotional or spiritual experiences. The artist has to be strong enough to comprehend external reality at once in its externals and its essence; he has to see it as external reality and yet to transform it into an expression of internal reality. It is thus that a unique work confined within narrow limits, a very strange and tiny particle of the universe, becomes in spite of its limits and its peculiarity the most complete symbol of the whole of reality.

The arts presuppose special gifts and talents; religion is based solely upon the fundamental conditions of human existence. But in the sphere of religion we are entirely dependent on the use of opposites. Here we need them, not only to express the results of our striving, but even to become aware of religious experiences. To find access t this spiritual reality, we must increase the power of our feelings with the help of the most extreme opposites; it is only thus that we catch a glimpse of this supernatural world whose part and opposite we are, and that we can understand what religion means. No intellectual interpretation, lacking the support of strong and developed feelings, could show us the meaning of any adequate statement about the nature of religion. For 'religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension, something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest'. (A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1946), p. 238)

For Christianity, God is the 'wholly other', the 'entirely incomprehensible', inspiring terror and awe, (Cf. R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy) and yet, at the same time, He is the Father whom we can approach with the simple love and trust of children. Any awareness of God is not only the awareness of 'an unconditional demand' which forces us to give up any shelter or security, but also that of the 'final succour' which gives us the certainty of salvation. (H.H. Farmer, The World and God, p. 25) In the centre of Christianity stands the Cross, the most terrible catastrophe in human history, the most torturing defeat of the spirit, which nevertheless is a sign neither of tragedy nor of defeat, but on the contrary of the highest triumph of the spirit and the final expression of divine grace. Man is not severed from God and annihilated, but he is shown, by these extreme opposites, the real path to redemption.

Buddhism in its original form is the only one of the great religions which is not concerned with God, but with the striving for 'Nirvana'. Nirvana means the dissolution of everything that exists in 'the undivided eternal Whole' and is, therefore, freed from any opposition; it is 'extinction', 'a fire which has gone out for lack of fuel'; all its descriptions are attempts to describe nothingness. (P. Deussen, Die nachvedische Philosophie der Inder, 3. Aufl., pp. 111-12) It is not intended to be nothingness, but to represent the highest state of blessedness, yet it reveals itself only as a negation of the world and as an overcoming of human existence, thus leading, in spite of its ecstasies and its highest morality, to the complete destruction of all reality. It is no accident that the pure form of Buddhism has almost disappeared; because reality could not be excluded, Buddhism had to change its doctrines.

Neither external facts nor inner experiences, neither simple objects nor the sphere of our highest spiritual endeavours can be grasped and understood without the help of opposites. Nothing remains if we try to exclude them.

Paul Roubiczek

Section 3


The following investigation tries to show in greater detail that we apply opposites whenever we think at all, and that accurate thinking, therefore, depends upon their correct application. We shall try to discover the nature of these opposites and to find out whether there are laws or rules which would enable us to apply them correctly.

Thinking in Opposites, the title of this book, has thus a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it points to the fact that our thinking is based upon opposites; on the other hand, it raises the demand that we should become aware of them and consciously apply them. This is no contradiction, for the fact that we are forced to think with the help of opposites does not imply that we consciously make use of them. On the contrary, it is chiefly by attempting to suppress, to exclude or to overcome them that we pay regard to this fact in most of our present methods of thinking. These attempts, however, never succeed completely; if we neglect the opposites, their influence passes unnoticed, but it falsifies our thoughts. We shall see that we must not try to weaken these opposites or to bridge them artificially; we must try to work them out clearly.

This abandonment of the hope of ever reaching an all-inclusive unitary explanation of reality may appear, at first, as a serious and painful loss, but in fact it leads to a great enrichment of our thinking. As we can, in fact, only think with the help of opposites, we do not lose anything if we apply them, but find how to make full use of our power of thought. Only if we are willing to acknowledge opposites are we prepared to consider all the many contradictions with which our lives are filled, and only then are we also ready to have regard to the many forms in which reality appears to us. We shall not attempt, therefore, to add yet another futile solution of the contradictions which we considered at the beginning of this chapter. These contradictions undermine any results which we may hope to achieve by building up a unity by thinking, but they increase our awareness of the manifold aspects of our lives, and become the clearest expression of our knowledge, if we accept the fundamental importance of opposites.

This thinking in opposites, however, does justice too to our longing for a unity which we also cannot exclude; it even promises to solve this seemingly insoluble problem in a more satisfactory way than any enforced unitary coherence of our thoughts. It does so, because it leads us to include in our investigation the sphere of feeling.

Thinking and feeling cannot be completely separated; they form opposites which always appear at the same time. Every feeling, to be understood, has to be translated into thought; every thought, on the other hand, produces a feeling; the more independent our thinking, the less we accept other people's way of thinking but really exercise our own power of thought, the more distinct is the feeling which accompanies our thought. Only if a thought has produced a feeling has it become a living property of the person who thought it. To-day most of us assume that thinking and feeling exclude one another; we are accustomed either to suppress our feelings in order to be able to think clearly, or to forego thinking so as not to weaken our feeling; we often use feelings as a means of escape or, in those regions to which our thoughts cannot penetrate, as a less reliable substitute for thinking. The clarification of opposites, however, helps also to free our feelings from their vagueness; it helps us to discipline them and to transform them into what they really should be, namely an organ of knowledge. It shows that we can increase, at the same time, both the intensity of our feelings and the clarity of our thoughts. It is this transformation of our feelings which, as we hope to show, satisfies our longing for a unity.

At the present time, the general tendency is to seek an all-inclusive unitary explanation. This leads to the setting of one part of our feelings against another, for no intellectual unity can ever be comprehensive enough to include the whole of reality, and therefore we have to reject whatever is inconsistent with it. This need to accept parts of reality and to reject others splits up our feelings and drives them in different directions, and thus we are prevented from re-establishing that unity which we originally experience. The struggle for an intellectual unity produces, not a unity, but inner discord and laceration, because this wrong way of thinking is not in accordance with our feelings.

The intention of this investigation is to reverse this process, in the belief that if we pursue these opposites to their conclusion we prepare the way for a synthesis of feeling which is really satisfactory, because it is with the feelings and not with the intellect that we can grasp the true unity of existence. We hope to show that , if we renounce the premature satisfaction of an intellectual unity and apply the real laws of our thinking, we can develop our feelings so as to lift up into consciousness that unity of existence which we cannot grasp by thinking alone. We must try, therefore, to recognize as clearly as possible the opposites which are the basis of our thinking; we must not shun the most extreme contradictions, but try, on the contrary, to discover them. Only thus shall we be able to overcome the dangers which we cannot escape by any artificial unification.

The fact that we accept opposites as the basis of our thoughts, and contradictions as the result, does not mean that we take refuge in some kind of dualism. On the contrary, it robs dualism of its foundations.

As these opposites are the way by which we think, they cannot disclose the true nature of reality, and as they remain dependent upon one another, they never tear the world asunder. Those contradictions which might produce the belief that reality is determined by two independent principles, are shown to be the consequences of our thinking. The very acceptance of such opposites, therefore, prevents us from founding any kind of dualistic belief upon them. At the same time, it also prevents that unacknowledged dualism which is probably more common to-day, for if we are aware of these opposites there is no longer any need to keep our practical or scientific endeavours and our moral or religious convictions in two completely separate compartments.

As the investigation starts from the laws of thinking, it is primarily an epistemological one. Yet it transcends this sphere, not only because it includes feeling, but also because we believe that the knowledge of the conditions imposed upon our thinking can make an important contribution to our knowledge of the nature of man. By rejecting any attempt at a unitary or dualistic explanation of the whole of reality, we also reject metaphysical statements. But we shall try to show that the conditions of our thought, without the help of any metaphysical interpretation, express and clarify certain inner experiences, thus increasing our knowledge of truth and beauty, of morality, and of man's part in, and access to, that supernatural reality which is the concern of religion.

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go to: Chapter 2, "External and Internal Reality"

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