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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 III:

Chapter 10


Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek

Section 1


The interconnected opposites are different from the others in so far as they contain an element of personal achievement. A few of them can be discovered by investigation, yet even these need not appear from the beginning as clear opposites but have to be established as such. Most of these opposites, however, have to be created by thinking, and each such creation represents a particular achievement in the realm of thought. We are unable to create very many, nor can we calculate how many are in existence; there are always a few only which are accessible and understandable to us. But even one such opposition, if rightly understood and applied, may suffice to make a vast realm of thought and experience accessible and intelligible. (E.g. M. Buber's I and Thou.)

The discovery or creation of these opposites must not be imagined as a continuous process; the establishing of any such opposition is a rare event, a flash of sudden illuminating insight which, by penetrating more deeply beneath the surface of life, makes it fuller and richer. The true moments of insight in the realm of philosophy and human wisdom are not so numerous, after all; they are only gradually accumulated and frequently lost sight of again. Many a system of philosophy does not reach this level at all, but, if it does, it is in these opposites and not in the system as such that its ultimate value consists. (Though Plato's system of ideas, for instance, is clearly wrong, his philosophy remains important because his distinction between appearance and true reality is similar to that between external and internal reality, and because, in his investigation, he touches upon such interconnected opposites as space and time and necessity and freedom. But he could not have established his unitary system had he paid attention to the opposition between the One and the Many.)

The peculiarity of these opposites follows from what we have just said. We can never hope to overcome all shortcomings, and in particular we cannot possibly succeed always in influencing our feelings by thinking, so as to be able to create the unitary feeling at will. The sphere of influence of our will-power remains especially small when feelings come into play. Quite apart from outside influences, we are dependent on intuitions, on our general disposition and special talents, on our past experiences and present sensitiveness, not to mention the difficult problem of the true nature of man, which obviously leads us beyond mere human consciousness. We shall hardly succeed if we try to force ourselves; we must rather wait. It is here that the Christian conception of grace can be most easily understood.

We have always to remember the limitatons of thinking which we have emphasized in the preface. But we have had to emphasize there, too, that thinking cannot be avoided, and this implies that even those processes which spring from other sources or which transcend thinking are gradually lifted into consciousness and translated into thought. It remains essential, however, that this should be done in a most cautious and careful way, so that those experiences which we can express only with the greatest difficulty in words are not falsified by logical or abstract thoughts. Thinking must serve not govern; above all, it must never destroy the secret and mystery which is at the bottom of all existence. Thinking, in other words, must not transcend the boundaries which are drawn, as we have seen, by its very nature; in particular it must not claim to possess that absolute knowledge which it cannot reach alone. We must beware equally of excluding thought where we need it and of relying on thinking alone where it has to be subordinated to different experiences—and it is exactly this need which is safeguarded by the interconnected opposites.

As we must try, in this investigation, to expound possible results, the description of these opposites may give the impression that we are now leading up to final results, but this would be a gross misunderstanding. We must not forget what we have stressed again and again—that thinking in opposites does not lead to definite results, but rather transforms thinking into a constant activity, securing its right development and direction; and that we can never completely transcend internal reality because these thoughts, to have real significance, have to refer to our own experiences. The positive results we are gong to describe are undoubtedly possible; they can be achieved in moments of great spiritual strength, and the knowledge of thinking in opposites in general and of the interconnected opposites in particular can greatly assist us in achieving these results more reliably and more frequently, and in understanding better the meaning of similar achievements. But they can only become real as the result of our own activity, and they remain well-nigh meaningless if they are merely considered as an interesting line of thought. We are approaching those regions where clear experience and its interpretation are becoming most difficult and exacting, and the danger of misinterpretation greatest. The final results to be striven for lie in feeling and not in thinking, and this is probably sufficient to indicate the need for caution. This has to be borne in mind throughout the description of these opposites, and we shall remember it more easily if we always try to follow, not only the line of thought, but the experience underlying it.

The task of the interconnected opposites is to drive thinking into those opposite extremes which we can neither avoid nor reconcile. They enable us to use to the full our capacity to think by allotting to these extremes—one of which we usually try to exclude for the sake of an artificial unity—their rightful place within our thoughts. In this way they enable us to approach those spheres of our being which can otherwise hardly be grasped by thinking without dangerous falsifications.

To give an example—if we accept morality, we have to presuppose the complete and utter independence of man, for unless we are free to act according to our intentions we cannot be expected to choose between good and evil. At the same time, morality makes us completely and utterly dependent, for we are absolutely bound by the moral laws. These are the two extreme conclusions at which thinking has to arrive, and though they form an irreconcilable contradiction, we must not suppress either of them. If we stress freedom alone, we easily forget the mysterious nature of the absolute values; we forget that in them we meet something absolute which stands over against us and which we can never fully grasp; instead, as we believe ourselves to be in absolute control, we harden them into strict rules, and this threatens to destroy the very freedom from which we started. If we stress our dependence alone, we easily overlook the necessity of choice and action and thus endanger the meaning of morality, even though we want to make it the sole determining factor. We have to be aware of both these extreme conclusions at the same time; it is their contradiction which helps us to understand that we are dealing here with a sphere which we cannot completely explain by thinking—for whence do the absolute values spring? The fact that these two conclusions cannot be reconciled and yet both have to be accepted will sharpen our feelings and we shall experience more fully what morality implies—that it does not merely mean obeying rules, but being active ourselves and yet relying on something outside our control; relying on the absolute which is beyond our reach and yet striving for it. Feeling will make us aware that no success whatever can offer a final explanation or represent a definite achievement; we shall have to try again and again and thus be forced constantly to renew our experience. This alone, however, can enable us to understand morality better and better, for it fulfils the main condition for making internal reality real for us. (Cf. J. Oman, Grace and Personality, which is an admirable elaboration of this opposition.)

To give another example—Christian doctrine promises judgment and grace. If we want to understand Christianity, both these thoughts have to be accepted, though, again, they form a complete contradiction. If it is important that we are persons, as Christian teaching claims, our deeds have to be of real consequence and must, therefore, be judged. The grace of God, however, cannot possibly be limited; the loss of a single soul would mean a defeat of God's love, and this cannot be reconciled with the Christian conception of God. These thoughts represent once more the last boundaries to which our logical thinking is able to advance, and we have to think both of them at the same time in spite of their contradiction; for if we stress judgment alone, God will no longer remain the God of Love, and if we stress grace alone, we may forget to try to become worthy of this love. But if we remain aware of both these thoughts, feeling will gradually disclose to us that judgment of our sins can be redeeming grace, and that the recognition of the nature of grace can be the severest punishment. We are no longer in danger of reducing the concept of God to a mere abstract notion, but experience the mystery which is at the core of all living religion.

We shall discuss these and other examples more fully later. But what has just been said is probably sufficient to show why it is so important to know the interconnected opposites, though such statements can be made and have been made without any conscious knowledge of these opposites.

The demand that we should drive our thought into the last extermes might suggest the way of abstraction; but this is exactly the way which has to be avoided. Abstraction always helps the simplification and unification of our experience; we try with its help to become able to deal with reality and to manipulate it. Obviously it cannot convey the experiences we have in mind, for it leads away from feeling into the purest regions of thought.

That abstraction has to be dropped at this point can be clearly seen when we consider the possible answers to the question 'Why?' We seem to be able to answer it when we rely on some abstract conception of general laws or of a force or a First Cause; these answers seem sufficient to allow us to turn away from anything mysterious and to proceed with thinking alone. As a matter of fact, however, answers to this question are only useful in some definite, concrete context and so far as practical achievemtnts are concerned; we can say why a stone falls or why a means serves its end. But we must remain aware of the fact that this question can never be answered in any fundamental or comprehensive way. Why has the earth become the dwelling place of man? Why are we born in this or that country, into this or that family, and with such and such endowments and not with others, with better ones? Why is there so much misery and suffering,and why do promising people die young and people afflicted with disabling diseases old? We cannot hope to answer such questions and must not even try, in such contexts it is no longer right to manipulate reality; to understand it at all, we have to accept it and to submit to it. We shall only begin to understand our lives when we renounce the attempt to escape into abstract regions.

The knowledge of thinking in opposites can prevent us, as we have seen, from using abstraction in the wrong way, but to be able to cope with these fundamental contradictions we must also know those opposite extremes which are at the bottom of all our experience. We have pointed out that external and internal opposites, when mixed up, seem to lead to definite answers which narrow down our field of vision and understanding, and the danger of falling into this trap is great, for the urge to ask the question 'Why?' is very strong indeed. We have to proceed, therefore, to the interconnected opposites, for they alone can make sure that we do not stop thinking before the last extremes are reached.

Paul Roubiczek

Section 2


There are, as we have just said, two kinds of interconnected opposites—those which can be discovered by investigation, and those which have to be created. In the following we shall discuss the first kind only, and afterwards deal separately with the second kind. It is true that the second kind is more important and that these opposites can be established without any reference to thinking in opposites. But the knowledge of the first kind will be of importance there, too, for as they are the clear outcome of a method of thinking, they enable us to test the others and prevent us from establishing wrong oppositions. Therefore we must first know those interconnected opposites which can be directly based on our knowledge of the laws of thinking.

To understand the following description, it is best to keep in mind the opposites which we are going to discuss—'space and time', 'necessity and freedom', and 'the One and the Many'. We have said that even the opposites belonging to this category are not simply presented to us as oppositions, but have to be discovered and recognized as such; they many not, therefore, appear as distinct opposites at first sight, especially in the case of 'space and time'. But the following general description will help us to see why they are to be considered as opposites, and they will then be discussed in greater detail.

The interconnected opposites combine the characteristics of external and internal opposites. (See Chapter 5, Section 2, paragraphs 2-4 and Chapter 7, Section 1, paragraphs 1-5.)

Like the external opposites, they seem to be derived directly from external facts; they refer to something which exists, or to laws which work, independently of ourselves. They could appear as a mere selection of facts which we apprehend in external reality. Their independence of the observer finds expression in their being highly independent of each other; each of the two parts of the opposites can be used by itself and seems to exist separately. If one part is taken away, the other remains unimpaired. We can consider either space or time; necessity and freedom seem to exclude each other so that we have to consider either the one or the other; we can concentrate on one unit alone, without paying attention to any other, or on quantity alone, without paying attention to particular units.

At the same time, however, the interconnected opposites also show the characteristics of internal opposites. Looked upon from external reality, they seem to consist of purely abstract concepts, but this does not necessarily distinguish them from external opposites, for we have to use abstractions there too. Yet unlike those which belong to external reality, such as logical or mathematical concepts or laws, these concepts have a definite meaning for us, they are abstract when applied to external reality, but not at all abstract in internal reality, for here they represent important elements in our actual experience. We are bodies in space and live through time; necessity and freedom determine our actions and are felt most intensely; we exist as single individuals in a society. All these concepts occur, moreover, not in one reality alone, but in both.

Their independence of each other, too, is paralleled by an equally strong dependence on each other; although we can separate them completely, we are unable to isolate them completely. They can be separated, but not disconnected. It is true that, in the case of external opposites, we have also to establish the opposites in our minds in order to form clear concepts, but these concepts, once formed, can be used in isolation. The night is dark and not light; the opposite 'light' serves only to form the concept 'dark'; the force of gravity is the cause of the falling of the stone and not its effect. Similarly, we can concentrate either on space or on time alone, on necessity or freedom; on a single unit or on many; yet we cannot succeed in excluding their opposites altogether, for everything which exists is related to both parts of these opposites. That spatial things do not disappear while we grasp them presupposes their lasting in time, and our measuring of time needs something which exists in space; it is no accident that, in the end, we have to measure space by light years and that we usually measure time by the hands of a clock moving in space. Our understanding of absolute necessity, as we have seen, presupposes absolute freedom, but we cannot understand freedom as mere licence, we need moral laws or some definite attitude to make freedom a reality for us. The single unit we observe is dependent at least on a second unit, the observer (and this is ture, as we shall see, even if we observe ourselves, for even then we have to create such an opposition) and any quantity is made up of single units. No such statement as 'the night is dark and not light' is possible in the realm of the interconnected opposites, their two parts are both needed, even if we deal with them as existing separately.

They can be looked upon, therefore, both as dependent and as independent opposites—that is, as external and internal. If one part is taken away, the other remains unimpaired, but the separation does not exclude the other part. It not only remains present in our minds, as is the case with external opposites, but actually present, even if we pay no attention to it.

It is this puzzling combination of external and internal characteristics which explains why these concepts have remained stumbling blocks throughout the history of philosophy. To consider them as external facts has clearly become impossible, but it has been tried again and again, because most of those philosophers who included them in the laws of thinking did not account for their peculiar nature. Kant did so in respect of space and time, but we must break up his lists of categories.

The interdependence of these opposites also becomes obvious when we try to discuss the question which we had to answer when considering both external and internal opposites—namely, whether we can alter the relationship between the two parts of the opposites; for this question has become entirely meaningless. There is neither such a relationship which cannot be reversed as that between a light and a dark object or between cause and effect, nor such a dependence as that between good and evil or between beautiful and ugly, where the one concept simply vanishes if we deny the other; nor is there such an order as that of the scales of values where the same opposites can take different places in different scales. The interconnected opposites can be separated and yet not isolated; they are interlocked in such a way that their relationship can only be described as a simple opposition which cannot be altered in any way. No sequence or order qualifies their direct opposition; it is based on a complete equality of the two parts, in respect of their existence as well as of their value.

Instead, they show some of the characteristics of the constructive concepts, for one of their parts always refers to external and the other to internal reality. Space, necessity and the Many are fundamental to our understanding of external reality, time, freedom and the One to that of internal reality. We have further seen that the constructive concepts are either different in the two realities or, if formed by the same concepts, acquire a different meaning in each of them. The interconnected opposites show great similarities to the second category.

There is, however, an important difference too—the interconnected opposites being the basis and the constructive concepts the consequence of the division into two realities. The constructive concepts, such as form and content, cause and effect, means and ends, need not be applied and acquire meaning only if they are; otherwise they remain purely abstract and formal concepts. The interconnected opposites, to acquire meaning, have to be applied too, but we cannot help applying them, for there is no perception of reality without them. They are purely abstract, moreover, only when referring to external reality, but important facts within internal reality.

But here we come up against a special technical difficulty. As this investigation represents the very first attempt to describe thinking in opposites, we could not introduce the distinction between constructive concepts and interconnected opposites right from the beginning, but had to proceed gradually from the more obvious processes of thinking towards those which underlie them. Nevertheless, to be able to discuss the working of our minds at all, we were forced to mention the interconnected opposites which we are discussing here among the constructive concepts. The direction of our investigation cannot be reversed, for we shall be able to explain the difference between the two only when we know the interconnected opposites, and so we cannot yet fill this gap. But the difference will become clear after we have discussed them. Yet we can see already how these opposites may help us to make sure that thinking in opposites is developed as a reliable method.

That these opposites can be found in each reality and yet represent both of them once more satisfies the two fundamental demands that external and internal reality should be completely separated from each other and yet both taken into account. To understand the interconnected opposites, we have to separate their external and internal appearance completely; we shall not understand external reality unless we use space and time as purely formal concepts and neglect their meaning for our lives; we shall not understand internal reality unless we use the One and the Many, not as mathematical formulae, but as representing human relationships. We have to apply these opposites in each reality in the form in which we find them there. But, on the other hand, we can only be certain that we have arrived at them when we discover the same concepts in both realities. As they refer to the division into two realities itself, we cannot have grasped that division so long as these concepts remain different, for then we are obviously not yet in sight of the two realities themselves.

At the same time, these opposites also make sure that we pass through all the stages of thinking in opposites which we found necessary. For to discover interconnected opposites at all the following operations of thinking must have been performed:

(1) We have to be aware that we are thinking in opposites and try to develop this thinking intentionally, for only then shall we try to discover these extreme oppositions. Otherwise we shall alwys be tempted to find a unitary final solution or, if we cannot help seeing opposites, to establish a dualism which also prevents any further development of thinking.

(2) Both external and internal opposites must have been applied correctly and not mixed up, for any such confusion, as we have seen, represents a short cut to a unitary solution and thus prevents us from discovering further opposites.

(3) The constructive concepts must have been applied correctly to both realities; they have to limit the two realities clearly in their relationship with each other, so that we can penetrate deeper into each of them without referring to the other. We have also to know the different applications of these concepts to the two realities, (for instance 'cause and effect' and 'means and end'), to be able to see what in these concepts recurs in both of them (necessity and freedom).

(4) Negation must have been applied correctly, external negation for the sake of limitation, and internal negation to create those values which come into being with the help of negation. For both parts of the interconnected opposites, because they refer to the two realities, must always be positive. Necessity and freedom, for instance could be most easily mistaken for mutual negation; but the opposite of necessity is neither mere lack of any compulsion nor licence nor arbitrariness, but a positive conception of freedom; and necessity is not merely absence of freedom, but something which we know and experience as something real. Negation, therefore, must have played its part, so that we can dispense with it completely.

The task of the interconnected opposites as we have said, is to give expression to the most extreme opposition which we can possibly arrive at in our thinking; they enable us to make the right use of the right extremes. We must not be satisfied with merely paradoxical statements which combine contradictory assertions at will in order to shake our certainty or to create surprise; nor with the mere opposition between 'Yes' and 'No', between affirmation and negation, which, though extreme, leads only to an intrusion of feeling into thinking. Both parts of these opposites have always to consist of positive facts or conclusions which we cannot possibly avoid and which, therefore, have for us an equal power of conviction.

In short, as these opposites always refer to the division into two realities, to know them makes it impossible ever to overlook the necessity for applying opposites. But the ability to decide whether they can be rightly considered as such opposites has to be derived from the comprehensive knowledge of thinking in opposites.

If we are successful, these opposites solve those problems whose solution we still found necessary for making this way of thinking fruitful, thus confirming that it has led us in the right direction. But we repeat, to avoid misunderstandings—they solve them without giving final solutions. We must always bear in mind that this is a method of thinking which excludes metaphysical results. Opposites and contradictions, after all, are no final answers.

It is these opposites and contradictions, however, which lead to that synthesis in the realm of feeling which, as we have claimed, represents our only true approach to the unity of primary reality. (See Chapter 1, Section 3, paragraphs 4-7 and Chapter 8, Section 2, paragraphs 15-17.) We shall describe this process at greater length later, but it may be useful to give an idea of it here to conclude this general description.

It can be understood at once when we remember those insoluble contradictions from which we started, as for instance that between the 'starry heaven above' which annihilates our importance and 'the moral law within' which makes us nevertheless, the centre of the universe. (See Chapter 1, Section 1, paragraph 3.) The confrontation of these two facts does not produce a stable equilibrium; it remains a contradiction which we cannot help experiencing painfully time and again. But if we remain conscious of these two contradictory and yet inevitable conclusions and succeed in realizing them at the same time, we create a feeling of awe which, though it cannot be expressed in words, does greater justice to our position in the universe and to our moral experience than any explanation. A strong feeling will arise and make us aware that we have touched upon truth; we shall feel the meaning of our precarious position in this world and be prevented both from overrating the material world and forgetting it altogether; we shall feel that there is something behind the moral laws which implies a mysterious connection with the nature of the universe, without being tempted to translate this feeling into a unifying metaphysical statement. The underlying experience of beauty, moreover, will work against any abstract hardening of the moral laws.

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go to: Chapter 11, "Interconnected Opposites and Absolute Values"

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