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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 II:

Chapter 4


Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek Paul Roubiczek

Section 1


The division into two realities is the fundamental fact which underlies all our thinking. We experience primary reality as a unity, and therefore we also try to establish a unitary coherence in all our thought. But as soon as we become conscious of this reality and begin to think, we are confronted with two different realities. There is no way of escaping this division, for we have no other access to primary reality which we are unable to grasp directly. The opposition between the two realities is the condition of every thought, whatever the impression, experience, feeling or knowledge to which it may refer.

In the single impression or experience, however, the two realities are not opposed to each other as such; we do not always think of the fact that we are dealing with external reality, nor, indeed, that it is we who are dealing with it, nor of all that this implies. The opposition of the two realities is brought about by opposing to each other single elements from each reality; a certain object or event is made accessible by those special laws of our thinking which apply to it, and a particular feeling is directed towards a single object. We do not normally think of external and internal reality, but use automatically such opposites as 'dark and light' or 'cause and effect', as 'good and evil' or 'necessity and freedom'. The fundamental opposition between the two realities is indeed brought about in this way, but the two realities themselves remain in the background. We therefore translate this fundamental opposition into pairs of opposites composed of more limited concepts, to be able to apply them to the special occasion.

This statement hardly needs any further elaboration. When describing the two realities, we have been forced, again and again, to make use of such opposites composed of more limited concepts, and this has already shown us that such a translation takes place. The way in which the division into two realities gradually imposes upon our thinking a general pattern of opposites can be seen best when we start from the constructive concepts.

The need for these concepts is due to the necessity of transferring concepts from one reality to the other without endangering their complete separation. This can be done, as we have seen, only by creating the opposition of the two realities in every impression and experience. We need more limited concepts, therefore, which can be applied within each reality, and these concepts have to form opposites to enable us to keep to the division into two realities. The examples which we have mentioned have already shown us that the constructive concepts always form pairs of opposites. We cannot think of effect without cause; the concept 'force' requires something upon which the force can exert an influence, that is the opposite 'matter'; necessity cannot be thought of without accident, and the idea of a complete freedom. (We shall discuss later the difference between the opposition 'necessity and accident' and that of 'necessity and freedom'. See Chapter 11, Section 2, subsection (a), paragraph 11.) Nor can we think of 'means' without 'ends' to be achieved by them, and the inner content remains inaccessible without a form. Thus, however, one concept always represents external and the other internal reality and we are compelled to think of each of these concepts simultaneously with its opposite, because they must refer to bother realities.

In external reality, we really know only the results, the effects, and we have to make some division within them to be able to add a cause, the concept of which is taken from internal reality. The cause always appears as something which is hidden and has to be discovered by penetrating deeper into external reality; it can be disclosed only underneath the surface of things and events; it represents that internal reality from which the concept has been transferred. Moreover, we only know matter in external reality, and again the forces represent, so to speak, inner motives, the hidden impulse inside things or events; we cannot even fully understand them; once more the concept 'force' is being transferred from internal reality and represents it. He connection between cause and effect, between force and matter can only be understood with the help of necessity; the reign of necessity seems to embrace the whole of external reality; but this concept, too, is based upon an opposite which is taken from internal reality, for the concept of freedom is accessible only there.

In internal reality, we are confronted with a constant flux of vague inner activities which give us access to the content, but they could not become anything which we could call a content without a form which we have to transfer from external reality. To be able to find or create such a form, as we shall see, we have to impose on external reality ends which conform to internal reality; but no ends, not even the most spiritual ones, could be achieved without the help of external means. Forms and ends have to give expression to inner freedom which, after all, is the most important characteristic if internal reality; nevertheless, we could not grasp it without some kind of external compulsion or necessity.

The need for these opposites is confirmed and strengthened by the fact that we frequently have to use the same pairs of constructive concepts in both realities. We have seen that such characteristics as form and content, repetitions and the unrepeatable, necessity and accident, apply to both realities; the difference between them is established by taking one of these concepts as mere presupposition and by concentrating our attention upon the other. In external reality, the existence of an unknown content has to be assumed to enable us to understand the form; the unrepeatable has to be broken down as far as possible into what can be repeated; we have to discard accidents and to concentrate on necessity. In internal reality, on the contrary, the form has to serve the content; the repetitions have to help us to discover the unrepeatable; necessity must be restricted to disclose the accidental. (See Chapter 3, Section 2, paragraphs 1-8.) One of these concepts always becomes a mere presupposition, a mere means of concentrating on the other, and this can be achieved only when we apply opposites. In any unitary or purely logical way of thinking and in any causal connection either both concepts are bound to have the same importance, or the difference in their importance has to be carefully defined, which means once more that both have to be considered in the same way. Only if we use the concepts as opposites can we start from one of them and use it as the basis of the other without any conscious effort.

This advantage of using opposites can be seen in many ways. If, for instance, we try to concentrate on purely formal connections alone, as we do when we set up natural or mathematical laws, we need no effort to push the concept 'content' into the background; it is brought into our minds whenever we apply the concept 'form', bus as the opposition is established automatically there is no need to dwell on it, no need, even, to be conscious of it. The natural workings of our minds make both concepts entirely clear, and thus we can easily concentrate on one of them. Similarly, we cannot think of freedom without thinking of necessity, but we can have the experience of inner freedom without being aware of the fact that the concept can only arise and be understood as the opposite of necessity. The one concept always contributes to the creation of the other and thus both have to be thought of together; but, owing to the division into two realities, their opposition is so self-evident and so firmly established that we can make use of them without any need for a conscious definition or explanation.

Yet there are other opposites among those which we have mentioned which refer either to external or to internal reality alone—such as light and dark or good and evil. Here the necessity for transferring concepts disappears. Why, then, do we need these further opposites?

Even these opposites are a consequence of the division into two realities, for they are inextricably connected with the constructive concepts. Whenever we translate any impression of experience into thought, we find that the constructive concepts have already ordered reality in such a way that we can use it as a foundation for thought. We should be quite unable to consider qualities such as dark and light, had not the constructive concepts 'the One' and 'the Many' helped us to arrange reality into units which can be counted. The same applies to internal reality; the qualities 'good' and 'evil' presuppose the opposition between form an content as well as that between necessity and freedom. Our claim that we need constructive concepts may seem, at first sight, a rather superfluous subdivision of our real experience; but actually it is these concepts which are the indispensable basis of all our thought; only the order which they create while we think enables our thinking to work properly.

The constructive concepts, moreover, can only fulfil their indispensable function if further opposites are actually applied. If these concepts, for instance, separate the qualities from the object, they still leave the different qualities undistinguished, and we still have to single out the special quality which enables us to grasp reality. We can do this only by finding the right opposite which discards all the other qualities which would hinder us from recognizing this one quality clearly. We have already shown that it is only when we oppose 'light' to 'dark' and thus separate them from similar qualities that we can find the real meaning of 'light'. (Chapter 1, Section 2, paragraphs 2-4.) Only the opposite 'dark' enables us to isolate the impression of light completely, because it is thought of automatically and thus need not be conscious. Any other connection or explanation gives other concepts the same importance as that of 'light'. The idea of waves or particles leads away from the real impression of light altogether, and the connection of light with the sun or some other source of light, or with the sense-impression and our eyes, mixes it up with other ideas which blur the pure concept.

Similar considerations apply to all the opposites which we have mentioned; there is no other way of apprehending the two realities accurately. In internal reality, for instance, such constructive concepts as means and ends help to give us access to the content, but they leave its different possible meanings undefined, and we have to proceed to such opposites as good and evil to seize the meaning of a particular content. Any other approach—such as trying to explain the whole process psychologically or physiologically—makes us lose sight of the content altogether.

The division into two realities, therefore, imposes a general pattern upon our thinking and forces us always to form and to use opposites, whenever we think and of whatever we think.

But the difference between the opposites which we have considered points also to a further necessity in our thinking. There are different kinds of opposites—some which refer to one reality alone, either to external or internal reality, and others which are derived from the division itself and include both realities. In fact, the division into two realities forces us to use three different kinds of opposites:

  1. Those referring to external reality alone which we shall call external opposites.
  2. Those referring to internal reality alone which we shall call internal opposites.
  3. Those derived from the division itself and referring to both realities which we shall call interconnected opposites.

(1) In external reality, we have to subordinate ourselves to reality to such a degree that our knowledge appears to be entirely independent of ourselves; the influence of the observer and his special experiences have to be eliminated as far as possible. (See Chapter 2, Section 3, paragraphs 1-5.) We need opposites, therefore, which also seem independent of the working of our mind, opposites, that is , in which the single concepts seem to represent something which has an external existence independent of its opposite. Dark and light are automatically thought of together, but they seem to exist separately whether we think of them together or not; each of them seems to have an existence of its own. Even the constructive concepts, when we use them to apprehend external reality, are transformed in this way; though they clearly depend on each other, they are thought of as being independent entities. We have seen already that the form and the content are almost entirely separated, the form being so independent of its content that it fits many different occasions, and though it is very difficult to think of a cause without an effect, the forces which represent the causes are imagined as existing independently; they are regarded in the same way as single objects or events. The external opposites appear to us at first rather as an arbitrary combination of single elements which we find in external reality, and only the ever recurring necessity of applying the same opposites points to their close connection with the working of our minds, and to the fact that they are not arbitrarily selected.

(2) In internal reality, we have to subordinate reality to ourselves and to impose its relationship to us upon external reality. (See Chapter 2, Section 4, paragraphs 1-3.) The opposites, therefore, are far more clearly dependent on our thinking and thus on each other; the single concepts do not even appear to represent anything which has an independent existence of its own. If we discard one concept, the other disappears as well. Nothing could be evil if there was no knowledge of good; nothing could ever be untrue if there was no truth. The constructive concepts, here, too, are far more obviously dependent on each other. We have already seen that the form becomes the expression of one special content from which it can no longer be separated, and similarly the accident, so important for our grasp of internal reality, creates a special combination of necessity and freedom which cannot be broken down. The internal opposites, therefore, always appear to us in their relationship as opposites; the single concepts are completely dependent on each other; we must either use both of them or none.

(3) The constructive concepts point to opposites which refer to both realities. If we do not use these concepts to grasp one reality alone, which makes it necessary to accommodate them to the nature of this reality, but try to penetrate to those elements in them which remain constant, we are led to discover comprehensive concepts which conform to the division into two realities. So long as we transfer one of these concepts from one reality to the other, we can, as we have seen, always concentrate only on one of them. But we can also use their opposition to help us to understand both concepts, and then we discover the interconnected opposites which allow us to understand not only either external or internal reality, but the relationship between them and the meaning of their division.

We call these opposites interconnected, because they combine the characteristics of the other two kinds. The two concepts forming these opposites appear to us as completely independent entities and yet, if we discard one of them, the other becomes completely meaningless. They thus conform to the two conditions of apprehending the two realities correctly—that they must be completely separated and yet both taken into account simultaneously. (As the opposition between these opposites is not so obvious as that between the others, it would be rather misleading to mention examples at this stage of our investigation. We are confronted here with a difficulty, due to the necessity of starting from the two realities. For as we thus cannot begin with the interconnected opposites, we have to include some of them—'necessity and freedom' and 'the One and the Many'—provisionally among the constructive concepts, and we shall only later be able to introduce clearer distinctions. (Chapter 10, Section 2, paragraph 12.) But with such oppositions in mind one can more easily understand what has just been said, or one could also think of 'space and time', though in this case we shall have to show why they are considered as opposites. (See Chapter 11, Section 1.)) They are the opposites which matter most, for they lead us to understand the implications of the laws of our thinking.

We can penetrate to these opposites, however, only after we have considered the application of the constructive concepts to the two realities. The transferring of these concepts from one reality to the other serves their original function and makes them known to us, but thus we also know them at first merely as a formal means of apprehension. We have seen that the constructive concepts which are transferred from internal reality acquire meaning when they become an expression of inner experiences. They have, therefore, no meaning apart from their application. (To these concepts applies what Kant says of all the concepts given a priori.) The for as such, for instance, cannot even be imagined, in spite of the fact that it appeals to our imagination; we have to know forms of objects and purely formal connections and also the form as the embodiment of an inner content before we can understand what the concept 'form' really means. We can, therefore, find the comprehensive concepts to which the constructive concepts point only after we have considered how they function as external and internal opposites.

Paul Roubiczek

Section 2


Until now we have been using the concept 'opposite' in the ordinary meaning of this word. Before starting the investigation of opposites, however, we have to try to define it more exactly; this is partly because the general usage of the word is not exact, and partly because, in this investigation, it is being used as a special term, different in some respects from its general usage. The whole scope and significance of this concept, it is true, can be recognized only after the different kinds of opposites have been considered. But without any definition, misunderstandings are bound to arise, and so we must at least try to compare the general usage of this word with our usage of it.

The concept 'opposite', as it is generally used, can have two different meanings. If two concepts are in opposition to one another, they can either—

  1. exclude one another and not be applicable to the same content at the same time; in this case we can call them contradictory opposites; or
  2. Condition and determine each other and refer to the same content at the same time; in this case we usually say that they form a contrast.

This book becomes readable because black letters are printed on white paper. In this case 'black' and 'white' are contradictory opposites, for it is impossible that the letters or the book should be both at the same time. But if we consider a page of the book as a whole, both black and white exist on it at the same time; they form a contrast and it is due to this contrast that we are able to read the book. The book as a solid body is in opposition to the air surrounding it which has the qualities of a gas. These opposites again contradict each other. But if we investigate a more comprehensive sphere, as for instance that of matter, the solid body and the air both appear to us as combinations of atoms or electrons; within this greater context their opposite states exist at the same time and only form a contrast.

These two meanings of the concept 'opposite', therefore, apply to the same facts; their difference refers only to two different ways of looking at them. Contradictory opposites become mere contrasts if we enlarge the sphere of our consideration; if we want to describe the book as such, we have to establish the concepts of a solid body and of a gas as contradictory opposites, but if we want to understand matter, we must find a common basis and characterize both the body and the gas as contrasts. Contrasts, on the other hand, become contradictory opposites when we restrict our attention. In the geometry of spheres, the plane is only a special case of the bent surfaces of spheres, because this geometry refers to the whole of space, but it would be nonsensical to consider the flat book therefore as being bent. We can only describe it when we use 'flat' and 'bent' as contradictory opposites.

When we leave the realm of sense-experiences and their immediate explanations and become dependent on judgments and conclusions, it may not always be possible to make such clear-cut statements. To this we shall return in a moment. But in this case, too, contrasts are transformed into contradictory opposites, this time whenever we are able to reach clarity or complete certainty. If we want to judge the value of an indifferent or tolerably good book, for instance, it will appear good to us if we compare it with a book which is worse, and bad if we compare it with a better book. Worse and better books provide us with contrasts which make it possible for us to judge such a book. But a book which is definitely bad will not appear good to us whatever book we compare it with, nor will a perfect masterpiece become bad by comparison. We have once more to leave the realm of contrasts and to apply contradictory opposites; comparisons will only make clearer either the worthlessness of the book or its real value.

Contradictory opposites are extreme cases of contrasts, and our usage of the concept 'opposite', therefore, will include both these meanings.

(3) We shall, moreover, include in our term a distinction which is usually not considered as consisting of opposites—that of differences of degree.

We have already seen that we need opposites when constructing scales of degrees or graduated scales of quantities. (See Chapter 1, Section 2, paragraphs 6-7.) The examples mentioned there have shown us that such scales are created by transforming contradictory opposites into contrasts and by arranging these in a certain order; but if we want to understand the abstract degree of such a scale, we have at least to re-establish a contrast which shows that they originate from opposites. This is clearly confirmed when we consider such a scale in greater detail.

If different objects have the same quality, but in a different degree, we usually create a unit which allows us to measure these differences, and it is this unit which enables us to consider them as degrees of the same kind within a unitary scale. Different objects, for instance, weigh one pound or several pounds. The unitary scale hides the dependence on opposites, for the opposite 'light' seems to disappear in it. We say that the object weighs such an amount and this means that it is heavy; we measure only heaviness and not lightness. We talk of the weight of the atom, of the weight of a book and of that of the earth; the book is no longer light, even if we find it so when we have to carry it, but heavy, for it weighs so and so many units. But the fact which we have stressed remains; we need opposites to create this scale and to recognize its degrees. The heaviness of a feather which the wind can blow off my palm and the heaviness of an iron bar which weighs me down if I try to lift it were originally quite different experiences, and only by bringing them into opposition can we find the common quality and thus the basis for the scale. (The children's trick question: 'Which is the heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?' points to the difficulty which we have overcome in regarding weight as a common quality. The single degree also presupposes the opposition between the One and the Many, but this we shall consider later.) Nor can we dispense with the opposites when considering one degree of the scale alone; it always means that an object is lighter or heavier than another one. The application of the unit which we have created makes this even clearer; for it forces us to bring all the objects which we want to weigh into opposition to the unit. Even such a straightforward statement as that an object weighs eight pounds, therefore, implies the application of opposites and justifies us when we include differences of degree in our concept 'opposite'.

(4) With judgments and conclusions which cannot be definitely proved, contradictory opposites can become contradictions. Such proved, contradictory opposites can become contradictions. Such contradictions arise when contradictory assertions which exclude each other remain nevertheless valid at the same time because we cannot decide which of them is correct.

Contradictions are of no importance in the realm of sense-experiences and their scientific explanations. The assertion that the letters of the book are white would be simply wrong, and the claim that they are both black and white at the same time nonsensical. Our senses can be deluded; it seems to us that the sun turns round the earth; if we touch liquid air we think it is hot; but such delusions can be rectified. We must presume that any contradiction is this sphere will finally be explained and thus resolved, even if we deal with completely abstract scientific theories which are contradictory.

Contradictions become important, however, as soon as human experience acquires decisive importance, for then the same facts allow different interpretations. The contradictions which we have considered at the beginning of this investigation provide us with many examples for this. (See Chapter 1, Section 1.) If I experience suffering as an expression of God's love and someone else as a confirmation of a blind mechanical necessity, this contradiction cannot be resolved by any proof; both convictions can be convincingly supported by conclusions based on indubitable facts. I can decide to accept one of these views, but my belief solves the contradiction for me alone and not generally, because I have to support it with my own experience. I may be very firm in my conviction, yet the contradiction remains, for others are as firm in theirs.

We can show some such contradictions to be founded upon opposites which are due to the fact that our thinking confronts us with two realities. 'The starry heaven above' and 'the moral law within' are for Kant the expression of necessity and freedom. (Critique of Practical Reason, Conclusion.) They seem to establish an insoluble contradiction, for how could everything which happens, on the one hand, be determined without any exception by necessity and yet, on the other hand, leave room for human freedom? But Kant shows that these two aspects of life can be reconciled if we take into account the laws of our thinking, and we have shown that they are based upon the opposition between external and internal reality which exist at the same time without forming a contradiction. Thus some such contradiction, but by no means all of them, can be considered as opposites.

In our investigation we shall always determine whether contradictions can be derived from opposites or have to be accepted as such.

(5) It may seem that the best example of opposites is provided by the opposition between 'Yes' and 'No', between 'positive' and 'negative', between affirmation and negation. We are inclined almost to identify opposites in general with the opposition between positive and negative and to call one of the related opposite 'positive' and the other 'negative'. This common usage, however, is not followed here as a rule because, as all the examples we have mentioned show, both opposites always refer to something which exists and which, therefore, must in some sense be positive. But, to explain our usage of the terms, we must discuss this problem separately for each of the two realities, for we have seen that negation has a different meaning in external and internal reality. (For this and the following, see Chapter 3, Section 2, paragraphs 22-24.)

(a) In external reality, complete negation is entirely meaningless. As we know this reality only so far as we know something, nothingness, as we have seen, remains an empty abstraction; negation here has a purely logical function. If, in this reality, we call something negative, we can do so only because we do not use this word in its proper meaning. The negative electric pole, for instance, stands in opposition to the positive pole, but it exists in the same way as the positive pole; positive and negative are only names for different qualities. In the pairs of opposites which we have mentioned we could consider 'light' or 'freedom' as positive and 'dark' nor 'necessity' as negative. But 'dark' is not a mere negation of light; it is a quality which we can experience as such; nor is necessity a mere negation of freedom, for it is much more than a lack or a denial of freedom. We need the opposite to form and to understand these concepts, but we do not need negation; we can apply them to reality without using any negative principle; we can refer directly to the negative electric pole, to a dark object, to a necessary relationship.

In this reality, therefore, we shall not include this kind of opposition in our use of the term 'opposite'. On the contrary, whenever we need a complete negation to form and opposite, we shall recognize that we have trespassed beyond the sphere of real opposites.

That negation is so frequently used in external reality only shows how important opposites are in enabling us to grasp it. Any thought needs an opposition to become possible at all; if it proves impossible to find an opposite in external reality, we create it artificially with the help of negation. Pure idealism must negate matter and pure materialism the spirit or even the mind, in order to acquire the appearance of referring to something real. Usually we are helped in this by the fact that negation has a positive meaning in internal reality. In order to make this external negation plausible, we mix up the two realities and unconsciously endow the negative with the content which it has in internal reality. (Both Hegel's 'Spirit' and Marxs's materialism have to be supported by logical negation which appeal to our feelings.)

(b) In internal reality the negative has a meaning, because feeling can give content to it. Here the negation helps to form opposites, but only because it creates and represents a real content which exists positively. Values, for instance, need negations; they can only be grasped as positive and negative values. But the negative value is still a value; it corresponds to a real feeling; it has a relation to something which exists; yet this time we must describe this real thing—a bad book, an evil deed—with the help of negation. The negative here can represent something which, in spite of the negation, is a positive part of internal reality. In this reality, therefore, we shall include the opposition between positive and negative in our usage of the term 'opposite'.

But even here we have to pay special attention to this kind of opposition, for we have seen that the very fact that the negative has an important meaning can endanger our grasp of this reality. A morality of mere prohibitions, for instance, can easily replace any other kind of morality; yet it is very different from one based on the positive principle of love, and only the latter guarantees a full grasp of internal reality. There is, moreover, the danger of mixing up the two realities again and, by mistaking the negative for part of external reality, of using it to explain the whole of reality, which can drive us, as we have seen before, into a wrong and one-sided pessimism. The nature of the negation in every case needs careful consideration.

If we compare our usage of the concept 'opposite' with its common meaning we can say, therefore, that it includes contradictory opposites, contrasts, differences of degree, contradiction which can be derived from opposites and, in certain cases in internal reality, the opposition between positive and negative. It does not include contradictions which cannot be resolved and the opposition between positive and negative in external reality.

One could perhaps raise against our usage of the term the objection that we consider as opposites what are, in fact, nothing but differences. The concept 'difference' is very vague; it can mean very small divergencies, such as differences in quantity or quality; but it can also mean extreme oppositions as those between good and evil which, for instance in psychology, are sometimes considered as mere differences of degree. As we nowadays try to achieve a unitary way of thinking, we are always prone to reduce opposites to mere differences, thus making the real oppositions appear of less importance than they are. We have already seen, however, that the differences of degree are based on opposites, and if this investigation proves correct we shall also see that we ought to apply the concept 'opposite' far more frequently than is usually done, instead of distorting the facts by talking of mere differences. (The danger of this can be seen when we actually consider the opposition between good and evil as mere difference of degree, for this makes the whole sphere of morality relative.)

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