Counterpoints Critical Essays

Rodney Needham


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

There are no endless catalogs of opposites in Counterpoints, nor does the book attempt to account for every theory of opposition. Instead, the search is for what might be intrinsic to the concept, whether it is a fundamental and fundamentally simple organizing principle, and, if not, how the concept might still have a rich application to ethnographic evidence.

The cartoon by Steinberg provides a focus for the investigation. The picture shows a three-dimensional capital letter E, resting upright among some foliage, with a potted plant, a dog, a cat, a chick, and two hens as companions. There is a bubble above the E, the kind used by cartoonists to indicate thinking or dreaming, and inside the bubble is a two-dimensional stylized capital E with an acute accent. Recalling that Aristotle in the Metaphysica (335-323 b.c.e.; Metaphysics) says that the Pythagoreans (dating as far back as the sixth century b.c.e.) arranged their “first principles” in dyads (for example, limited/unlimited, odd/even, one/plurality), Needham adopts such a table of oppositions for analysis of the cartoon. Though there are elements in the drawing that do not fit into the table (there are three fowl), many seem to fit handily. With the assumption that the three-dimensional E is the subject of the cartoon, such opposed terms as upper E/lower E, above/below, slender/squat, imaginary/concrete, light/ponderous, and the like are easy to chart, as are cat / dog, chick / hen, potted bloom/wildflower, and so on. Further, these dyads suggest evaluative connotations, such as ideal/real, graceful/clumsy, innocence/experience, cultivation /coarseness, and, finally, culture/nature.

The point of the procedure here is twofold. First, the application of spatial principles and the inference of corresponding evaluative metaphors seem to show something inherent in Steinberg’s drawing, something that may or may not have been placed there consciously by the artist. Second, however, other dyads could be elucidated, such as accented/unaccented and pride/humility, which reinterpret the meaning of the cartoon and which make the application of the concept of opposites—even to a simple drawing—far from simple.

Even the sense of the word “opposite,” expressed in such terms as “antitheses, contraries, contrarities, counterparts, counterpoints, dualities, dyads, oppositions, polarities, and syzygies,” is difficult to state precisely. According to Needham, the etymologies of these words have no common feature; each word has a distinct denotation and is appropriate in some situations and inappropriate in others. The words are not synonyms, though there is some group resemblance. Needham chooses to use the word “opposition” in his study to represent the concept under discussion, though the Oxford English Dictionary can come no closer to the essence of the concept than by defining “opposition” as meaning “position over against something”; yet the same dictionary defines “over against” as “opposite.”

The concept is also present in such non-Indo-European languages as Egyptian and modern Chinese, so it appears to be universal, though not simple, as an analysis of the formal use of opposition shows. Needham begins his consideration of Aristotle with a comment that while the concept of opposition etymologically involves spatial relationships, metaphorically it is used to contrast things that have no spatial reference, such as good and evil. A formal analysis of the word would need to provide the fundamental commonality to all forms of opposition, physical as well as metaphorical. Yet that is just what appears to be impossible.

Needham finds several incompatible kinds of opposites in Aristotle’s typology. In brief, Aristotle finds four broad types of opposition. The first, correlative terms, include such dyads as “senior/junior, predecessor/successor, mother/child. In each of these instances one term is (what it is) of the other or in relation to the other.” For example, the mother is mother of the child. The second group, contraries (such as good/bad, black/white, odd/even), may or may not admit of intermediates. One term is not “of” the other term, but contrary to it: Black is not the black of white, but contrary to white. There may be intermediate shades of gray between black and white, but (for Aristotle, at least), odd and even have no intermediates. To complicate matters, the philosopher acknowledges that a term may differ from its contrary to a greater or lesser degree, and the maximum difference he calls contrariety.

Third, possession and privation in connection with the same thing (such as sight/blindness in connection with the eye) are, says Aristotle, neither correlatives nor contraries. Fourth, affirmation and negation are called contradictories, a concept that can only be applied to propositions that can be true or false (“odd” and “even” are not contradictories, because they are not propositions, but “all numbers are odd” is the contradictory of “some numbers are not odd”).

There are further distinctions in Aristotle’s typology, but Needham observes that Aristotle’s great contribution to the logic of contradictory statements (one must be true, the other false) still leaves open the question why correlative, contrary, and possessive/privative terms are also called Opposites. Problems multiply: They are not all dyadic, with nothing between, because Aristotle admitted some intermediate terms to contraries; if mother/child are correlative, why then also call them opposites? Additionally, some possessive/privative terms admit of intermediates....

(The entire section is 2338 words.)