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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2338

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. Needham finds here only a grab bag of concepts, all grouped under the rubric “opposites.” An Aristotelian analysis of Steinberg’s cartoon produces dyads under five different modes of opposition. Needham concludes that—at least with Aristotelian formalism—it cannot be shown that the concept of opposition is a basic predicate, that it “denotes a unitary mode of relation the true character of which has been revealed by formal analysis.” There is instead an elaboration of a spatial metaphor applied to very different sets of terms and propositions.

In 1932, with the publication of Opposition, Ogden attempted to supersede Aristotle’s grammatical typology with a kind of geometrical analysis in which opposition is distinguished by either “the two extremes of a scale or the two sides of a cut, the cut marking the point of neutrality.” This quotation from Ogden suggests that the dyad “inside/outside” is produced by a cut, or boundary line, and not by a scale; yet Needham is immediately critical. Logically, it is true, something that is inside cannot at the same time and in the same place be outside; yet “inside” and “outside” are usually not taken in isolation, but are used in everyday situations that may well be ambiguous. Needham cites English common law on breaking and entering, wherein the suspect must have been on the inside to be found guilty. The many court judgments that have been rendered in such cases indicate that the matter is far from clear. Common usage itself may also suggest a scale for inside/outside: There is far outside, just outside, just inside, far inside, and the like. Nevertheless, Ogden is convinced that the notion of cut and scale, lexicologically speaking, covers most cases of opposition.

In his consideration of opposite direction, however, Ogden introduces a third concept, that of reversibility, which he says helps makes sense of backward/forward and up/down. All opposition, he says, is finally identified with the body: The cut is identified with the vertical axis of the body, right and left; the scale with the head and feet; and the meaning of opposite, “over against,” refers to the asymmetric body and that which it faces. Yet this reasoning does not demonstrate that the concept of opposition is fundamental. When people say that they are pulled in opposite directions, psychologically speaking, they are, says Needham, merely adapting a spatial phrase metaphorically to convey what they are feeling. It is Ogden’s mistake to reason that the idea of opposition in human consciousness is fundamentally spatial and must refer ultimately to the body.

In addition, Ogden does not demonstrate that there is any one basic mode of relationship between two terms called opposites. Ogden’s own list of common opposites (including work /play, possible/impossible, red/green, and British/alien) is not amenable to easy explication.

Needham continues his search for “a single hypothetical mode of relation that would justify the singular appellation of ‘opposition’” by exploring the use of the anthropological term “complementary.” He quotes anthropologist Gregory Bateson to the effect that the complementary relationship is illustrated “if most of the behaviour of the one individual is culturally regarded as of one sort (e.g., assertive) while most of the behaviour of the other . . . is culturally regarded as of a sort complementary to this (e.g., submissive).” Complementary opposites (which would exclude correlative opposites) make up a kind of whole, as justice and love are said to be the complement of each other, as are the animal and the spiritual. The idea of “whole” and “part,” however, is obscure in itself (what kind of whole do justice and love form?). Needham concludes that the concept of complementarity only introduces new problems and adds nothing to the understanding of what makes one term opposed to another.

French anthropologist Dumont contends that analysis of opposition must deal with what he calls hierarchy and inversion. Hierarchic opposition, says Dumont, is “encompassment of the contrary [englobement du contraire],” an interpretation that can be seen in his analysis of good and evil. Good contains evil while at the same time being its contrary; perfection means that evil is subordinated to good, not that evil is entirely absent. Yet the notion of encompassment, in which a high idea includes but is contrary to a low idea, proves not to explain the idea of opposition, but only further clouds the matter. If good encompasses and yet is contrary to evil, it is unclear exactly how good “contains” evil. Certainly evil cannot be a species of good; whatever Dumont may mean, his analysis of opposition in a hierarchy is unproductive. (In inversion, another analytical term used by Dumont, the hierarchy changes depending on role: In early Christian society, the priest was superior to the king in matters of religion, but the priest obeyed the king in matters of state.)

Dumont charges that the hierarchical nature of various dyadic terms is obscured by Needham’s presentation of tables of opposites. Dumont says that right and left are often treated as if both terms were on the same plane, when in reality one is more significant than the other. Thus, he says, right/left must be defined in connection with a whole hierarchy, in this case the human body, in which the right and left hands differ not only in nature but also in value.

Dumont voices approval of the work of a Paris anthropology student, Serge Tcherkezoff, on binary classification in East Africa. Tcherkezoff’s fieldwork, Dumont claims, demonstrates that the binary method (creating lists of opposites) is reductionistic, that it abstracts dyads from their appropriate context and implicitly assumes that terms in each column are equal to their counterparts in the other. Needham denies that this is the case and insists that the tables of opposites are merely useful ways to store data; further, Tcherkezoff is guilty of using spatial metaphors (such as “level,” “whole,” and “inversion”) in his description of the Meru society of Kenya, terms which are not necessary to classify dyads. Needham suggests that the use of such metaphors in nonmetaphorical fashion—applying them substantively as if the thought forms of a society displayed geologic levels— shows more about the thought forms of the researcher than about Meru society. The predisposition toward spatial metaphor on the part of the researcher often confuses a convenient mode of expression with the hidden assumption that all opposition must be fundamentally spatial in origin.

Needham’s own theory or picture of opposition involves not levels or other spatial metaphors but rather the concepts of analogy and homology. Dyads do not exist as isolated pairs in a given society, but in a system that includes other dyads, such that, for example, dyad A/B is connected to dyad C/D by proportional analogy: A is to B as C is to D. Needham says that the relationship between the terms of the dyad, the relation called “opposition,” may include that which holds between equal terms (in a formal structure) or unequal terms (in ethnographic findings, one member of the dyad is usually more highly valued than the other). Further, “there are as many discriminable modes of opposition as there are dyads”; that is, each dyadic relationship may be a unique kind of opposition.

The principle of analogy holds between dissimilar pairs of dyads (only if the dyads are identically related is the analogy truly simple), so it is meaningful to say that “up is to down as day is to night.” Homologues, the terms A and C, and B and D, are the terms that make up each column in the binary list of dyads. Each term in the right column is related, as is each term in the left, but the relationship, again, is extremely complex. The point here is that the concept of opposition is not fundamental, but rather “in practice an odd-job notion seductively masked by the immediacy of a spatial metaphor.” “There is no attribute of opposition,” Needham says, “that is both essential and distinctive. . . . There is no proper definition, but instead only an indefinite aggregate of various dyadic relations holding between variables of many disparate kinds.” He maintains that the spatial metaphor is a directive, but not a blueprint. That is, the tendency does not itself construct meaning; rather, “what gives meaning to symbolic oppositions is a vast range of implict knowledge common to the culture of a people,” categories which are related by associations impossible to represent in dualistic form.

Quoting Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) that the opposite is a “question of temperament,” Needham says that the vast array of human linguistic associations in a given culture make a precise identification of the relation of opposition perhaps permanently elusive.

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