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Counterpoints is both a study of the concept of opposition (exemplified by pairs of terms such as black/white, woman/man, left/right) and a reply to the author’s critics. British social anthropologist Rodney Needham contends that what is meant by “opposition” must be reexamined before the term can be employed as an...

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Counterpoints is both a study of the concept of opposition (exemplified by pairs of terms such as black/white, woman/man, left/right) and a reply to the author’s critics. British social anthropologist Rodney Needham contends that what is meant by “opposition” must be reexamined before the term can be employed as an analytical tool in ethnography (the scientific study of individual cultures). Far from being a precise, fundamental, and utterly simple way of ordering the world, the concept is exceedingly complex, imprecise, and ambiguous. Though virtually every culture on earth has produced its own groupings of opposing pairs of terms (or dyads), there is no a priori notion of the meaning of “opposite” that will yield the dyads used in a given culture, or even explain their relationships in lists brought back by researchers.

This is not to deny that the human mind has a proclivity to order the world in binary terms (us/them, inside/outside, earth/sky, sun/moon), but Needham maintains that the presence of such a proclivity in widely divergent societies indicates not the working of some formal concept generating such terms but the working of a human tendency toward metaphorical thought. Such thought produces images of opposites based on “a vectorial intuition of relative locations in space.” That is, the relationships of up to down, or right to left, give rise, by means of metaphor, to images irreducible to spatial direction (king/subjects, ideal/real, culture/nature) but analogous (up is to down as king is to subject).

A Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford, Needham presented the substance of Counterpoints as a series of lectures for the university in 1984. The book’s 250 pages, divided into nine chapters, examine the idea of opposition (or polarity), beginning with a disarming consideration of the various opposites implied in a Saul Steinberg cartoon which appeared on the cover of The New Yorker on May 25, 1963. This leads to lexical exploration of the derivation of the word “opposite” and the apparent universality of the concept, even in languages that are not Indo-European. Next, Needham successively considers Aristotle’s attempt to formalize the idea of opposition, lexicologist C. K. Ogden’s “improvement,” and what part another concept, that of complementarity, might play in the analysis. Chapters 7 and 8, constituting roughly a third of the book, are technical appraisals of the work of French anthropologists Louis Dumont and Serge Tcherkezoff and their challenge to Needham’s own theory of opposition, which is presented in the final chapter.

A helpful bibliography, an index, and several diagrams and tables make Counterpoints an appropriate starting point for the consideration of theories of opposition. Though most chapters stand on their own, the infighting in chapters 7 and 8 is mostly pedantic; nevertheless, the work is the product of a mature scholar in command of a wide variety of materials.


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The study of “binary opposites” has for some time been a major feature of modern anthropology, being applied by many scholars to matters as diverse as kinship, myth, and the structure of societies. Opposition has been believed to be a basic feature of human understanding, one of the few concepts which can safely be said to be noncultural, universal, ubiquitous. In this book, Rodney Needham turns to question all these assumptions, doing his best to prove them false. Counterpoints is in fact one in a sequence of works by this author dedicated to considering the very foundations of anthropology including the issue of whether anthropology may be considered a science, or separate field of knowledge, at all.

Needham begins with a cartoon which figured as a cover for The New Yorker in 1963. It pictures a thick, three-dimensional capital letter E, and above it, in the bubble that in cartoon convention means “thinks” or “dreams,” a thin, two-dimensional capital E with a French acute accent over it. On the lower letter sits a cat, and at its foot lies a dog. A hen with a chicken on its back, and another following, walks from right to left. In the foreground is a border of plants, with a blooming potted plant among them. What, one may ask, does this cartoon mean? What kind of opposites does it include?

Needham draws from the picture a list of opposites including some of those mentioned above, such as cat/dog, chick/hen, three-dimensional/two-dimensional, but significantly omitting or rephrasing others. For example, Needham makes little of the acute accent (though it might be thought, on the cover of The New Yorker, to suggest French/English and, by association, elegant/plain). He does note the bubble convention but interprets it as ethereal/terrestrial, and decides that the plants in the border stand to the potted one as weed to flower and as untended to cultivated. The point is that even a drawing as bounded as this one may include more oppositions than a casual list can enumerate, and that any two observers will almost certainly draw up slightly different lists.

Can the oppositions produced by the drawing, however, be sorted or categorized? Are they random and personal or, as has so often been assumed, implicitly basic and universal? Needham turns from the cartoon, in his first few chapters, to consider early attempts to categorize the very notion of opposition. He notes, for example, that while the notion does appear to exist in many if not all languages, the words used for it are almost bewilderingly various. In English one may speak of antitheses, contraries, counterparts, dualities, polarities, even syzygies, not to mention other terms, and all of these appear to mean slightly different things. The English lexicon is in any case strongly Latinate, though the word “against” is related to the German word Gegenteil, the normal translation for “opposite.” Both English and German have a strong sense of space in their terms. Needham notes again that in common speech one readily talks of “the opposite side of the street,” meaning the other side of the street and anywhere along it, not merely the bit at right angles to where one happens to be standing. He asserts, however—at this point rather strongly conditioned by the communal dining habits of Oxford colleges—that one would be much more reluctant to say that someone is sitting “opposite” one at table if he or she were even slightly displaced to right or left. Meanwhile, there is no difficulty in talking about opposite banks of rivers, even if the river is winding so much as to make right-angle placements impossible. Moreover, in other languages, such as Chinese or Hebrew, the words usually used for opposition have different associations and come from different roots.

Such difficulties of classification have been around for a very long time. Needham considers the attempt by Aristotle to classify oppositions and notes that the Greek philosopher saw them as falling into several distinct categories. Opposites may, for example, be correlative, as in “double/half” or “mother/child”: Each term is what it is in relation to the other. Or they may be contrary, such as good/bad, which is not quite the same thing: The mother is the mother of the child, but the good is not the good of the bad, nor black the black of the white. Contraries may furthermore have intermediates, as black and white have gray, or they may not: For Aristotle, at least, there was no intermediate between an odd and an even number. One may also see categories arising out of privation, as with sighted/blind, or out of logical statements of affirmation and negation. Aristotle’s work is at least an attempt to consider the subject, as Needham points out. Yet how well does it work on The New Yorker? Returning to his own list of opposite qualities found in the cartoon, Needham finds some of them covered by Aristotle, some not. However one takes the results, it is plain that there are at least five different modes of opposition in Needham’s own reactions to the drawing.

Classification might have been expected to advance since Aristotle’s time, but actually Needham finds little on which to comment until he comes to C. K. Ogden’s book Opposition, published in 1932. Ogden begins with twenty-five pairs of words said to have opposites in the “ordinary” sense of the term (as Ogden rather optimistically puts it). These include black/white again, but also hot/cold, right/left, town/country, and even (a pair which hardly anyone would find ordinary, British or not) British/alien. Ogden broods over such questions as why the opposite of black is white, while the opposite of visible is invisible; inside and outside suggest to him the notion of a “cut,” a line which may be arbitrary, but which may also have considerable force—as in English common law, where the transit from being outside to being inside a house has major bearing on offenses for which a person may be charged. Ogden’s views, in Needham’s opinion, are interesting and varied, but in the end create more confusion than clarity; they suggest on the whole only that the world has grown more complex since Aristotle’s day.

After dealing with Aristotle’s and Ogden’s theories, however, Needham takes on other anthropologists, and at this point his book takes on a strongly (and not altogether attractively) polemic note. In 1973, Needham edited a volume of essays on the subject of Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification, as this particular opposition is seen in different cultures. While he is quite prepared to extend this issue further and to concede that the notion of “complementarity” used by several contributors to the volume requires deeper analysis, he clearly finds himself irritated by recent French responses to that work, especially those of Louis Dumont and Serge Tcherkézoff. The argument here becomes extremely technical, but in brief it may be said that Dumont introduces a concept of “encompassment” (englobement) which Needham finds unconvincing. Dumont also tries to argue that social hierarchies are often arranged on bases of opposition and inversion—as in the notion that a king is superior to a priest in matters of public order, but that the converse is true in matters of religion (a distinction, it might be noted, more appropriate in Catholic France than in Anglican England, where the monarch is ipso facto head of the church and defender of its rights). Dumont’s pupil Tcherkézoff takes matters further—and applies the question at last to classical anthropology—by trying to apply such theories to analysis of African societies such as the Meru and the Nyamwezi. Can anything revealing be said about “the left hand of the Mugwe” (a religious personage among the Meru) as a result of hierarchic analysis? Needham concludes that it cannot. More generally, and probably more interestingly, he raises the wide question of what one might call “the diagrammatic fallacy” among anthropologists: the belief that clear diagrams, on paper, often with arrows, dotted lines, and other diacritics, can in any real way represent the inner beliefs, or even customs, of human beings living in societies.

Needham clearly has a strong point here in indicating the specious attractions of this technique to what he calls the “reificatory” type of mind. Rather extending what he himself says, one could argue that many analyses of la pensée sauvage, “the savage mind,” have become little more than mechanical extensions of a spatial metaphor, which insistently represents natural features on a two-dimensional scale. Needham points out that even night and day—a clear pair of opposites in most systems—are well-known to have all kinds of gradations in real life and to real people, including first light, twilight, broad day, and dusk. The same could be said even of male and female; as for other oppositions beloved of modern anthropology, such as raw and cooked and natural and cultural, most of them dissolve into ambiguity when confronted by even small amounts of skepticism. Moreover, how can any of these theses manage against the complexity of even a simple cartoon such as the one from The New Yorker? If a theory cannot cope with something well understood by the man in the street (so the reasoning goes), it should at least not be trusted before further refinement.

Counterpoints is a difficult work which often appears over-elaborate. Its merit is that it exposes the beliefs of one field (anthropology) to the challenges of others, including philology and philosophy. It also demonstrates what can be done, without technical language, by the exercise of an elementary, if Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.


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Byerly, H.C. Review in Choice. XXV (December, 1987), p. 636.

Lloyd, G.E.R. Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of Argumentation in Early Greek Thought, 1966.

Needham, Rodney. Exemplars, 1985.

Needham, Rodney. Symbolic Classification, 1979.

Needham, Rodney, ed. Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification, 1973.

Pocock, David. “Cleaning and Sharpening,” in The Times Literary Supplement. December 4-10, 1987, p. 1356.

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