Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 474 words.)