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...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.