Polar Concepts

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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The British philosopher Ryle attacked the sceptical point of view regarding right and wrong (i.e. being in error). He said that if the concept of error is made use of - surely, there must be times that we are right. To him, it was impossible to conceive of the one without the other. He regarded "right" and "wrong" as polar concepts. One could not be understood without understanding the other. As it were, Ryle barked up the wrong sceptic tree. All the sceptics said was that one cannot know (or prove) that one is in the right or when one is in the right. They, largely, did not dispute the very existence of right and erroneous decisions, acts and facts.

But this disputation ignored a more basic question. Can we really not understand or know the right without as intimately understanding and knowing the wrong? To know a good object must we contrast it with an evil one? Is the action of contrasting essential to our understanding and, if it is, how?

Imagine a mutant newborn. While in possession of a mastery of all lingual faculties, the infant will have no experience whatsoever and will have received no ethical or moral guidelines from his adult environment. If such a newborn were to be offered food, a smile, a caressing hand, attention would he not have identified them as "good", even if these constituted his whole universe of experience? Moreover, if he were to witness war, death, violence and abuse would he have not recoiled and judged them to be "bad"?

Many would hurl at me the biblical adage about the intrinsic evilness of humans. But this is beside the point. Whether this infant's world of values and value judgement will conform to society's is an irrelevant question to us. We ask: would such an infant consistently think of certain acts and objects as "good" (desired, beneficial) even if he were never to come across another set of acts and objects which he could contrast with the first and call "bad" or "evil". I think so. Imagine that the infant is confined to the basic functions: eating and playing. Is there any possibility that he would judge them to be "bad"? Never. Not even if he were never to do anything else but eat and play. Good things are intrinsically good and can be immediately identified as such, even without the possibility to contrast them with bad things. "Goodness" and "evil" or "wrong-ness" are extensive parameters. They characterize the whole object or act. They are indispensable to the definition of an object the same way that its spatial dimensions are. They are a part of the character of an act the same way that the actions comprising it are.

It is reasonable to hypothesize that our innate ability to distinguish background from foreground is an extension or manifestation of our flight-or-fight response mechanism. Distinguishing friend (non-threatening background) from foe is crucial for survival. Thus, the positively good can be contrasted with a "non-good" neutral background. The colour white can be discerned against a neutral background as well as against a black one. A good action can be compared to a morally or ethically neutral one (to clapping monotonously, for instance) and still retain its "goodness". There can exist genuine articles where no counterfeit ones are to be found. Copies of the same software application are both genuine and counterfeit, in the fullest sense of these two words. The first such item (diskette of software application) to have been produced, chronologically, cannot be defined as "The Original". This is more so if all the copies are manufactured at the same instant. Replicated works of art (graphics or caricatures) are originals and copies simultaneously. We can conceive of a straight line without knowing about crooked or curved ones. The path of light-rays in vacuum in a part of the universe devoid of any masses constitutes a straight line. Yet, it cannot be contrasted to a crooked or to a curved line anywhere in its proximity.

There is a group of concepts, however, which are truly polar. One cannot be defined without the other. Moreover, one GENERATES the other. Take "Up" and "Down". As one moves up, what one leaves behind MUST be down. "Down" is generated by the "Up" movement. It is really a temporal definition: "Down" is the past tense of "Up". Movement must be involved in the process of discerning this couplet. Even if we do not move physically, our eyes are bound to. Thus one truly cannot conceive of an up without a down. But no understanding is involved here. No issue of essence is resolved through this distinction. The deep meanings of up and down are not deciphered by the simple act of contrasting them. Rather, down is another, earlier, phase of up. It is a tautology. What is down? that which is not up or sideways. But, what is up? that which is not down or sideways and so on. Polar concepts are tautologies with a deceiving appearance. We feel, wrongly, that they add to our knowledge and comprehension, that there is a profound difference between left and right or past and present or one and many. In nature, such differences can have profound manifestations and implications. A right-handed molecule could function very differently compared to its left-handed sibling. One soldier cannot win a war many, usually, are better at doing it. But one should not confuse the expression with that which is expressed.

It seems that we can generalize:

Concepts pertaining to the PHYSICAL world do seem to come in pairs and are polar in the restricted sense that in each given couple:

  1. One cannot come without the other and
  2. One generates the other and thus
  3. One defines the other.

Polar concepts, are, therefore, tautologies in the strictest logical sense.

The physical world incorporates Conceptual Polarity a logical, Aristotelian duality of "yes" and "no", "here" and "not here". Modern science, however, tends to refute this world view and replace it with another, a polyvalent one.

In the logical, moral and aesthetic realms there is no conceptual polarity.

Concepts in these realms can come in pairs but do not have to do so. Their understanding is not  affected if they are not coupled with their supposed counterparts.

The logical, moral and aesthetic realms tolerate Conceptual Monopoles.

These realms also contain False Conceptual Polarities. This is when one concept is contrasted with another concept within the apparent framework of a conceptual polarity. But, upon closer inspection, the polarity unravels because one of the conceptual poles cannot be understood, fully described, enumerated or otherwise grasped. Examples include: definite-indefinite (how does one define the indefinite?), applicable-inapplicable, mortal-immortal, perfect-imperfect, finite-infinite and temporal-eternal, to name but a few. One of the concepts is an indefinite, useless and inapplicable negation of the other.

The existence of False Conceptual Polarities proves that, in many cases, polar concepts are NOT essential to the process of understanding concepts and assimilating them in the language and in the meta-language. We all know what is indefinite, imperfect, even eternal. We do not need nor are we aided by the introduction of their polar complements. On the contrary, such an introduction is bound to lead to logical paradoxes.

There are serious reasons to believe that the origin of most paradoxes is in polar concepts. As such, they are not only empty (useless) but positively harmful. This is mostly because tend to regard every pair of polar concepts as both mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive. In other words, people believe that polar pairs form "complete universes". Thus, in Kant's famous antinomies, the world is either A or not-A, which leads to logical conflicts. Moreover, polar concepts do not incorporate any kind of hierarchy (of types, categories, or orders). Thus, first type, first order concepts can be paired (wrongly) with higher type, lesser order concepts. This inevitably leads to paradoxes (as Russell demonstrated amply).

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