114. Philosophy and Contradiction

Aristotle (384-322 BC), in his Metaphysics, observed that philosophers study being or reality at the most general level. To do so, they need to use logic or syllogisms; and to use logic they need to be absolutely clear about certain principles of logic that allow for any understanding to take place at all. The one principle Aristotle thinks is the most certain is what has become known as the law of non contradiction. Consider this passage which concludes with a formulation of the law:

“Evidently then it belongs to the philosopher, i.e. to him who is studying the nature of all substance, to inquire also into the principles of syllogism. But he who knows best about each genus must be able to state the most certain principles of his subject, so that he whose subject is existing things qua existing must be able to state the most certain principles of all things. This is the philosopher, and the most certain principle of all is that regarding which it is impossible to be mistaken; for such a principle must be both the best known (for all men may be mistaken about things which they do not know), and non-hypothetical. For a principle which every one must have who understands anything that is, is not a hypothesis; and that which every one must know who knows anything, he must already have when he comes to a special study. Evidently then such a principle is the most certain of all; which principle this is, let us proceed to say. It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect”.

This last sentence is Aristotle’s ontological formulation of the law, that is, a formulation that concerns things that exist in the world rather than our beliefs about the world or the sentences we use to describe it. This version of the law of non-contradiction is usually taken, along with the law of identity and the law of excluded middle, to be one of the three indemonstrable and thus fundamental principles on which all arguing, and perhaps any coherent vision of reality, rests. How can one and the same proposition be both true and false at the same time and in the same respect? How can one and the same car be both green and not green at the same time and in the same respect? These things, like all contradictory things, seem logically and physically impossible. If this is the case then Aristotle’s prescription that the philosopher function in accordance with the law makes good sense.

Of course, some philosophers throughout history have disagreed such as Heraclitus, Hegel, and modern-day dialetheists like Graham Priest who hold that there are some true contradictions. But one relatively overlooked yet extreme example is the great German idealist philosopher F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854). In the third draft of his book Ages of the World (translated by Jason M. Wirth, SUNY Press) Schelling argued there would be no life, reality, movement, or progress without real contradictions. The claims and arguments he presents would, if convincing, demand a revision of our fundamental conceptions of logic and reality. So let’s look at a few of these claims and arguments.

First, Schelling notes that people “appear to have a greater aversion for contradiction than for anything else in life”. Contradiction, he says, forces people into action only after plenty of effort to “conceal it from themselves and to distance the moment in which matters of life and death must be acted upon”. What is remarkable is that Schelling applies this analysis to the postulation of the law of non-contradiction itself, claiming that the law has been unsuccessfully employed to escape the very thing it presupposes: “A similar convenience was sought in knowledge through the interpretation of the law of contradiction in which contradiction should never be able to be. However, how can one put forward a law for something that can in no way be? When it is known that a contradiction cannot be, it must be known that it nevertheless in a certain way is. How else should “that which cannot be” appear to be and how should the law prove itself, that is, prove to be true?” (12).

Second, Schelling develops this notion of contradiction forcing people to act into a more general point about the grounds for action. Consider this remarkable observation: “Everything else leaves the active open in some sense. Only the contradiction is absolutely not allowed not to act and is alone what drives, nay, what coerces action. Therefore, without contradiction, there would be no movement, no life, and no progress. There would only be eternal stoppage, a deathly slumber of all forces” (12).

Third, Schelling applies this insight to God. If God is the first cause of all that has come to be, and contraction is that which coerces action, then God must BE a contradiction of some sort. After all, if God was a harmonious unity then God “would remain so” since “a transition from unity to contradiction is incomprehensible.” He explains: “For how should what is itself one, whole and perfect, be tempted, charmed, and enticed to emerge out of this peace? The transition from contradiction to unity, on the other hand, is natural, for contradiction is insufferable to everything and everything that finds itself in it will not repose until it has found the unity that reconciles or overcomes it” (12). Thus Schelling argues that God “is not in contradiction by chance nor is it in one in which it would have been transposed from the outside (since there is nothing outside of it). Rather, it is in a necessary contradiction, posited at the same time with its being and hence, which, more accurately said, is itself its being” (12). So all that flows from God flows from a contradiction and, indeed, “all life must pass through the fire of contradiction. Contradiction is the power mechanism and what is innermost of life. From this it follows that, as an old book says, all deeds under the sun are full of trouble and everything languishes in toil, yet does not become tired, and all forces incessantly struggle against one another” (90).

So for Aristotle, the philosopher must obey the indemonstrable law of non-contradiction if he or she is to have success in the search for wisdom. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that one who, like Heraclitus, doesn’t obey the law is “like a plant”. However, Schelling, given the above observations, prescribes another vision of the philosopher’s relationship to contradiction. He writes:

“The contradiction that we have here conceived is the fountain of eternal life. The construction of this contradiction is the highest task of science….Hence, we, too, do not shun the contradiction. In fact, to the extent to which we are capable, we seek to grasp it well, even in its details” (90).

But how can we “grasp” contradictions? According to Schelling we have a faculty “whereby we are able to think and couple together even what is contradictory – and its name is imagination.” (See his System of Transcendental Idealism, University of Virginia Press, p. 230).

These are two very different visions and therefore asking to what extent they are mutually exclusive or partially compatible is bound to help us probe the deepest grounds of philosophy itself.

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