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"Contradiction": An Essay by Chi Rainer Bornfree (Keywords: History of Philosophy; Metaphysics; Violence; Hegel; Heidegger; Graham Priest; Rosa Luxemburg)

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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Let’s imagine two kingdoms.

The first kingdom is orderly and the people respectful. There, if a child screams, “Look at my spinning top move!” and another shouts back, “It’s not going anywhere!”, a calm adult will simply point out that the rim of the top is indeed moving circularly through the horizontal plane, while the toy is also staying still with respect to the vertical plane. Then both children will quiet down, recognizing that the fundamental law of their land has been invoked, and soon all will be right in the world again, until they begin arguing over the nature of chocolate-vanilla swirled soft serve ice cream.

The second kingdom lies outside the walls of the first, a borderless, misty, ravine-threaded realm. Here roam strange wild creatures with one head and two bodies, gluttons who will eat meat raw and cooked together, who swim on land and walk on water, who choose between death by ice so cold that it burns and death by fire so hot it freezes. They like to mix their ice creams and add lots of toppings and no one will say a word if you scoop a bowl of ice cream for breakfast.

The inhabitants of the first kingdom do not trust those of the second whatsoever. For their peaceful stability rests on the First Commandment, which holds that P and not-P may never both be the case at the same time in the same respect. (Elsewhere this is known as the Law of Noncontradiction, or LNC.) Inhabitants of the Wild, on the other hand, delight in sneaking up to the good citizens of the LNC and whispering things like, “all of us are always lying.” 

Such statements boggle the brains of the faithful, for if they take these barbarians at face value, then they must be lying. But if they are lying, then what they have said turns out to be true. And if what they say is true, it can’t be a lie – but if what they say is true, they must be lying. When this happens, the First Kingdomers sputter and spit about semantics and push the Outlaws Out.

The secret of the vitality of the second kingdom is that they believe that lies, stories, and even contradictions are sometimes the truer truth. They know that opposites not only attract and coexist, they co-generate each other, that – as Hegel taught them – everything is a contradiction, or comes from one, or returns to one, or is animated by one. They know their realm is messy and confusing but they don’t think that makes it less true or real. In fact, they believe their truth to be the higher truth, although they recognize it is also more dangerous.

The Barbarians have tried to show the truth of contradiction to the citizens of the Kingdom many times. There was the time they rebuilt the statue of the Trojan Horse, each day replacing one wooden plank, until every plank had been replaced. The citizens agreed that one plank didn’t change the statue’s identity, so the new Horse, B, was the same as the first Horse, A: A=B. Those crafty Barbarians saved all the old planks, though, and the next day they reassembled the Horse out of them. Now, clearly the rebuilt Horse was A, but it was also clearly not-B. So even though A=B, it was also true that A≠B. The upright citizens of the Land of Non-Contradiction simply dismissed this demonstration as an immature prank. They also burned both statues, just to be sure.

In retaliation for pranks like that, every so often, inhabitants of the first kingdom will slip through the walls, raid the Outlands, capture one of its shapeshifters, and beat and burn them until they admit that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned. If onlookers are horrified by this treatment, the torturers cite Avicenna, the father of Medieval Aristotelianism.


What this fanciful allegory means to show is that, since Aristotle, contradiction has been outlawed from the truth. But that wasn’t always the case. Heraclitus famously said, “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and we are not” (Diels-Kranz 49). Parmenides, whose saying “thinking and being are the same” was so important for Heidegger, structured his entire bedeviling poem upon two contradictory “ways of inquiry” given to him by the goddess. Even Plato, whose version of the LNC I imputed to the first Kingdom above (there are many other versions), in Republic posits the principle less as a law and more as a hypothesis or starting point, a sort of gentleman’s agreement to ignore the abyss. In much Buddhist philosophy, or so I’ve read, contradiction and paradox are commonplace, and can’t always be dismissed as metaphor, mysticism, or rhetorical stratagem. In Nagarjuna, for example, the highest reality, the highest truth, is contradictory:

Everything is real and is not real,

Both real and not real,

Neither real nor not real.

This is Lord Buddha’s teaching

(Nagarjuna, MMK XVIII:8)

Despite these illustrious heritages, few have challenged the original banishment of contradictions from the Garden of Academia. As a result, the best-known thinkers in the West are often those who advance some new way of capturing, regulating, and managing contradictions for domestic philosophical consumption: they are those who venture into the wilds of contradiction and find a way to bring them back into the orderly Kingdom. That claim is less historical than heuristic: figure out how a thinker deals with contradiction, and you’ll discover the core pattern of their thought. 

Figure out how a thinker deals with contradiction, and you’ll discover the core pattern of their thought. 

For example, take Martin Heidegger. In one of his central insights, truth is always an act of disclosure, but every revealing is also a concealing – and the highest works of art allow us to encounter this fundamental contradiction. For him, contradictories tend to be mutually supporting. Or consider Friedrich Nietzsche, who rocked the world with his transvaluation of values, a neat trick that turned what was bad into what was good, and vice versa. GWF Hegel earned his fame by systemizing contradictions at all scales into the process of aufheben, or “sublation.” But if you only trust the philosophers trained in the unforgiving rigour of formal logic, go and have a chat with Graham Priest, the most influential living defender of dialetheism, the school of thought that defends the claim that some contradictions are true.


Well, so it goes: humans disagree not only on what’s true but even about the terms of how to determine the truth. The real problem with the problem of contradiction, though, is that it doesn’t stay neatly confined to the abstract pages of philosophy journals. The problem of contradiction breaks out also into political struggles and our personal lives. Or, to put it more precisely but with more words: contradiction is a problem for knowing, a problem for doing things together, and a problem for living and feeling. 

Contradiction is a problem for knowing, a problem for doing things together, and a problem for living and feeling. 

What do I mean by that? Well, a senior professor once told me: “My first desire is contradicted by my second desire,” and though he was inappropriately touchy-feely with me, I have found that this holds true. Maybe this experience of contradiction is why Carl Jung urged us to “practice our opposites” and find the unity of contraries, or why Erik Erikson developed his theory of development in terms of antinomies like trust vs. mistrust, intimacy vs. isolation.

But that our personal struggles with contradiction swiftly become political is equally obvious. Among many insights in Jacqueline Rose’s book On Violence and Violence Against Women, you’ll read the suggestion that violence arises from our inability to bear complexity and contradiction, particularly the contradiction of our life and death. Rose is among those who would have us stay with the contradictions, as the very task of thought: to acknowledge, publicize, resist abominable violence, but not to excise such violence as inhuman. This is a political, and feminist, choice. In another book on Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionary socialist, philosopher, and brutalized girlfriend, Rose writes admiringly, “To the immense irritation of her opponents and detractors, [Luxemburg] elevated the principle of uncertainty to something of a revolutionary creed.”  The attractive thing about the Law of Non-Contradiction is that it clears up uncertainty and ambiguity like so much countertop clutter. The power of Luxemburg’s thought, and that of many other revolutionary thinkers, comes from the very opposite impulse.


Maybe one day the conflict between the two kingdoms will be resolved. Maybe one day the meta-contradiction I’ve explored here – between “some contradictions are true” and “no contradictions are true” – will become a curious historical feature of analogue thought. Maybe some hard-working philosopher-diplomat, who can combine Plato’s wily images and stories with Aristotle’s dry logic, will found a unified kingdom. Or maybe, somewhere behind or in front of us, there is an explorer, a spiritual adventurer, whose tracks will lead us to a realm that’s beyond contradiction and non-contradiction… a non-judgmental, capacious reframing of our ideas and perceptions.  

Chi Rainer Bornfree is an independent writer, philosopher, and activist based in the Hudson Valley. They hold a PhD in Rhetoric from U.C. Berkeley and have taught at Bard, Princeton, and NY State Correctional Facilities. 


Twitter: @freetobeChi


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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