Special Opps.   1 comment

Common understanding of opposites is inconsistent and clumsy. Opposites are polar observations of forces or conditions that we think of as balancing each other out. They are based on our perception and represent an artificial concept- you do not find opposites in the natural world. Birds, trees, gravity, and nitrogen do not have opposites. Pain, victory, evil, and hunger do. A strong foundation in the theory of opposites is not often intuitive because perception and observation often fall short of accurate description. People often do a poor job when labeling opposites, so I would like to figure out how people use them and what they’re actually trying to describe.

We tend to think of opposites as a simple concept cradled firmly under our grasp, but often equivocate between subtly different concepts when describing them. Confusing types of opposites suggests that they are a more complex concept than generally assumed. Opposites represent an abstract concept that is to be applied only to abstract concepts. Opposites are conceptual, not material. Wood and plastic and metal and flesh do not have opposites, nor do proper nouns. With that in mind, the people who invented opposites laid down a loose framework in need of refinement, but a couple foundational rules for opposites are clear.

A Criteria for Opposites: First of all, there is no such thing as a singular opposite. Each opposite must have its counterpart opposite to which it is being compared- I will call counterpart opposites “poles”. The concept of opposites necessarily compares two poles, describing a special relationship.

Secondly, that relationship must be one of relevant polarization. Once you establish that two poles  have a special relationship, those two concepts have to share some common ground, both poles being able to describe different items of the same type. Observing a fast cheetah versus a slow cheetah, the cheetahs are items of the same type that can be described by the poles fast or slow.

Both poles might be oriented toward, say, feelings or spatial position, and they must occupy vastly different positions on some axis of orientation. Happy and sad are opposites oriented toward feelings on the axis of emotion, while top and bottom are opposites oriented toward position on some vertical spatial axis. Green and warm are concepts that share no common orientation, and so cannot be opposites, though they are vastly different. The vastness required between poles is admittedly somewhat arbitrary and perception-based, making opposites tailored more toward qualitative than quantitative description.

That’s what opposites are, loosely. We run into a little trouble when we try some concrete examples. “Good” and “bad” are easy enough to identify as opposites, but what about “hot” and “cold”? There are different types of opposites that need to be distinguished. We’ll start with the most intuitive.

Traditional Opposites: This type of opposites is most familiar to us and we tend to use it as the default in our minds. It involves two substantial phenomena in direct conflict with each other. Up and down, left and right, front and back. Traditional opposites are represented by manifestations on either side of some neutral axis, but both must have present substance whether material or immaterial; one pole is not merely the absence of the other. People often incorrectly label as traditional opposites, poles that have a different type of relationship.

Empty Opposites: More common than we usually are aware of, empty opposites are represented by describing two ends of a continuum: one end full of something and the other end completely devoid of that thing. I call them empty opposites because there is one pole that’s empty and one pole that’s full whereas traditional opposites have two full poles. A clear example of a pair of empty opposites  is “empty” and “full”. Emptiness isn’t anything itself, just the lack of fullness. We define the empty pole of an empty opposite in the following way: it is what it isn’t.

From science class, we easily understand the concept of empty opposites with examples like hot and cold, and light and dark. Cold and dark are the empty poles, the absence of heat and light respectively. Getting a little trickier, shortness is the absence of tallness, and thinness the absence of fatness. These are absolute opposites as opposed to traditional opposites. Opposites of near and far, fast and slow, and wet and dry are also absolute opposites. Empty opposites often are represented by two distinct words for each pole (not modified versions of the same root) such as hungry and full. It’s an interesting case when we consider being full simply as “not hungry”, which we will address now.

Negation Opposites: This is a subclass of empty opposites in which the poles behave more like an empty pole and a full pole because the only difference in labeling the two poles is a negation operator, think “hungry” and “not hungry”. That sounds more like an empty pole and a full pole than equal and opposite poles, but it is very similar to “hungry” and “full” in concept. Of course, “not hungry” doesn’t have to mean full, it can mean you haven’t eaten a thing in days, but a stomach virus has injured your appetite or that you saw two unattractive people being very affectionate. The negation operator “not” is most common, as in “not here” or “not flying”. Another class of common negation operators are the prefixes of “un-” and “im-” such as in unimpressive and impolite. Note that while these two examples merely negate the full pole, their connotation suggests that a substantial negative force is at play.

Negation and Transitivity: Some negation opposites are easy: Cold is not hot. Low is not high. This is simple. But when we negate “all”, we get “not all”. That’s as specific as we can get- not all can mean all but one or only one. The negation opposite of “not happy” can likewise be interpreted in several ways. It can mean happy or sad, depending on the context, but it cannot mean both. Another difficulty with negation opposites can be seen with the example of colors. The opposite of “green” would be “not green”. So what does that mean? Brown? Purple? This is troubling because colors are concepts that differ vastly, not just natural things, but they hardly have opposites.

What we’ve encountered is a transitive problem. Opposites are not transitive. If the opposite of cheap is expensive, but the opposite of expensive is free, then the opposite of free is not cheap. This transitive problem often arises when one pole can be thought of to have both a traditional and empty opposite, but these two pole are not equal to each other. It’s easily illustrated by a common discussion about the opposite of “love”. Some say the opposite of love is hate. Some say it’s indifference. Depends on if you’re using the absolute scale or the traditional scale. We know, absolutely however, that hate and indifference don’t seem to be opposites. Our transitive problem is apparent.

By the Numbers– In order to flesh out the discrepancy between traditional and empty opposites and their no transitivity, let’s think about numbers, which are concepts and so might have clear opposites. What is the opposite of zero? 1? Any number? Does it have an opposite? Numbers can be thought of as traditional opposites or empty opposites. Acting as traditional opposites, the opposite of any number is that number multiplied by -1. If you think of it as an empty opposite, the empty pole will always be zero and the full pole can be represented by any number. Again, if you want to say the opposite of 490 is 0 or that it is -490, you may be correct in either case, but clearly not if you were to suggest that -490 = 0.

More on Transitivity: If you ask two people what the opposite of “nothing” is, you might get two different responses. Person 1 might answer, “everything” and Person 2 might say “something”. Who is correct? If both are, then everything should be the same as nothing and this doesn’t seem to be true. It happens because Person 1 was thinking of opposites in traditional terms and Person 2 used an empty opposites notion. To mix them up results in a confusing type of paradox.
A type of negation opposite that might not be explainable by the non-transitive properties of opposites might be exposed by asking what’s the opposite of shirt? No shirt? Pants? No shirt is merely nothing, and pants doesn’t seem to be any type of opposite at all, a type of mistaken opposite that needs explanation.

Perceptual opposites: These are not opposites in the strict sense, meaning they either don’t have a counterpart pole or have no discernible opposite relationship with their alleged pole. People perceive a stark contrast in two things and so so label them opposites. They can be colloquially affirmed, but do not qualify under the criteria I’ve set out. A couple examples of perceptual opposites are “head and feet” and “sun and moon”. By no means, true opposites of any flavor. My feet do not cancel out my head and are not merely the absence of my head, while the moon is much smaller and less powerful than the sun and is more than the mere lack of the sun. Only perception makes people think these might be opposites, seeing things relative to the human condition or other narrow vision, but such perceptions are perhaps derived from legitimate underlying opposites.

Heads and feet seem to some people like they’re opposites because they are associated with the actual opposite poles of high and low, relative to the human body. In a lion or a fish, head and feet would never be considered opposites. Day and night can be thought of as a type of empty opposites, when there is much natural light and when there is not, but the sun and moon are merely symbols people attach to day and night, not opposites in themselves. God, with the ability to see the full sun and moon equidistant from Himself and each other if He so chooses, would probably not think of them of any type of opposites.

In another example, “roof” is the perceptual opposite of “floor”, but not a true opposite. The underlying traditional opposite is probably top and bottom, but they do not cancel each other out and one is not merely the absence of the other. In the event of a tornado, perhaps I have a floor without a roof, and if I dig under my roof to China, I will have a roof and no floor.

Perceptual Opposites are Not Opposites: People tend to base their notions of reality on their own perception, and this can be useful for some things, but labeling two poles as opposites that are really just different in an unspectacular way muddies the definition of what an opposite is, making that concept less useful. Because people use perceptual opposites in everyday language, they have found a place in our minds, and since opposites are really only a concept anyways, perhaps perceptual opposites are a true type of opposite. But if they are, they are a sloppy and loosely defined sort of opposite, and it is frustrating to try to harness them for anything but shallow humor or ad hoc description.

Is Relativity a Problem for All Opposites? There is a minor defense of perceptual opposites, and that is the case of relativity. Many opposites are based on relative perception, but they still follow the criteria laid out in this essay. Hot and cold are hot and cold compared to what? Polar bears would probably think differently than us. Who gets to decide what qualifies as tall and short? If elephants do, maybe Yao Ming isn’t very tall. This relativity issue is different from the one arising from perceptual opposites. Sure, opposites are subject to relative perception, but they are two poles with a special relationship. Perceptual opposites are two poles, the special relationship of which is imaginary, based on how one sees things.

A Toy Example: I want to take a look at an example that combines different types of opposites. The word “handsome” is interesting to me. I know it refers to an alarmingly attractive appearance, but what does that to do with hands or the amount of “some”? Let’s look at some candidates for opposite of “handsome”.

Taken as a whole, the opposite is something like “ugly” or “not handsome”, but that’s rather simple and mean, so let’s try to find opposites for the root words “hand” and “some”.
For “hand”, the opposites would be perceptual opposites since a hand is a material object, so we probably have “foot” as the best perceptual opposite.  So is the opposite of “handsome” turning out to be “footsome”? We need to assess “some” and its candidate opposites. “Some” is a concept, so it can have a few legitimate opposites, possibly “none”, or “all” depending on how you see it. So maybe the opposite of “handsome” is “footnone” or “footall”, probably the former since it stays with the negative theme. Personally, I’d like to think of the root opposite of “handsome” to be “footmore”, but both new poles are imperfect opposites.

The Purpose of Opposites: The way in which the different types of opposites mix and match when put together is interesting, and can be wildly inconsistent. Having a criteria for each type of opposites is useful so that we know that finger is not the opposite of toe in the same way that left is opposite right or that asleep is the opposite of awake. If we think all are simply examples of opposites with little or no distinction, we are going to be confused about what opposites are and not be able to use them as effectively to communicate.

Ultimately, opposites are a concept, and concepts are usually created with some purpose in mind. My conception of opposites involves two distinct concepts that have a relevant polarized relationship. I think two forces in direct, mutually repelling conflict, empty and full poles, and negation, are distinct and useful conceptions of opposites (and I call them traditional, empty, and negation opposites respectively). The purpose I find for opposites is to describe vastly differing conditions applicable to similar objects in a consistent manner. Basing a notion of opposites on one’s own narrow perception injures one’s ability to effectively communicate what’s being described.

For this reason, I do not think of perceptual opposites as true opposites, but recognize that people use them without recognizing a difference. Perceptual opposites can find their way into conversation with the opposites I’ve identified as legitimate, but rarely fill a substantial purpose. To make a joke or crudely point out a difference between two otherwise similar objects are common purposes of perceptual opposites, which is okay, but endangers one’s understanding of true opposites. Concepts are more useful when more know is known about them, so they can be manipulated and harnessed, and so opposites, the types of which are rarely distinguished, will be better suited to fulfill a purpose if they are better understood.


Posted May 31, 2010 by Wada in Uncategorized

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  1. Pingback: Pick a Cause « Tritonthink

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