Chapter 7

The Principle of Contradiction

So let's leave people like that to what they're "comfortable" with, because they don't even make sense. But then where are we? So far, we know with absolute certainty several facts: (1) that there is something; (2) that it is absolutely certain that there is something; (3) that not everything can be doubted; (4) that there are some facts that don't depend on your point of view (at least these four, for example), and can't be denied by anyone without that person's basing the denial on their affirmation. Hence, they are self-evident and absolutely certain for anyone.

But there's another fact--in fact, a whole battery of facts--that has been lurking behind everything we've said so far; and this fact has been traditionally called the "Principle of Contradiction(1) ." It's this principle which makes it hopeless to try to deal with a person who is "comfortable" with holding both that everything depends on your point of view and that "Everything depends on your point of view" doesn't depend on anyone's point of view.

Basically, the Principle says that contradictions can be stated, but that these "statements" don't mean anything or refer to anything.

In reference to statements, then, the Principle says that any meaningful statement cannot be both true and false (if the words are taken in exactly the same sense both times). If a "statement" says that X is not the case when and in the respect in which X is the case, then this "statement" is not false but nonsense; it is not a statement.

Why? Because we've made up some rule about what we choose to call "statements"? In one sense yes, and in another no (note that this doesn't violate the Principle, because there are different senses involved). In the sense in which we made up the rule to call "statements" only those locutions which can be either true or false, this is arbitrary; we could have chosen a different word like "proposition" or "hompviquity" instead. It happens, of course, that "statements" in common English usage are the type of sentences (as opposed to, say, commands or exclamations) that are supposed to express facts, (and something-or-other either is a fact or it isn't); and so it makes sense to use "statement" for this definition.

The sense in which the rule is not arbitrary at all is that, no matter what word you use to be defined as "the type of locution that intends to express a fact," the rule necessarily applies to that word. That is, whatever you want to call a locution that intends to express a fact, the locution can't be both true and false (because that would mean that the fact itself isn't what it is while it is what it is and in the respect in which it is what it is).

It's a little difficult to talk about this Principle without sounding like you're talking nonsense, because what in fact you're talking about is the minimum necessary to make sense.

Furthermore, the rule about statements is not arbitrary, because contradictory statements cannot express factual knowledge. This is another way to state the Principle, and what it amounts to is that you cannot think, "I am not thinking what I am now thinking," because if you're thinking it you can't avoid knowing that you're thinking it. You can say "I'm not now thinking what I'm now thinking," but you can't think it.

There are those who would bristle at this, because of various views of linguistics and their relation to facts and thought. I don't want to try to discuss here why I think they're wrong (because it involves too great a complexity, and we're far too primitive for that at the moment). Let me just appeal to your own experience; try to not think what you are thinking, and you will see that you know that you're thinking it. Further, those who would disagree with what is behind what I am saying would do so on the basis of something that would have to be accepted (and therefore known or at least thought) to be true and not false in the respect in which it was true--which, of course, assumes the Principle.

The Principle is another one of those self-evident facts, then; because to deny it is to affirm it. That is, if you say, "Well, but I hold that things can be both true and false" you're holding as true and not false that things can be both true and false. If it were both true and false that things can be both true and false, why would you bother to state it, especially in opposition to someone who disagreed with it? If he disagrees with it, he agrees with it, and so what's your problem?

So far, we've seen the Principle as a principle of statements and a principle of thought. As a principle of facts, it says, it is never a fact that a fact is not what it is while it is what it is. Or in reference to reality it is Something is not what it isn't while it is what it is, and in the respect in which it is what it is.

That is, something can be at one time one thing and at another time another; a page can be blank now and have writing on it ten minutes later, and this is not a contradiction. Or a page that is half-full of writing can be blank (on the bottom half) and have writing on it (on the top half) without there being a contradiction. But it can't be blank at the time when and in the respect in which it has writing on it (if by "has writing on it," you mean "isn't blank").

A word, I think, must be said about Georg Hegel's view that "reality is self-contradictory," as if he were denying what I have just claimed as self-evident. As can be seen from the Phenomenology of Spirit, he does not deny that the Principle is valid as I have stated it, if you take the time and the respect into consideration (what he calls "insofar as").

That is, Hegel says that "in the concrete" when you say John is a man, you also mean John is not a man, because John is not humanity, and therefore, there is some "negation of humanity" about him that makes him a man and not man. But Hegel would not deny that insofar as John possesses humanity (i.e. in the respect in which he is a man) it is not also true that John is not a man. It's just that (for Hegel) these "insofar as" statements are necessarily incomplete and refer to but leave something out of the concrete reality (and what is left out means that the negation of the statement is also true).

Actually, Hegel hit upon what is the major effect that is going to exercise us in this book. He thought it was a characteristic of reality to contain its own negation within it, while I think that this "containing of its own negation" defines finiteness, not reality itself; and as "denying itself," I think the finite needs explaining, and you can't simply accept it as if it didn't. But this is proleptic.

To get back again to where we were, I said that the Principle of Contradiction (in any of its forms, by the way) is self-evident, because its denial (as true-and-not-false) implies its affirmation. It's also true, however, that the Principle can't be proved, because any attempt to prove it would have to start from something accepted as a fact (and therefore understood to be true-and-not-false), which presupposes what you would be trying to prove.

Begging the question is the logical fallacy of presupposing in a "proof" what you are trying to prove. Any attempt to "prove" the Principle of Contradiction cannot be done without supposing the Principle to be true, and so would necessarily beg the question.

But this does not mean that the Principle can't be revealed in such a way that a person who didn't explicitly understand that he accepted it would realize that he was doing so.

For instance, if the Principle were not true, it could be false that there is something simply because it is not false that there is something. The fact that it is absolutely certainly the case that there is something would then mean that there is nothing at all.

But this is nonsense: because there is something there isn't anything at all. Precisely. The Principle is the Principle of Non-Nonsense.

That is, we know and cannot doubt that there is something; and this presupposes the Principle; and so along with that knowledge, we know the Principle.

It is a law of our minds, in other words. Our minds will simply not accept as a fact a fact-that-isn't-the-fact-which-it-is.

But then just because this is a law of our minds, how do we know it's a law about the facts? Just because I can't accept something as not being what it is, does this mean it can't actually be what it isn't?

The way this is formulated, it sounds like a real difficulty. It isn't because you can't accept a fact as not the fact which it is that it can't be what it isn't. You've got it backwards. It's because something is what it is and isn't what it isn't that I can't think of it as being what it is and being what it isn't.

That is, it isn't because I know that there is something that makes there be something; it's because there is something which has forced itself on my consciousness that I know there is something. In other words, my consciousness, at least in some cases (such as my consciousness that there is something) recognizes itself as not free; there are not two alternatives open to it, but only one: I cannot think as a fact that there is nothing at all, simply because I am aware that there is something (at least the awareness), and I cannot escape that awareness.

This refusal to be "tied down" and not be free is another reason for the relativism of the present day. If you admit that there are such things as facts, and that facts don't depend on your knowledge but the other way round, then you aren't free to "believe" what you are "comfortable with."

But this means something interesting. And we can formulate this as another conclusion:

Conclusion 3: Truth is not a value.

--at least in the sense that you're free to take it up if it's "meaningful to you" or abandon it if you're not "comfortable with it."

For instance, it might be convenient to think that what's true could be false in the sense in which it's true, because then you could pick which you wanted at any given moment (because both parts of the contradiction would be true); but this, of course, would rest on its being true and not false that in fact both of the contradictories are true at the same time; so however convenient it might be to hold it, you don't in fact hold it if you do hold it. You can't adopt that position without rejecting it. Your mind knows this, even though your will or desire doesn't want it to be the case.

But for those who are still worried about the "move" from the "logical order" (I can't think that what is is not what it is) to the "real order" (what is can't simultaneously be what it isn't), let me point out this: The principle comes, not from a "rule" or something that we learned or even had built into us; it comes from our knowledge's awareness of itself as something. That is, the thing we are using as making us absolutely certain that there is something is the very act of knowing that there is something; you can't know anything at all without its being forced on you that you are conscious, and this at the very least is what prevents you from being able to think that there is nothing at all.

In the section on consciousness that ends this chapter, I will try to show that we are immediately aware that our act of consciousness is aware of itself, and that to deny this also would entail its affirmation. What I want to point out here, however, is that it is the reality of the act that forces itself upon us making us incapable of entertaining either its non-existence or the possibility of its non-existence while it exists; it is not some "logical property" of either the act or the mind that does this.

In other words, in investigating whether we are absolutely certain of anything and using our own act of consciousness as its evidence that it is absolutely certain of something (at least itself), we are actually dealing with being in what is close to the absolutely general sense in the beginning of Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik. It is not quite Hegel's "being," because that is absolutely ineffable, and we have taken the first step and "defined it" for ourselves as "not nothing," giving it a kind of "characteristic."

Now I don't want, really, to be getting into a Hegelian dialectic here (because among other things, I hope to show that the real is both rational and not rational, and--as is more relevant to this particular stage--the rational is both real and not real). What is important, I think, is, first of all, to realize that we have not made a move from the "logical" to the "ontological" order, because the Principle of Contradiction was not a conclusion about what must be true in the "real world" because the "rules of thought say so," but it was a discovery about what you might call the "reality of reality" using the reality which happens to be immediately present to itself in every sense: the reality of being conscious, no matter what the contents of consciousness.

We are not yet at a point where it makes sense to distinguish between "real being" and "the imaginary," where the only "reality" the latter has is that identical reality of the awareness "of it," because there is no "it," really, to be aware of. (That is, when you imagine a unicorn, you are precisely--as we will see--not conscious of a unicorn; you are only conscious of the act of imagining. But this is proleptic.) At the moment, "something" or "reality" or "being" involves at least the reality which is the conscious act itself, and may extend to other things besides just this act; and it may be that by far the most important sense of "being" and what is "real" applies to these objects which are not identical with my consciousness.

So I don't really want to stress the "reality" of consciousness or its "being" at the moment, except to allay the misgivings of those who are afraid that in "the real world" the Principle of Contradiction might not apply, even though it does "in thought." It is because we recognize thought as either the whole of or part of "the real world" that we know the Principle in the first place; it belongs to thought not as thought but as something that it can't simultaneously be nothing.



1. Actually, as practically everyone who has stated it has pointed out, it should be called the Principle of Non-Contradiction, because it says that there really aren't any contradictions. It's the "Principle of Contradiction" in that it's the principle that deals with contradictions (saying that they can't be facts).