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Since I was a little kid I wondered about what people call opposites.

If you ask someone "what is the opposite of white", they usually answer "black", but that's not the opposite, it is just another "color" (well, let's say black and white are colors), so they are in the same category and just not the same.

It's the same with pretty much anything else people call "opposite", they don't really say something really contrary to x, but just another word that is in the same category as the word x.

But then again, if I say "what is the opposite of black" and someone says pelican, it's not really true, though it is in a really other category and really "contrary" to black because it is something totally different.

So, what exactly is "opposite" defined as in everyday-langauge? Is it, like I guess, "in an ordered line (e.g. for visible colors the energy of the light) of things of the same category the thing that is the farthest away from the thing that I want to name the opposite to"? And then again, what would a really contrary opposite be defined as, where it doesn't belong to the same category: Is this possible after all?

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    On what basis do you say that "black" is not the opposite of "white"? Is it only the fact that we put them in the same class, of colours? Do you feel that black and white are just an arbitrary pair of colours, no different with respect to opposite-ness than white and red, or white and pink? – Niel de Beaudrap Nov 1 '13 at 9:41
  • You are right - people are wrong (often forgotten first commandment of philosophy:) ). There is nothing opposite. People's opposite is metaphorical (conventional, temporal) rather then real. Happiness can only come after sorrow (in time), so they say it is opposite. – Asphir Dom Nov 1 '13 at 10:36
  • Aristotle would say than an opposite of a predicative statement requires a reversal of the copula. Thus the opposite of 'Man is good' would not be 'Man is bad' but 'Man is-not good'. My impression is that a misunderstanding of this simple point continues to cause endless chaos in philosophy, . – PeterJ Feb 16 '18 at 13:44
  • In logic specify terms are used to eliminate vague context. Contradictory and contrary are probably the most frequently described by writers and speakers under the male opposite. The logical terms have absolute definitions in logic and philosophy. The terms are not subjective or different depending on who you ask. Propositions have relationships and those relationships have exact names. – Logikal Feb 19 '18 at 19:21
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This question, on the surface, is more about language than philosophy, although I think it does have philosophical implications deeper down.

I would say you are correct. Things must be linked in order to be opposed. When we characterize two things as opposites, we mean they are contrasting modes of a single phenomenon.

There are some very significant philosophies based on the concept of opposition. The largely defunct, but still influential Zoroastrianism revolved around the opposition between "good" and "evil", while Taoism is all about the dynamic union between opposing qualities such as male and female, hot and cold, light and dark, and so forth.

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Agree with @ChrisSunami in general. To expand the moral/ethics angle a bit ..

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics spoke of vices as opposite extremes, with the virtuous ideal in the middle. One example I recall are the opposite extremes/vices of "fear" vs. "overconfidence". The midpoint or golden mean in this framing would be the virtue, in this case, "courage". The opposing extremes, or vices, would both be undesirable, if in excess.

So in Aristotle's ethics it seems there is more of a continuum in play, with opposite behaviors and/or attributes visible at the extremes.

Are opposites easier to visualize this way, vs. the discrete black/white framing?

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The opposite of "black" is just "non-black".

If you want to think of it in terms of a test, try to imagine an object that would be a counterexample to the the claim that "everything is black". A white ball would prove the sentence false, but so would a red ball or a green one.

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One obvious part of the answer is that the opposite depends on the context, and that not all contexts allow for the existence of the opposite. In some contexts, the opposite of 0 is 1, but in other contexts, the opposite of 0 is infinity, which might not even exist in the corresponding context.

It may look like the set of all non-white colors would be the opposite of white, but sets of colors might not even exist in the context of the question. Note that the context is often implicit, which is one part of the explanation why opposites are often not unique. In some contexts, there are also different kinds of opposites (inverse elements of different operations, corresponding element in a dual order, ...), hence even when the context is explicit it can happen that it's unclear what it meant by the opposite.

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White and black are not great examples to use here. White reflects light, while black absorbs light.

White is all lights combined. Black is the absence of light (reflected back to our perception).

If we're thinking of paint, white is the absence of color, while black is all colors combined.

In one phrasing, it could be said that black is actually not a color, since it absorbs all light and therefore is the absence of color to our own perception, while white is a color since it reflects all light, and is therefore all colors - or the opposite, if we're talking about mixing paint.

White and black are actually polar opposites in these regards. The logical opposites would be not white, and not black... respectively.

Essentially, you're stuck on logical vs. polar opposites. Logical opposites are simply the negation of x (e.g. not x), so the logical opposite of anything is not that thing. Polar opposites deal with a spectrum. E.g. the logical opposite of both love and hate is indifference. But the polar opposite of love is hate. The logical opposite of nothing is something, but the polar opposite of nothing is everything.

  • This seems an important point. It may partly explain the process of 'sublation', for which 'polar' and 'logical' opposites need to distinguished and handled carefully. It doesn't help us overcome these opposites but does help in organising them. . – PeterJ Feb 16 '18 at 13:36
  • @Dan Gero: It was 15 minutes ago I saw your answer. It is a coincidence some parts of my answer is almost same as yours. So I think that part must be right. But I didn't understand one idea you mentioned: Logical opposite of both love and hate is indifference? If so, we can say indifference has many opposites. Is it right? – SonOfThought Feb 21 '18 at 17:24
  • I am asking so because two mutually opposites become the opposites of a word!! Its name is logical opposite!! I don't understand the 'terrible' logic behind this idea!! Does it help in any field of analysis? – SonOfThought Feb 22 '18 at 13:30
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I feel you have hit on an vitally important intellectual issue. What you seem to be saying is that legitimate opposites must be both contradictory and complementary. Another way of saying this is that for two things to be different in some way they must be identical in some way.

Our intellect requires opposites in order to function and it cannot function properly if we are sloppy in the way we create these opposites. We often are sloppy in philosophy, with predictable results.

Aristotle is crystal clear about what constitutes a legitimate dialectic contradiction or contradictory-pair of statements but is largely ignored by philosophers and this does a lot of damage. For instance, it is common to see people arguing between freewill and determinism or between idealism and materialism as if these are dialectical opposites one of which must be true and the other false. This is not at all how Aristotle uses logic and it breaks the rules. A contradiction must be A/not-A, and not A/B. In the case of A/B both theses may be true or false.

You might like CWA Whittaker's book on Aristotle's 'De Interpretatione'. He explains a lot of this with great clarity.

As you say, for two things to be opposite they must belong in the same category. This becomes a major issue in metaphysics, where we have to reduce all these opposites for a fundamental theory. It cannot be done within the usual 'Western' way of thinking because thought requires opposites.Thus this way of thinking becomes stuck at Something-Nothing, Mind-Matter, Internalism-Externalism, and so forth and never moves forward. I'd say you have hit on the reason. Kant and Hegel would be immediately relevant here, along with Bradley, Spencer Brown and Nagarjuna. They all spend a lot of time explaining opposites and methods for reducing them.

A rather garbled answer I'm afraid. Time is short. But it's a question that deserves a lot of thought and which sheds a lot of light on philosophy and the way we think.

  • +1. A contradiction must be A/not-A, and not A/B. I might go farther and claim that in order for "not-A" to be real, not simply an abstract and empty truism, the not-A must be a specific (actual here/now) "deficiency and want" side of A, i.e. it must be an outline of some B existing by the mode of nonbeing. In other words, the B is needed, but in the form "not is", the lacuna of A. – ttnphns Feb 18 '18 at 9:52
  • @ttnphns - That sounds like an interesting comment but I'm afraid I don't understand it. – PeterJ Feb 18 '18 at 13:56
  • Peter, my comment was about this: what is "not A"? Obviously, it is the negation of the being/identity of A. But what is negation of being? It cannot be an alternative state of A as some "switched off" A, because a state is again a being and therefore not very much different from B, which also is being. I did not object to your answer, except that I wanted to mention the dialectic, not logical nature of the "not A". – ttnphns Feb 18 '18 at 21:22
  • @ttnphns - i see now and it seems an excellent point. Sri Aurobindo makes exactly your point in respect of 'Being/non-Being'. – PeterJ Feb 19 '18 at 11:36
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Since I was a little kid I wondered about what people call opposites.

If you ask someone "what is the opposite of white", they usually answer "black", but that's not the opposite, it is just another "color" (well, let's say black and white are colors), so they are in the same category and just not the same.

It's the same with pretty much anything else people call "opposite", they don't really say something really contrary to x, but just another word that is in the same category as the word x.

Two things, or concepts, can only be "opposite" regarding a system of reference. Heads and tails are the opposite sides of a coin, so they must belong to the same coin.

Regarding colours, "black" is the colour of something that absorbs all light and reflects none. So if we have a scale of reflexivity, it will go from black in one extreme, to the colour of things that reflect all light and absorb none. Which we use to call "white". So, yes, black and white are "opposites" concerning the ratio of reflection/absorption of light. They are opposite not albeit, but because, they belong to the same "category", as you put it.

But then again, if I say "what is the opposite of black" and someone says pelican, it's not really true, though it is in a really other category and really "contrary" to black because it is something totally different.

Pelican is not really contrary to black. There is nothing that turns black if you move in one direction, and pelican if you move contrarywise. As they are not in the same category, they are different, but not opposite.

So, what exactly is "opposite" defined as in everyday-langauge? Is it, like I guess, "in an ordered line (e.g. for visible colors the energy of the light) of things of the same category the thing that is the farthest away from the thing that I want to name the opposite to"? And then again, what would a really contrary opposite be defined as, where it doesn't belong to the same category: Is this possible after all?

I fear not; if two things are not in the same category, there is no sense in which they can be opposite. Maybe there are instances you may discover or invent a category encompassing two different things or concepts, in a way that they are opposite (for instance, mammals could be the "opposite" of birds if we established a fur/feather category that opposed them - but this sounds rather artificial to me).

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White and Black are two poles labeled by the same category, Colour. But this is not the category what counter-position them as opposites. Within category colour, both this and that can reside inertly and alternate one to another from time to time without any tension implied by playing "opposite".

"Before" black could become an opposite to white, white itself must be attenuated as white in its core being. As @PeterJ put in his answer, "A contradiction must be A/not-A, and not A/B". So, white must first be able to emerge as not white. Negation of a being/identity of one pole is the necessary condition of the other (or some another) pole to start being its opposite.

Somebody here says, the opposite of A is not B but not-A. Not quite so. Not-A isn't being to have a status of something. Opposite is B, a something, however the prerequisite what makes it opposite to A is that A can not-be-A in its being A.

But the negation is not logical or linguistic trick, it is real. It is not a cognitive action (of mind playing with concepts like with cards); rather, it is what happens with a thing (such as this white paper) in the world. Our consciousness has pre-rational, intuitive apprehension of non-being aspect of things - because (to quote Sartre) consciousness or "human reality" is the only one thanks to which nonbeing comes to things.

Therefore it is silly to start with pure concepts and categories. Before that, there exists this white paper, which, as I look at it (while doing my current living process) inevitably corrupts into "not so white". The ulcer on the being (the deficit of white) gets paved by some imaginary compensation - and I begin to find the paper partly yellow. Yellow will be the opposite to white from now on. Then I skip my thoughts to the pen I was holding in preparation to write, I see the black scribble appearing - black is now the opposite to white. Pelican could be a perfect contrary to black (actually, I might find my paper devours ink like a white pelican).

So, white exists as meaningful attribute in my actions with the sheet and in incessant partial self-rejection which produces contraries without killing white.

Opposites are thus secondary, they pend on our intrinsic ability to attenuate identity of entities. Alternatives emerge in compensation to the lack of identity and in vague promise to restore it, the clearness of white paper, by a complement (black letters) via synthesis (paper with words written on it is potentially more white than it was before because it appears to excuse its whiteness by making it necessary for words to appear, not simply by colour contrast). Opposites nascend, initially, as near-by, not as poles far apart. The most opposite is a neighbour next door.

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To be an opposite of the other, both words must come in the same line of thought. Then only we can imagine that they are completely on either side of a particular point on that line of thought and treat them as opposites. Often they must have a relation to our usual experience. The axis as the particular point, the two words must have a balancing effect. Actually, the particular word for creating a line of thought is the word for making the two words in the same category.

if I say "what is the opposite of black" and someone says pelican, it's not really true,

The two words-- 'black' and 'pelican' can't balance each other. So they can't be opposites. We can't say 'white cloth' as the opposite of 'black'.

Though we can say 'black' and 'white' are opposites, we hesitate to say "yes" if you are asked like this: "Is the opposite of 90% black, 10% white?" This indicates some sort of balancing must happen, to be an opposite.

If you ask someone "what is the opposite of white", they usually answer "black", but that's not the opposite, it is just another "color" (well, let's say black and white are colors), so they are in the same category and just not the same.

We see so many colors in this world. But we have opposites only for 'black' and 'white'. For our daily activities this is often helpful. One word represents presence of light (the totality of the whole spectrum of sunlight) and the other, absence of light. For adding darkness or giving lightness we use black or white. Since these two colors have a relation to our usual experience also there is no error in saying "'black' and 'white' are opposites to each other". But if we try to say the opposite of any other color we won't get such relation. So they have no opposite.

To say the opposite of X, we should be able to 'stop' at a point on the line of thought for imagination. If you say only X, we can't 'stop' at any point to imagine. [i.e., when you say only 'color', we can create only a line of thought. But, if you say 'black', we stop there and fix that word.] You may verify what happens if you say like this in the situation mentioned above: 'X is a color'. The answer will be long sentences. So we can't say the opposite of X as a one-word answer.

  • In this answer (which partly I would agree with) there are two main points: (i) the line of thought [i.e., for me a "dimension" stretched by human practice]; (ii) the balance [on the line should be achieved by placing B as the complete and sufficient "opposite" for A]. My question is where the notion of "balance" and its necessity comes from? Why do we need balances after all? And could it be that some sort of disbalance ontologically precede a balance? Yes, this is a kind of han/egg question, but it is important. – ttnphns Feb 18 '18 at 9:26
  • ...Notice that balance/disbalance is itself an opposition, and so to escape infinite rucursion one has ultimately to choose one of the two poles and assign it to be primary in some sense and the other to be its product in some sense. In other words, they cannot be initially symmetric. And therefore in any opposition, likewise, asymmetric roles ought to preexist the symmetric union. – ttnphns Feb 18 '18 at 9:35
  • Logical terminology does not include words like opposite for the reason you bring up. Logic has pin point terms with pinpoint definitions such as contrary, contradictory, sub contrary, etc. The term opposite as is without more information is too vague to be used in a philosophy context. – Logikal Feb 19 '18 at 18:57
  • @ ttnphns: When our mind becomes unsteady, its products and byproducts emerges. Balancing is needed only if we see the stability of a system disturbed. If our mind is completely steady/still there is no need to (or we can't) see as divided. So we can't imagine even opposites. – SonOfThought Feb 20 '18 at 11:53
  • @Logikal: I used only reasoning; not logic. So I need not care about those logical terminology. I didn't see this types of thought (that I used) anywhere. – SonOfThought Feb 20 '18 at 11:54

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