chapter  23
23 Pages

Complementarity and the union of opposites: M. H. F. Wilkins

The main tradition of thinking in the West has concentrated attention on distinct things of fixed nature which are separable from each other. From this, basic science has grown. But there has been a less wellrecognised philosophical tradition which has concentrated on the relations between things, and how these relations produce changes in things and in their relations. Thus Heraclitus in ancient Greece and, at about the same time, philosophers in China saw the essence of reality in change and renewal. Opposition was the relation which produced change. Thus opposite principles such as yin and yang pervaded everything, and change came about by opposed things forming a unity. As Pan Ku said in the first century AD 'Things that oppose each other also complement each other.' In the West these ideas were kept alive by thinkers like Nicholas de Cusa (who saw God as the coincidence of opposites), Giordano Bruno, the mystic Jacob Boehme, and also the alchemists who saw in chemical reactions the union of opposites giving rise to new substances. These ideas were developed into a philosophical system by Hegel. He argued that if one thought about opposed concepts, for example being and notbeing, one was led to think of their unity in the concept of becoming. To define being one has to refer to not-being, and vice-versa; logically the two concepts are interdependent, inseparable and, in many respects, the same. But to say that being and not-being are the same is a contradiction. To avoid this, thought makes a leap and resolves the contradiction by thinking of the higher-order concept of becoming, which contains and unites both being and not-being. This type of argument - thesis, antithesis and then synthesis -- is reasonable enough, but Hegel went further. As an idealist, he saw ideas as the primary reality which gave rise to all phenomena. He therefore

extended the idea of the unity of opposites from the world of thought to all aspects of the natural world and of human life, especially history. Thinkers today are more doubtful about this extension, especially to the natural world; and the fact that Hegel was obscure adds to the uncertainties. In any case, I shall make use of a very simplified 1 view of Hegel.