On Contradiction

In classical philosophy, human beings are called “rational animals.” Why so? They are certainly animals with a full range of sentient powers that are, in addition, directly ordered to thinking. Man’s knowing powers include everything about him doing what it is supposed to do. Curiously, we find ourselves existing with a body, sensory powers, and a mind. We did not give ourselves these things. We woke up one morning to find them already there. A major purpose in our lives is to figure out why we exist, or, better, why we exist to know.

Evidently, once men appeared, they all had pretty much the same powers. The advantage, if it is an advantage, of coming later rather than earlier in time is that we also have memories. We can recall and build on what others figured out before us. The old cartoons that showed a bewildered cave man pushing a wheelbarrow with a square wheel instead of a round one made the point. Someone had to invent the wheel. But once it was invented, not much use or thrill was found in inventing it again, although we could if we had to.

It is one thing to be given a mind and, to go along with it, hands – those remarkable instruments that enable us to connect our thoughts with something out there on which to put them. We find that we can modify the things that are out there. Tools enable us to do many things that would not be possible without our capacity to change things around to help us to achieve the end we want to effect. We are not totally wrong in thinking that perhaps it was intended this way.

Le Penseur by Auguste Rodin, 1902 [Rodin Museum, Paris]

Every so often we ask ourselves: “What is the mind for?” We seem to have it whether we like it or not. So we might as well take a look at it. We call this look self-reflection, which is the only way we can get at it. No doubt mind has baffled more than one philosopher throughout the ages.

Initially, the most peculiar thing about our minds is their seeming constant prodding to know what something is or isn’t. Kids drive their parents crazy with such questions about what is this or that? When a Chinese mother tells her child the thing is a chair, the Chinese word is not the same as the word of the Latvian mother who says the same thing in Latvian. But the answer, whether in Mandarin or Latvian, indicates the same thing, something to sit on. Next we learn that sitting is not standing or lying down. We distinguish words and what they mean.

Our minds enable us to know things other than ourselves and our immediate wants. Indeed, they enable us to know just about anything that comes along if we set our minds to it. We want to know, pace Socrates, what is not ourselves. We soon find out one thing that we cannot do. We cannot say that Joe is John. We have to say Joe is not John. We can say Joe is an Englishman. John is an Englishman. We cannot say an Englishman is a Latvian. So abstractions also at some level differ as do particular things. We affirm the distinctions.

The mind has one overarching “principle” that enables someone with a mind to think properly. This is the principle of contradiction. It is usually stated that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same circumstances. If two things were absolutely identical in everything, including their existence, they would be the same being and the question of difference could never arise.

How do I know that this principle is true? Not because someone told me it was. It is because I cannot think it not true without at the same time affirming that it is true. With this principle, I can begin to distinguish and separate things. I can begin to put some order into things. This thing is not that thing. This thing is like that thing but is different too.

We do not want to deceive ourselves about what is out there. Plato said that the worst thing that could happen to us is willingly to have a lie in our soul about what is. A lie is when we know one thing but affirm another thing about it. When we contradict ourselves, when we say of something that is, that it is not, we display to ourselves and to others, who also have minds, a malfunctioning in our mind.

Contradictions will not leave us alone. At the highest level, we are not, and know we are not, being what we ought to be if we maintain them. This is the blessing of the principle of contradiction. It won’t let us alone. This is probably why we have it.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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