Amidst a lifetime of “general reading” across the liberal arts curriculum I’d noticed a recurring pattern that presents itself on all levels of existence, life, consciousness and civilization. It is the binary nature of human language in expressing the dynamics of perceived experience. It is through the invocation and utilization of different linguistic binaries that we engage in a kind of imaginative “cosmogenesis” or world-making.
Allow me to illustrate this pervasive “binary habit of mind” as it occurs in the various intellectual disciplines and cultural domains. What follows is simply a starter-list. I’m sure you can add to it:
RELIGION: Prophetic & Mystical. Transcendence & Immanence. Monotheism & Polytheism. Oneness & Plurality. Union & Separation. Spiritual & Material. Immortality & Absorption. Eschatology & Apocalypse.
PHILOSOPHY: Atomism & Platonism. Materialism & Idealism. Rationalism & Empiricism. Dogmatism & Pragmatism. Being & Becoming. Essence & Existence. Possibility & Limitation. Freewill & Determinism. Truth & Beauty. Goodness & Love.
MYTHOLOGY: Psyche & Eros. Mars & Venus. Innocent & Orphan. Caretaker & Warrior. Creator & Destroyer. Lover & Seeker. Ruler & Magician. Sage & Fool.
HISTORY: Spartan & Athenian. Heroic & Picturesque. Civic & Idealist. Soldier & Artist. Industrialist & Agrarian.
LANGUAGE: Symbol & Sign. Subjective & Objective. Noun & Verb. Abstract & Concrete. Fact & Meaning. Literal & Figurative.
LITERATURE: Prose & Poetry. Realist & Romantic. Tragedy & Comedy. History & Fantasy.
ARTS: Gothic & Renaissance. Baroque & Classical. Romantic & Modern.
PHYSICAL SCIENCES: Fire & Water. Earth & Sky. Space & Time. Mass & Gravity. Particle & Wave. Matter & Energy. Dark Matter & Dark Energy. Substance & Form. Fixed & Moving. Closed System & Open System. Simplicity & Complexity. Entropy & Emergence.
NATURAL SCIENCES: Systole & Diastole. Birth & Death. Youth & Aging. Symbiosis & Predation. Female & Male. Mechanism & Organism.
PSYCHOLOGY: Behaviorism & Psychoanalysis. Humanistic Psychotherapy & Existential Psychotherapy. Introversion & Extraversion. Intuition & Sensation. Feeling & Thinking. Perception & Judgement. Intimacy & Detachment. Altruism & Egoism. False Self & True Self. Images & Words. Orality & Literacy.
SOCIOLOGY: Progress & Regress. Patricians and Plebeians. Ruling Class & Working Class. Interests & Values. Economics & Culture. Idealists & Realists. Optimists & Pessimists. Utopians & Dystopians. Progressives & Traditionalists. Communitarians & Libertarians. Anarchists & Totalitarians. Masculinists & Feminists. Authoritarians & Egalitarians. Entrepreneurs & Ecologists. Transcendentalists & Utilitarians. Evolution & Revolution.
Well, you get the idea. The list could go on. Of course not all language is binary in nature, but it is surprising how much of our language is predicated upon a binary construction. What are some things that different people do with these binaries?
Some people prefer to privilege one side of the binary over the other and become its partisan advocate. They see these polarities as mutually exclusive and feel compelled to choose one at the expense of the other. This is the conflict model whereby all values are oppositional and, by implication, all existence is a struggle between mutually incompatible choices.
Others prefer to collapse them into each other in one way or the other. For example, someone might claim that all altruism is really egoism in disguise. Someone else might claim that what everyone really wants, even if they don’t know or admit it, is to live in love, harmony and peace, not hate, conflict and violence. To use another example, someone might claim that the immanent physical world was either created or emanated from spiritual world. Someone else might claim just the opposite, that the transcendent realm of reflexive consciousness and spiritual values evolved over billions of years as a improbably epiphenomenon of an originally non-living physical world.
Pantheist monists will claim that there never was any real duality because everything real is ultimately one undifferentiated transcendent Absolute, Oversoul or Spirit that enjoys the “play” of manifesting itself in the illusion of duality. Materialist monists will claim that there never was any real duality because the world of mind and spirit is a kind of optical illusion, a ghost in the machine of impersonal nature.
Others prefer to hold the binary values together in a “dialectical tension” as differentiated yet necessary to each other, but without any grand synthesis. For example, someone might say that the world is made up of something like magnetic forces that have both a negative and a postive polarity, and that both polarities are necessary for existence, life, consciousness and civilization, even though they seem to be in perpetual tension with each other.
And still others prefer to resolve and reconcile the dialectical tension between “thesis” and “antithesis” by introducing a third element of synthesis. There are both religious and secular versions of triadic integration. In Orthodox Christianity the vision of the Holy Trinity serves this function, as the divine “I” of the Father and “Thou” of the Eternal Son are united in the Eternal Communion of the “Holy Spirit” who co-arises from the Father and the Son. Hegel’s Dialectical Idealism borrows from Christianity but for Hegel the Dialectical Synthesis is consummated not with the transcendent Kingdom of God but with the immanent achievement of Hegel’s German Idealism. Marx’s Dialectical Materialism he turns Hegel on his head, whereby the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will pass through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” to create a new classless society.
Still others prefer to construct a “pluralistic integrative ” method and model of reality that transcends both binary and triadic ways of thinking. Ken Wilber does this with his All Quadrants and All Levels (AQAL) approach. His four ontological (and epistemological) quadrants are Internal-Individual, External-Individual, Internal Collective and External-Collective (that is, Intention, Behavior, Culture and Society). His five levels of being are Matter, Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit, rooted in the ancient tradition of the Great Chain of Being.
For Ken Wilber these quadrants and levels ultimately converge into a non-dualist whole. Materialists view Wilber’s model as archaic and medieval, byzantine and unnecessary to understand the “real world” of physical substances, forms and processes of nature without all the metaphysical slicing and dicing of reality into quadrants and levels, holons, spheres, lines and stages. Idealists and materialists talk past each other.
Still others seem to be content to simply accept and live with the radical plurality and diversity of existence, life, consciousness and civilization without needing to “pluralistically integrate” it into four quadrants and five levels of the Ontological One with Ken Wilber, or “reduce” it to the empirical parameters and quantifying methods of math, physics, chemistry, geology, botany and biology on the other.
It’s my observation that novelists, short story writers, essayists, humorists, satirists, poets and playwrights generally seem to be of this latter sensibility, even though they may engage many of the common binaries of life. Some philosophical novelists, poets and essayists do seem to make a gesture toward theoretical and practical integration of the great binaries of existence, life, consciousness and civilization. However, the deeper instinct creative fiction and nonfiction writers sees to be to “live the questions” and to embrace the experience of Mystery, Ambiguity, Plurality and Paradox rather than to “solve the problems of existence” through either dualistic, monistic, dialectical or evolutionary theories that are the offspring of religion, philosophy, history and science.
What creative writers seem to care about most is a polyphonic and variegated immersion into the complexity of lived experience and human relationships, not the resolution of abstract philosophical or concrete scientific problems. And yet because creative writers are human beings before they are writers they cannot help but be at least vaguely aware of the binary pattern that appears throughout the entire “cosmogenesis” of existence, life, consciousness and civilization.
What one does with these linguistic binaries is a matter of some consequence. Creative writers often do have a “tell” — as they say of the world of poker. They do have instinctive and habitual “literary responses” to the binaries within the circle of their life experiences, but their responses are usually expressed below the writer’s own field of vision and threshold of consciousness.
To become aware of how we respond to the linguistic binaries of our experiences and relationships is to become attentive to our own creative process of cosmogenesis or world-making. Whether these these pervasive linguistic binaries are “objective realities” (like Plato’s Forms or Kant’s Categories) or “nominal abstractions” that serve us as useful fictions is a question for further philosophical discussion.