“Stop! You’re both right! New Sparkles is a floor wax and a dessert topping!” — Saturday Night Live, Season 1
Before I go on, a brief word from our sponsor concerning the word “contradiction.” The most common colloquial use of the word refers to intellectual dispute. That is, “Light behaves as a wave.” “No, I must contradict you: light behaves as a particle.” Some use (or seem to use) the word as if it were equal to paradox or impossibility–that is, as something that can exist in the human mind, but not in nature.
What it means, in the Hegelian-Marxist sense, is something that is at once itself and its opposite.
Nature abounds with these. Mechanical materialists are profoundly disturbed at the notion that there can be contradiction in nature, and twist themselves into pretzels finding ways the contradictions they see are not contradictory. (A favorite technique is to make a long explanation that boils down to, “because it exists in nature, it cannot be a contradiction. Therefore it is not a contradiction. Therefore your argument that nature is full of contradictions is without support.” St. Thomas would have been proud.) The thorough-going idealist, meanwhile, has no trouble with nature being contradictory, but sees it as contradictions imposed by the mind–his own or God’s, as the case may be.
I’ll add that certain schools of vulgar Marxism use the word as a club, much as a weak academic uses the word “subtext.” That is, as the end of a conversation where it ought to be the beginning. One points out to one of these fellows that he has said both that the working class must be broken from their reliance on the bourgeois parties and that it is important to support the Democratic Party in it’s fight for Gay marriage. This ingenious fellow might reply, “That’s the contradiction,” and stop. One thing contradictions do is resolve. If one is going to say, “That’s the contradiction” in answer to an argument, it must be followed with, “Here is the movement of forces which resolves that contradiction, this is why such an action is permissible, and here is the way forward it indicates.”
Contradictions certainly exist in society, and most people don’t have trouble with that. I can point out that Lincoln suspended parts of the constitution in order to save the constitution, and that isn’t a problem. I can point out that Bush and Obama are doing the same thing Lincoln did only for the opposite reason–to destroy the constitution–and people don’t have a problem with that. To me, this is very significant: Society is one thing, the natural world another. But society grew out of nothing except the natural world. That, in itself, is a contradiction. Discovering it’s resolutions is exactly what the social sciences are (or ought to be) about.
Contradictions do occur in nature, but not just any contradiction anywhere someone wishes it to be for convenience. Indeed, discovering the contradictions and how they resolve to create new contradictions is the very essence of the job of the scientist.
This brief interlude isn’t meant to be either exhaustive or convincing. I am, for now, only establishing a definition. We will come back to this in more detail, because it is vital for how we analyze everything from the freezing of water to the US policy of assassination. But for now, just keep in mind that I use contradiction to refer to something that is simultaneously itself and its opposite.