Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Aristotle on Opposites: Correlatives

What are opposites? Any of us could give plenty of examples. 'Hot' and 'cold', 'good' and 'bad', and so forth. But what is it that makes these pairs of features opposites? And what is it that makes 'hot' the opposite only of 'cold' rather than, say, 'bad'?

Explaining a theory of opposites is no easy task, but Aristotle takes a shot at it in the Categories 10. There he says there are four kinds of opposites:
(a) correlatives (e.g., 'double' vs. 'half'),
(b) contraries (e.g., 'hot' vs. 'cold'),
(c) possession/deprivation (e.g., 'sight' vs. 'blindness'), and
(d) contradiction (e.g., 'Socrates is sitting' vs. 'Socrates is not sitting').
What about the first of these – what, exactly, are correlatives? Aristotle says the following:
'Pairs of opposites which fall under the category of relation are explained by reference of the one to the other, the reference being indicated by the preposition "of" or by some other preposition. Thus, "double" is a relative term, for that which is double is explained as the double of something'.
[11b22-33, emphasis mine, and I added the quotes around 'double'.]
Here's what I gather from this: every correlative is a relational feature. A relational feature relates one thing to another. How do we know when a feature relates one thing to another?

Well, Aristotle thinks it goes something like this. If we take some feature and try to explain what that feature is, we can only do so if we make reference to something else. For example, if I tried to explain to you what 'double' is, I'd have to talk about how something that's 'double' is twice as much as another thing. I couldn't really explain what 'double' is without also talking about what it's the double of.

In modern logic speak, we might say that relational features can only be expressed by two-place predicates. A two-place predicate is one that requires filling in two blanks to make sense. For example, the predicate 'is the double of' only makes sense if I fill in both of the following blanks: '_____ is the double of _____'.

I couldn't say '10kg is the double of...' and just drop off. You'd think I was either asking you to fill in the blank (as if I went around giving you pop math quizzes all day), or you'd think I got lost in thought and stopped mid-sentence (which I do). But you wouldn't think I uttered a complete sentence. A two-place predicate needs both blanks filled in.

(There are three-place, four-place, and n-place predicates too. A three-place predicate would be something like '_____ is half way in between _____ and _____'. I've got to fill in three blanks there, so it's a three-place predicate. But I think Aristotle believes that correlatives are best expressed by two-place predicates, so we can ignore all these n-place thing-a-ma-jigs for now.)

In any case, my point is that a relational feature is explained with reference to something else (it's explained with a two-place predicate), and every correlative is like this. Thus, 'double' is a relational feature because you have to explain it as the double of another thing. Likewise, 'half' is a relational feature because you have to explain it as the half of another thing. The same goes for other correlatives like 'parent' and 'offspring', 'taller' and 'shorter', and so on.

Another thing I gather from the quotation above is this: correlatives are reciprocal. That is, each one refers to the other: for any pair of correlatives R and R*, if x is related to y by R, then y is related to x by R*. Every correlative is like that. If x is the double of y, then y is half of x. If x is the parent of y, then y is the offspring of x. If x is taller than y, then y is shorter than x.

So that's correlatives. A pair of features are correlatives iff (i) each of the pair is a relational feature, and (ii) each of the pair are reciprocal. As Aristotle sees it, correlatives are one kind of opposites. 'Double' is the opposite of 'half'. 'Parent' is the opposite of 'offspring'. 'Taller' is the opposite of 'short'.

One last thing. We should be careful not to confuse the correlatives themselves with the things they correlate. Suppose I have a 10kg block and a 5kg block. Obviously, the first is double the second in weight, and the second is half the first in weight. But what are the actual 'opposites' here? The blocks? The weights?

It seems to me that the genuine opposites are the relationships the blocks have to each other (namely, the relationships of being double and half). The blocks (and their respective weights?) are 'opposites' only in virtue of their double/half relationships.

(Strictly speaking, perhaps the blocks are opposites in virtue of the double/half relationship, and the weights are the foundation/basis for that relationship. But still, aren't 10kg and 5kg opposites?)

1 comment:

Mike said...

Opposites can be a lot of fun in the right context but I prefer reversals.