The other night I participated in an informal debate about logic. My interlocutor held that it was “absolutely true that something could not be both something and not be something at the same time”. I tried to offer some examples that would prove the contrary, but I don’t think I was very successful.
I would like to briefly engage this idea again as simply as possible without recourse to unhelpful jargon.
A fire is danger and it is not dangerous. It is one or the other depending on the one’s proximity to the fire.
A chair is a chair and not a chair. Again, it depends on the situation: sometimes I use it as a chair, but most of the time it just takes up space in my room and hides the dust that collects underneath it. Sometimes it is table.
A piece of art is both art and it is not art (at least in our time: “to each h/er own”). It depends on the viewer.
It’s both possible that I could go on and not go on at this moment… But I’m sure by now you get my point. I will, however, offer two possible replies.
1. In all of these examples, one could argue that I am not using language correctly. Since the piece of art cannot be said to be both art and not art at the same time, we need a new word to say what it is. We need a word to describe it so that it will have only that meaning. We need to construct a language where, in every situation, we could always say that X can never be not X. It’s term exhausts it’s meaning.
2. Another response along the same lines might go something like this: Yes, it is a chair, a table, a dust concealer, place taker, etc.; However, it remains a chair and not not a chair during this time. When it becomes a table, it remains a table and not not a table.
My turn: In both cases we are faced with a number of problems that can be boiled down to two things: preference towards one grammatical construction over another; and the problem of perspective. In the first case, deciding what something is and what it is not is determined locally by it’s use and not an abstract construction. The difference between “this is a chair, and a table, and a place holder, etc.” does not contradict the statement that “this is a chair and this is not a chair.” Therefore, “The chair is a chair and not a chair” is true. This construction is actually extremely helpful as a vehicle for expressing the many uses and names one object can have.
In the second case (perspective),the question, “what art is and what art is not” can occur in the same place. Often this is where productive discussions take place: “what is justice? What is it not?” The objection can be raised that from one perspective “something is X” and from the other, “something is not X.” However, from the point of view of the observer “something is both X and not X.” Of course, this brings up the question of power: for whom can these two seemingly contradictory views not be tolerated?
In sum, any attempt to absolutize truth byway of a grammatical construction must be met with much suspicion. I will end with a personal anecdote: I attended the first class of a graduate level seminar on epistemology. One of the professor’s opening remarks, a philosopher working almost exclusively in the analytic tradition, was that correct reasoning is only correct if you choose to accept the framework of correct reasoning. In other words, formal logic is universally true if you already accept that formal logic is universally true; those who do not conform to formalized logic are not devoid of truth — just not the logician’s truth.