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August 23, 2009

12:53 PM

We cannot experience something negative without first thinking about the corresponding positive



Negation is a pillar of both deductive and inductive logic, and requires careful analysis. We have to realize that negative terms are fundamentally distinct from positive ones, if we are to begin fathoming the nature of logic. The following observation seems to me crucial for such an analysis:

We can experience something positive without having first experienced (or thought about) its negation, but we cannot experience something negative without first thinking about (and therefore previously having somewhat experienced) the corresponding positive.

a.         Cognition at its simplest is perception. Our perceptions are always of positive particulars. The contents of our most basic cognitions are phenomenal sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch and other bodily sensations that seemingly arise through our sense organs interactions with matter – or mental equivalents of these phenomena that seemingly arise through memory of sensory experiences, or in imaginary recombinations of such supposed memories.

A positive particular can be experienced directly and passively. We can just sit back, as it were, and receptively observe whatever happens to come in our field of vision or hearing, etc. This is what we do in meditation. We do not have to actively think of (remember or visualize or conceptualize) something else in order to have such a positive experience. Of course, such observation may well in practice be complicated by thoughts (preverbal or verbal) – but it is possible in some cases to have a pure experience. This must logically be admitted, if concepts are to be based on percepts.

b.         In the case of negative particulars, the situation is radically different. A negative particular has no specific phenomenal content, but is entirely defined by the ‘absence’ of the phenomenal contents that constitute some positive particular. If I look into my material or mental surroundings, I will always see present phenomena. The absence of some phenomenon is only noticeable if we first think of that positive phenomenon, and wonder whether it is present.

It is accurate to say that our finding it absent reflects an empirical truth or fact – but it is a fact that we simply would not notice the negative without having first thought of the positive. Negative knowledge is thus necessarily (by logical necessity) more indirect and active. It remains (at its best) perfectly grounded in experience – but such negative experience requires a rational process (whether verbal or otherwise).

To experience a negative, I must first imagine (remember or invent) a certain positive experience; then I must look out and see (or hear or whatever) whether or not this image matches my current experience; and only then (if it indeed happens not to) can I conclude to have “experienced” a negative.

Thinking about X may be considered as positioning oneself into a vantage point from which one can (in a manner of speaking) experience not-X. If one does not first place one’s attention on X, one cannot possibly experience the negation of X. One may well experience all sorts of weird and wonderful things, but not specifically not-X.

From this reflection, we may say that whereas affirmatives can be experienced, negatives are inherently rational acts (involving imagination, experience and intention). A negative necessarily involves thought: the thought of the corresponding positive (the imaginative element), the testing of its presence or absence (the experiential element) and the rational conclusion of “negation” (the intentional element).

c.         The negation process may involve words, though it does not have to.

Suppose I have some momentary experience of sights, sounds, etc. and label this positive particular “X”. The content of consciousness on which I base the term X is a specific set of positive phenomenal experiences, i.e. physical and/or mental percepts. Whenever I can speak of this X, I mentally intend an object of a certain color and shape that moves around in certain ways, emitting certain sounds, etc.

Quite different is the negation of such a simple term, “not X”. The latter is not definable by any specific percepts – it refers to no perceptible qualities. It cannot be identified with the positive phenomena that happen to be present in the absence of those constituting X. Thus, strictly speaking, not-X is only definable by ‘negation’ of X.

Note well, it would not be accurate to say (except ex post facto) that not-X refers to all experiences other than X (such as Y, Z, A, B, etc.), because when I look for X here and now and fail to find it, I am only referring to present experience within my current range and not to all possible such experiences. We would not label a situation devoid of X as “not X” without thinking of X; instead, we would label that situation in a positive manner (as “Y”, or “Z”, or whatever).

Thus, we can name (or wordlessly think of) something concrete “X”, after experiencing phenomena that constitute it; but in the case of “not-X”, we necessarily conjure the name (or a wordless thought) of it before we experience it.

“Not-X” is thus already a concept rather than a percept, even in cases where “X” refers to a mere percept (and all the more so when “X” itself involves some abstraction – as it usually does). The concept “not X” is hypothetically constructed first and then confirmed by the attempted and failed re-experience of X.

In short, negation – even at the most perceptual level – involves an adductive process. It is never a mere experience. A negative term never intends the simple perception of some negative thing, but consists of a hypothesis with some perceptual confirmation. Negation is always conceptual as well as perceptual in status.

A theory cannot be refuted before it is formulated – similarly, X cannot be found absent unless we first think of X.


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