Epistemology: On the use of dichotomies

By Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

Sometimes the use of dichotomies, simple cuts, male-female, democracy-dictatorship, negative-positive peace is criticized: the world is more complicated. That the organic world with life, individual and collective, is complex, there is no doubt. That a simplistic us-them division of the world in two blocs or poles, polarization, is a step on the way to violence and war, is clear.

On the other hand, the dichotomy is a frequent form of thought; today’s digital world is even based on 0,1. We cannot live without right-left, forward-backward, up-down, North-South, East-West, etc.

For this author, with many dichotomies in thought-speech-writing, they are indispensable building-blocs for a complexity that can mirror some of the complexity of the real world, impinging upon us; suffering and fulfillment (and suffering in the fulfillment and fulfillment in the suffering).

The question is not for or against dichotomies, but how they are used. Are they the final word on something, or only the beginning? The position here is the latter.

“There is something in-between”, indeed; and to advance from that loose talk to something precise, a small intellectual trick is useful: make two dichotomies out of one. In a simple conflict between two goals – a dilemma when inside a party, a dispute when between parties – we get a fourfold-table, the Buddhist tetralemma: either this goal, or that goal, neither-nor, both-and, adding compromise with in-between 0,1.

From 2 incompatible goals to 5 possibilities it expands our vision; including three possible solutions: neither-nor, compromise, both-and. Try it out, what does it mean concretely in the Sunni-Shia conflict?

2–>5 is actually more than “2 becomes 1″ in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula, but we would certainly include “1 becomes 2″ again.

Next, the critique of the fourfold-table, literally speaking, a square. Again, the question is how it is used; for what purpose?

This author’s first answer: to classify something in four classes is OK, but not the answer. The answer is to identify the empirically empty cell, the excluded class. Why is it empty? What could it be?

However, combine world West-East with North-South to four worlds; but only First-Second-Third were used, not the world Southeast, Fourth world, with Japan-China, Buddhist-Confucian economy. I’ve found this worth a book [i] to come out in 2015.

Second answer: because of a law, like “growth and equality exclude each other”; a theory being that some inequality is needed to reward key actors (Darwin in his study of the indigenous in the Tierra del Fuego: too egalitarian). A law excludes something as impossible.

But the second question lies already in the dichotomous cards: how could it nevertheless be possible?

Why should “reality” have the last word, proclaiming either-or? Why not search for changes that could create a New Reality, capable of accommodating both-and? Why take reality’s “No” for an answer? Why not go beyond, create and transcend [ii]? If unwilling, preferring status quo, say so; if unable, also say so.

From 2 dichotomies proceed to 3, 4, n for 8, 16, 2n combinations; an intellectual grid that captures much complexity, holistic in the sense of many-dimensional. The problem now becomes too much rather than too little complexity. One way to simplify is the additive index.

The dichotomies may have a common theme; like “rank” in society, or “paxogenic”, peace-building. Each dichotomy carries an aspect of a more complex concept, like for rank, age, gender, income, education, secondary-tertiary vs primacy sector of economic activity, high vs low position at work, city vs rural, center vs periphery in the country (and we could add: internet-connected or not)[iii].

Eight dichotomies give us 256 combinations, and we could look at the social distribution for empty combinations and possible “laws”.

But it also makes sense to reduce the complexity from 256 to 9, with an index 0-8 based on eight times 0,1 for low-high rank.

At the top a middle-aged male and so on, at the bottom an old woman farming. Correlations with attitude and behavior are very high. And then the contradiction in rank 7; short on one, and very active.

So far in a Western framework; dividing the world in watertight dichotomies, using contradiction-free combinatorics, searching for invariances, empty cells; and transcending them creatively; Vico rather than Descartes. Then turn to daoist holism, with dialectics.

They also started with dichotomies–yin/yang–and combined them, even millennia ago. The thought unit is not a category with negation, but the contradiction inherent in any category; any yin yin/yang, any yang yin/yang. The negative in the positive in negative peace, the positive in the negative in positive peace. Do that some more levels and out of dichotomies comes something very complex.

Daoism is by no means a static classificatory scheme. Yin/yang is dynamic; if one is dominant, one recessive the latter will grow; they may co-exist in a temporary balance, but nothing is forever. A contradiction works its way, inside and between individuals and collectivities, and may exhaust its energy. No final state for that reason, a new contradiction takes over. Or, may have been there all the time but captures public attention; like class waning in the Nordic countries, yielding to gender, generation, nature, waxing.

Two dichotomies, future vs past and constructive vs destructive combine to a fourfold table for mediation, for parties in conflict to elaborate the constructive future they would like to realize. They quickly discover the past in the future–the long shadows of history–and the future in the past, helpful roots. Plus the negative in the positive, and the positive in the negative; not clear-cut dichotomies, but two contradictions. Identify them, ride on them; creatively.

One dichotomy polarizes, closes. Combining more we get holism; yin/yang makes them dialectic. Opening for prognosis and therapy.


[i]. World Politics of Peace and War, forthcoming, New York, Hampton Press, 2015.

[ii]. Solving conflict is a key example. See 50 Years: 100 Peace & Conflict Perspectives, TUP 2008 for 100 cases, and Deep Culture -Structure -Nature, TUP 2015 for many more.

[iii]. With Kees van der Veer, Åke Hartmann, Harry van den Berg, Juan Diez-Nicolás and Håkan Wiberg, Multidimensional Social Science: An Inclusive Approach to Social Position and Inequality. Amsterdam: Rozenberg Publishers, 2009, 166 pp.

Originally published at Transcend Media Service here.

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