The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about the Coincidence of Opposites twice. Once at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, at the beginning of October 2021, and again at the end of October, in a talk given online to Ralston College, Savannah, GA, USA.

Also, I have now received my copy of Iain’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (abbreviated in this post as TMWT), which I have begun to read slowly, but as I explained in a previous post, not in the order written. The chapter on the coincidence of opposites, which bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ is the first chapter in the second volume of the book, Chapter 20.

There is a reason that this chapter bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ as opposed to ‘The coincidence of opposites’ and that is that the word ‘coincide’ in this chapter,

‘… means more than that opposites happen to look like one another, even to cohere, to concur, or to be in accord, though those meanings are present, too: it means that they ‘fall together’, like the superposition of the two images which, when projected on a screen, overlap precisely to form a new image.’ (p.821, TMWT)

Like all the other chapters in this book, Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum’, starts with some quotes; for this chapter, with quotes from a philosopher, C.S. Peirce, a physicist, Niels Bohr and a poet, Friedrich Hölderlin. I think the quote from Peirce (1931-60) gets to the essence of what this chapter is about.

‘A thing without oppositions ipso facto does not exist … existence lies in opposition.’

In our increasingly divided world, where polarization is spreading across the globe, ‘The Coincidence of Opposites’ is an important idea for our times. Of the chapters that I have read so far in The Matter with Things, this is the one that seems to resonate strongly with current experience of the world we live in. But the coincidence of opposites is not a new idea. It is an ancient theme, which as Iain shows us in this chapter, has been recognised by many philosophers such as Empedocles, Heraclitus, Hegel, Goethe, Nietzsche, James, Schelling, and Whitehead amongst others, as well as across cultures.  In preparation for the Ralston College talk we were sent a copy of the opening pages of this chapter, in which Iain recounts an ancient Iroquois legend to illustrate that ‘All things arise from opposing, but in some form nonetheless related, drives or forces. Energy is always characterised by the coming together of apparent opposites …’ (p.816, TMWT)

So, Iain draws on a wide range of resources to substantiate his argument that things and their opposites are not as irreconcilable and far apart as they may seem. Opposites do not have a linear irreconcilable relationship; it is not the case that the further you go towards one end of the line the further away you are from the opposite end. Rather, opposites eventually tend to coincide. If we could grasp this we might live in a happier world. The example I can think of which might help to illustrate this and that I have heard Iain mention in other talks is that both extreme religious fundamentalists and extreme atheists ultimately have the same left hemisphere view of the world. They go full circle and eventually coincide.

‘A principle that is extended too far, without respect to the opposite that is always inherent in it, may turn into the very thing that is not only undesired, but is being denied.’ (p.829, TMWT). If you go far enough in any direction you reach not more of what you desired but its opposite.

Jacob’s Dream William Blake 1805

So instead of a linear model, Iain prefers one of circularity or better still a spiral, since a circle comes back to the same place and is static whereas a spiral is constantly moving and changing, and circles round to come back to a slightly elevated position.  Linearity and circularity co-exist in a spiral.

Whilst opposites genuinely coincide, they remain opposites and are mutually sustaining. They give rise to and fulfil one another and are conjoined; you can’t have one without the other, but they remain distinct as opposites, as in heat and cold, brightness and darkness, mountains and valleys. Everything that exists can be thought of as a form of energy which results from the coming together of apparent opposites. Iain provides us with many examples of this, e.g., the north and south poles of a magnet, the positive and negative poles of an electric circuit and the merging of male and female gametes in the origin of new life.

A thing and its opposite can both be true at the same time. The individual and the general, the temporal and the eternal, the embodied and the disembodied present simultaneously. They are inclusive. Jacob Needleman (2016) wrote: ‘Stay with the contradiction. If you stay you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.’ East and West are simultaneously present on a compass and need to be so, not just to navigate the world, but to have a world to navigate.

The idea of complementarity is foundational in Nature, morality, and spirituality. The whole is never an annihilation but rather a subsumption of the parts. All is one, but also all is many. Both are true. As Goethe (1948) noted, we need the union of union and division.

‘Dividing the united, uniting the divided, is the very life of Nature; this is the eternal systole and diastole, the eternal coalescence and separation, the inhalation and exhalation of the world in which we live, and where our existence is woven.’ (p. 837, TMWT)

Resistance and pulling in opposite directions are essential for creation, as we see in friction and Heraclitus’ bow and lyre.

Source of image:

The two hemispheres of the brain work together by being apart (separated by the corpus callosum). They cooperate by opposing one another. They inhibit and inform one another, at times standing back and away from one another, and also at times working in unison. Their relationship is oppositional, but not contradictory. The drive of the cosmos is about distinction without separation. But whilst the two hemispheres are equally necessary and need to work together, they are unequal in status. The left hemisphere needs to act as servant to the right hemisphere, which is the master.

There is an asymmetry at the heart of the coincidentia oppositorum. Union and division are asymmetrical. The principle for division and the principle for union need to be brought together, not divided ( p.833, TMWT). We need the union of union and division, not the division of union and division.

We need not either both/and or either/or, but both both/and and either/or.

We need not non-duality only, but the non-duality of duality and non-duality. (p.833, TMWT)

We need universality and particularity, precision and flexibility, restriction and openness, freedom and constraint.

We need to accept that in our society we are beset by paradoxes; by pursuing happiness we become less happy, by pursuing leisure through technology the average working day is longer and we have less time than before, through our eagerness that scientific research should lead to positive findings, scientific research has become less adventurous and more predictable, by trying to improve education through a focus on exam results we have seen a loss of free thinking, and through protecting our children from risk, we have made them more vulnerable. Everything has its dark side. There is nothing so good that it cannot have negative consequences and nothing so bad that it cannot occasionally give rise to good. We should not be tempted to deny the coincidence of opposites. The coincidence of opposites is at the origin of everything and gives rise to everything we know. It transcends ordinary reasoning and we mustn’t be tempted to resolve this.

Things change depending on the context, as we see in the phenomenon of hormesis. A very small amount of something, such as arsenic, may have beneficial effects, but may kill you if taken in large amounts. From any one position we can only see part of the picture. We should always try to see as many points of view as possible. As A. N. Whitehead (1954) noted, ‘To have seen it from one side only is not to have seen it.’ (p. 823, TMWT)

And to finish with another quote from Whitehead also from p.823 of TMWT,

‘… there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.’


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

This is the fourth post I have written which relate to chapters in Volume 2, Part 3, The Unforeseen Nature of Reality, of The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Here are the links to previous posts.

Chapter 28: The sense of the sacred  

Chapter 25: Matter and consciousness  

Chapter 26: Value

3 thoughts on “The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

  1. richardbategmxcom November 27, 2021 / 4:51 pm

    So there might be some truth in what goes around comes around

    Sent using the mobile mail app

  2. Lisa M. Lane November 27, 2021 / 9:17 pm

    Oh please let me add F. Scott Fitzgerald to the mix: “…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

  3. jennymackness November 28, 2021 / 1:02 pm

    Thanks Rick and Lisa for your comments. I think that is we looked we would find many examples of the coincidence of opposites and that many people have noted this in the past.

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