Monday, March 17, 2014


137. Yin and Yang: contrasts and complements

Western philosophy is full of opposites, in dichotomies, such as: dark and light, night and day, construction and destruction, high and low, in and out, spirit and matter, good and evil, being and non-being, …. Ideally, analytically, it is one or the other; there is no third possibility.

In fact, often the opposites shade into each other or come together. At daybreak, dark shades into light, and vice versa at dusk. The porch of a house lies between inside and outside. In creative destruction, construction arises from destruction. Between being and non-being there are emergence and decay. Sometimes bad actions are needed to do good, and good actions misfire. Spirit (mind) is embodied in matter (brain).

However, in Western thought opposition prevails, and change is seen as antagonistic, as Coutinho (2014) proposes, arising from the conflict of opposites. This goes back to Heraclitus and we find it in Nietzsche. In the Western notion of dialectics, out of opposition between thesis and antithesis a synthesis may arise. Yet it remains a battle between opposites, not a blending in complementarity.

In Chinese philosophy, by contrast, complementarity prevails, where apparent opposites are contrasts, as parts of a unified process, coming together, typically in an organic, circular movement where they emerge from each other and yield to each other, as in winter and summer. Here, change is not imposed from outside but arises from within.

This applies, in particular, to the pair of Yin and Yang.[1] The root meanings of the two are the dark slope (Yin) and the light slope (Yang) of a mountain (In the northern hemisphere: the north and the 
south side). Going from there, the following distinctive features arise.

Yin                                                                 Yang
dark                                                               light
moisture (mist and rain on the north slope)   dryness
downward movement, descent                     upward movement, ascent
soft soil                                                          hard
nurturing                                                        challenging
receptiveness, fertility                                    filling, impregnation
integration                                                     disintegration
yielding                                                          conquering, leading
harmony, rest                                                 conflict, tension, energetic
closing down                                                 opening up
female                                                            male

The concepts are relative. The moon is yin with respect to the yang of the sun but it is yang to the yin of the dark sky. The male can be more or less female, and vice versa.

They are counterparts, complementary, succeeding and transforming into each other, building on each other, in an ongoing cycle of change, as in the succession of seasons. They are mutually yielding, blending into each other, ‘across a penumbra of vagueness’ (Coutinho 2014, p. 42).

Most importantly, from my interest in processes of change, the pair of yin and yang promises a view of change as internally generated, immanent, within nature, not as engineered from outside by some transcendent, outside power.

In particular, in the next item in this blog I will consider whether there are similarities, points of contact, or opportunities for cross-fertilization, between yin/yang and the cycle of change by 
assimilation and accommodation that I proposed, in items 31 and 35 of this blog. That also is a circle 
of succession of opening up and closing down, of disintegration and integration.


[1] Here again, I use: Steve Coutinho, An introduction to Daoist philosophies, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.