Metaphysical Binarism in Culture and Practice

By H.E. Whitney

binarypictureSport and Ethics

Metaphysical binarism is our cultural mythology. Take for instance sport. Popular sports events that are team and/or individual oriented pose two contestants or two sets of contestants wherein the outcome of play must determine a winner and loser. Sports can have no meaning unless this outcome is satisfied; teams or individuals competing are only characterized by what category they fall when competition has concluded. While there are such things as ties, the goal is in most sports to continue play until a winner can emerge.

Most systems of behavior and belief partake of metaphysical binarism. Each seeks to define good and evil as the only relevant or possible objects of human action. Ethical action, presumably, cannot terminate in an unclear or ambiguous object. To achieve good, as an end, requires satisfying a debt; to achieve evil, as an end, requires the failure to pay a debt. When our ethical systems are constructed along these lines, is it possible for an action to have ambiguity as a goal? If we can find an example of such, it would seem that good and evil are not the only ends of human action. Given this possibility, we can perhaps then claim that good and evil are merely privileged or preferred ends among many.

So what might constitute an example of human action where good and evil are not ends or where ambiguity is the sought after object? Suppose I am invited to a party of friends. If I choose to go, I will perhaps have a joyous time and maybe my friends will too. To attend the party would thus achieve good. If I fail to go, I will perhaps regret my decision and so will my friends. Now evil isn’t necessarily the outcome of my failure to attend the party but nonetheless the outcome is not good, which is sometimes how evil is defined.

But what if I suspend the choice of alternatives and decide that I may or may not attend the gathering? This suspension of action or choice is nonetheless an action, but it is an action of which we would be presumptuous to label good or bad: we simply must wait to see if I decide on one of the alternatives before imposing a value claim. Nevertheless, the suspension of choice is an action where in some cases, it may be inappropriate to assign a value of good or bad. Obviously, it is highly likely you have committed an evil act if you suspend judgment on whether or not to attend a dinner date with your devoted spouse or significant other on your anniversary.

So what have we learned here? What I wanted to suggest is that all of our actions do not necessarily terminate in a good or bad value. If the contrary is absolutely the case, then our ethical (or even aesthetic) systems are limited in terms of the possible range of values that can describe a (human) action. This limitation then suggests that a binary system of values cannot neatly put all human actions into diametrically opposing categories.


I don’t want to spend much time here on the subject of numbers but mathematics also suffers from a heavy dose of binarism. Arithmetic functions mostly by the use of binary oppositions such as addition and subtraction and multiplication and division. Quantity can only be added to or taken away. The question for our purposes is whether quantity can neither be given or taken away, added to or diminished and still make sense as a value. If the value of the variable is zero, then if it is added to or subtracted from itself, its value remains the same. Yet, against the idea or absolute binariness in arithmetic is that out of all real numbers, zero is neither positive nor negative. Additionally, zero is a number which seems to resist being divided by any other number to yield an actual quantity (i.e., the result of dividing by zero yields an undefined result, a non-number). [link]

Logocentrism and Capitalist, Heterochauvinist Ideologies: The Social Consequences of Binarism

There are several issues I would like to point out with logocentrism. First, logocentrism has a fascistic obsession with binariness and imposing binariness wherever there is none. For example, there is the idea that the moon must either be made of green cheese or either it is not. We can, of course, empirically verify this, and “safely” side with the negative. Yet the fact that we must choose either horn of the dilemma as being true or false is only one prescription for dealing with dilemmas out of many prescriptions: we could just simply ignore deciding upon the statements’ veracity or lack thereof.

What about “Either God exists or does not exist”, a quite polarizing binary that we are well familiar with? What is problematic about this is binary is that it pits against each other two opposing views and assumes that only one of them must be true and the other false. But what about the position that there simply is not enough information, theoretical or empirical, to form an opinion one way or the other? This must also be taken as a point of view in its own right, but not necessarily a negation or affirmation of either of the opposing views.

There is an applicant for a job and on the application, neither M or F (male or female) is marked for sex. Again, the logocentrist fascistic obsession with binariness emerges and we seek to equate gender with specific biological parts when identity is problematic or fluid. A person with a vagina must be a woman, although they identify behaviorally or socially as a man; a person with a penis must be a man, although he may lactate.[link] Vestiges of evolutionary origins seem to point to either androgyny or sexual reproduction without the assistance of the combinatorial fusion of egg and sperm.

The binary fetishism of heterochauvinism seeks to put people in discrete, twofold, M/F categories where seemingly most sexist or heterochauvinistic stereotypes arise. History used to assign reason to men and emotion or sentiment to women and claim that reason was the higher faculty (thereby seeking to justify man’s exalted place in the great chain of being as well as in marriage): as if emotional expression in men was always unfit or superior intellectual ability in women was an aberration to be ignored and even ridiculed.

There is also, finally, the capitalist ideology and its addiction to logocentric binariness. The obvious goal of capitalism is to profit from either no labor or from laborers who will accept the least compensation, in comparison to other laborers, to improve their material existence. The assumption here is that labor must eventually be abolished or that laborers must be made to produce more at the least possible market rate for their services. The problem with this either/or situation is that one the one hand, if you abolish labor, society has no lawful means to support its existence as a whole or as individuals. On the other hand, the assumption that people must be made to produce more at the least possible market rate assumes, without any shred of evidence, that laborers would not work harder (i.e., produce more) if they were paid more. But most importantly, capitalism functions when a product has value (i.e., something external to what it (the product) is which is nevertheless abstract). Its real value or price and the profit to be made from its sale can be never the same which seems to suggest that any product that you buy must always have an inflated price. This is a fundamental charade of capitalism: the value the consumer pays for a product must necessarily be higher than what the seller pays for the product. The consumer is thus giving the seller money in addition to purchasing or paying the real value for the product.


To have a conclusion here would seem to suggest that what I have said above are premises in an argument to lead to a particular conclusion. It is the presumption of binariness that all arguments need to have a conclusion: whether valid or invalid.

I conclude nothing here. The only thing I would like to suggest (and logic can only prescribe truth instead of deriving it) is that we perhaps need closely examine the notion of binariness that is not only a part of our Western intellectual tradition but also our common social discourse and broaden our thinking to seize alternative ways of conceptualizing the world. Would such a reconceptualization be practical? I think of HTML as a not so binary language (i.e., not every tag needs to be closed) that is practical.  And its goal is to arrange or create a representation (i.e., a web page) that informs: as opposed to ruling, by absolute deference to a set of arbitrary rules, whether a particular argument is valid or invalid.  The logic of good and evil, truth and falsity, validity or invalidity, either/or, neither/nor, are lenses that narrow the scope of the mind, while over-adherence to these binaries leads one to assert their metaphysical finality and necessity: the grid by which all is to be measured and judged. A restless, searching type of critical thinking dispenses with such intellectual indolence, and recognizes binariness as a prescriptive quality or structure, among many, that is perhaps imposed upon the world as opposed to being found within it.

H.E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. H.E’s fields of study are the history of science, intellectual history, and technology and culture. H.E. is originally from Suffolk, Virginia but has called California, Ohio, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Florida home at some point. H.E. has taught philosophy and graphic design/multimedia studies at the college level and enjoy creating digital art when not pontificating on scientific, cultural, or historical matters

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