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  1. The proposition that something is both the case and not the case at the same time. All argument and theory in science is systematically scrutinized in order to eliminate the presence of contradiction, for any proposition which involves, or leads to, contradiction is a logically impossible account of the world, and may be dismissed a priori. It is important to see that ‘contradiction’ in this sense involves a purely logical relation between statements. Thus, since to claim that a camel can both pass, and not pass, through the eye of a needle involves a contradiction of logic, and we know that the situation described cannot ‘be the case’. Experiment is redundant. However, to claim simply that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle involves no logical contradiction. It is simply a claim about the world which experimentation with camels has (so far) shown to be empirically impossible.
  2. economic and social contradictions: a key term of Marxist discourse, indicating a tension, opposition or conflict between two aspects of social structure or processes within a social whole. ‘Contradiction’ is held to be responsible for the dynamic properties of society. The proposition that all phenomena are composed of‘opposites’ is one of the three laws of DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM. Marx himself was specifically interested in the application of dialectical analysis to the study of history, hence the term HISTORICAL MATERIALISM. Here, the notion of contradiction plays a central role in the analysis of social change. Marx argued that in all MODES OF PRODUCTION (prior to communism) a contradiction eventually develops between the FORCES OF PRODUCTION and the RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION. Substantively, this contradiction is expressed in, and eventually resolved by, class conflict. Successful revolutionary struggle by the class which represents new relations of production then initiates a new cycle of change. See also DIALECTIC and CULTURAL CONTRADICTIONS OF CAPITALISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) In dialectics, the interaction of mutually opposed, mutually exclusive aspects and tendencies in objects and phenomena, which are simultaneously characterized by inner unity and mutual penetration. These mutually opposed aspects act as the source of self-motion and development in the objective world and in cognition. The category of contradiction, which expresses the essence of the law of the unity and struggle of opposites, occupies a central place in materialist dialectics. V. I. Lenin wrote: “Dialectics can be defined as the doctrine of the unity of opposites” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 203).

In the history of dialectics the first significant conception of contradiction was developed by Heraclitus, who conceived of “eternal becoming,” possible only as the unity of opposites, in the form of an endless transformation of the opposite into the other. Heraclitus regarded the struggle of opposites as the general law of all existence. Plato, who accepted the dialectical ideas of the Eleatic School and Socrates, developed the doctrine of contradiction in his dialectics of concepts, including “the one” and “the many” and “rest” and “motion,” which are contradictory by necessity and by their inner nature. According to Plato, truth is attainable through the reduction of contradictory aspects to that which is single and whole.

The dialectical tradition of reflection on the contradictory quality of being and cognition was continued in the idea of the coincidence (or unity) of opposites, which was advanced by Nicholas of Cusa and G. Bruno. They regarded contradiction as an inner correlation or interpenetration of opposites. The doctrine of contradiction was further developed in classical German philosophy by I. Kant, J. Fichte, and F. W. von Schelling, and in particular, by Hegel, who asserted that universality and objectivity were the main features of contradiction. Viewing contradiction as “the source of all motion or vitality,” Hegel showed that the process of the bifurcation of an entity into opposites is the fundamental characteristic of the essence of development (Soch., vol. 5, Moscow-Leningrad, 1937, p. 520). Although his doctrine of contradiction is rich in dialectical ideas, Hegel identifies contradiction in objective reality with the logical content of the category of contradiction. Also characteristic of Hegel’s thought is the interpretation of the resolution of contradictions (in certain instances) as a neutralization or reconciliation of opposites—a view conditioned by the idealist and metaphysical premises of Hegel’s system.

The genuinely scientific, consistently materialist elaboration and substantiation of the doctrine of contradiction as the universal principle of all development was originated by K. Marx and F. Engels and creatively developed by Lenin.

The objective world and cognition develop through the bifurcation of an entity into mutually exclusive, opposing moments, aspects, or tendencies. Their interrelationship characterizes a system as something integral and qualitatively definite and constitutes an internal impulse for the system’s change, development, and transformation into a new quality. The dialectical principle of contradiction reflects the dual relationship within a whole: the unity and the struggle of opposites. The unity of opposites, which expresses the stability of an object, is relative and transitory. The struggle of opposites is absolute and finds expression in the endlessness of the process of development. The determining factor here is that contradiction is not always the relationship between opposing tendencies within an object or between opposing objects. It is also a relationship of the object to itself—that is, the permanent self-negation and self-contradictoriness of the object. Engels wrote: “If a thing is saddled with its antithesis, it is in contradiction to itself, and so is its expression in thought. For example, there is a contradiction in a thing remaining the same and yet constantly changing, being possessed of the antithesis of ‘inertness’ and ‘change’” (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 640).

The contradictory moments, aspects, and tendencies that constitute a whole and interact to produce contradiction are not given once and for all, in a ready-made, unchanging form. There are several stages in the emergence of differences and antitheses. In the initial stage the contradiction, which exists only potentially, appears as an identity containing a nonessential difference. In the next stage, an essential difference exists within an identity—that is, within a common or shared foundation, an object contains substantial properties or tendencies that do not correspond to each other. The essential difference is transformed into an antithesis (maximum difference, polarity, antagonism), and the two opposites, negating each other, grow into a contradiction. Marx observed: “What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict, and their fusion into a new category” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 136). All development consists in the rise of contradictions, their resolution, and the simultaneous emergence of new contradictions.

Although contradictions are universal in character, they are manifested in different ways at different levels of the structural organization of matter and of nonmaterial reality. Among the manifestations of contradictions are attraction and repulsion, positive and negative electrical charges, the formation and breaking of chemical bonds, assimilation and dissimilation in organisms, the excitation and inhibition of nerve impulses, and social cooperation and conflict. Every form of motion of matter is associated with a particular type of contradiction, which ultimately results in the emergence of a new quality, either through development leading to a higher form or through destruction leading to a lower form of being.

The character of a contradiction depends on the specific qualities of the opposing aspects as well as on the circumstances under which they interact. Internal contradictions are distinguished from external contradictions, antagonistic from nonantagonistic contradictions, and fundamental from nonfundamental contradictions. An internal contradiction consists in the interaction of opposing aspects within a particular object—for example, within a particular animal species, organism, or society. The development of an object is characterized not only by the unfolding of its internal contradictions but also by its continuous interaction with external conditions, with the environment. External contradictions consist in the interaction of opposites associated with different objects—for example, the interaction between society and nature or between an organism and its environment. Ultimately, internal contradictions are decisive in development.

Antagonistic contradictions, which consist in the interaction of irreconcilably hostile social classes, groups, or forces, emerge on the basis of private ownership of the means of production and the fundamentally hostile interests of opposing classes. Contradictions of this kind are resolved through the abolition of the social system in question and the creation of a new one. As a rule, antagonistic contradictions are exacerbated to the point of conflict and end in social revolution.

Nonantagonistic contradictions, which are specifically associated with all social relations in nonexploitative society, take the form of interaction between classes whose basic interests and aims coincide. The socialist revolution resolves and therefore removes antagonistic contradictions, but it does not eliminate contradictions in general. The social unity of socialist society does not mean that the operation of the law of dialectical contradiction has been limited. Although contradictions exist under the conditions of socialism, they are not antagonistic. Among the contradictions in socialist society are those between developing production and increasing needs, between advanced and backward elements, between the scientific world view and religion, and between creative thought and dogmatism.

Fundamental contradictions are contradictions that play a decisive role in development. For example, the fundamental contradiction of modern times is the contradiction between dying capitalism and the incoming communist formation. The fundamental contradiction affects all other contradictions.

Contradiction is the most important methodological principle and the logical form of the development of cognition. The contradictions that arise and that are resolved in thinking reflect contradictions in objective reality. Engels wrote: “So-called objective dialectics prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, dialectical thought, is only the reflection of the motion through opposites, which asserts itself everywhere in nature and which, by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another or into higher forms, determines the life of nature” (ibid., vol. 20, p. 526). Metaphysics restricted itself to the assertion of contradiction and examined the opposing aspects and tendencies in a contradictory process in isolation from each other. Materialist dialectics investigates the contradictory unity of these opposite aspects and tendencies. An adequate knowledge of dialectical contradiction presupposes a synthetic approach that simultaneously reveals the origin and interaction of opposites, as well as their unity and reciprocal transformations. Lenin wrote: “The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their ‘self-movement,’ in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 317).

In the initial stage of cognition, when the object is perceived in its original wholeness and sensory concreteness, it is impossible to discover the contradictory unity of opposites. Therefore, the cognizing subject begins by mentally dissecting the primal unity, analyzing its component aspects or moments. The cognition of the isolated and even opposing moments of a contradiction leads to a synthesis of the previously separated opposites. As a result, it is possible to overcome the one-sidedness of the initial approach to the object. This one-sidedness is associated with the analysis of one moment in isolation from the others. The unity of opposites attainable at this stage of cognition characterizes the object as internally differentiated and contradictory. Thus, the object may be described as a self-moving, organic whole.

Dialectical contradictions in cognition take the specific form of antinomies with an objective basis—that is, the content reflected in them is ultimately an aspect of the structure of a developing objective contradiction. Cognitive antinomies are the form taken by the theoretical reproduction of dialectical contradictions in scientific theories, which develop through the discovery and resolution of contradictions in preceding theories or at earlier levels of research. The most productive way of overcoming antinomies that arise in theoretical reasoning is to transcend them, uncover their deepest foundations, reveal the transformation of one opposite into another, and elucidate the intermediate stages in this transformation.

Contemporary bourgeois philosophy offers an idealist and metaphysical interpretation of the law of contradiction. Irrationalism (for example, the philosophy of life, existentialism, the “tragic dialectic,” and the “negative dialectic”) regards contradiction as irresolvable in principle, as a purely mystical joining of opposites that can be apprehended only by intuition. Positivism and neopositivism reduce contradiction to an external relationship between opposite aspects linked not in a contradictory but in a correlative way. This view is essentially a complete denial of contradiction.

The methodological foundation for the revisionist distortion of the dialectical materialist doctrine of contradiction is a mechanistic interpretation of the dialectic, which is replaced by relativism. Endeavoring to justify opportunism, right-wing revisionist ideologists emphasize the aspect of social unity under capitalism and disregard the struggle of opposites. At the same time, in considering the contradictions of socialism, contemporary revisionists exclude or reduce to nothing the aspect of unity, placing struggle in the forefront. Asserting that antagonistic contradictions are universal, the “left” revisionists and Maoists inordinately extend the sphere to which these contradictions apply. According to the “left” revisionists and Maoists, nonantagonistic contradictions are merely a particular case of antagonistic contradictions. The “left” revisionists and Maoists reduce the interaction of opposites to the transformation of one into another—a process of trading places. At the same time, they incorrectly make an absolute rule of the struggle of opposites, and they ignore the unity of opposites, thus laying the foundation for extreme voluntarism and subjectivism in politics. The entire course of development of science and society completely refutes these conceptions, which have nothing in common with the scientific, Marxist approach to the study of dialectics in society.

The dialectical materialist principle of contradiction, which is the nucleus of the dialectical method of investigating and transforming being and consciousness, is very important as a world view and a methodology in scientific cognition and in social practice, especially in the successful struggle for communism.


Marx, K. Kapital, vol. I. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23.
Engels, F. Dialektika prirody. Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. Filosofskie tetradi. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29.
“Kapital” Marksa, filosofiia, i sovremennost’. Moscow, 1968.
Narskii, I. S. Problema protivorechiia v dialekticheskoi logike. Moscow, 1969.
Istoriia marksistskoi dialektiki. Moscow, 1971.
Istoriia antichnoi dialektiki. Moscow, 1972.
Il’enkov, E. V. Dialekticheskaia logika. Moscow, 1974.
Osnovy marksistsko-leninskoi filosofii, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1974.


(2) In formal logic, a pair of statements or judgments that contradict each other (that is, each is the negation of the other). The term “contradiction” also refers to the emergence of such a pair of statements in the course of an argument or within a scientific theory. Accordingly, in the formalized languages of mathematical logic and in the formal systems based on them, a contradiction is any pair of formulas of the type A and ┐ A (┐ is the symbol for negation), or the conjunction of such formulas (A & ┐ A), or the assertion of the provability of such a conjunction. A contradiction derived from a particular line of reasoning or a formal proof is evidence of the falsity of the premises of the reasoning or proof. This is the substance of the famous method of refuting assertions by reducing them to absurdity—the reductio ad absurdum.

In precisely the same way, a contradiction that emerges within a theory, regardless of whether it is a formal or a semantic theory, renders the theory worthless, together with the principles (axioms and postulates) on which it is based. Such a contradiction is evidence of the falsity of a theory and its underlying principles (or, in the case of a formal theory, of their inadmissibility), inasmuch as it is possible to obtain (deduce, prove) from such a contradictory theory any statement that can be expressed in the language of the theory (seeCONSISTENCY and CONTRADICTION. LAW OF).

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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