Kabbalah and the Coincidence Of Opposites

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For background on this topic the reader may wish to read:

S. Drob: The Coincidence of Opposites in Jewish Mysticism..

The author argues that the Jewish Mysticism points to a way of thinking that permits one to embrace even ideas and perspectives that appear to contradict one another (e.g. that God created humanity and that humanity creates God), that enables one to apprehend both the infinite diversity and essential unity of the entire cosmos, and which affords an intellectual ascent to what the mystics have described as cosmic unity, God, or the Absolute.


Dear Charles Coon:


Thanks for your previous letters. Recently I have been preoccupied with the notion of coincidentia oppositorum (I have been reading Dennis McCort's "Going Beyond the Pairs") and the views of binary opposition that are present in mysticism and deconstruction. The mystics, like Hegel, view the interpenetration of the opposites as evidence of or a vehicle to Unity, whereas the deconstructionists view it as evidence of the bankruptcy of metaphysics and the impossibility of achieving a totalizing perspective on the world. I believe that the Lurianic notions of Shevirah (Rupture) and Tikkun (emendation/restoration) provide us with the opportunity to reconcile unity and difference but in a matter that is continually subject to revision. The Lurianic Kabbalah is a totalizing perspective that contains within it a dynamic (Shevirah and Tikkun) that provides for its own transcendence and revision. I think that the great contribution of postmodern thought to theology is its fundamental challenge to all dogma and the call to insert relativistic, revisionistic, perspectivalist ideas into our conception of God, the world and ourselves. I think we can do this without surrendering all notions of an Absolute; how to do this is a great intellectual challenge.

Sanford Drob

Re: Dennis McCort’s “Going Beyond the Pairs” 2/25/04

Dear Sanford,


I have completed reading the book you mentioned in a previous email, Dennis McCort's Going Beyond the Pairs, and found it most illuminating.  The parallels with your work, particularly your theme of rational mysticism, seem to be very much evident. I would be  interested to see any observations you might have on McCort's essay on Franklin Merrell-Wolff.  Especially, Merrell-Wolff's fifty-six aphorisms.  The manner in which the aphorisms are broken down---the first five are "pre-manifestation," aphorisms 6 through 50 are a second phase and express "manifestation," number 51 is "recapitulation," and, finally the "triumphant return" of the final five aphorisms---seem to parallel quite closely Kabbalah symbols and categories. I think McCort must not be aware of  the centrality of the coincidentia oppositorum in the Kabbalah, with only the one brief reference in his book. But the best aspect of the book, in my view, is the coincidentia and the struggles of the writers and thinkers to experience it.  And then the Joy that comes when It is Recognized, to use Merrell-Wolff's term.  McCort notes that Merrell-Wolff wrote that "a brief experience of this Joy would be worth any effort and any amount of suffering that could be packed into a lifetime..."  Amazing! He also says that Merrell-Wolff is "an undiscovered Master."  (I enjoyed this essay enough to order a copy of Wolff's Pathways.)  Absolutely no hurry Sanford, but I will look forward to any comments you might have on this book. Hope all is going well in your work.


Charlie Coon


Response: Kabbalah and the Coincidence of Opposites


Dear Charlie


Thanks so much again for your observations. I agree that Merrell-Wolff’s aphorisms seem to follow a trajectory that parallels the Lurianic dynamic and I will have to take a closer look at them with this idea in mind. With regard to McCort and the Kabbalah, he does suggest that the “Zen-like style and spirit” of Kafka’s short-fiction “can be at least partly accounted for by his immersion in the lore of his Hasidic Jewish background” (Going Beyond the Pairs, p. 15, cf. p. 78). I should point out that within the fabric of Jewish Mysticism the idea of the coincidence of the opposites reaches its fullest expression in the thought of the Chabad Chasidim.


There can be little doubt that an intuition of the coincidence of opposites is emblematic of mystical experience. As William James, W.T. Stace and others pointed out long ago, mystics of varying religious and even non-religious backgrounds and persuasions speak of a falling away of distinctions and a blending of opposites that is both supremely joyful and spiritually illuminating. In particular, the distinctions between mind and nature, between ego and non-self and between self and God have been described. However, the question that has preoccupied me in my work, which has been inspired by the appearance of the coincidentia idea in Jewish mysticism, is as you recognize, whether there is a rational or intellectual path to the mystical unity; whether such unity has certain derivatives and manifestations that can be intellectually grasped and understood.


Hegel was probably the last great philosopher to hold that the identity of opposites could be demonstrated rationally, and his view that coincidentia oppositorum yielded a logical principle was treated with such scorn by the generation of philosophers to follow him that the idea of finding a rational/philosophical parallel to the mystic quest became an anathema to serious philosophers. Even Stace, a philosopher who was highly sympathetic to mysticism eventually came to the view that in trying to make a logic out of the coincidence of opposites Hegel fell “into a species of chicanery. For every one of his supposed logical deductions was performed by the systematic misuse of language, by palpable fallacies, and sometimes, as Russell has pointed out, by simply punning on words.” (W.T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy, p. 213). Stace, who early on wrote a sympathetic, and now much maligned book on Hegel’s system, gave up the idea that coincidentia oppositorum could be shown to be a rational principle, holding that “the identity of opposites is not a logical, but definitely an alogical idea” (ibid.). Later philosophers, such as Merrell-Wolff, who have considered the verities of mysticism from a rational, philosophical point of view, have had to find their homes outside of academic philosophy, or been relegated to the academic fringe. My own teacher, J.N. Findlay who was applauded for his descriptive books on Meinong, Hegel, and Plato, was barely humored for his original rational-mystical works (The Discipline of the Cave, The Transcendence of the Cave). It is thus with a certain trepidation that I have attempted to introduce into my own work the idea that certain of, if not all, the polar opposites of western metaphysics and psychology are mutually interdependent in a manner that can be understood on a rational level. I recently published an analysis of seven polar opposites that I believe are foundational in psychology and attempted to show how positions taken by various theoreticians with respect to these opposites [(1) free will vs. determinism, (2) materialism vs. phenomenology, (3) reductionism vs. emergent properties, (4) public vs. private criteria, (5) individual vs. system (6) facts vs. interpretations and (7) knowledge vs. unknowability] generate the variety of psychological schools and are responsible for psychologies perpetually fragmented state. I proposed that by understanding these oppositions as mutually dependent ideas, i.e. as examples of coincidentia oppositorum, we can move towards an appreciation of the human psyche as a whole. I tried to argue, for example, that public (behavioral) criteria for the use of psychological language is interdependent with private (introspective) criteria, and that thus two competing points of view on the nature of (and usefulness of the concept) of mind are completely dependent upon one another. I can email you this article. I hope that I was not engaging in a “species of chicanery” or “word play” in suggesting these psychological coincidentia. I, further, believe that a coincidentia oppositorum can be demonstrated with regard to other, more metaphysical and theological polarities, including God and humanity, theism and atheism, identity (or unity) and difference, etc., and this is the direction of much of my current thinking.


I was very happy to see McCort take the coincidence of opposites seriously in an academic/philosophical context, and was especially excited to be introduced by McCort to the work of Merrell-Wolff, with whom I sense a kindred spirit. But even they, correct me if I am wrong, hold that the coincidence of opposites can only be mystically experienced and not demonstrated through logic. McCort (p. 95) says that he “attempts to…come as close as language allows” to describing the coincidence of opposites, but in the end holds that it is in the realm of the unsayable.  Merrell-Wolf’s aphorisms are an articulation in philosophical terms of the implications of mystical experience and not as I read them (some of McCort’s glosses to the contrary), an effort to ascend to the absolute through purely rational/philosophical means.


My own views differ somewhat from McCort’s, who seems to hold that the “primal unity” intuited by the mystics is a coincidentia oppositorum.  He states, for example that the coincidence of opposites is “the most fundamental archetype,” that it is “prior to all phenomena,” and “it is the no thing that makes everything possible.” (p. 5). My view at present is that the coincidence of opposites is actually a symptom of the primal unity’s sundering into phenomena, The primal unity itself knows no opposition and is therefore in no need of reconciliation. The concept of opposition does not apply to the primal unity but only to the sundered, finite world of everyday experience. Thus the coincidence of opposites is something that applies to our world of opposition and strife and not to the primal unity itself. Indeed, we might say that the coincidence of opposites is the trace or echo of the primal unity in our finite world. I am of course speaking somewhat metaphorically here, but in understanding the interdependence of seemingly opposite ideas I think we can retrace the steps of the primal unity as it fell into finitude and was sundered into phenomena. I think it is the primal unity that is in the realm of the un-sayable, but that the coincidence of opposites can be expressed in language: not only through paradox and what I call “bilinear thinking,” but through articulating the conceptual interdependence of presumably opposing ideas. I think it is possible, for example, to even articulate in language the interdependence of subject and object, words and things (the signifier and the signified), and identity and difference, polarities that seem to underlie many of other bipolar distinctions and philosophical controversies.  I also believe that it is possible to articulate the interdependence between such philosophical views that “the signified is another signifier” and “signified and signifier are and must remain distinct.” As is the case with psychology I believe that supposedly opposing views in philosophy are dependent upon the truth of their presumed opposites. I have no illusion of proving this (since any proof might well generate an opposite view that itself would be true) but I am working on the direction of a general demonstration.


Sanford Drob

Further Thoughts on “Nothingness” and the Coincidence of Opposites: From Charles Coon

Dear Sanford,


Since writing last, I have read much of Franklin Wolff's primary writing (Experience and Philosophy) together with Thomas McFarlane's article (The Heart of Franklin Merrell-Wolff's Philosophy- note available on the web http://www.integralscience.org/wolffsheart.htm).  Additionally, I have reviewed your article on your website, Ein-Sof, Nothingness and the Problem of Creation Ex Nihilo.  So I thought I would send a few comments leading to the difficult subject of creation Ex Nihilo.  Wolff's "Consciousness-without-an-object,” it seems to me, might be considered in an analogous manner to the Ein-Sof.  He says that this Consciousness is neither Being nor non-Being, and generally represents a transcendence which is unaffected by the relative subject-object universe. Wolff says that the universe is produced by a process of negation, and then he comes close to what you say in your article, in referencing Schneur Zalman's thought, about whether the world appears as Yesh or nothingness, depending from where one is looking. From a perspective of Recognition (Wolff), or transcendence, the world appears as nothingness. Is this observation or projection of nothingness related to the creative process? To Tzimtzum?


In considering that creation starts with a negation, might it also be considered that this very negation has a "something" aspect which is also present, and this coincidence could be a way to interpret creation Ex Nihilo. One of Wolff's aphorisms is:  "24.  All objects exist as tensions within Consciousness-without-an-object that tend ever to flow into their own complements or others."  Might we say then that the negation connected with creation flows into a something, which flows into nothing, which flows into something, ad infinitum?  (revelation and concealment?)  In this way the coincidence of opposites would have a role in creation.  Which brings to mind Thomas McFarlane's article (a great article I think), and his Illustrations and Exercises discussion, following Wolff, of the coexistence of objective and non-objective consciousness. Perhaps another way of saying that negation and objects, as complements, might be recognized (Recognized?) in either or both aspects (again revelation and concealment).  The role of the observer or creator would then be a critical matter.




Your notion that “negation connected with creation flows into a something, which flows into nothing which flows into something, ad infinitum” is present in the Lurianic Kabbalah’s three moments of negation and their complementary affirmations. The dynamics of the Lurianic system turn on these alterations: the original Ayin, which flows seamlessly into Ein-sof’s very being, the Tzimtzum (Contraction) which becomes the condition for the being of the world, and Shevirah (Breakage) which sets the stage for the world’s redemption in Tikkun hao-Olam.  For Luria, the entire cosmogenic process is one that originates in negation.


I have some further thoughts regarding Ein-sof and nothingness, which I had in connection with my reading of Daniel Matt’s interesting paper on Ayin, that will share below:


Divine Forgetting, Forgetting Divine


The Kabbalists, showed a remarkable tendency to negate and invert the traditional order of discourse and reason. For example, Shimon Labis in Ketem Paz wrote, “Concerning everything that cannot be grasped its question is its answer.”  (see Daniel Matt, “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” in Essential Papers on Kabbalah, Lawrence Fine, ed.  New York: New York University Press, 1995, p. 96, note 37). Indeed, as I pointed out in Symbols of the Kabbalah (pp. 206-7), the Kabbalists occasionally regarded the Sefirot, the constituents of God and the world as “questions” and therefore developed the foundation for an interrogative as opposed to a propositional metaphysics. 


For the Kabbalists understanding the divine may then require acts such as questioning (without answering) and forgetting (rather than remembering). Since the divine is unknown, unnamable, and identified with no-thing, the epistemological categories that pertain to it are absence rather than presence and forgetfulness rather than memory.   According to David ben Judah ha-Hasid “The Cause of Causes...is a place to which forgetting and oblivion pertain...nothing can be known of It, for It is hidden and concealed in the mystery of absolute nothingness.  Therefore forgetting pertains to the comprehension of this place” (Matt, “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness,” p. 81). Rabbi David’s point seems to be that while for all other things one knows by remembering, i.e. by having one’s object of knowledge present before one’s mind’s eye, in the case of Ein-sof, the proper vehicle of contemplation is “forgetting,” an intentional unknowing.  One thinks one has something in mind, something to ask, something to say, and suddenly it has disappeared, one realizes that one has forgotten.  That experience, that mode of awareness, that forgetting, is somehow akin to what one must achieve in “contemplating” Ein-sof.  The contemplation of Ein-sof is not of a presence, but rather the reverse, of a complete absence, a complete lack of knowledge; not a studied unknowing, but the absence of memory, an “I forgot,” and perhaps even a “Forget I,” a self-forgetting.  A similar idea is present in the Kabbalist’s Ezra and Azriel, who speak of the highest contemplation as a fisat ha-mahashavah, an “annihilation of thought (Matt, “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness”, p. 82).

The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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All material on New Kabbalah website (c) Sanford L. Drob, 2001.


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