Paradoxical logic: A cultural relativism perspective à la Erich Fromm

In “Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism” the German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm argues that logic covaries with culture, i.e., a from of cultural relativism. Specifically, Prof. Fromm argues that conventions of logic differ between cultures, analogous to the way social and moral rules vary between cultures.

Ibid., p. 155

“Just as most people assume that their language is “natural” and that other languages only use different words for the same things, they assume also that the rules which determine proper thinking, are natural and universal ones; that what is illogical in one cultural system is illogical in any other, because it conflicts with “natural” logic. A good example of this is the difference between Aristotelian and paradoxical logic. […] In opposition to Aristotelian logic is what one might call paradoxical logic, which assumes that A and non-A do not exclude each other as predicates of X. Paradoxical logic was predominant in Chinese and Indian thinking, in Heraclitus’ philosophy, and then again under the name of dialectics in the thought of Hegel and Marx. The general principle of paradoxical logic has been clearly described in general terms by Lao-Tse: “Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical.” And by Chuang-tzu: “That which is one is one. That which is not-one, is also one.”

Ibid., pp. 101-102.

A good example is Freud’s concept of ambivalence, which says that one can experience love and hate for the same person at the same time. This experience, which from the standpoint of paradoxical logic is quite “logical,” does not make sense from the standpoint of Aristotelian logic. As a result, it is exceedingly difficult for most people to be aware of feelings of ambivalence. If they are aware of love, they can not be aware of hate — since it would be utterly non-sensical to have two contradictory feelings at the same time towards the same person.

Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, and Richard De Martino, Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960).