Here’s a sample of a thesis: you claim that mind is a lonely prisoner in the darkness of the skull. I think about that for a while and though I don’t admit it to myself, I have to carve out a separate spot for myself in attention space. I need to make sure you are not the only one getting the spotlight. So I have to say something that makes me unique, something in opposition to what you said. I make a counterclaim, an antithesis. I declare that the mind only exists in the interplay between human beings, in the interplay, for example, between you and me. We wrangle over who is right. Is mind trapped in the cranium, using the brain to create the illusion of an external reality? Or is mind itself external: a product of conversation, competition, collaboration, social structures, and history? We wrangle until we see a brand-new light. Both of us are correct. There is a larger weave, a shared tapestry, a shared kit of mind tools, that somehow arises from the interplay of lonely prisoners of the skull like you and me. Something called culture knits itself with the needles of lonely prisoners of the cranium, prisoners seeking each other’s company. Mind is both internal and external. From our competition we gain a potential new insight into the way culture is built. We even get a glimpse into the way that mind tools may arise from the interplay of individuals seeking a bit of attention. That larger vision is a synthesis. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The positive power of opposites.
In 1837, Chalybäus published the lecture in which he promoted his magic triad of creative opposites—“thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” A student at the University of Berlin who belonged to his university’s Hegel Club read Chalybäus’s book, grabbed the three magic words of creative competition, and ran with them. Ran with them and in 1847 promoted them as the words of Hegel himself. His promotion campaign was so successful that in the future, most educated men and women would swear that the words “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” were Hegel’s. They were not. The idea merchandiser who gave us this false impression was an occasional guest at John Chapman’s establish- ment at 142 on the Strand. His name was Karl Marx.
But Hegel had promoted the positive power of opposites. And Herbert Spencer declared that this was a concept “against which I feel an obstinate prejudice.” In fact, once Spencer got wind of Hegel’s drift, he refused “to read further any work in which it is displayed.”333 He refused to read any more Hegel. But opposites joined at the hip show up all over Spencer’s work. The opposites in this case are differentiation and integration. And that, in fact, was one of Spencer’s great contributions: differentiation and integration.