Law of contradiction

Also called the law (or principle) of non-contradiction. One of the traditional three laws of thought (the other two being the laws of identity and of excluded middle).

Variously formulated as saying that no proposition can be both true and not true; or that nothing can be – without qualification – the case and not the case at the same time; or that nothing can -without qualification – both have and lack a given property at the same time.

The law cannot be logically proved without begging the question, though arguments of a different kind (among those called transcendental arguments) have been offered in its defence since Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his Metaphysics (book 4, chapter 4).

However, recently a notion of dialetheism has been defended which allows breaches of the law in certain cases.

Also see: paraconsistency

G Priest, ‘Contradiction, Belief and Rationality’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1985-86)


According to both Plato and Aristotle,[1] Heraclitus was said to have denied the law of non-contradiction. This is quite likely[2] if, as Plato pointed out, the law of non-contradiction does not hold for changing things in the world. If a philosophy of Becoming is not possible without change, then (the potential of) what is to become must already exist in the present object. In “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and we are not“, both Heraclitus’s and Plato’s object simultaneously must, in some sense, be both what it now is and have the potential (dynamic) of what it might become.[3]

Unfortunately, so little remains of Heraclitus’ aphorisms that not much about his philosophy can be said with certainty. He seems to have held that strife of opposites is universal both within and without, therefore both opposite existents or qualities must simultaneously exist, although in some instances in different respects. “The road up and down are one and the same” implies either the road leads both ways, or there can be no road at all. This is the logical complement of the law of non-contradiction. According to Heraclitus, change, and the constant conflict of opposites is the universal logos of nature.


Personal subjective perceptions or judgments can only be said to be true at the same time in the same respect, in which case, the law of non-contradiction must be applicable to personal judgments. The most famous saying of Protagoras is: “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not“.[4] However, Protagoras was referring to things that are used by or in some way related to humans. This makes a great difference in the meaning of his aphorism. Properties, social entities, ideas, feelings, judgments, etc. originate in the human mind. However, Protagoras has never suggested that man must be the measure of stars or the motion of the stars.


Parmenides employed an ontological version of the law of non-contradiction to prove that being is and to deny the void, change, and motion. He also similarly disproved contrary propositions. In his poem On Nature, he said,

the only routes of inquiry there are for thinking:

the one that [it] is and that [it] cannot not be
is the path of Persuasion (for it attends upon truth)
the other, that [it] is not and that it is right that [it] not be,
this I point out to you is a path wholly inscrutable
for you could not know what is not (for it is not to be accomplished)

nor could you point it out… For the same thing is for thinking and for being

The nature of the ‘is’ or what-is in Parmenides is a highly contentious subject. Some have taken it to be whatever exists, some to be whatever is or can be the object of scientific inquiry.[5]


In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates uses the elenctic method to investigate the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. Elenctic refutation depends on a dichotomous thesis, one that may be divided into exactly two mutually exclusive parts, only one of which may be true. Then Socrates goes on to demonstrate the contrary of the commonly accepted part using the law of non-contradiction. According to Gregory Vlastos,[6] the method has the following steps:

  1. Socrates’ interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example, “Courage is endurance of the soul”, which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
  2. Socrates secures his interlocutor’s agreement to further premises, for example, “Courage is a fine thing” and “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing”.
  3. Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis, in this case, it leads to: “courage is not endurance of the soul”.
  4. Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor’s thesis is false and that its negation is true.

Plato’s synthesis

Plato’s version of the law of non-contradiction states that “The same thing clearly cannot act or be acted upon in the same part or in relation to the same thing at the same time, in contrary ways” (The Republic (436b)). In this, Plato carefully phrases three axiomatic restrictions on action or reaction: 1) in the same part, 2) in the same relation, 3) at the same time. The effect is to momentarily create a frozen, timeless state, somewhat like figures frozen in action on the frieze of the Parthenon.[7]

This way, he accomplishes two essential goals for his philosophy. First, he logically separates the Platonic world of constant change[8] from the formally knowable world of momentarily fixed physical objects.[9][10] Second, he provides the conditions for the dialectic method to be used in finding definitions, as for example in the Sophist. So Plato’s law of non-contradiction is the empirically derived necessary starting point for all else he has to say.[11]

In contrast, Aristotle reverses Plato’s order of derivation. Rather than starting with experience, Aristotle begins a priori with the law of non-contradiction as the fundamental axiom of an analytic philosophical system.[12] This axiom then necessitates the fixed, realist model. Now, he starts with much stronger logical foundations than Plato’s non-contrariety of action in reaction to conflicting demands from the three parts of the soul.

Aristotle’s contribution

The traditional source of the law of non-contradiction is Aristotle’s Metaphysics where he gives three different versions.[13]

  1. ontological: “It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.” (1005b19-20)
  2. psychological: “No one can believe that the same thing can (at the same time) be and not be.” (1005b23-24)[14]
  3. logical (aka the medieval Lex Contradictoriarum):[15] “The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.” (1011b13-14)

Aristotle attempts several proofs of this law. He first argues that every expression has a single meaning (otherwise we could not communicate with one another). This rules out the possibility that by “to be a man”, “not to be a man” is meant. But “man” means “two-footed animal” (for example), and so if anything is a man, it is necessary (by virtue of the meaning of “man”) that it must be a two-footed animal, and so it is impossible at the same time for it not to be a two-footed animal. Thus “it is not possible to say truly at the same time that the same thing is and is not a man” (Metaphysics 1006b 35). Another argument is that anyone who believes something cannot believe its contradiction (1008b).

Why does he not just get up first thing and walk into a well or, if he finds one, over a cliff? In fact, he seems rather careful about cliffs and wells.[16]


Avicenna’s commentary on the Metaphysics illustrates the common view that the law of non-contradiction “and their like are among the things that do not require our elaboration.” Avicenna’s words for “the obdurate” are quite facetious: “he must be subjected to the conflagration of fire, since ‘fire’ and ‘not fire’ are one. Pain must be inflicted on him through beating, since ‘pain’ and ‘no pain’ are one. And he must be denied food and drink, since eating and drinking and the abstention from both are one [and the same].”[17]

Eastern philosophy

The law of non-contradiction is found in ancient Indian logic as a meta-rule in the Shrauta Sutras,[when?] the grammar of Pāṇini,[when?][18] and the Brahma Sutras attributed to Vyasa.[when?][19] It was later elaborated on by medieval commentators such as Madhvacharya

2 thoughts on “Law of contradiction

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