Philosophy of Opposites: Part 1

“Can you settle a debate for us… what’s the opposite of an apple?” asked Katie and Ben, two of my friends, in a voicenote last week. “And don’t give us more philosophical questions!” they added. 

I had to disappoint them. The questions in my reply to their brilliant provocation form the inspiration for this week’s bulletin on opposite things. 

Arguing about opposites is philosophical, fascinating and fun. Most people understand the word “opposite”, and there are some well known opposites – north/south, wet/dry – but what about those things that don’t have a clear-cut opposite? 

Question 1: What’s the opposite of…?

Simply ask “What’s the opposite of… ?” then pause briefly before the object, concept or person. All can shout their responses at once, or you could take one a time. You get a mixture of answers, drawing on different associations. This is a great way to practise giving reasons. 

Keep a note of what they say, and their reasons, on a big whiteboard or screen, ready to analyse when you ask…

Question 2: How do we find an opposite?

There are many ways to find an opposite – likely to be shown in the answers to Question 1. Here are some worked examples: 

  • One child places the apple in the visual category of something red, so their suggested opposite was something green – like a green apple
  • One saw the apple as something small, so their suggestion was something big, like an elephant.
  • One saw the apple as something sweet, so they suggested something bitter, like dark chocolate. 
  • One thinks of the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, so it’s opposite is something that sends you to the doctor. 
  • One remembers that apples fall to the ground (and one hit Newton on the head), so the opposite is something that rises, like a helium balloon. 

Try to reflect some of their different approaches back to the group, and ask them to spot other methods in what you’ve scribed.

Question 3: Can we find a TRUE opposite?

With so many “candidate answers”, is it possible to find one ultimate opposite for an apple? Hear suggestions once more. If they’re thin on the ground, here’s some suggestions they can choose from:

  • Is it something that shares the least qualities or features? e.g. a meteorite – dry, dusty, spikey, grey, and from space
  • Is it something that contains the most obvious difference? And if so, what is that?
  • Is it something that contains a maximum difference in one characteristic? And if so, what is that?
  • Is it something that cannot be the opposite of anything else? Like a true “opposing soulmate”?
  • Is it something obviously different but within the same narrow category – like apples and oranges?
  • Is it something that’s the other part of the pair, like nails are to hammers, or socks are to shoes?

Question 4: What are the rules for finding an opposite?

As a class, create rules for finding opposites. You might want to ask some of the following to help: 

  • To be something’s true opposite, does that thing need to be exclusively the opposite of the something?
  • Or can something have more than one opposite?
  • Can opposites still have a lot in common?
  • Does everything have an opposite?

Question 5: Can you find some more opposites?

Let them apply their thinking by asking them to find two opposites in the room, or bring them in from the playground. What do they find? And what are their reasons? And does it lead to any new answers to the questions above?

Next week, we’ll look at the philosophical paradoxes created by opposites, and the concept of “opposition” in politics. 

As for what’s the opposite of an apple – send us your children’s suggestions and we’ll share some next time!

Best wishes,


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