Tarot Reversals and Negative Definition

There are two ways to define anything: as what it is, and as what it is not.

For example, if you asked me for a definition of happiness (a tall order indeed), I could try to define it positively by describing the somatosensory experience of being happy, talking about related concepts like contentment, satisfaction, comfort, and so on. Or I could define it negatively by saying something along the lines of “happiness is the opposite of sadness”.

And the thing is, the two definitions–although provided for the same concept–have very different nuances to them. The former tries to define a thing in itself, without recourse to the outside world, so that you can know what happiness really is. And if I name one experience that you can’t relate to (say, “happiness is a warm puppy” for someone who’s never had a dog), then I can reframe and redefine the central concept of happiness using other language and other points of reference.

The latter definition, however, is a bit of a trap, because it frames happiness through opposition to another concept. If you don’t know what sadness is, then definition #2 is going to be completely useless to you; your understanding of one concept is contingent upon your understanding of the other. That is to say, you won’t actually know what happiness is, but only what it looks like when it’s compared to another emotion like sadness.

This form of negative definition is also much less forceful. Being passively “not sad” is a far cry from being actively “happy”. It just lacks a certain degree of gusto. The same goes with any pair of opposites: “hot” is more than just “not cold”, “ugly” is more than just “not beautiful”, and so on.

Sometimes, defining a concept negatively is useful, and is even more accurate than using a positive definition. If what we experience is neither black nor white, nor even really grey, but somewhere ill-defined on one side or the other of the spectrum, saying “not quite black” is certainly a better description than “white”, “grey”, or “black” could be. If we’re not quite happy and not quite sad, then being “not unhappy” is probably the closest we can get (linguistically speaking) to an understanding of what’s going on with our emotional state.

Look at him. The old curmudgeon.

But there’s also a bit of controversy surrounding the use of negative definitions in language, because it’s considered weak. Feeble.* It’s lumped in with the passive voice as one of the greatest sins of clear writing. George Orwell, a grumpy old man famous for his dystopian literature, actually wrote an essay called “Politics and the English Language”, which is basically just an enormous rant against this kind of linguistic construction. He considered the “not un-” model of description just about the most loathsome thing in the world, and would rather have had everyone be either “happy” or “sad”. But never, ever “not unhappy”.

But what does this have to do with Tarot reading?

In my view, it actually has quite a lot to do with the debate surrounding the use of reversals in Tarot. Some readers (myself included) like to nuance the interpretation they (we) give to any card that’s drawn upside-down in the course of a reading. A reversed card is no longer itself, but is somehow “not itself”.** It is now negatively defined as some kind of opposition to that card’s traditional upright meaning.

But other readers–the crusty old Orwellians of the Tarot world, if you’ll permit me a moment of indelicacy and prejudice–do not read with reversals and do not find them useful. I have heard it said far too many times: “If the Tarot wants me to receive a message, it’ll just give me a card with the appropriate upright meaning instead of an upside-down one.”

But here’s the thing:*** the meaning of an inverted card is fundamentally different from the upright meaning of any other card, because we are interpreting the card negatively rather than positively. Take the example of two cards that are often considered opposites in the deck: the Ten of Swords and the Sun.

10S rx and Sun

The Ten of Swords inverted could be many things: a weakened interpretation of the upright card, a delay, or even (in some cases) the complete opposite of the upright Ten. But all of these various interpretations boil down to the same idea: in one way or another, the inverted Ten of Swords is negatively defined as “not the upright Ten”.

But that negative definition is fundamentally not the same thing as the positive definition of the Sun, because it is rooted in the original (and, generally speaking, unpleasant) meaning of the upright Ten of Swords. The difference between the upright Sun and the inverted Ten of Swords is, in some ways, like the difference between “success” and “not failing”, or perhaps “overcoming failure”. (Obviously, the interpretation of the cards would depend contextually on the reading being performed. But you get the general idea here.)

Reversals are difficult. But I’ve always found that they can help shade a Tarot reading in a way that using only upright cards does not.


*One might even say “not strong”.

**Forgive the strange use of quotation marks.

***We’re going to briefly set aside my skepticism about the Tarot possessing a volition of its own and somehow magically selecting the “right” cards for a reading. Let’s take that as a given for this post, but I’m formally registering my doubts in this footnote.

Another point worth mentioning is that this is by no means the only reason people give for preferring not to work with reversals. And, of course, reading without reversals is a perfectly valid style, and I mean no offense to anyone by the use of the term “crusty old Orwellians”.

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4 thoughts on “Tarot Reversals and Negative Definition

  1. Hello Jack! I really like this post! I enjoy how you expose your thoughts and conclusions. I admire readers that feel comfortable with reversals. However, I have to admit, I am one of the “crusty old Orwellians”, though I do not believe a negative card will magically appear at a “negative” position. I don’t read reversals for the simple reason that they often confuse me more than help me. I believe every card, even a positive card like the Sun, has a darker side, and depending on the surrounding cards and the position assigned to it I can see if it is more negative or positive. Sometimes, even when the card has a positive meaning, I warn the querent of the negatives aspects of it.

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    1. Thanks, Bella! You’re absolutely right: this reason (finding reversals more confusing than helpful) is probably a much more commonly espoused one for not working with reversed cards. Many readers do feel that it’s more useful to consider the entire range of a card’s possible meanings every time it shows up, although I personally find reversals useful because they add a bit more structure to the process of interpretation.
      For myself, I try to avoid thinking of reversals only as “negative” or “opposite” meanings of the upright cards. I tend to see them more as blockages, weakened or nuanced versions of their upright selves: not quite X, but rather “not-Y”. For example, the inverted Six of Cups (for me) wouldn’t necessarily be a negative version of the upright Six. Just a twist on the original meaning (e.g. feeling stuck in the past, attempting to grow up too quickly, etc.).
      But the diversity of reading styles is just one of the many things that make Tarot great, and that make me feel like I’ll never stop learning!

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      1. Hi Jack! After much deliberation, I’m taking a three month challenge on reading with reversals! Let’s see if by the end of November I’ll join the club of reversals’ readers or if I’ll stick to my safe upright world 🙂 I’ll keep you posted!

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