The Dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική) is a line of thought, originating in ancient Greek philosophy, that stresses development through a back and forth movement between opposing propositions. It thus stands in stark contrast to Western philosophy’s general emphasis on the permanence of being. The dialectic movement refers either to a mental process or to a process believed to occur in objective reality. When the dialectic movement is seen as occurring in the mind, as in the Socratic dialectic, it essentially means a process by which a person gradually comes to reach a certain insight. That understanding of the dialectic is generally compatible with traditional ontology and its focus on eternal being (for example, the Platonic ideas). When the dialectic is seen as a movement inherent to objective reality, it has frequently implied a conflicting development, as in Marxism, rather than a harmonious type of development, as the fundamental characteristic of reality.
In appreciating the dialectic, one question is whether it over-emphasizes the role of conflict in development. In Eastern worldviews such as Daoism, development occurs through harmonious interaction of natural polarities, such as male and female. Conflict in nature may also beget development, but acting in a different way. This same confusion has pervaded concepts of the dialectic in philosophy, particularly in Marxism.
Nature of the dialectic
Expressed in everyday language, the idea of the dialectic implies a movement of back and forth similar to slalom in skiing. The movement goes right, then left, then right again, and so on, but the overall direction is straight ahead.
Broadly defined in philosophical language, the dialectic is an exchange of propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses) resulting in a synthesis of the opposing assertions, or at least a qualitative transformation in the direction of the dialogue or progress.
History of the dialectic
The term dialectic has accompanied most of the history of Western philosophy, but its meaning has varied considerably. Differences have been due to a great diversity of terminological uses, but more essentially to a tension between two fundamental tendencies. With thinkers such as Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx, the dialectic refers essentially to a conflictual movement inherent to reality. With Socrates, Plato, and the scholastic tradition initiated by Aristotle, the dialectic refers to a movement of the mind in search for truth.
The term "dialectic" owes much of its initial prestige to its role in the philosophy of Plato, where it figures as the logical method of philosophy in the Socratic dialectical method of cross-examination. The term was given new life by Hegel, whose dialectically dynamic model of nature and history made it a fundamental aspect of the nature of reality. In the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of "dialectic" was appropriated by Marx and retooled in a non-idealist manner, becoming a crucial notion in their philosophy of dialectical materialism. Thus, this concept came, for a time, to play a prominent role on the world stage and in world history. Today, "dialectics" can also refer to an understanding of how one can or should perceive the world (epistemology), an assertion of the interconnected, contradictory, and dynamic nature of the world outside their perception of it (ontology), or a method of presentation of ideas or conclusions.
The ancient dialectic
The ancient use of the dialectic was essentially defined by Socrates and Plato and continued by the scholastic tradition. However, the idea of dialectical movement appeared earlier in the thought of Heraclitus, where it carried a very different meaning.
Heraclitus represents what could be called the prehistory of the dialectic. Though he never used the term to refer to his own philosophy, he was credited for pioneering the way of the dialectic by Hegel and Engels, who applauded his departure from what they perceived to be the static tendency of Parmenides and his successors. In fact, Heraclitus was an earlier pre-Socratic than Parmenides, and his thought is proof that the dialectical frame of mind has been with Western philosophy from the very beginning.
Heraclitus’ thought was dialectical in the sense that he believed everything to have originated from fire, the symbol of movement and development through self-consumption. His best-known statements are that “all is in a state of flux” and that “war is the father of all things.” Heraclitus thus believed that, ultimately, all things could not be reduced to a fundamental unity of Being (as for Parmenides), but rather to a dynamic principle consisting of a contrasting or even conflicting interaction between opposites. Heraclitus’ dialectic was one of nature and not of the mind. It would take more than two thousand years for another major thinker (Hegel) to reintroduce the idea that dialectical movement was the essence of things.
Zeno and Parmenides
According to Aristotle (Diogenes Laërtius, Lives VIII, 57), the dialectic proper originated with Zeno of Elea. Zeno is famous for his paradoxes, according to which, for instance, a flying arrow can never reach its destination, because it first has to cross half the distance, and before that, half of that half, and so on ad infinitum. Zeno’s paradoxes are counter-intuitive in that they seem to prove the impossibility of something that is obviously true.
Zeno’s paradoxes have long been denigrated as mere sophistry, but they have recently received renewed attention and praise for their insight into the nature of mathematics. Zeno was a disciple of Parmenides, the philosopher who first introduced the notion of the permanence of Being as opposed to the primacy of movement stressed by Heraclitus. If Being is immutable and permanent, the natural conclusion is that all movement is illusion. This is precisely what Zeno was trying to show with his paradoxes.
The first pre-Socratics had found the origin of all things in various prime elements, such as water (Thales) and air (Anaximenes). Life, hence movement, is implicit in these elements, and so is permanence and immutability. Movement as the prime nature of reality was first conceptualized by Heraclitus and permanence was conceptualized by Parmenides’ nascent ontology (the science of Being). After Parmenides and Zeno, the notion of a permanent, unmoving Being took on an overwhelming importance in Greek thought and subsequent philosophical developments. Movement as the essence of reality was not rediscovered until the nineteenth century, and the two (immutability and movement) were never satisfactorily reconciled in a consistent system.
Accordingly, after Zeno, the dialectic has become known as the art of logical discourse—the ability to analyze and control the workings of the human mind from a variety of perspectives. In other words, the dialectical movement was reduced to the human mind’s handling of eternal and immutable ideas, not to the acknowledgment of a continuous movement within reality.
Protagoras and the Sophists
Following Zeno, the school of the Sophists transformed the dialectical method into a mere tool of persuasion, even through the use of invalid arguments, eventually giving the school the bad name associated with the notion of sophistry, called “eristic” by Plato. The most prominent Sophist, Protagoras, however, is also said to have introduced the idea that to every statement there is an equally valid counter-statement, which would make him another distant precursor of the Hegelian dialectic, rather than a practitioner of sophistry.
In contrast to the Sophists, Socrates professed to search for nothing but the truth. By applying his well-known “Socratic irony,” pretending to know nothing and letting his partner in dialogue expose and discover the inconsistencies of his own thought, Socrates sought to help others discover the truth. Thus, the Socratic dialectic is not altogether different from Zeno’s dialectic. Simply, instead of seeking to expose the inconsistency of familiar notions about reality (as Zeno did), Socrates sought to expose people’s prejudice and intellectual laziness. With Socrates in particular, the dialectic comes very close to the related notion of dialogue—an exchange that eventually leads to the truth. Once the eternal truth is attained, the movement stops.
In Plato's early dialogues, Socrates typically argues by cross-examining someone's claims in order to draw out a contradiction among them. For example, in the Euthyphro, Socrates asks Euthyphro to provide a definition of piety. Euthyphro replies that the pious is that which is loved by the gods. But, Socrates also has Euthyphro agreeing that the gods are quarrelsome and their quarrels, like human quarrels, concern objects of love or hatred. Therefore, Socrates reasons, at least one thing exists that certain gods love but other gods hate. Again, Euthyphro agrees. Socrates concludes that if Euthyphro's definition of piety is acceptable, then there must exist at least one thing that is both pious and impious (as it is both loved and hated by the gods)—which, Euthyphro admits, is absurd. Thus, Euthyphro is brought to a realization by this dialectical method that his definition of piety cannot be correct. This particular example has become known as the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because it is willed by God (or the gods), or is it willed by God because it is good? It shows that, underneath what appears as a simple contradiction due to prejudice and ignorance, issues much deeper and more difficult to resolve involving the nature of ultimate reality remain.
In Plato’s later dialogues that are believed to express his own thought (even though Socrates still appears as the protagonist) the dialectic appears as a method of division in which concepts and ideas are sorted out in a hierarchy, from the more general to the more particular. Whereas Socrates’ method was more inductive and synthetic, consisting in gradually helping his discussion partner reconstruct an idea of the truth in his own mind, Plato went on to a method emphasizing analysis and the organization of ideas in one’s own mind.
In the Republic (VI-VII), Plato presents the dialectic as the supreme art to be mastered by the philosopher-king of his ideal state. The dialectic had become the art of practicing logical thinking, rather than the art of discovering the truth through discussion.
Inheriting Plato’s tradition of thought, Aristotle developed his systematic logic with the use of syllogisms. For him, the dialectic proper had become secondary, a method for intellectual training and searching for truth based on probable premises.
Logic and the dialectic: The stoics and medieval scholasticism
Under the leadership of Chrysippus, the ancient Stoics developed a well-known school of formal logic, which they called the dialectic. But the term dialectic was also used by them to refer to a variety of intellectual activities, including grammatical theory. The tradition of equating the dialectics and logic with a broad range of applications became the norm into the Middle Ages.
Thus, the dialectic came to be known as one of the three original liberal arts or trivium (the other members are rhetoric and grammar) in Western culture. In ancient and medieval times, the rhetoric and the dialectic (or logic) were both understood to aim at being persuasive (through dialogue). While the rhetoric focused on the art of speaking, the dialectic dealt with the logical skills of analysis, the examination of theses and antitheses, and the use of syllogisms.
The modern dialectic
The modern (nineteenth to mid-twentieth century) use of the dialectic was introduced by Kant’s critique of traditional dogmatism. It was given and entirely new meaning by the German idealists, particularly Hegel; then transformed again into dialectical materialism by Karl Marx.
Since Plato, and through all its metamorphoses and varied terminological uses, the dialectic had essentially been a means for handling an eternal truth that was assumed as given by the laws of logic. In the medieval period, the authority of revelation was added as a further irrefutable point of reference.
With the advent of Kant’s philosophy, this would dramatically change. Since, for Kant, it was not possible for humans to reach any certain theoretical knowledge about the ultimate nature of things, much less about those issues that are not objects of the senses (God, freedom, and eternal life), the dialectic came to take on a negative connotation. In Kant’s system, the ancient dialectic is called the “logic of illusion,” because it is seen as the intellectual play with propositions the validity of which thinkers had no way of ever verifying.
In the “Transcendental Dialectic,” an important section of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant makes use of so-called Antinomies, which are four sets of opposing propositions on issues such as the existence of God. Thereby, Kant intends to show that both contending propositions, the thesis as well as the antithesis, can be proved right, though they are mutually exclusive, thereby exposing the futility of a reasoning involving propositions that are beyond the grasp of human intellect. The thesis and antithesis thus are not followed by a synthesis that would conclude a dialectical movement. Rather, they are followed by the realization that such movement is impossible, or at least that it cannot possibly lead to valid conclusions.
Fichte, Schelling, and the post-Kantian dialectic
Thus, with Kant, the notion that an unmoving, transcendent Being, the source of all reality, could be discussed and known by the human mind came to an abrupt end. And, to a large extent, so did the dichotomy between permanence, associated with that Being, and movement, associated with the world of existence.
Philosophical investigation found its new starting point in the consciousness of the self. Johann Gottlieb Fichte was the first to reintroduce the notion of a full dialectical movement starting from the self or Ego, making use of the thesis, antithesis, synthesis terminology that has been inaccurately associated with the thought of Hegel. The interaction between thesis and antithesis occurs through the confrontation between the Ego and the non-Ego (the world), which appears as the object of the Ego’s moral action. Thus, in Fichte, the world of the mind and that of external reality came to face each other, their synthesis being a form of unity between the two. The idea of that triadic movement movement was taken over by Schelling, who moved the emphasis from the Ego to the more universal notion of the Absolute. From there, the idea of a universal dialectical movement towards a cosmic fulfillment in the Absolute would emerge with the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
It is Hegel’s well-known achievement to have introduced the fully developed notion of a dialectical movement through a necessary progression. Rather than being the result of a confrontation between two independently existing entities, thesis and antithesis, the dialectical movement in Hegel’s thought appears more as an internal potential or as a necessary movement due to latent contradictions inherent to all entities, mental and material. In his sweeping overview, ranging from logic to history and world affairs, Hegel tries to show that each finite entity has within itself the germ of its own negation. This negation, however, does not lead to actual destruction but to sublation (Aufhebung) into a higher entity, the synthesis. The German term for sublation implies, at the same time, cancellation, putting aside, and raising to a higher level, all of which is contained in Hegel’s notion of the dialectic.
In the Logic, for instance, Hegel describes a dialectic of existence: first, existence must be posited as pure Being; but pure Being, upon examination, is found to be indistinguishable from Nothing; yet both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming, when it is realized that what is coming into being is, at the same time, also returning to nothing (consider life: Old organisms die as new organisms are created or born).
Though Hegel rarely uses the terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, he uses a variety of triadic expressions, such as affirmation, negation, negation of negation; in-itself, for itself, in-and-for-itself. Hegel insists that the true meaning of the dialectic had been lost for most of philosophy’s history. For him, Kant rediscovered the triad, but in his thought it remained “lifeless.” Since, for Kant, ultimate reality was still perceived as transcendent and unreachable, it could not possibly yield a conclusive synthesis. Hegel attempted to move the dialectic back into the mainstream with the idea that it was the Absolute itself that gradually achieved full self-awareness through a dialectical movement culminating with the human mind. The transcendent Absolute and everyday reality were thus reunited in the view of Hegel. This conception of dialectics derives ultimately from Heraclitus, as Hegel himself points out.
Hegel uses the term speculation to describe the process by which the hidden progress of the dialectic is made explicit in philosophy. In his thought, therefore, speculation has an entirely positive connotation.
As in the Socratic dialectic, Hegel claimed to proceed by making implicit contradictions explicit: Each stage of the process is the product of contradictions inherent or implicit in the preceding stage. Socrates, however, essentially tried to debunk hidden assumptions by showing the contradictions hidden in the mind of his uncritical discussion partner. In the case of Hegel, the dialectical tension resides in reality itself. For Hegel, the whole of history is one tremendous dialectic, major stages of which chart a progression from self-alienation as slavery to self-unification and realization as the rational, constitutional state of free and equal citizens.
Critique of the Hegelian dialectic
With Hegel, the dialectic regained a central position in philosophy, being no longer a simple means to achieve the truth, but the key characteristic inherent to all reality. Problems, however, abound in Hegel’s conception, and other thinkers were quick to point them out. For Schopenhauer, in particular, the whole notion was nothing but sophistry. Even for those who are more sympathetic to its main premises, significant questions remain.
Hegel’s panlogism seeks to encompass all reality and historical development into one huge mental scheme reflecting the emergence of the absolute self. However, the Hegelian dialectic cannot be mechanically applied for any chosen starting point. Critics argue that the selection of any antithesis, other than the logical negation of the thesis, is subjective. Then, if the logical negation is used as the antithesis, there is no rigorous way to derive a synthesis. In practice, when an antithesis is selected to suit the user's subjective purpose, the resulting "contradictions" are rhetorical, not logical, and the resulting synthesis not rigorously defensible against a multitude of other possible syntheses. In fact, the details of Hegel’s description of the dialectical movement, notably in the area of the natural sciences, indeed appear to be highly arbitrary and sometimes inaccurate.
Hegel’s system led to three main consequences. First, the Absolute, roughly equated with the traditional notion of God, is no longer a preexisting, unmovable transcendent Being, but in essence a self-realizing entity that only fully emerges through the dialectical movement of history. Second, for all the subtleties of Hegel’s thought and even though its final aim was the unity and reconciliation of opposites, contradiction and conflict appear as the key instruments of progress. Third, that movement is presented as an internal, thus, unavoidable necessity of reality. This content had already existed as potential in the thought of Heraclitus, but it appears for the first time explicitly and systematically in the thought of Hegel. That aspect of Hegel’s thought would be taken over by Karl Marx and integrated into his own dialectic to justify the inevitability of the proletarian revolution.
With Karl Marx, the notion of a dialectical movement in history became directly linked to the notion of the struggle of the proletariat against capitalism. With Marx, the notions of opposition and confrontation became central, and the subtle implications of Hegel’s sublation were abandoned. Making renewed use of the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad, Marx’s thought clearly implies that the thesis is destroyed by the antithesis before a synthesis is achieved.
In Marxist thought, dialectical materialism implies that reality is essentially material (mind being a mere superstructure) and that it contains within itself a dialectical contradiction between opposing elements that functions as the engine of inevitable development. Historical materialism is the application of that concept to the development of history, seen as a series of revolutionary clashes between social classes with opposing interests. Thus, for Marx, conflict is the only real source of progress and development.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed Hegel was "standing on his head," and claimed to put him back on his feet, ridding Hegel's logic of its orientation towards philosophical "idealism," and conceiving what is now known as materialist or Marxist dialectics. This is what Marx had to say about the difference between Hegel's dialectics and his own:
My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.
Nevertheless, Marx "openly avowed [himself] the pupil of that mighty thinker" and even "coquetted with modes of expression peculiar to him." Marx wrote:
The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.
At the heart of Marxist dialectics is the idea of contradiction, with class struggle playing the central role in social and political life, although Marx does identify other historically important contradictions, such as those between mental and manual labor and town and country. Contradiction is the key to all other categories and principles of dialectical development: Development by passage of quantitative change into qualitative ones, interruption of gradualness, leaps, negation of the initial moment of development and negation of this very negation, and repetition at a higher level of some of the features and aspects of the original state.
The Marxist view of dialectics as a framework for development in which contradiction plays the central role as the source of development is perhaps best exemplified in Marx's Capital, which outlines two of his central theories: That of the theory of surplus value and the materialist conception of history.
In the work of Marx and Engels the dialectical approach to the study of history became intertwined with historical materialism, the school of thought exemplified by the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. (Marx himself never referred to "historical materialism.") A dialectical methodology came to be seen as the vital foundation for any Marxist politics, through the work of Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács and certain members of the Frankfurt School, such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse.
Under Stalin, Marxist dialectics developed into what was called "diamat" (short for dialectical materialism). Some Soviet academics, most notably Evald Ilyenkov, continued with unorthodox philosophical studies of the Marxist dialectic, as did a number of thinkers in the West. One of the best known North American dialectical philosophers is Bertell Ollman.
Critique of the Marxist dialectic
While the dialectic in the sphere of ideas can be defended, the concept as applied to the movement of matter, in the manner of Marx, contradicts the ways of the natural world. Nature is full of examples where growth and development occurs through the dynamic movement of opposites, such as the positive and negative charges that make up an atom, or male and female animals that mate to produce offspring. However, healthy development takes place through harmonious interaction of these poles centered on a higher purpose, for example, perpetuation of the species. Following the pattern of nature, the tensions developed by opposition of ideas and cultures should be resolved through dialog, for the purpose of reaching a higher understanding of truth and arriving at common policies for well-being of all.
Marxism erred because it has focused on the distortions of history where one of the poles overpowered and destroyed the other. Marxism attempted to make this distortion, which results from fallen human nature and selfishness, into a normative solution and justification for extermination of enemies and theft of property. The materialism in Marxism considered people as expendable, rather than as having equal dignity and worth. This error has led to needless millions of deaths through violent revolutions, all based on a false premise of the nature of dialectical development.
The dialectic in contemporary thought
Many philosophers have offered critiques of dialectic, and it can even be said that hostility or receptivity to dialectics is one of the things that divides twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy from the so-called "continental" tradition, a divide that only a few contemporary philosophers (among them Richard Rorty) have ventured to bridge.
One philosopher who has attacked the notion of dialectic again and again is Karl Popper. In 1937, he wrote and delivered a paper entitled "What Is Dialectic?" in which he attacked the dialectical method for its willingness "to put up with contradictions" (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge [New York: Basic Books, 1962], p. 316). Popper concluded the essay with these words: "The whole development of dialectic should be a warning against the dangers inherent in philosophical system-building. It should remind us that philosophy should not be made a basis for any sort of scientific system and that philosophers should be much more modest in their claims. One task which they can fulfill quite usefully is the study of the critical methods of science" (Ibid., p. 335).
In chapter 12 of volume 2 of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1944; 5th rev. ed., 1966), Popper unleashed a famous attack on Hegelian dialectics, in which he held Hegel's thought (unjustly, in the view of many philosophers, such as Walter Kaufmann) to some degree responsible for facilitating the rise of fascism in Europe by encouraging and justifying irrationalism. In section 17 of his 1961 "addenda" to The Open Society, entitled "Facts, Standards, and Truth: A Further Criticism of Relativism," Popper repeated his criticism of the Hegelian dialectic (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 5th rev. ed., vol. 2 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966], p. 395).
Dialectical theology, also referred to as crisis theology and theology of paradox refers to the theological movement of neo-orthodoxy initiated by Karl Barth between the two world wars. This approach to theology stresses that God is naturally unknowable to sinful and finite human beings, and that this limitation can only be overcome through the intervention of divine grace. Rejecting what he perceived as the accommodation of the liberal theology of his time, Barth stressed the absoluteness of God as the starting point of salvation. "In the No found in God's righteous anger one finds the Yes of his compassion and mercy."
Unlike the Hegelian dialectic, where tension and paradoxes are believed to be ultimately solved through the rational process of speculation, dialectical theology’s position is that the paradoxes and ambiguities of faith cannot be resolved. A dynamic faith arises precisely out of that dialectical tension. That understanding of the irreducible nature of the paradoxes of faith can be traced back to the thought of Soren Kierkegaard, himself a former student of Hegel, who took a critical stance towards his teacher’s panlogism. For Kirkegaard, the paradoxical tension can only be overcome by an existential act of commitment.
The paradoxical tension of dialectical theology has had a long history originating in early Greek patristic tradition. Two significantly different elements can be found in the notion of paradoxical faith, though the two are often conflated. First, there is the difference between the infinite nature of God and the finiteness of human creatures. Second, there is the unbridgeable gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings. Jesus Christ the God-man is seen as central in that paradoxical situation.
Though Christian thinkers such as the medieval French scholar Pierre Abelard have approached the dialectic of faith from an intellectual perspective by juxtaposing contradictory statements (“sic et non”) without any attempt of resolution, the main strand of the dialectical tradition has been one involving a mystical approach of the hidden God and so-called negative theology. That view consists of defining God by what he is not (for exmaple, not limited), because any positive assessment of God’s nature in human words is impossible. Main representatives are the pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, and Jakob Boehme.
In The Dialectical Biologist (Harvard University Press, 1985, ISBN 0-674-20281-3), Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin sketch a dialectical approach to biology. They see "dialectics" more as a set of questions to ask about biological research, a weapon against dogmatism, than as a set of predetermined answers. They focus on the (dialectical) relationship between the "whole" (or totality) and the "parts." "Part makes whole, and whole makes part" (p. 272). That is, a biological system of some kind consists of a collection of heterogeneous parts. All of these contribute to the character of the whole, as in reductionist thinking. On the other hand, the whole has an existence independent of the parts and feeds back to affect and determine the nature of the parts. This back-and-forth (dialectic) of causation implies a dynamic process. For example, Darwinian evolution points to the competition of a variety of species, each with heterogeneous members, within a given environment. This leads to changing species and even to new species arising. A dialectical biologist would not reject this picture as much as look for ways in which the competing creatures lead to changes in the environment, as when the action of microbes encourages the erosion of rocks. Further, each species is part of the "environment" of all of the others.
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