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Broadly defined, Dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική) 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. It is one of the three original liberal arts or trivium (the other members are rhetoric and grammar) in Western culture. In ancient and medieval times, both rhetoric and dialectic were understood to aim at being persuasive (through dialogue). The aim of the dialectical method, often known as dialectic or dialectics, is to try to resolve the disagreement through rational discussion. One way — the Socratic method — is to show that a given hypothesis (with other admissions) leads to a contradiction; thus, forcing the withdrawal of the hypothesis as a candidate for truth. Another way of trying to resolve a disagreement is by denying some presupposition of the contending thesis and antithesis; thereby moving to a third (syn)thesis. 1


In philosophy

"The history of the term dialectic would by itself constitute a considerable history of philosophy" (Barbara Cassin, ed., Vocabulaire européen des philosophies [Paris: Le Robert & Seuil, 2004], p. 306, trans. M.K. Jensen). Briefly, the term "dialectic" owes much of its 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, as it were, a fundamental aspect of the nature of reality (instead of regarding the contradictions into which dialectics leads as a sign of the sterility of the dialectical method, as Kant tended to do in his Critique of Pure Reason). In the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of "dialectic" was appropriated by Marx (see, for example, Das Kapital, published in 1867) and Engels 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 we can or should perceive the world (epistemology), an assertion of the interconnected, contradictory, and dynamic nature of the world outside our perception of it (ontology), or a method of presentation of ideas or conclusions.

Socratic dialectic

See also: Socratic method

In Plato's dialogues, Socrates typically "argues" by means of cross-examining someone else's assertions in order to draw out the inherent contradictions within the other's position. 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 points out, the gods are quarrelsome and their quarrels, like human quarrels, concern objects of love or hatred. Euthyphro consents that this is the case. Therefore, Socrates reasons, at least one thing exists which certain gods love but other gods hate. Again, Euthyphro consents. Socrates concludes that if Euthyphro's definition of piety is true, then there must exist at least one thing which is both pious and impious (as it is both loved and hated by the gods) — which, Euthyphro admits, is absurd. This is also known as Socratic irony.

Hegelian dialectic

Hegel's dialectic, which he usually presented in a threefold manner, was vulgarized by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus as comprising three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis. Hegel rarely used these terms himself: this model is not Hegelian but Fichtean.

In the Logic, for instance, Hegel describes a dialectic of existence: first, existence must be posited as pure Being (thesis); but pure Being, upon examination, is found to be indistinguishable from Nothing (antithesis); yet both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming (synthesis), 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).

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. 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. The Hegelian dialectic cannot be mechanically applied for any chosen thesis. 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. The problem with the Fichtean "thesis — antithesis — synthesis" model is that it implies that contradictions or negations come from outside of things. Hegel's point is that they are inherent in and internal to things. This conception of dialectics derives ultimately from Heraclitus.

Marxist dialectics

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."

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. 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.

Marxists view dialectics as a framework for development in which contradiction plays the central role as the source of development. This 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 Capital, Marx had the following to say about his dialectical methodology:

"In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary."

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.

Critiques of dialectic

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 refused to moderate his criticism of the Hegelian dialectic, arguing that it "played a major role in the downfall of the liberal movement in Germany, . . . by contributing to historicism and to an identification of might and right, encouraged totalitarian modes of thought.  . . . [and] undermined and eventually lowered the traditional standards of intellectual responsibility and honesty" (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 5th rev. ed., vol. 2 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966], p. 395).

Dialectical biology

In The Dialectical Biologist (Harvard U.P. 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 pre-determined 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.

See also


1 Musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnick gives the following example: "A question posed by Fred Friendly on a PBS program entitled Hard Drugs, Hard Choices: The Crisis Beyond Our Borders (aired on WNET, Channel 13, in the New York area, February 26, 1990), illustrates that others, too, seem to find this dynamic enlightening: 'Are our lives so barren because we use drugs? Or do we use drugs because our lives are so barren?' The question is dialectical to the extent that it enables one to grasp the two opposed priorities as simultaneously valid."


  • Cassin, Barbara, ed. Vocabulaire européen des philosophies. Paris: Seuil & Le Robert, 2004. ISBN 2020307308.
  • Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Humanity Books, 1999). ISBN 157392718X.
  • Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1
  • Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. 5th ed., revised. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. Reprints, Vol. 1, 1972: ISBN 0691019681. Vol. 2, 1976: ISBN 069101972X.
  • "What is Dialectic?" In Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 312-35. New York: Basic Books, 1962. ISBN 061313769. Reprint: Routledge, 1992, ISBN 0415043182.
  • Subotnick, Rose Rosengard (1991). Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816618739.