Dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ; German: Dialektik), also known as the dialectical method, refers originally to dialogue between people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to arrive at the truth through reasoned argumentation. Dialectic resembles debate, but the concept excludes subjective elements such as emotional appeal and rhetoric. It has its origins in ancient philosophy and continued to be developed in the Middle Ages.
In the modern period, Hegelianism refigured "dialectic" to no longer refer to a literal dialogue. Instead, the term takes on the specialized meaning of development by way of overcoming internal contradictions. Dialectical materialism, a theory advanced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, adapted the Hegelian dialectic into a materialist theory of history. The legacy of Hegelian and Marxian dialectics has been criticized by philosophers such as Karl Popper and Mario Bunge, who considered it unscientific.
Dialectic implies a developmental process and so does not naturally fit within classical logic. Nevertheless, some twentieth-century logicians have attempted to formalize it.
There is a variety of meanings of dialectic or dialectics within Western philosophy.
In classical philosophy, dialectic (διαλεκτική) is a form of reasoning based upon dialogue of arguments and counter-arguments, advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of such a dialectic might be the refutation of a relevant proposition, or of a synthesis, or a combination of the opposing assertions, or a qualitative improvement of the dialogue.
The term "dialectic" owes much of its prestige to its role in the philosophies of Socrates and Plato, in the Greek Classical period (5th to 4th centuries BC). Aristotle said that it was the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea who invented dialectic, of which the dialogues of Plato are examples of the Socratic dialectical method.
The Socratic dialogues are a particular form of dialectic known as the method of elenchus (literally, "refutation, scrutiny") whereby a series of questions clarifies a more precise statement of a vague belief, logical consequences of that statement are explored, and a contradiction is discovered. The method is largely destructive, in that false belief is exposed and only constructive in that this exposure may lead to further search for truth. The detection of error does not amount to a proof of the antithesis. For example, a contradiction in the consequences of a definition of piety does not provide a correct definition. The principal aim of Socratic activity may be to improve the soul of the interlocutors, by freeing them from unrecognized errors, or indeed, by teaching them the spirit of inquiry.
In common cases, Socrates uses enthymemes as the foundation of his argument.
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 is not sufficiently meaningful.
In another example, in Plato's Gorgias, dialectic occurs between Socrates, the Sophist Gorgias, and two men, Polus and Callicles. Because Socrates' ultimate goal was to reach true knowledge, he was even willing to change his own views in order to arrive at the truth. The fundamental goal of dialectic, in this instance, was to establish a precise definition of the subject (in this case, rhetoric) and with the use of argumentation and questioning, make the subject even more precise. In the Gorgias, Socrates reaches the truth by asking a series of questions and in return, receiving short, clear answers.
In Platonism and Neoplatonism, dialectic assumed an ontological and metaphysical role in that it became the process whereby the intellect passes from sensibles to intelligibles, rising from idea to idea until it finally grasps the supreme idea, the first principle which is the origin of all. The philosopher is consequently a "dialectician". In this sense, dialectic is a process of inquiry that does away with hypotheses up to the first principle. It slowly embraces multiplicity in unity. The philosopher Simon Blackburn wrote that the dialectic in this sense is used to understand "the total process of enlightenment, whereby the philosopher is educated so as to achieve knowledge of the supreme good, the Form of the Good".
Logic, which could be considered to include dialectic, was one of the three liberal arts taught in medieval universities as part of the trivium; the other elements were rhetoric and grammar.
Based mainly on Aristotle, the first medieval philosopher to work on dialectics was Boethius (480–524). After him, many scholastic philosophers also made use of dialectics in their works, such as Abelard, William of Sherwood, Garlandus Compotista, Walter Burley, Roger Swyneshed, William of Ockham, and Thomas Aquinas.
This dialectic (a quaestio disputata) was formed as follows:
The concept of dialectics was given new life at the start of the 19th century by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose dialectical model of nature and of history made dialectics a fundamental aspect of reality, instead of regarding the contradictions into which dialectics leads as evidence of the limits of pure reason, as Immanuel Kant had argued. Hegel was influenced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte's conception of synthesis, although Hegel didn't adopt Fichte's "thesis–antithesis–synthesis" language except to describe Kant's philosophy: rather, Hegel argued that such language was "a lifeless schema" imposed on various contents, whereas he saw his own dialectic as flowing out of "the inner life and self-movement" of the content itself.
In the mid-19th century, Hegelian dialectic was appropriated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and retooled in what they considered to be a nonidealistic manner. It would also become a crucial part of later representations of Marxism as a philosophy of dialectical materialism. These representations often contrasted dramatically and led to vigorous debate among different Marxist groups.
This dialectic is sometimes presented in a threefold manner, as first stated 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.
By contrast, the terms abstract, negative, and concrete suggest a flaw or an incompleteness in any initial thesis. For Hegel, the concrete must always pass through the phase of the negative, that is, mediation. This is the essence of what is popularly called Hegelian dialectics.
To describe the activity of overcoming the negative, Hegel often used the term Aufhebung, variously translated into English as "sublation" or "overcoming", to conceive of the working of the dialectic. Roughly, the term indicates preserving the true portion of an idea, thing, society, and so forth, while moving beyond its limitations. What is sublated, on the one hand, is overcome, but, on the other hand, is preserved and maintained.
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. On his view, the purpose of dialectics is "to study things in their own being and movement and thus to demonstrate the finitude of the partial categories of understanding".
For Hegel, even history can be reconstructed as a unified dialectic, the major stages of which chart a progression from self-alienation as servitude to self-unification and realization as the rational constitutional state of free and equal citizens.
Marxist dialectic is a form of Hegelian dialectic which applies to the study of historical materialism. It purports to be a reflection of the real world created by humans. Marxist dialectic is thus a method by which one can examine social and economic behaviors. It is the foundation of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which forms the basis of historical materialism.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, writing several decades after Hegel's death, proposed that Hegel's dialectic is too abstract. Against this, Marx presented his own dialectic method, which he claimed to be "direct opposite" of Hegel's method.
Marxist dialectics is exemplified in Das Kapital. As Marx explained dialectical materialism,
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.
Class struggle is the primary contradiction to be resolved by Marxist dialectics because of its central role in the social and political lives of a society. Nonetheless, Marx and Marxists developed the concept of class struggle to comprehend the dialectical contradictions between mental and manual labor and between town and country. Hence, philosophic contradiction is central to the development of dialectics: the progress from quantity to quality, the acceleration of gradual social change; the negation of the initial development of the status quo; the negation of that negation; and the high-level recurrence of features of the original status quo.
Friedrich Engels further proposed that nature itself is dialectical, and that this is "a very simple process, which is taking place everywhere and every day".
For Lenin, the primary feature of Marx's "dialectical materialism" (Lenin's term) is its application of materialist philosophy to history and social sciences. Lenin's main contribution to the philosophy of dialectical materialism is his theory of reflection, which presents human consciousness as a dynamic reflection of the objective material world that fully shapes its contents and structure.
Later, Stalin's works on the subject established a rigid and formalistic division of Marxist–Leninist theory into dialectical materialism and historical materialism. While the first was supposed to be the key method and theory of the philosophy of nature, the second was the Soviet version of the philosophy of history.
Dialectical naturalism is a term coined by American philosopher Murray Bookchin to describe the philosophical underpinnings of the political program of social ecology. Dialectical naturalism explores the complex interrelationship between social problems, and the direct consequences they have on the ecological impact of human society. Bookchin offered dialectical naturalism as a contrast to what he saw as the "empyrean, basically antinaturalistic dialectical idealism" of Hegel, and "the wooden, often scientistic dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxists".
Neo-orthodoxy, in Europe also known as theology of crisis and dialectical theology, is an approach to theology in Protestantism that was developed in the aftermath of the First World War (1914–1918). It is characterized as a reaction against doctrines of 19th-century liberal theology and a more positive reevaluation of the teachings of the Reformation, much of which had been in decline (especially in western Europe) since the late 18th century. It is primarily associated with two Swiss professors and pastors, Karl Barth (1886–1968) and Emil Brunner (1899–1966), even though Barth himself expressed his unease in the use of the term.
In dialectical theology the difference and opposition between God and human beings is stressed in such a way that all human attempts at overcoming this opposition through moral, religious or philosophical idealism must be characterized as 'sin'. In the death of Christ humanity is negated and overcome, but this judgment also points forwards to the resurrection in which humanity is reestablished in Christ. For Barth this meant that only through God's 'no' to everything human can his 'yes' be perceived. Applied to traditional themes of Protestant theology, such as double predestination, this means that election and reprobation cannot be viewed as a quantitative limitation of God's action. Rather it must be seen as its "qualitative definition". As Christ bore the rejection as well as the election of God for all humanity, every person is subject to both aspects of God's double predestination.
Dialectic prominently figured in Bernard Lonergan's philosophy, in his books Insight and Method in Theology. Michael Shute wrote about Lonergan's use of dialectic in The Origins of Lonergan's Notion of the Dialectic of History. For Lonergan, dialectic is both individual and operative in community. Simply described, it is a dynamic process that results in something new:
For the sake of greater precision, let us say that a dialectic is a concrete unfolding of linked but opposed principles of change. Thus there will be a dialectic if (1) there is an aggregate of events of a determinate character, (2) the events may be traced to either or both of two principles, (3) the principles are opposed yet bound together, and (4) they are modified by the changes that successively result from them.
Dialectic is one of the eight functional specialties Lonergan envisaged for theology to bring this discipline into the modern world. Lonergan believed that the lack of an agreed method among scholars had inhibited substantive agreement from being reached and progress from being made compared to the natural sciences. Karl Rahner, S.J., however, criticized Lonergan's theological method in a short article entitled "Some Critical Thoughts on 'Functional Specialties in Theology'" where he stated: "Lonergan's theological methodology seems to me to be so generic that it really fits every science, and hence is not the methodology of theology as such, but only a very general methodology of science."
Friedrich Nietzsche viewed dialectic as a method that imposes artificial boundaries and suppresses the richness and diversity of reality. He rejected the notion that truth can be fully grasped through dialectical reasoning and offered a critique of dialectic, challenging its traditional framework and emphasizing the limitations of its approach to understanding reality. He expressed skepticism towards its methodology and implications in his work Twilight of the Idols: "I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity".: 42 In the same book, Nietzsche criticized Socrates' dialectics because he believed it prioritized reason over instinct, resulting in the suppression of individual passions and the imposition of an artificial morality.: 47
Karl Popper attacked the dialectic repeatedly. In 1937, he wrote and delivered a paper entitled "What Is Dialectic?" in which he criticized the dialectics of Hegel, Marx, and Engels for their willingness "to put up with contradictions". 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". Seventy years later, Nicholas Rescher responded that "Popper's critique touches only a hyperbolic version of dialectic", and he quipped: "Ironically, there is something decidedly dialectical about Popper's critique of dialectics."
The philosopher of science and physicist Mario Bunge repeatedly criticized Hegelian and Marxian dialectics, calling them "fuzzy and remote from science" and a "disastrous legacy". He concluded: "The so-called laws of dialectics, such as formulated by Engels (1940, 1954) and Lenin (1947, 1981), are false insofar as they are intelligible." Poe Yu-ze Wan, reviewing Bunge's criticisms of dialectics, found Bunge's arguments to be important and sensible, but he thought that dialectics could still serve some heuristic purposes for scientists.
Even some Marxists are critical of the term "dialectics". For instance, Michael Heinrich wrote, "More often than not, the grandiose rhetoric about dialectics is reducible to the simple fact that everything is dependent upon everything else and is in a state of interaction and that it's all rather complicated—which is true in most cases, but doesn't really say anything."
Since the late 20th century, European and American logicians have attempted to provide mathematical foundations for dialectic through formalisation,: 201–372 although logic has been related to dialectic since ancient times.: 51–140 There have been pre-formal and partially-formal treatises on argument and dialectic, from authors such as Stephen Toulmin (The Uses of Argument, 1958),: 203–256 Nicholas Rescher (Dialectics: A Controversy-Oriented Approach to the Theory of Knowledge, 1977),: 330–336 and Frans H. van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst (pragma-dialectics, 1980s).: 517–614 One can include works of the communities of informal logic and paraconsistent logic.: 373–424
Building on theories of defeasible reasoning (see John L. Pollock), systems have been built that define well-formedness of arguments, rules governing the process of introducing arguments based on fixed assumptions, and rules for shifting burden.: 615–675 Many of these logics appear in the special area of artificial intelligence and law, though the computer scientists' interest in formalizing dialectic originates in a desire to build decision support and computer-supported collaborative work systems.
Dialectic itself can be formalised as moves in a game, where an advocate for the truth of a proposition and an opponent argue.: 301–372 Such games can provide a semantics of logic, one that is very general in applicability.: 314
Mathematician William Lawvere interpreted dialectics in the setting of categorical logic in terms of adjunctions between idempotent monads. This perspective may be useful in the context of theoretical computer science where the duality between syntax and semantics can be interpreted as a dialectic in this sense. For example, the Curry-Howard equivalence is such an adjunction or more generally the duality between closed monoidal categories and their internal logic.
the necessity of the connectedness and the immanent emergence of distinctions must be found in the treatment of the fact itself, for it falls within the concept's own progressive determination. What propels the concept onward is the already mentioned negative which it possesses in itself; it is this that constitutes the truly dialectical factor. [...] It is in this dialectic as understood here, and hence in grasping opposites in their unity, or the positive in the negative, that the speculative consists.