Advantages and Disadvantages of Dialectical Reasoning

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, June 2nd, 2013

1.0 Pre-Modern Dialectics
1.1 Logic can be differentiated into formal or discrete logic and informal or rhetorical logic. The former can include studies in purely formal content, propositional and predicate logic, set theory and so forth. The latter is a study in argumentation and fallacies. (See "Logic in Philosophy", April 18, 2007
1.2 The story of dialectics begins as a type of informal logic used by the Hellenes, especially by Plato's Socratic dialogues, but also Heraclitus' argument of the transitory nature of all things and, as a result, the union of contradictions: "We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not."
1.3 Unlike rhetoric it does not appeal to ethical standards, or emotional states; its claims are based on empirical evidence and reasoned argumentation only. The Socratic method begins with a hypothesis, which is shown to have contradictions (negative hypothesis elimination), or by denying the assumptions of the both the proposition and the contrary claim, thus leading to a third alternative, or even an circular abandonment. A famous example of the latter is the discussion in Euryptho.
1.4 Logical debate has also been a historical feature of the dharmic religious traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, etc). Examples include the Jainist Syadvada which conditiond a proposition through partiality, the Hindu Purusha-Prakriti (active consciousness - restive phenomena) in the Hindu Samkhya school.
1.5 A visual and philosophical expression of the dialectic is expressed in the tao-chi-tu (taijitu), Chinese symbol for the concept of yinyang, and the core symbol of Taoism. The two propositions contains part of its opposite (complementary opposites), they are in a dynamic relationship, they are part of a whole (Wuji) which transcends the two propositions, reaching a state of quiescence.

2.0 Modern Dialectics: The Hegelian Revolution
2.1 Dialectics was taught throughout the medieval period as part of the Trivium, the foundation of the liberal arts education in universities, along with grammar and rhetoric. An excellent description of the Trivium is "Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another" (The Trivium, 1937). There was not however enormous development in the field, although it was widely used.
2.2 Fichte developed modern principles of dialectics through an attempt to overcome the notion of the noumenon (Das Ding an sich) in Kant describe an evolving self-consciousness of the phenomenal towards an absolute ego (God). Fichte also argued thath self-consciousness was a social phenomenon (c.f., his anti-Semetic German nationalism).
2.3 Following Fitch, Hegel expanded on this trajectory of dialectical reasoning. Dialectics is expressed in historical and social evolution of consciousness towards freedom and the Absolute Ideal (cf., Fichte). This evolution is expressed through the logical of an Abstract encountering its Negative resulting in the Concrete. The thetic description of thesis, antithesis, and resulting synthesis was popularised by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus. Note that it the Hegelian version implicitly requires a negation (even in part) of the abstract. An example the process is given in the Science of Logic; Being (Sein) is in contradiction with Nothing (Nicht), and are united as Becoming. An example of the social consciousness is evident in the famous Master-Slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit.
2.4 The principles of the Fitchean-Hegelian dialectic can be thus expressed as follows:
2.4.1 Everything exists in an environment of contradicting forces, both from without and from within.
2.4.2 Everything in a state of dynamic change; including oscillation, interaction, and interdetermination.
2.4.3 Gradual quantitative changes leads to radical qualitative change.
2.4.4 Changes are progressive through the negation of the negation (i.e., in the process of sublation Concrete 'resolves' the Abstract and Negative), rather than equivalent and circular or oscillating changes.

3.0 Marxist Historical and Dialectical Materialism
3.1 Marx brought together Hegel's dialectics and Feurbach's materialism (what contemporary philosophy called "physicalism") to come up with "historical materialism". The "direct opposite" of Hegel to Marx (as explained in Capital) was to explain ideas as a reflection of the real world on the human mind. From this physicalist theory of consciousness, Marx explained a dialectic dynamic of history whereby societies move through different modes of production (a combination of the relations and means of production), where economic classes are in conflict (i.e., the relations of production). The change from one mode of production to another is qualitative and revolutionary. The historical modes of production identified by Marx included primitive communism, ancient society, feudalism, and capitalism. Hypothesised future societies included socialism and communism.
3.2 Dialectical materialism (as distinct from historical materialism) was first coined by Joseph Dietzgen, and adopted shortly afterwards by Engels as the "materialist dialectic". It was introduced as "dialectical materialism" by Plenkhanov and then differentiated by Stalin, whereby dialectical materialism referred to a world-view, and historical materialism as an explanation of social development.
3.3 From Hegel's example of phase-state transitions, Engels also applied the dialectical method to the natural sciences, especially evolution, but also with fragmentary notes in chemistry. Lenin attempted to extend this further to include physics (in opposition to fellow leading party member, Bogdanov's "Empiriomonism"). The world-view application of dialectical materialism contributed significantly to the "evolutionary" arguments of the inheritance of acquired characteristics versus the "bourgeois" and mechanistic science of genetics ("Lysenko is the millstone round the neck of the dialectical biologist" as J.M. Smith put it).

4.0 Criticism and Support of Dialectical Reasoning
4.1 One of the strongest critics of dialectics was Popper, who does not so much criticise the development of knowledge through a dialectical process, criticised the loose and vague way that dialectical theory deal with contradictions, and the theory of identity representing a unity of opposites. Popper's alternate theory of knowledge advanced through falsification (and positivist verification), was that hypotheses tested against rational consistency and empirical facts; contradictions ought to be resolved, not accepted.
4.2 Popper was also very critical of the deterministic and essentialist historicism, which he traced through Plato to Hegel and Marx, which placed historical destiny outside of human control, and made impossible predictions concerning the future. As the predictions of historical destiny failed to match the contextual reality, Popper noted negative effects in attempting to expediate a remodelling the reality of human behaviour to fit the theory. Popper's alternative was "piecemeal social engineering", with small-scale and reversible social experiments were carried out.
4.3 The Frankfurt School of Social Research and the related body of critical theory worked on developing dialectics, in particular, that dialectics had to be applied to itself, as a self-correcting method. Thus they rejected historicism, physicalist metaphysical presumptions, and orthodox Marxism. Further, they interpreted praxis and theory as interdependent on each other. The "first generation" of the Frankfurt School were particularly interested in a Freud/Marx synthesis (e.g., Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse), whereby the "culture industry" produced a mass, subservient, and unthinking subjects dominated by "surplus repression", countered only by those engaged in negative critique. The "second generation" (Habermas) are critical of historical materialism for being inattentive to communicative action.
4.4 Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason sought to overcome the contradiction of freedom and necessity (recalling both Kant and Hegel in the title), argued that conscious human activity did have a interconnected and transformative approach that was totalising without a totaliser, and could reach a trascendent point in a post-scarcity communist society. It also rejects historicism, dialectics as a world-view, and the possibility of class-based expressions creativity and spontaneity.
4.5 The biologists Levins and Lewotin apply dialectics as a heuristic approach, especially in regard to the oscillation between total environments and particular heterogenuous species which are part of, and alter, that ecology. Again there is criticism of using dialectics in a non-heuristic manner in the physical world: "Dialectical materialism is not, and never has been, a programmatic method for solving particular physical problems. Rather, a dialectical analysis provides an overview and a set of warning signs against particular forms of dogmatism and narrowness of thought." This is perhaps partially contridicted by Eldredge and Gould, whose theory of punctuated equilibra, argues that species remain in a relatively static state until a rapid period of branching speciation (cladogenesis), a claim still subject to debate.
4.6 The deconstructionalist strategy of textual analysis has some resemblance to dialectical reasoning, by which conventionally assumed binary opposites are explored for tensions and weaknesses between the opposites that suggest a commonality, illustrating how the these oppositions are unstable, reversible, and mutually dependent on one another.
4.7 Most recently some logicians have attempted to formalise dialectics, albeit within argumentation and decision theory. Utilising rules for critical discussion, an argument progresses through definition through discussion stages, with critical and heurestic functions. Pragma-dialectics has been used in law, mediation and negotion processes, parlimentary and political debates, and health communication.

5.0 Evaluating Questions
5.1 Can formal logic be extended to account for temporal and contextual conditions? What about partial conditions (e.g., superposition in quantum mechanics)?
5.1 Are the principles of dialectics (2.4, above) universally true for natural science, social inquiry, and personal aesthetics?
5.2 How does one determine what is a qualitative change? Are qualitative changes always rapid? How does one determine whether contradictions have been trascended and sublated, or an incorporated and unresolved compromise?
5.3 What predictive capacity does dialectics really have? If it doesn't have any, is it still useful as a heuristic or post-hoc explanatory tool?


1.3 Euthyphro defines as piety is what is pleasing to the gods (6e-7a), but Socrates notes that the gods differ on what is pleasing, which would mean actions would be both pious and impious (note the interest not in individual gods, but "the" gods, i.e., their essence). Euthyphro generalises this tp emphasise something which is loved by all gods to represent piety, which Socrates responds with: "Is the good loved by the gods because it is good? Or is it good because it is loved by the gods?" (10a). Socrates notes that the approval of all gods is an attribute of piety; it is not part of its defining characteristics. Euthyphro suggests that piety is concerned with caring for the gods (13b), which suggests that they are subject to such care and improvement. Euthyphro then proposes that piety is an art of sacrifice and appeals; which reduces the gods to agents of commerce. There is no resolution. At this point Euthyphro leaves, and Socrates goes to attend the courts on a charge of impiety.

2.4 Note the difference with these core propositions of dialectical logic and the three classical laws of thought (often mistakingly called "formal logic") usually attributed to Aristotle i.e., Law of identity (A=A and not !A)., The Law of Non-contradiction ("A := B" and "A := !B" are mutually exclusive)., The Law of Excluded Middle (either A := B or A := !B is true).

3.1 "In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness... At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution." (Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy)

4.1 Recall Avicenna, "Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned." (Avicenna, Persian Philosopher and Physician, 980-1037 CE). Popper from C&R: "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".

4.1 Consider Stalin's idea of contradiction: "The highest development of state power with the object of preparing the conditions for the withering away of state power -- such is the Marxist formula. Is this 'contradictory'? Yes, it is 'contradictory.' But this contradiction us bound up with life, and it fully reflects Marx's dialectics." [Political Report of the Central Committee to the Sixteenth Congress of the CPSU(B), June 27,1930

Further Reading

Adorno, Theodore, "Negative Dialectics", Suhrkamp Verlag, 1966
Fichte, Johann, "Foundations of Natural Right According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre", (two volumes), FP 1796, 1797
Derrida, Jacques, "Of Grammatology", Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967
Eemeren, Frans H. van, Ed. "Advances in pragma-dialectics", Vale Press, 2002
Engels, Frederich., "Anti-Dühring", FP 1878
Engels, Frederich., "Dialectics of Nature", FP 1883
Gould, Stephen J., "The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History", W.W. Norton, 1980
Habermas, Jürgen., "Communication and the Evolution of Society", Beacon Press, 1979
Hegel, Georg W. F., "The Phenomenology of Spirit", FP 1807
Hegel, Georg W. F., "Science of Logic" (three volumes), FP 1811, 1812, 1816
Horkheimer, Max., and Adorno, Theodore., "Dialectic of Enlightenment", FP 1947
Joseph, Miriam, "The Trivium in College Composition and Reading", FP 1937
Levins, Richard., Lewontin, Richard., "The Dialectical Biologist", Harvard University Press, 1985
Marcuse, Herber., "Eros and Civilization : A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud", Beacon Press, 1955
Marx, Karl., "A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy", FP 1859
Lenin, Vladimar., "Materialism and Empirio-criticism", Zveno Publishers, FP 1909
Plato, "Euthyphro", FPc399 BCE
Popper, Karl., "The Open Society and It's Enemies" (Vol II), Routledge, 1945
Popper, Karl., "The Poverty of Historicism", Routledge, 1957
Popper, Karl., "Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge", Routledge, 1963
Sartre, Jean-Paul., "Critique of Dialectical Reason", Editions Gallimard, 1960
Stalin, Joseph., "Historical and Dialectical Materialism", FP 1938


lev.lafayette's picture

Although not always clearly written, and with a certain oppositional stance, the following site by a UK Marxist provides an interesting argument against dialectics from that perspective.