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Broadly speaking, a 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.

"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 (ontology), or a method of presentation of ideas or conclusions.

Table of contents
1 In Philosophy
2 Marxist Dialectic
3 Dialectical Biology

In Philosophy

When using the word "dialectic" philosophers usually refer to either the Socratic dialectical method of cross-examination, or to Hegel's dialectical model of history.

Socratic Dialectic

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.

Hegelian Dialectic

Although Hegel never used such a classification himself, Hegel's dialectic is often described as consisting of three stages: a thesis, an antithesis which contradicts or negates the thesis, and a synthesis embodying what is essential to each.

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).

Like Socratic dialectic, Hegel's dialectic proceeds 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 western history is one tremendous dialectic, the largest moments 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.

Marxist Dialectic

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 idealist orientation, and conceiving what is now known as materialist or Marxist dialectics. The dialectical approach to the study of history then gave rise to historical materialism, the school of thought exemplified by the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. (Marx himself never referred to "historical materialism.") Dialectical method 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 Stalinism, Marxist dialectics developed into what was called "diamat" (short for dialectical materialism), a system of thought which became increasingly dogmatic and thus intellectually bankrupt due to the overpowering influence of its attendant political ideology. Some Soviet academics, most notably Evald Ilyenkov, did continue with philosophical studies of the marxist dialectic free from ideological bias, as did a number of thinkers in the West.

Dialectical Biology

In their book, 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: Dialectician, Universal Dialectic