Dialectic or dialectics (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ; related to dialogue), also known as the dialectical method, is at base a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. Dialectic resembles debate, but shorn of subjective elements such as emotional appeal and the modern pejorative sense of rhetoric.[1][2] It may be contrasted with the didactic method where one side of the conversation teaches the other.

Within Hegelianism, dialectic acquires a specialised meaning of a contradiction of ideas that serves as the determining factor in their interaction; comprising three 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.

Dialectical materialism, built mainly by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, adapted the Hegelian dialectic into traditional materialism.

Dialectic tends to imply a process of evolution, and so does not naturally fit within formal logic; see logic and dialectic. This is particularly marked in Hegelian and even more Marxist dialectic which may rely on the time-evolution of ideas in the real world; Dialectical logic attempts to address this.

Western dialectical forms

Classical 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.[3][4]

Moreover, 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 BCE). Aristotle said that it was the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea who invented dialectic, of which the dialogues of Plato are the examples of the Socratic dialectical method.[5]

According to Kant, however, the ancient Greeks used the word "dialectic" to signify the logic of false appearance or semblance. To the Ancients, "it was nothing but the logic of illusion. It was a sophistic art of giving to one's ignorance, indeed even to one's intentional tricks, the outward appearance of truth, by imitating the thorough, accurate method which logic always requires, and by using its topic as a cloak for every empty assertion."[6]

Socratic method

The Socratic dialogues are a particular form of dialectic known as the method of elenchus (literally, "refutation, scrutiny"[7]) 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[8] 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 used 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.

For 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.

There is another interpretation of the dialectic, as a method of intuition suggested in The Republic.[9] Simon Blackburn writes 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".[10]


Aristotle stresses that rhetoric is closely related to dialectic. He offers several formulas to describe this affinity between the two disciplines: first of all, rhetoric is said to be a “counterpart” (antistrophos) to dialectic (Rhet. I.1, 1354a1); (ii) it is also called an “outgrowth” (paraphues ti) of dialectic and the study of character (Rhet. I.2, 1356a25f.); finally, Aristotle says that rhetoric is part of dialectic and resembles it (Rhet. I.2, 1356a30f.). In saying that rhetoric is a counterpart to dialectic, Aristotle obviously alludes to Plato's Gorgias (464bff.), where rhetoric is ironically defined as a counterpart to cookery in the soul. Since, in this passage, Plato uses the word ‘antistrophos’ to designate an analogy, it is likely that Aristotle wants to express a kind of analogy too: what dialectic is for the (private or academic) practice of attacking and maintaining an argument, rhetoric is for the (public) practice of defending oneself or accusing an opponent. The analogy to dialectic has important implications for the status of rhetoric. Plato argued in his Gorgias that rhetoric cannot be an art (technê), since it is not related to a definite subject, while real arts are defined by their specific subjects, as e.g. medicine or shoemaking are defined by their products, i.e., health and shoes.[11]

Medieval philosophy

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.[12][13][14][15]

Based mainly on Aristotle, the first medieval philosopher to work on dialectics was Boethius (480–524).[16] After him, many scholastic philosophers also made use of dialectics in their works, such as Abelard,[17] William of Sherwood,[18] Garlandus Compotista,[19] Walter Burley, Roger Swyneshed, William of Ockham,[20] and Thomas Aquinas.[21]

This dialectic (a quaestio disputata) was formed as follows:

  1. The question to be determined (“It is asked whether...”);
  2. A provisory answer to the question (“And it seems that...”)
  3. The principal arguments in favor of the provisory answer;
  4. An argument against the provisory answer, traditionally a single argument from authority ("On the contrary...");
  5. The determination of the question after weighing the evidence ("I answer that...");
  6. The replies to each of the initial objections. (“To the first, to the second etc., I answer that...”)

Modern philosophy

The concept of dialectics was given new life by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (following Johann Gottlieb Fichte), whose dialectically synthetic model of nature and of 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 Immanuel Kant tended to do in his Critique of Pure Reason).[22][23] In the mid-19th century, the concept of "dialectic" was appropriated by Karl Marx (see, for example, Das Kapital, published in 1867) and Friedrich Engels and retooled in a dynamic, 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[24] and led to vigorous debate among different Marxist groupings, leading some prominent Marxists to give up on the idea of dialectics completely.[25]

Hegelian dialectic

Hegelian dialectic, usually presented in a threefold manner, was stated by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus[26] 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. In more simplistic terms, one can consider it thus: problem → reaction → solution. Although this model is often named after Hegel, he himself never used that specific formulation. Hegel ascribed that terminology to Kant.[27] Carrying on Kant's work, Fichte greatly elaborated on the synthesis model and popularized it.

On the other hand, Hegel did use a three-valued logical model that is very similar to the antithesis model, but Hegel's most usual terms were: Abstract-Negative-Concrete. Hegel used this writing model as a backbone to accompany his points in many of his works.

The formula, thesis-antithesis-synthesis, does not explain why the thesis requires an antithesis. However, the formula, abstract-negative-concrete, suggests a flaw, or perhaps an incompleteness, in any initial thesis—it is too abstract and lacks the negative of trial, error, and experience. For Hegel, the concrete, the synthesis, the absolute, must always pass through the phase of the negative, in the journey to completion, that is, mediation. This is the essence of what is popularly called Hegelian Dialectics.

According to the German philosopher Walter Kaufmann:

"Fichte introduced into German philosophy the three-step of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, using these three terms. Schelling took up this terminology. Hegel did not. He never once used these three terms together to designate three stages in an argument or account in any of his books. And they do not help us understand his Phenomenology, his Logic, or his philosophy of history; they impede any open-minded comprehension of what he does by forcing it into a scheme which was available to him and which he deliberately spurned [...] The mechanical formalism [...] Hegel derides expressly and at some length in the preface to the Phenomenology.[28][29]

Kaufmann also cites Hegel's criticism of the triad model commonly misattributed to him, adding that "the only place where Hegel uses the three terms together occurs in his lectures on the history of philosophy, on the last page but one of the section on Kant—where Hegel roundly reproaches Kant for having 'everywhere posited thesis, antithesis, synthesis'".[30]

To describe the activity of overcoming the negative, Hegel also 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 useful portion of an idea, thing, society, etc., while moving beyond its limitations. (Jacques Derrida's preferred French translation of the term was relever.)[31]

In the Logic, for instance, Hegel describes a dialectic of existence: first, existence must be posited as pure Being (Sein); but pure Being, upon examination, is found to be indistinguishable from Nothing (Nichts). When it is realized that what is coming into being is, at the same time, also returning to nothing (in life, for example, one's living is also a dying), both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming.[32]

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 is 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.

Hegel stated that 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."[33]

One important dialectical principle for Hegel is the transition from quantity to quality, which he terms the Measure. The measure is the qualitative quantum, the quantum is the existence of quantity.[34]

"The identity between quantity and quality, which is found in Measure, is at first only implicit, and not yet explicitly realised. In other words, these two categories, which unite in Measure, each claim an independent authority. On the one hand, the quantitative features of existence may be altered, without affecting its quality. On the other hand, this increase and diminution, immaterial though it be, has its limit, by exceeding which the quality suffers change. [...] But if the quantity present in measure exceeds a certain limit, the quality corresponding to it is also put in abeyance. This however is not a negation of quality altogether, but only of this definite quality, the place of which is at once occupied by another. This process of measure, which appears alternately as a mere change in quantity, and then as a sudden revulsion of quantity into quality, may be envisaged under the figure of a nodal (knotted) line".[35]

As an example, Hegel mentions the states of aggregation of water: "Thus the temperature of water is, in the first place, a point of no consequence in respect of its liquidity: still with the increase or diminution of the temperature of the liquid water, there comes a point where this state of cohesion suffers a qualitative change, and the water is converted into steam or ice".[36] As other examples Hegel mentions the reaching of a point where a single additional grain makes a heap of wheat; or where the bald tail is produced, if we continue plucking out single hairs.

Another important principle for Hegel is the negation of the negation, which he also terms Aufhebung (sublation): Something is only what it is in its relation to another, but by the negation of the negation this something incorporates the other into itself. The dialectical movement involves two moments that negate each other, something and its other. As a result of the negation of the negation, "something becomes its other; this other is itself something; therefore it likewise becomes an other, and so on ad infinitum".[37] Something in its passage into other only joins with itself, it is self-related.[38] In becoming there are two moments:[39] coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be: by sublation, i.e., negation of the negation, being passes over into nothing, it ceases to be, but something new shows up, is coming to be. What is sublated (aufgehoben) on the one hand ceases to be and is put to an end, but on the other hand it is preserved and maintained.[40] In dialectics, a totality transforms itself; it is self-related, then self-forgetful, relieving the original tension.

Marxist dialectic

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 man. Dialectic would thus be a robust method under which one could examine personal, social, and economic behaviors. Marxist dialectic is the core foundation of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which forms the basis of the ideas behind historical materialism.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels proposed that Hegel's dialectic is too abstract:

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.[41]

In contradiction to Hegelian idealism, Marx presented his own dialectic method, which he claims to be "direct opposite" of Hegel's method:

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.[42]

In Marxism, the dialectical method of historical study became intertwined with historical materialism, the school of thought exemplified by the works of Marx, Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. In the USSR, under Joseph Stalin, Marxist dialectics became "diamat" (short for dialectical materialism), a theory emphasizing the primacy of the material way of life; social "praxis" over all forms of social consciousness; and the secondary, dependent character of the "ideal". The term "dialectical materialism" was coined by the 19th-century social theorist Joseph Dietzgen who used the theory to explain the nature of socialism and social development. The original populariser of Marxism in Russia, Georgi Plekhanov used the terms "dialectical materialism" and "historical materialism" interchangeably. For Lenin, the primary feature of Marx's "dialectical materialism" (Lenin's term) was its application of materialist philosophy to history and social sciences. Lenin's main input in the philosophy of dialectical materialism was his theory of reflection, which presented 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 in the dialectical materialism and historical materialism parts. 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.

A dialectical method was fundamental to Marxist politics, e.g., the works of Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács and certain members of the Frankfurt School. Soviet academics, notably Evald Ilyenkov and Zaid Orudzhev, continued pursuing unorthodox philosophic study of Marxist dialectics; likewise in the West, notably the philosopher Bertell Ollman at New York University.

Friedrich Engels proposed that Nature is dialectical, thus, in Anti-Dühring he said that the negation of negation is:

A very simple process, which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand as soon as it is stripped of the veil of mystery in which it was enveloped by the old idealist philosophy.[43]

In Dialectics of Nature, Engels said:

Probably the same gentlemen who up to now have decried the transformation of quantity into quality as mysticism and incomprehensible transcendentalism will now declare that it is indeed something quite self-evident, trivial, and commonplace, which they have long employed, and so they have been taught nothing new. But to have formulated for the first time in its universally valid form a general law of development of Nature, society, and thought, will always remain an act of historic importance.[44]

Marxist dialectics is exemplified in Das Kapital (Capital), which outlines two central theories: (i) surplus value and (ii) the materialist conception of history; Marx explains dialectical materialism:

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.[45]

Class struggle is the central 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. In the USSR, Progress Publishers issued anthologies of dialectical materialism by Lenin, wherein he also quotes Marx and Engels:

As the most comprehensive and profound doctrine of development, and the richest in content, Hegelian dialectics was considered by Marx and Engels the greatest achievement of classical German philosophy.... "The great basic thought", Engels writes, "that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things, apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away... this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that, in its generality, it is now scarcely ever contradicted.

But, to acknowledge this fundamental thought in words, and to apply it in reality in detail to each domain of investigation, are two different things.... For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it, except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher. And dialectical philosophy, itself, is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain." Thus, according to Marx, dialectics is "the science of the general laws of motion both of the external world and of human thought".[46]

Lenin describes his dialectical understanding of the concept of development:

A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis ("the negation of the negation"), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; "breaks in continuity"; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws – these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.[46]

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