The Great Conversation: Dialectic
By Gabriel Blanchard
Dialectic is a process of mind, but it has also been proposed as the process of existence.
The word dialectic is defined as “the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions.” Naturally enough, dialectic itself is therefore one of the ideas that has been investigated and discussed since the most ancient forerunners of our own culture, and the accepted or prestige idea of how dialectic reaches truth—and indeed, whether it does so at all—has seen several incarnations.
Socrates is possibly the first and certainly the most recognizable dialectician of the West. His technique of asking leading yet not decisive questions has proven so flexible and, for many people, so illuminating, that it remains in use by some teachers twenty-four centuries later. His pupil Plato took it up (accenting the “leading” aspect of the questions more than a little) in his many dialogues, exploring theories of knowledge, politics, virtue, language itself, and metaphysics. Aristotle continued the tradition, placing dialectic at the disposal of logical thought in general. His Organon, a collection of six books on analyzing statement, syllogism, argument, and fallacies, later became the standard logic textbook of the Middle Ages and indeed right down to the eighteenth century. To this day, schools following the classical model describe the stage devoted to teaching students logic as the “dialectic” phase.
Two metaphysical developments of the idea of dialectic are worth noting here. One is a reinvention of Plato’s use of dialectic as a way of understanding the universe and existence itself. St. Anselm, an eleventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury, is a noteworthy figure here, using the form of a Platonic-style dialogue to analyze the doctrine of the Incarnation rationally, trying to formulate it as a profound necessity rather than an arbitrary choice in God’s part. Six centuries later, Descartes was equally bold, applying dialectic to the problem of knowledge (and treating metaphysics itself as a branch of that problem, rather than the reverse). He found what he considered good reasons to “reconstruct” all knowledge and being, relying solely on this type of rational analysis of the possible. These, though radical in their re-application, were arguably of a piece with their ancient forebears.
The other and more distinctive new approach to dialectic was inaugurated by Hegel. Hegel recast dialectic as being not only the work of individual minds, but a description of the operation of a universal “Spirit” or “Absolute.” History in general was a progress from a thesis (a general state of affairs) clashing with its own antithesis, until the good elements in each were fused into a new synthesis—which then took the place of the former thesis, and the process was repeated, thus allowing greater and greater progress towards the consummate good of Spirit. The Hegelian idea of dialectic lay behind many philosophical and indeed political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Marx famously described his thought as a materialist dialectic; Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch was informed by it, and had in turn a major influence on Nazi and Fascist ideology.
There have also been reactions against Hegel. Suspicion of optimistic narratives about “progress” are general enough in much conservative and religious literature. Philosophically, a major critic of Hegelianism can be found in Kierkegaard, who made extensive use of dialectic (up to and including publishing rebuttals of his own books under various pseudonyms!) while at the same time arguing that Hegel’s concept of synthesis and progress could not adequately explain either the world or man’s place in it. His famous work Fear and Trembling in particular—a discussion of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac—is aimed against Hegelian claims that reason can analyze existential questions exhaustively, and that ethics, apart from faith, can constitue a spiritually satisfying life.
If you liked this post, you might also like our “Great Conversation” posts on other topics, like the idea of life and death or the nature of citizenship. Or take a look at one of our author profiles, on figures like Plato, Cicero, C. S. Lewis, and many more.