Updated: Jul 12, 2020
What is dialectics? The dialectical method is a study of change, specifically the observation of the whole, the divisions of opposites within that whole, and the tension, conflict, and unity of those opposites.
The unity of opposites. All things are identified in part by what they are not. There are countless dichotomies, such as beginning/end, tall/short, masculine/feminine, presence/absence, and speech/writing.
As a Zen monk said, “Not-A is contained within A.” To a native English speaker, A stands alone. A is just A. But for an English learner, A can only be understood when placed in the context of the whole 25 other letters.
If you did’t know the whole alphabet, and have never seen an English letter in your life, and you came across an ‘A’ on a tree you simply would not know what the symbol signified. You can’t place it within the symbolic whole of the English Alphabet.
But if you know all the other letters in the English Alphabet, you’ll know that 'A' symbol is not-B, it's not-C, it's not-D, and so on, and then you can come to the conclusion that the symbol means A.
This is a key principle of the dialectic. To understand the parts you need to understand the whole. This relationship between the whole and the division is key to what dialectics aims to do, which is to observe change. Change occurs within a thing (an ecosystem, a state, an individual) when there are tensions and conflicts between opposites within that thing.
One of the first individuals to describe change in a dialectical fashion is the pre-socratic philosopher Heraclitus. You may know his famous saying “You cannot step in the same river twice,” which alludes to his view that the world is in constant flux.
One cannot step into the same river twice,
nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition,
it scatters and again gathers,
it forms and dissolves,
approaches and departs.
Dialectics ties change and the unity of opposites within a whole together, and it's by the separation of a whole into opposites and conflict between opposites that change occurs.
All things come to pass through strife.
Counter-forces bring together,
From tones at variance
Besides describing oppositions that exist simultaneously and depend on one another, A and not-A, black and white, male and female, Heraclitus describes oppositions that come after one another to describe how change comes about.
“This succession of opposites (day following night, death following life) gets to the key idea: change. To say that every object manifests some pair of contrary properties in this sense (successively) is just to say that every object undergoes change. So the doctrine of “unity of opposites” is, for Heraclitus, a way of making the point that every object is subject to change and is, indeed, always undergoing some kind of change or other.”
They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement:
harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.
Here the tension between opposed forces - the string being pulled one way by one end of the bow and the other way by the other - enables the bow to perform its function, to be the kind of thing that it is. It seems static, but it is in fact dynamic. Beneath its apparently motionless exterior is a tension between opposed forces.”
What is not Dialectics?
Having answered, “what is dialectics?” It would be useful now to also answer the opposite question, “What is not dialectics?”
The opposite of dialectics is dualism. Dualism describes conflict and change in Manichean, black, and white terms. Instead of observing two conflicting forces objectively, dualism identifies a protagonist and an antagonist, one good and one evil. Instead of seeing the two forces as a part of one whole, dualism tends to see those two forces as wholly separate and different from one another.
Dialectics attempts to see tension and conflict between opposites objectively, in a non dual manner. If you remove the pro and anti from protagonist and antagonist, you can look at a conflict dialectically, as a conflict between two agonists, which are temporary divisions of a united whole.
This does not mean that dialecticians won’t choose sides or consider some things good and others evil, but before everything else, dialecticians are open to all points of view, observe all the players in the game, and try to consider all aspects of natural phenomena and their opposites that drive change.
Dialecticians tend not to be overt moralists, or if they are on certain issues, first the individual employs a dialectical method of study and argumentation to arrive at what they consider to be the moral position.
Political polarization in America is an oft-repeated problem, and much of mass media content and opinions are non-dialectical and tend toward dualistic thinking and supporting a Manichean worldview.
To a left-liberal, non-liberal opinions are pre-judged to be variously conservative, racist, or fascist. To a right-conservative, non-conservative opinions are pre-categorized as some form of “Cultural Marxism.” To any kind of political dualist, it doesn’t matter that there are opinions out there that are both non-liberal and non-conservative because “If you are not with me, you are against me.”
Accusations of Nihilism
Because dialectics tends towards a non-dualistic, descriptive philosophy, dialecticians are often accused of nihilism by those with a dualist, prescriptive philosophy. The dialectician is lambasted by dualists who have already decided what’s good and bad. The dualist says, “If you don’t assert what is good and what is evil, then you don’t believe in anything.”
Not all nihilists are dialecticians, but most dialecticians are accused of nihilism. These accusations are almost always unfounded. The dialectician believes in something, they just believe in the investigative process, not the final outcome.
Dualists prefer to use words for proclamations, whereas dialecticians tend to use words to describe observations. Here’s a good example. Medicare for all.
So a dualistic proclamation would be “healthcare is a human right” and since there are some thirty million people uninsured in America, medicare for all is necessary to ensure healthcare for all since healthcare is a human right and human rights, we’ve already decided, are good.
A dialectical observation might be that the US spends more per capita on healthcare than any other developed country. Switching to a nationalized single-payer healthcare system would save the whole country money, and provide health coverage for all Americans regardless of individual income or status of employment.
The dualist approach proclaims how the world should be better. The dialectic approach observes how the world is, and how the world could change for the better. With regards to Medicare for all, the dualistic proclamation and the dialectical observation arrive at the same place, everyone in America having healthcare would be good, but dialectics takes the first step of observing the world as it is before proclaiming their position.
The dialectical individual is typically skeptical towards moral crusades. Whoever is derided as nihilistic, or “contrarian,” is typically employing some form of dialectical method or another.
One of the biggest “contrarians,” most famous skeptics, and most rigorous dialecticians in recent history is the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s emphasis on strife is influenced by Heraclitus’s own conception. In his own words, Nietzsche says of Heraclitus that "in his proximity, I feel warmer and better than anywhere else."
Like many dialecticians, Nietzsche has attracted countless accusations of nihilism.
His famous and overcited line, “God is dead.” is the source of many of such charges. But Nietzsche’s overall point isn’t that Satan should kill God, or humans should replace God, but instead, Nietzsche is pointing to a change in Europe and a change in Europe’s perception of itself.
At the end of the Middle Ages, Europe called itself Christendom. By the industrial era, when Nietzsche wrote, that self-conception had changed. More and more Europe saw itself as ‘The West.’ That’s a definitive shift, from the spiritual ideal to material reality. From Europe in relation to God, to Europe in relation to the rest of the world.
This doesn’t mean that Nietzsche thinks the archangel Michael killed the big-man-upstairs execution-style. Nietzsche’s argument is that God, as a concept, was the ethical foundation of European life back when it called itself Christendom. Now that Europe is “the West,” that ethical foundation is gone. Whereas authority was derived from God and God’s appointed king on earth, authority was increasingly derived from parliament and the people. The driving force of Europe in the industrial era became the accumulation of more and more wealth.
To ask if Nietzsche thinks this “death of God” is good or bad is to ask the wrong question. Nietzsche has simply observed a change and described it. Change results in lots of different results, some good, some bad.
In another context, Nietzsche might weigh the good and the bad results from what he calls the death of God, and then come to a conclusion on the good results, and a good course of action to remedy the bad results.
This is the usual difference between the dialectic and dualism. Dualism starts with its conclusion and works its way backward. Dialectics comes to its conclusion at the very end.
So there you have it. Three ways of identifying dialectics.
First, what dialectics is. The various dialectical methods are all philosophies of change that emphasize the strife and unity of opposites.
Second, what dialectics is not. The opposite of dialectics is dualism. Dialectics tends towards non dualist, objective approaches to observing conflict.
Third, what dialectics is accused of. Because dialectics observes and does not proclaim, dualists will accuse dialectics of “not believing in anything”, or nihilism.
With these three definitions as your guide, you’ll have better luck identifying dialectics in culture, art, writing, mathematics, nature, and many other disciplines.
People get confused by all the different branches of dialectics. There are Platonic and Aristotelian dialectics, the former which relies more on the disputation of opposing viewpoints than opposing forces. There’s Hegelian ideal dialectics and Marxist materialist dialectics. There’s even the official dialectical materialism of the Soviet Union as written by Joseph Stalin.
There’s a wide and varied history of dialectical methods. I’d like this to be an ongoing series, so next time I’ll be looking at some other branch of dialectical study. I’ll eventually discuss Karl Marx’s famous dialectical opposition between the capitalist and the worker, or, the bourgeoisie and the proletarian.