AskDefine | Define dialectic

Dictionary Definition

dialectic adj : of or relating to or employing dialectic; "the dialectical method" [syn: dialectical]


1 any formal system of reasoning that arrives at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments
2 a contradiction of ideas that serves as the determining factor in their interaction; "this situation created the inner dialectic of American history"

User Contributed Dictionary



From ancient Greek διαλεκτική (dialektike) "the art of argument through interactive questioning and answering", from διαλεκτικός (dialektikos) "competent debater", from διαλέγομαι (dialegomai) "to participate in a dialogue", from διά (dia) "inter, through" + λέγειν (legein) "to speak".


  • /ˌdaɪəˈlɛktɪk/, /%daI@"lEktIk/


  1. Any formal system of reasoning that arrives at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments.
  2. A contradiction of ideas that serves as the determining factor in their interaction.
    This situation created the inner dialectic of American history.

Extensive Definition

distinguish dielectric In classical philosophy, dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική) is controversy: the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments respectively advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of the exercise might not simply be the refutation of one of the relevant points of view, but a synthesis or combination of the opposing assertions, or at least a qualitative transformation in the direction of the dialogue.
In Medieval Europe, dialectics (or logic) was one of the three original liberal arts collectively known as the trivium (the other members are rhetoric and grammar). In ancient and medieval times both rhetoric and dialectic were understood to aim at being persuasive (through dialogue). and ultimately, the search for truth. One way to proceed — the Socratic method — is to show that a given hypothesis (with other admissions) leads to a contradiction; thus, forcing the withdrawal of the hypothesis as a candidate for truth (see also reductio ad absurdum). Another way of trying to resolve a disagreement is by denying some presupposition of both the contending thesis and antithesis; thereby moving to a third (syn)thesis or "sublation". However, the rejection of the participant's presuppositions can be resisted, which might generate a second order controversy.


Dialectics are based around three concepts:
  • 1: Everything is made out of opposing forces/opposing sides.
  • 2: Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one force overcomes the other.
  • 3: Change moves in spirals not circles. (Sometimes referred to as "negation of the negation")
Within this broad qualification, dialectics have a rich and varied history. It has been stated that the history of dialectic is identical to the extensive history of philosophy.. The basic idea perhaps is already present in Heraclitus of Ephesus, who held that all is in constant change, as a result of inner strife and opposition Only fragments of his works and commentary remain, however. Briefly, the term "dialectic" owes much of its prestige to its role in the philosophy of Socrates and Plato, where it figures as the logical method of philosophy, which these thinkers apply by developing an elenchus, that is cross-examination for the purpose of refutation. According to Aristotle, it was Zeno of Elea who 'invented' dialectic.

Advancements made by Hegel and Marxism

The concept was given new life by Hegel, whose dialectically dynamic 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 Kant tended to do in his Critique of Pure Reason). In the mid-19th century, the concept of "dialectic" was appropriated by Marx (see, for example, Das Kapital, published in 1867) and Engels and retooled in a non-idealist manner, becoming a crucial notion in their philosophy of dialectical materialism. Thus this concept has played a prominent role on the world stage and in world history. In contemporary polemics, "dialectics" may also refer to an understanding of how we can or should perceive the world (epistemology); an assertion that the nature of the world outside one's perception is interconnected, contradictory, and dynamic (ontology); or it can refer to a method of presentation of ideas and/or conclusions (discourse). According to Hegel, "Dialectic" is the method by which human history unfolds; that is to say, history progresses as a dialectical process.

Variants of dialectics

Hindu dialectic

Indian philosophy, for the most part subsumed within the Indian religions, has an ancient tradition of dialectic polemics. The two complements, "purusha" (the active cause) and the "prakriti" (the passive nature) brings everything into existence. They follow the "rta", the Dharma (Universal Law of Nature).
In Hinduism, certain dialectical elements can be found in the embryo, such as the idea of the three phases of creation (Brahma), maintenance of order (Vishnu) and destruction or disorder (Shiva). Hindu dialectic is discussed by Hegel, Engels, and Ian Stewart, who has written on Chaos Theory. Stewart establishes that the relationship between the gods Shiva and Vishnu is not the antagonism between good and evil, but the dynamic and developmental relationship of harmony and discord.
The very earliest religious writings in ancient India, the Vedas, which date from around 1500 BC, in a formal sense, are hymns to the gods, but as Hegel also points out, Eastern religions are very philosophical in character. The gods have less of a personal character and are more akin to general concepts and symbols. We find these elements of dialectics in Hinduism as Engels has explained [citation needed]. The deities of the Vedas may be fruitfully engaged as personifications and manifestations of aspects of the ultimate truth and reality, Dharma.

Jain dialectic

Anekantavada and Syadvada are the sophisticated dialectic traditions developed by the Jains to arrive at truth. As per Jainism, the truth or the reality is perceived differently from different points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth. Jain doctrine of Anekantavada states that, an object has infinite modes of existence and qualities and, as such, they cannot be completely perceived in all its aspects and manifestations, due to inherent limitations of the humans. Only the Kevalins - the omniscient beings - can comprehend the object in all its aspects and manifestations, and that all others are capable of knowing only a part of it. Consequently, no one view can claim to represent the absolute truth. According to Jains, the ultimate principle should always be logical and no principle can be devoid of logic or reason. Thus one finds in the Jain texts, deliberative exhortations on any subject in all its facts, may they be constructive or obstructive, inferential or analytical, enlightening or destructive.
Syādvāda is the theory of conditioned predication which provides an expression to anekānta by recommending that epithet Syād be attached to every expression. Syādvāda is not only an extension of Anekānta ontology, but a separate system of logic capable of standing on its own force. The Sanskrit etymological root of the term Syād is "perhaps" or "maybe", but in context of syādvāda, it means "in some ways" or "from a perspective." As reality is complex, no single proposition can express the nature of reality fully. Thus the term "syāt" should be prefixed before each proposition giving it a conditional point of view and thus removing any dogmatism in the statement. Since it ensures that each statement is expressed from seven different conditional and relative view points or propositions, it is know as theory of conditioned predication. These seven propositions also known as saptabhangi are:
  1. – "in some ways it is"
  2. - "in some ways it is not"
  3. - "in some ways it is and it is not"
  4. - "in some ways it is and it is indescribable"
  5. - "in some ways it is not and it is indescribable"
  6. - "in some ways it is, it is not and it is indescribable"
  7. - "in some ways it is indescribable"

Socratic dialectic

In Plato's dialogues and other Socratic dialogues, Socrates attempts to examine someone's beliefs, at times even first principles or premises by which we all reason and argue. Socrates typically argues by cross-examining his interlocutor's claims and premises in order to draw out a contradiction or inconsistency among them. According to Plato, the rational detection of error amounts to finding the proof of the antithesis . However, important as this objective is, the principal aim of Socratic activity seems to be to improve the soul of his interlocutors, by freeing them from unrecognized errors.
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 which 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 which 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 elaborate, thus wrong.

Buddhist dialectic

Buddhism has developed sophisticated and institutionalized traditions of dialectics. Nalanda University is a sagely example. The historical development and clarification of Buddhist doctrine and polemics through dialectics and formal debate is documented. Trison Detsen was a champion of dialectic and debate. The Buddhist doctrine was contested in a highly consistent and logical way in the 2nd century by Nagarjuna, whose rationalism became the basis for the development of one stream of Buddhist logic. The logic of Buddhism was later developed by other notable thinkers such as Dignaga and Dharmakirti (between 500 and 700). Protracted dialectic is evident throughout the traditions of Madhyamaka, Yogacara and Tantric Buddhism.

Hegelian dialectic

Hegelian dialectic, usually presented in a threefold manner, was stated by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus 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. This model is named after Hegel but he rarely used these terms himself. Rather it is due to Fichte. Hegel himself preferred 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 se lever.
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.
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 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.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has outlined 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"
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.
''"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".''
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".. 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 that he also terms Aufhebung (sublation): Something is only what it is in its relationship 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, a somewhat and an another. As a result of the negation of the negation, "something becomes an other; this other is itself somewhat; therefore it likewise becomes an other, and so on ad infinitum". Something in its passage into other only joins with itself, it is self-related.. In becoming there are two moments: 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) is on the one hand ceases to be and is put to an end, but on the other hand it is preserved and maintained. In dialectics, a totality transform itself, it is self-related.

Marxist dialectics

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed Hegel was "standing on his head," and endeavoured to put him back on his feet, ridding Hegel's logic of its orientation towards philosophical idealism, and conceiving what is now known as materialist or Marxist dialectics. This is what Marx had to say about the difference between Hegel's dialectics and his own:
''"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." (Capital, Volume 1, Moscow, 1970, p. 29).
Nevertheless Marx:
"openly avowed [himself] the pupil of that mighty thinker" and even "coquetted with modes of expression peculiar to him."
Marx wrote:
"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."''
In the work of Marx and Engels the dialectical approach to the study of history became intertwined with historical materialism, the school of thought exemplified by the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. (Marx himself never referred to "historical materialism.") A dialectical methodology 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 Stalin, Marxist dialectics developed into what was called "diamat" (short for dialectical materialism). Some Soviet academics, most notably Evald Ilyenkov, continued with unorthodox philosophical studies of the Marxist dialectic, as did a number of thinkers in the West. One of the best known North American dialectical philosophers is Bertell Ollman, Professor of Political Science at New York University.
Engels argued that all of nature is dialectical. In Anti-Dühring he contends that 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."
In Dialectics of Nature, Engels states,
''"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."
Marxists view dialectics as a framework for development in which contradiction plays the central role as the source of development. This is perhaps best exemplified in Marx's Capital, which outlines two of his central theories: that of the theory of surplus value and the materialist conception of history. In Capital, Marx had the following to say about his dialectical methodology:
"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."''
At the heart of Marxist dialectics is the idea of contradiction, with class struggle playing the central role in social and political life. Marx and subsequent Marxists also identify other historically important contradictions, such as those between mental and manual labor and town and country. Contradiction is the key to all other categories and principles of dialectical development: development by passage of quantitative change into qualitative ones, interruption of gradualness, leaps, negation of the initial moment of development and negation of this very negation, and repetition at a higher level of some of the features and aspects of the original state.

Dialectic Method and Dualism

Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism. For example, formal dualism views them to be mutally exclusive entities, and monism finds either to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectic thinking rejects both views. The dialectic method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for transcendence or fusion of opposites, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps clarify a real but perhaps veiled integral relationship between opposites that are normally held to be kept apart and distinct. For example, the superposition principle of quantum physics can be explained using the dialectic method of thinking--likewise the example below from dialectical biology. Such examples showing the relationship of the dialectic method of thinking to the scientific method to a large part negates the criticism of Popper (see text below) that the two are mutually exclusive. The dialectic method also examines false alternatives presented by formal dualism (materialism vs idealism; rationalism vs empiricism; mind vs body, etc.) and looks for ways to transcend the opposites and form synthesis. In the dialectic method, both have something in common, and understanding of the parts requires understanding their relationship with the whole system. The dialectic method thus views the time evolution of the whole as having a past.

Dialectical biology

In 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 fully accepts this picture then looks for ways in which the competing creatures (which serve as the internal conflicts in the environment) lead to changes. The changes would manifest in the creatures themselves, through the creatures embracing biological adaptations which provide them with advantages, and in the environment itself, as when the action of microbes encourages the erosion of rocks. Further, each species is part of the "environment" of all the others.

Criticism of dialectic

Many philosophers have offered critiques of dialectic, and it can even be said that hostility or receptivity to dialectics is one of the things that divides twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy from the so-called "continental" tradition, a divide that only a few contemporary philosophers (among them, G.H. von Wright, Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Richard Rorty) have ventured to bridge.
It is generally thought that whilst there are a few notable exceptions, in general on the continent of Europe, dialectics has entered intellectual culture (or at least its counter-culture) as what might be called a legitimate part of thought and philosophy. In America and Britain, by contrast, the dialectic plays no discernible part in the intellectual culture, which instead tends toward positivism. A prime example of the European tradition is Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, which is very different from the works of Popper, whose philosophy was for a time highly influential in the UK where he resided (see below). Sartre states:
''Existentialism, like Marxism, addresses itself to experience in order to discover there concrete syntheses; it can conceive of these syntheses only within a moving, dialectical totalisation which is nothing else but history or -- from the strictly cultural point of view which we have adopted here --“philosophy-becoming-the world.” ''
Karl Popper has attacked the dialectic repeatedly. In 1937 he wrote and delivered a paper entitled "What Is Dialectic?" in which he attacked the dialectical method for its willingness "to put up with contradictions" Popper concluded the essay with these words: "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" (Ibid., p. 335).
In chapter 12 of volume 2 of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1944; 5th rev. ed., 1966) Popper unleashed a famous attack on Hegelian dialectics, in which he held Hegel's thought (unjustly, in the view of some philosophers, such as Walter Kaufmann,) was to some degree responsible for facilitating the rise of fascism in Europe by encouraging and justifying irrationalism. In section 17 of his 1961 "addenda" to The Open Society, entitled "Facts, Standards, and Truth: A Further Criticism of Relativism," Popper refused to moderate his criticism of the Hegelian dialectic, arguing that it "played a major role in the downfall of the liberal movement in Germany,. . . by contributing to historicism and to an identification of might and right, encouraged totalitarian modes of thought.  . . . [and] undermined and eventually lowered the traditional standards of intellectual responsibility and honesty" (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 5th rev. ed., vol. 2 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966], p. 395).


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1807/1841): Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, in: Baillie, James Back / Lichtheim, Georg (1967): The phenomenology of mind, New York
Göhler, Gerhard (1980): Die Reduktion der Dialektik durch marx. Strukturveraenderungen der dialektischen Entwicklung in der Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie, Stuttgart
Kimmerle, Heinz (Edit.) (1986): Dialektik – Modelle von Marx bis Althusser. Beitraege der Bochumer Dialektik – Arbeitsgemeinschaft, Bochum


General information

Further reading

  • MM Postan, "Function and Dialectic in Economic History," The Economic History Review, 1962, no. 3.
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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Aristotelian logic, Boolean algebra, Ramistic logic, airing, algebra of classes, algebra of relations, analysis, buzz session, canvassing, colloquium, conference, consideration, debate, debating, deliberation, dialectics, dialogue, discussion, disputation, doctrine of inference, doctrine of terms, epistemological logic, examination, exchange of views, experimental logic, forensic, formal logic, forum, investigation, joint discussion, logic, logical analysis, logical discussion, logics, logistic, material logic, mathematical logic, open discussion, open forum, panel discussion, propositional calculus, psychological logic, psychologism, rap, rap session, review, seminar, set theory, study, symposium, town meeting, treatment, ventilation
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