For other uses, see Dialect (disambiguation).

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method) is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to European and Indian philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. The dialectical method is discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.[1]

The term dialectics is not synonymous with the term debate. While in theory debaters are not necessarily emotionally invested in their point of view, in practice debaters frequently display an emotional commitment that may cloud rational judgement. Debates are won through a combination of persuading the opponent; proving one's argument correct; or proving the opponent's argument incorrect. Debates do not necessarily require promptly identifying a clear winner or loser; however clear winners are frequently determined by either a judge, jury, or by group consensus. The term dialectics is also not synonymous with the term rhetoric, a method or art of discourse that seeks to persuade, inform, or motivate an audience.[2] Concepts, like "logos" or rational appeal, "pathos" or emotional appeal, and "ethos" or ethical appeal, are intentionally used by rhetoricians to persuade an audience.[3]

The Sophists taught aretē (Greek: ἀρετή, quality, excellence) as the highest value, and the determinant of one's actions in life. The Sophists taught artistic quality in oratory (motivation via speech) as a manner of demonstrating one's aretē. Oratory was taught as an art form, used to please and to influence other people via excellent speech; nonetheless, the Sophists taught the pupil to seek aretē in all endeavours, not solely in oratory.

Socrates favoured truth as the highest value, proposing that it could be discovered through reason and logic in discussion: ergo, dialectic. Socrates valued rationality (appealing to logic, not emotion) as the proper means for persuasion, the discovery of truth, and the determinant for one's actions. To Socrates, truth, not aretē, was the greater good, and each person should, above all else, seek truth to guide one's life. Therefore, Socrates opposed the Sophists and their teaching of rhetoric as art and as emotional oratory requiring neither logic nor proof.[4] Different forms of dialectical reasoning have emerged throughout history from South Asia and the West (Europe). These forms include the Socratic method, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian, Marxist, Talmudic, and Neo-orthodoxy.


The purpose of the dialectic method of reasoning is resolution of disagreement through rational discussion, and, ultimately, the search for truth.[5][6] 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 reductio ad absurdum). Another dialectical resolution of disagreement is by denying a presupposition of the contending thesis and antithesis; thereby, proceeding to sublation (transcendence) to synthesis, a third thesis.

It is also possible that the rejection of the participants' presuppositions is resisted, which then might generate a second-order controversy.[7]

Fichtean Dialectics (Hegelian Dialectics) is based upon four concepts:

  1. Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time.
  2. Everything is composed of contradictions (opposing forces).
  3. Gradual changes lead to crises, turning points when one force overcomes its opponent force (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
  4. Change is helical (spiral), not circular (negation of the negation).[8]

The concept of dialectic existed in the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus, who proposed that everything is in constant change, as a result of inner strife and opposition.[9][10][11] Hence, the history of the dialectical method is the history of philosophy.[12]

Western dialectical forms

Classical philosophy

According to Kant, 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."[13]

In classical philosophy, dialectic (Greek: 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.[14][15]

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.[16]

Socratic dialogue

Main article: Socratic dialogue

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.[17] 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 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.

There is another interpretation of the dialectic, as a method of intuition suggested in The Republic.[18] 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”.[19]

Medieval philosophy

Dialectics (also called logic) was one of the three liberal arts taught in medieval universities as part of the trivium. The trivium also included rhetoric and grammar.[20][21][22][23]

Based mainly on Aristotle, the first medieval philosopher to work on dialectics was Boethius.[24] After him, many scholastic philosophers also made use of dialectics in their works, such as Abelard,[25] William of Sherwood,[26] Garlandus Compotista,[27] Walter Burley, Roger Swyneshed and William of Ockham.[28]

This dialectic was formed as follows:

  1. The Question to be determined
  2. The principal objections to the question
  3. An argument in favor of the Question, traditionally a single argument ("On the contrary..")
  4. The determination of the Question after weighing the evidence. ("I answer that...")
  5. The replies to each objection

Modern philosophy

The concept of dialectics was given new life by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (following Fichte), 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 Immanuel Kant tended to do in his Critique of Pure Reason).[29][30] 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 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 conclusions (discourse). According to Hegel, "dialectic" is the method by which human history unfolds; that is to say, history progresses as a dialectical process.

Hegelian dialectics

Main article: Hegelian dialectic

An earlier version of the material under this heading revealed a common misconception about Hegel's thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics, which are quite real. The “Hegelian Dialectics” section began: “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. Although this model is often named after Hegel, he himself never used that specific formulation. Hegel ascribed that terminology to Kant. Carrying on Kant’s work, Fichte greatly elaborated on the synthesis model, and popularized it.”[31]

The misconception that "[Hegel] himself never used that specific formulation" arose from a 1958 article by Mueller, "The Hegel Legend of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis".[32] Mueller argued that the “legend” originated with an 1843 book by Chalybäus and was thereafter simply copied from predecessors by a series of textbook writers. The supposed legend began with Chalybäus’s accurate assertion that the triad being-nothing-becoming in Hegel’s Logic was not a dialectic. Chalybäus was right about that being a nonexample, but he was looking in the wrong place for Hegel’s dialectics. Where he should have looked was in Hegel’s first and most famous work, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

In the preface to Phenomenology, Hegel boldly hinted that he was going to use "the triadic form" of Kante and Fichte. He wrote that in Kant’s work the triadic form “was still lifeless and uncomprehended” but that “since then [since Kant] it has, however, been raised to its absolute significance . . . so that the Notion of Science has emerged.” Given the recent identification of 28 thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics in Phenomenology and 10 more in Hegel’s The Philosophy of History, one can see that Hegel is referring to his own dialectics and is not-very-modestly calling them “Science.” Hegel is praising dialectics.[33] If Hegel intended that praise to be relevant to the text that follows his preface, it surely implies that Hegel is going to use dialectics. And there are later hints. Example: “The activity of skepticism . . . exhibits the dialectical movement [Hegel’s italics] which Sense-certainty, Perception, and the Understanding each is.”[34]

Kaufmann (1966) and Beiser (2005) nonetheless reinforced Mueller's argument by elaborating on it. Kaufmann wrote: "Whoever looks for the stereotype of the allegedly Hegelian dialectic in in Hegel’s Phenomenology will not find it. What one does find on looking at the table of contents is a very decided preference for triadic arrangements. . . . But these many triads are not presented or deduced by Hegel as so many theses, antitheses, and syntheses.”[35] Beiser wrote, "Hegel did praise 'the triadic form' that had been rediscovered by Kant, . . . but this is a reference to the triadic form of Kant's table of categories, not [to] a method of thesis-antithesis-synthesis."[36]

Other interpreters also endorsed Mueller’s argument. Writing in 2007, Verene was thus able to say, “No first-rate Hegel scholar speaks of Hegel having a dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”[37]

In 2012, however, a new interpretation challenged the idea that Hegel didn’t use dialectics. Referring to Kaufmann’s assertion that the triads in the table of contents of Phenomenology were nondialectical, Wheat argued at length that four of those triads concealed hidden dialectics. He also spelled out 24 other dialectics in Phenomenology and 10 more in The Philosophy of History–38 dialectics in all, not counting variants of many of these dialectics. Referring to Beiser’s assertion that Hegel was praising Kant’s dialectics, not his own, Wheat replied that Hegel clearly said Kant’s “triadic form” was “lifeless”; Hegel’s praise was for the “since then” (since Kant) dialects that Hegel had perfected into a new “Science.”[38]

Solomon (1983) provides some essential background information, even while accepting Mueller’s denial that Hegel uses dialectics. Solomon’s information explains why Hegel used subtle (hidden) dialectics to conceal an atheistic message. That message is, in essence, that God is humanity. (This is a redefinition of God, not an actual belief. It is comparable to the redefinition of God used by some pantheists–the ones who don’t understand the metaphysical subtleties of true pantheism and who therefore profess to believe that God is nature, a redefinition that defines the supernatural God of theism out of existence.) Solomon writes: “Hegel really did have a secret, and . . . it has been well kept. The secret, abruptly stated, is that Hegel was an atheist. His ‘Christianity’ is nothing but nominal, an elaborate subterfuge to protect his professional ambitions in the most religiously conservative country in northern Europe.”[39]

Pinkard explains the relevance of Hegel’s above-mentioned professional ambitions: “Hegel was desperate for a position [a professorship at the University of Jena], and to get a position, he needed a book.”[40] The book he was writing, the book that became Phenomenology, was a philosophical theology that guardedly endorsed atheism.

So Hegel needed to conceal his atheism (by using dialectics as a sort of code) in order to protect his professional ambitions. Solomon elaborates: “Hegel had seen Spinoza’s ‘’Ethics’‘ condemned in Germany. He had seen Kant, whom he considered to be unquestioningly orthodox, censured and censored by the narrow-minded regime of Frederick Wilhelm II. He had seen Fichte dismissed from the University of Jena [where Hegel was seeking a professorship] for views that were (incorrectly) considered atheistic.”[41]

To help conceal his atheism, Hegel invented a character he usually called Spirit but, solely for the purpose of misleading readers, sometimes called God. Hegel defined Spirit as “all reality.” Spirit had a physical side and a mental side. The physical side was every “object” in the universe, both natural and artificial: the sun, the moon, flowers, mice, humans, lakes, shirts, windows, plows, carts, and so on. Spirit’s mental side was the collective mind of humanity–not the transcendent supernatural mind of Christianity’s God. Kaufmann comments that Hegel’s description of Spirit “should have caused no misunderstanding, had it not been for Hegel’s occasional references to God.”[42] Findlay elaborates: “Hegel often speaks the language of a metaphysical theology, but such language, it is plain, is mere concession to the pictorial mode of religious expression. As a philosopher, Hegel believes in no God and no Absolute.”[43]

Spirit undergoes an extremely subtle three-stage “divine life”. This dialectical life is based on that of the God of the gospel of John. That God (unlike the God of the three synoptic gospels) “became flesh”, that is, incarnated himself as the God-man Jesus. Tillich writes, “Obviously, and it was so intended by Hegel, his dialectics are the religious symbols of estrangement and reconciliation conceptualized and reduced to empirical descriptions.”[44] John’s God passes through three stages that, as described by Tillich, display the theme of separation and return. Stage 1: God is one entity, residing in heaven. Stage 2: God separates from himself by coming to earth as the God-man Jesus while remaining behind in heaven. Stage 3: God-Jesus is crucified, then is resurrected, and returns to himself in heaven.

Hegel’s Spirit goes through the same three stages, separating from and returning to itself. Although Hegel wrote long before Darwin, he understood that the earth came into existence before man and other forms of life. Before Man arrives on the scene, Spirit had no mind, because Spirit’s only mind is the mind of man. Hegel therefore wrote, "After the creation of nature appears man."[45] Stage 1: Spirit is unconscious, because it has no mind. And because it has no mind with which to interpret the many objects that exist and that Spirit will later regard as separate and “alien,” Spirit is united as one entity. Stage 2: Man arrives, and Spirit acquires its Mind. Individual humans (Spirit’s Mind) see all sorts of “objects” that they perceive as separate, whereas the objects are really essentially themselves, Spirit. So Spirit becomes separated from itself through misinterpretation. Stage 3: The philosopher Hegel arrives on the scene and becomes part of Spirit’s Mind. He suddenly realizes–this is Spirit’s act of “self-realization”–that he and every other object in the universe (including other humans) are all Spirit. Spirit thus becomes reunited with itself.

This three stage procedure gives us Hegel’s basic dialectic and his basic (but not his only) dialectical format. Each stage of the typical Hegelian dialectic consists of two concepts. These concepts can usually be stated in one or two words. Each concept of the two-concept antithesis is the opposite of (not just different from) its thesis counterpart. The synthesis, a sort of compromise, borrows one concept from the thesis and one from the antithesis. In the overarching dialectic of Phenomenology, described above, the dialectic’s three stages are these:

  • Thesis: unconscious + unity
  • Antithesis: conscious + separation
  • Synthesis: conscious + unity

Note four things: First, each stage of the dialectic embodies two concepts. Second, the two antithesis concepts are the opposites of the two thesis concepts. Third, the synthesis borrows one concept from the thesis (the concept “unity”) and one from the antithesis (“conscious”). Fourth, the dialectic displays separation and return: it separates from and returns to unity.

In Hegel’s famous master-and-slave parable, a hidden dialectic follows the same pattern. Before encountering the master-to-be, the slave-to-be is potentially free but not actually so, for he has never been exposed to and has never blocked possible bondage. The master symbolizes God, the slave symbolizes man, and when the master becomes dependent on the slave the slave becomes the master, gaining “freedom”. The dialectic:

  • Thesis: potential + freedom
  • Antithesis: actual + bondage
  • Synthesis: actual + freedom

Kaufmann, as part of his attack on the belief that Hegel used dialectics, refutes the idea that a certain triad in The Philosophy of History contains a dialectic. The triad is (1) oriental despotism, where only the ruler, one person, is free, (2) Greco-Roman slavery, where some are free but not the slaves, and (3) the Germanic monarchy of Frederick William III (Hegel’s sponsor), where all are free. According to Kaufman, who is obviously correct, “nobody could possibly construe it [one-some-all] in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.”[46] But Wheat asserts that Kaufmann is misinterpreting the triad. Kaufmann misses the hidden two-concepts-per-stage dialectic.[47] The dialectic is this:

  • Thesis: one ruler + one territory
  • Antithesis: many rulers + many territories
  • Synthesis: one ruler + many territories.

The synthesis describes Hegel’s Prussian, the Prussian empire of Frederick William III, who had made Hegel official philosopher of the realm. The usual characteristics of a dialectic are present: (1) each stage has two concepts, (2) the two concepts of the antithesis are the opposites of the two concepts of the thesis, (3) the synthesis borrows one concept from the thesis (one ruler) and one from the antithesis (many territories), and (4) the dialectic separates from and returns to something in the thesis, namely, one ruler.

A few of Hegel’s dialectics use one concept per stage. The antithesis is overtly the opposite of the thesis. But the synthesis reveals that the antithesis is really the thesis in disguise. The disguise is revealed when God becomes man:

  • Thesis: God
  • Antithesis: man
  • Synthesis: God = man (Hegel’s Spirit is essentially humanity, disguised as God)

The above dialectic, like the earlier freedom dialectic, is hidden in Hegel’s master-and-slave parable. To repeat, the master is God, the slave is man, and God becomes man when the slave makes the master dependent on him and becomes the master himself.

It was pointed out above that, although Kaufmann argues that none of the triads in the table of contents of Phenomenology is a dialectic, four of those triads really are dialectics. The disguised man = God triad appears under table of contents heading VII, “Religion”. The three subheadings are (A) Natural Religion, (B) Religion in the Form of Art, and (C) The Revealed Religion. Here the thesis is “natural”. That means the antithesis must be the opposite of “natural”, which is “artificial”. Here is where Hegel gets subtle. Artificial means man-made rather than naturally occurring. All art is man-made, hence is artificial. So “art” is really a disguised way of delivering the antithesis concept: artificial. The synthesis, “The Revealed Religion”, is Hegel’s atheistic pseudoreligion: God = man. This is simply a variant of the preceding dialectic (see above). The dialectic subtly–ever so subtly–alludes to Hegel’s treating man as a natural (nonartificial) being and God as an artificial being, a product of the human imagination (“picture-thinking” in Hegel’s words). The dialectic:

  • Thesis: natural (man)
  • Antithesis: artificial (God)
  • Synthesis: natural = artificial (man = God)

Hegel often uses the terms “finite” and “infinite” to refer to man (human) and God (divine). Alluding to rather than openly referring to man and God is one of the ways Hegel conceals his atheistic message. But the message can be found: self-realization is the finite’s (man’s) ultimate realization that he is really the infinite (God). Tucker puts it this way: “Hegelianism . . . is a religion [‘The Revealed Religion’] of self-worship whose fundamental theme is given in Hegel’s image of the man who aspires to be God himself, who demands ‘something more, namely, infinity.’ The whole system is spun out of the formula concerning man’s self-elevation from finite to infinite life. The finite mind [man’s] is seen as aggrandizing itself to infinity, becoming universal [God’s] mind.” The result is “a picture of a self-glorifying humanity striving compulsively, and at the end successfully, to rise to divinity.” Tucker’s conclusion: “From the standpoint of the Hebraic-Christian theology, which places God above and beyond nature and history, this would of course have to be qualified as ‘atheism.’”[48]

The polarity of finite and infinite provides another one-concept-per-stage dialectic:

  • Thesis: finite (man)
  • Antithesis: infinite (God)
  • Synthesis: finite = infinite (man = God)

The term "negation of the negation" is often associated with Hegelian dialectics. Hegel actually uses the term only once. His actual phrasing is "thereby negate the negation".[49] The antithesis is the first negation. It negates the thesis. The synthesis is the second negation. It negates the first negation, the antithesis. So "negation of the negation" is simply an alternate way of saying "synthesis". "Negation of the negation" is really just one of many words and phrases Hegel uses to avoid saying "thesis", "antithesis", and "synthesis". Some other terms Hegel uses in place of "synthesis" are "synthetic unity of the first two propositions" (thesis and antithesis), "synthetic connection", "union", "unification", "third stage", "third attitude", "third realization", "third moment" (also just plain "moment"), "reconciling affirmation", "actual real essence", and "has got rid of the opposition between universal and particular".[50] These terms help Hegel conceal the fact that his writing contains hidden dialectics. At the same time, the terms help convey Hegel's hidden message of atheism to those who have caught on to what he is doing.

Marxist dialectics

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels proposed that G.F. Hegel had rendered philosophy too abstractly ideal:

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.[51]

In contradiction to Hegelian idealism, Karl Marx presented Dialectical materialism (Marxist dialectics):

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, Afterword, Second German Ed., Moscow, 1970, vol. 1, p. 29).

To understand concretely, not just abstractly, what Marx meant by “standing on its head,” one needs a concrete example of one of Marx’s dialectics. But first, a direct interpretation of “standing on its head” is needed. Hegel’s dialectics took place in the human mind, in the nonmaterial world of ideas. Marx’s dialectics took place in the realm of matter, in the material world of production and other economic activity. Matter (material) is the opposite of mind.

The example that follows shows that Marx, unlike Mueller, Kaufmann, Beiser, and some other Hegel interpreters, fully understood what a Hegelian dialectic is. And because he understood this, Marx affirmed rather than denied the existence of Hegelian dialectics. More specifically, Marx understood the two-concepts-per-stage process, described above under the “Hegelian dialectic” heading. He understood that each of the two antithesis concepts is the opposite of, not just something different from, its thesis counterpart. He also understood that the synthesis borrows one concept from the thesis and one from the antithesis. And he understood the Hegelian separation-and-return theme, wherein the dialectic separates from and returns to something in the thesis. All of these understandings demonstrate that Mueller, Verene, and others were wrong in denying that Hegel used thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics.

Marx’s most basic dialectic begins with a five-period outline of history. Marx and his colleague, Frederick Engels, divided history into these five periods:

  • Primitive communism (common ownership of property), or Gens (hunter-gatherer-fisher societies)
  • Slavery (Greece and Rome primarily)
  • Feudalism
  • Capitalism
  • Final communism (a return to common ownership), which will arrive in the future

But this is five stages, whereas a dialectic has only three. How do we get three stages out of five? Bober recognized that the three middle stages could be collapsed into one, because these three stages have four things in common: (1) private ownership of property, (2) class societies, (3) wealth, and (4) separation of the worker from his surplus production, or wealth. Bober concluded: “Primitive communism represents the thesis; the private property of slavery, feudalism, and capitalism is the antithesis; and the communism of the future will establish the communal property of the archaic days, but as a synthesis of a higher dimension.”[52]

Bober, however, failed to say what the three-period dialectic was. He was not aware of the Hegelian two-concepts-per-stage dialectic. And he presented additional descriptive material that pointed to numerous dialectics. It is nevertheless possible to reconstruct Marx’s basic dialectic. It is this:

  • Thesis: common ownership + poverty (primitive communism)
  • Antithesis: private ownership + wealth (slavery, feudalism, and capitalism)
  • Synthesis: common ownership + wealth (final communism)[53]

Here we see that Marx clearly understands the Hegelian formula. First, Marx uses two simple concepts (one or two words each) per stage. Second, the two antithesis concepts are the opposites of, not just different from, their thesis counterparts. Third, the synthesis takes one concept from the thesis (common ownership) and one from the antithesis (wealth). Fourth, the dialectic displays separation and return: man separates from and returns to communism.

Bober also observed that Marx referred to a shorter-time-span dialectic covering just the last three of the original five stages: “In Capital Marx depicts a dialectic formula on a reduced scale. The thesis is embodied in the latter [sic] middle ages, when the means of production were the private possession of the direct producers, the peasant who owned the land and the artisan who owned the tools. The negation of this thesis is . . . capitalism, which separated both the peasant and the laborer from the means of production. The negation of this negation will emerge when communism restores the productive property [tools] to the cooperative association of the workers.”[54] The following dialectic (not recognized by Bober) results:

  • Thesis: domestic production + worker ownership of tools and place (feudalism)
  • Antithesis: factory production + capitalist ownership of tools and place (capitalism)
  • Synthesis: factory production + worker ownership of tools and place (final communism)

Once again, the synthesis borrows one concept from the thesis (worker ownership of tools and place) and one from the antithesis (factory production). And, in line with the basic separation and return theme of all dialectics, this dialectic separates from and returns to worker ownership of tools and place.[55]

The first three periods of the original five also provide a reduced-scale dialectic. This dialectic again revolves around tool ownership. The dialectic:

  • Thesis: nonexploited workers + worker ownership of tools (Gens)
  • Antithesis: exploited workers + exploiter ownership of tools (slavery)
  • Synthesis: exploited workers + worker ownership of tools (feudalism)[56]

Marx again remains true to the Hegelian formula. The synthesis borrows one concept from the thesis (worker ownership of tools) and one from the antithesis (exploited workers). Likewise, separation and return is once more present: the dialectic separates from and returns to worker ownership of tools.

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.

What Marxist interpreters incorrectly considered to be Marx's 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.[57]

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.[58]

What is often presumed to be Marxist dialectics is exemplified in Das Kapital (Capital), which outlines two central theories: (i) surplus value and (ii) the materialist conception of history. This loose use of "Marxist dialectics" is not literally correct, but it does illustrate how the term "dialectics" has come to be associated with the whole of Marx's writing, whereas Marx's true Hegelian dialectics is found only in his discussion of the five stages of history. Marx explains his ideas this way:

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.[59]

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 "contradictions" between mental and manual labor, and between town and country. Hence, philosophic contradiction is central to Marx's thought — 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”.[60]

Lenin describes his supposedly 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.[60]

In practice, Marxist dialectics was frequently used as a tool of eristic and propaganda. In 1857 Marx explained that in a letter to Engels, commenting on his predictions published in New York Times:

It is possible that I could disgrace myself. But there's always a bit of Dialectic to help out. I have naturally expressed my statements so that I am also right if the opposite thing happens.[61]

Indian forms of dialectic

Indian continental debate: an intra- and inter-Dharmic dialectic

Anacker (2005: p. 20), in the introduction to his translation of seven works by the Buddhist monk Vasubandhu (fl. 4th century), a famed dialectician of the Gupta Empire, contextualizes the prestige of dialectic and cut-throat debate in classical India and makes references to the possibly apocryphal story of the banishment of Moheyan post-debate with Kamalaśīla (fl. 713–763):

Philosophical debating was in classical India often a spectator-sport, much as contests of poetry-improvisation were in Germany in its High Middle Ages, and as they still are in the Telugu country today. The king himself was often the judge at these debates, and loss to an opponent could have serious consequences. To take an atrociously extreme example, when the Tamil Śaivite Ñānasambandar Nāyanār defeated the Jain ācāryas in Madurai before the Pāṇḍya King Māravarman Avaniśūlāmani (620-645) this debate is said to have resulted in the impalement of 8000 Jains, an event still celebrated in the Mīnāksi Temple of Madurai today. Usually, the results were not so drastic; they could mean formal recognition by the defeated side of the superiority of the winning party, forced conversions, or, as in the case of the Council of Lhasa, which was conducted by Indians, banishment of the losers.[62]

Brahmin/Vedic/Hindu dialectic

While Western philosophy traces dialectics to ancient Greek thought of Socrates and Plato, the idea of tension between two opposing forces leading to synthesis is much older and present in Hindu Philosophy.[63] 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).

Jain dialectic

Further information: Jain philosophy, Anekantavada and Syadvada

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.[64][65] 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 the inherent limitations of being human. Only the Kevalis—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.[66] 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.[67]

Syādvāda is a theory of conditioned predication that provides an expression to anekānta by recommending that epithet Syād be attached to every expression.[68] 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.[69] Since it ensures that each statement is expressed from seven different conditional and relative view points or propositions, it is known as theory of conditioned predication. These seven propositions also known as saptabhangi are:[70]

  1. syād-asti: "in some ways it is"
  2. syād-nāsti: "in some ways it is not"
  3. syād-asti-nāsti: "in some ways it is and it is not"
  4. syād-asti-avaktavyaḥ: "in some ways it is and it is indescribable"
  5. syād-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ: "in some ways it is not and it is indescribable"
  6. syād-asti-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ: "in some ways it is, it is not and it is indescribable"
  7. syād-avaktavyaḥ: "in some ways it is indescribable"

Buddhist dialectic

Buddhism has developed sophisticated, and sometimes highly institutionalized traditions of dialectics during its long history. Nalanda University, and later the Gelugpa Buddhism of Tibet, are examples. The historical development and clarification of Buddhist doctrine and polemics, through dialectics and formal debate, is well documented. Buddhist doctrine was rigorously critiqued (though not ultimately refuted) in the 2nd century by Nagarjuna, whose uncompromisingly logical approach to the realisation of truth, became the basis for the development of a vital stream of Buddhist thought. This dialectical approach of Buddhism, to the elucidation and articulation of an account of the Cosmos as the truth it really is, became known as the Perfection of Wisdom and was later developed by other notable thinkers, such as Dignaga and Dharmakirti (between 500 and 700). The dialectical method of truth-seeking is evident throughout the traditions of Madhyamaka, Yogacara, and Tantric Buddhism. Trisong Detsen, and later Je Tsongkhapa, championed the value of dialectic and of formalised training in debate in Tibet.

Dialectical theology

Neo-orthodoxy, in Europe also known as theology of crisis and dialectical theology,[71][72] is an approach to theology in Protestantism that was developed in the aftermath of the First World War (1914–1918). It is characterized as a reaction against doctrines of 19th-century liberal theology and a more positive reevaluation of the teachings of the Reformation, much of which had been in decline (especially in western Europe) since the late 18th century.[73] It is primarily associated with two Swiss professors and pastors, Karl Barth[74] (1886–1968) and Emil Brunner (1899–1966),[71][72] even though Barth himself expressed his unease in the use of the term.[75]

Dialectical method and dualism

Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism.[76] For example, formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities, whilst monism finds each to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectical thinking rejects both views. The dialectical method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct. For example, the superposition principle of quantum physics can be explained using the dialectical 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 dialectical method, both have something in common, and understanding of the parts requires understanding their relationship with the whole system. The dialectical method thus views the whole of reality as an evolving process.


Some 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 20th-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, Charles Taylor) have ventured to bridge. While a number of thinkers historically within the Continental tradition have completely rejected the dialectic- notably Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

It is generally thought dialectics has become central certain parts of "Continental" philosophy (particularly those thinkers influenced by Hegel), while it plays no part in "Anglo-American" philosophy. In other words, on the continent of Europe, dialectics has entered intellectual culture as what might be called a legitimate part of thought and philosophy, whereas in America and Britain, the dialectic plays no discernible part in the intellectual culture, which instead tends toward positivism. A prime example of the European tradition is Jean-Paul 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 adopted here—'philosophy-becoming-the world'."[77]

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".[78] 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 that Hegel's thought (unjustly, in the view of some philosophers, such as Walter Kaufmann,[79]) 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".[80]


In the past few decades, European and American logicians have attempted to provide mathematical foundations for dialectical logic or argument. There had been pre-formal treatises on argument and dialectic, from authors such as Stephen Toulmin (The Uses of Argument), Nicholas Rescher (Dialectics), and van Eemeren and Grootendorst (Pragma-dialectics). One can include the communities of informal logic and paraconsistent logic. However, building on theories of defeasible reasoning (see John L. Pollock), systems have been built that define well-formedness of arguments, rules governing the process of introducing arguments based on fixed assumptions, and rules for shifting burden. Many of these logics appear in the special area of artificial intelligence and law, though the computer scientists' interest in formalizing dialectic originates in a desire to build decision support and computer-supported collaborative work systems.[81]

See also

Philosophy portal
Thinking portal


Further reading

  • McKeon, R. (1954) "Dialectic and Political Thought and Action." Ethics 65, No. 1: 1-33.
  • Postan, M. (1962) "Function and Dialectic in Economic History," The Economic History Review, No. 3.
  • Biel, R. and Mu-Jeong Kho (2009) "The Issue of Energy within a Dialectical Approach to the Regulationist Problematique," Recherches & Régulation Working Papers, RR Série ID 2009-1, Association Recherche & Régulation: 1-21.

External links

  • Bertell Ollman Writings on Dialectics: Dialectics.Net
  • Dialectical Social Science
  • Dialectics for Kids