Broadly speaking, a dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική) is an exchange of propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses) resulting in a disagreement. The aim of the dialectical method is to try to resolve the disagreement through rational discussion. One way -- 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. Another way of trying to resolve a disagreement is by denying some presupposition of the contending thesis and antithesis; thus moving to a third thesis.
Musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnick gives the following example: "A question posed by Fred Friendly on a PBS program entitled 'Hard Drugs, Hard Choices: The Crisis Beyond Our Borders,' illustrates that others, too, seem to find this dynamic enlightening: 'Are our lives so barren because we use drugs? Or do we use drugs because our lives are so barren?' (The program aired on WNET, Channel 13, in the New York area, February 26, 1990.) The question is dialectical to the extent that it enables one to grasp the two opposed priorities as simultaneously valid."
When using the word "dialectic" philosophers usually refer to discussion or dialogue, generally; or specifically to either the Socratic dialectical method of cross-examination, or to Hegel's dialectical model of history. "Dialectics" can also refer to an understanding of how we can or should perceive the world (epistemology), an assertion of the interconnected, contradictory, and dynamic nature of the world outside our perception of it (ontology), or a method of presentation of ideas or conclusions (most famously in Karl Marx's Das Kapital, volume I).
In Plato's dialogues, Socrates typically "argues" by means of cross-examining someone else's assertions in order to draw out the inherent contradictions within the other's position. 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 points out, the gods are quarrelsome and their quarrels, like human quarrels, concern objects of love or hatred. Euthyphro consents that this is the case. Therefore, Socrates reasons, at least one thing exists which certain gods love but other gods hate. Again, Euthyphro consents. Socrates concludes that if Euthyphro's definition of piety is true, 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. This is also known as Socratic irony.
Although Hegel never used such a classification himself, Hegel's dialectic is often described as consisting of three stages: a thesis, an antithesis which contradicts or negates the thesis, and a synthesis embodying what is essential to each.
In the Logic, for instance, Hegel describes a dialectic of existence: first, existence must be posited as pure Being (thesis); but pure Being, upon examination, is found to be indistinguishable from Nothing (antithesis); yet both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming (synthesis), when it is realized that what is coming into being is, at the same time, also returning to nothing (consider life: old organisms die as new organisms are created or born).
It was claimed that like Socratic dialectic, Hegel's dialectic proceeds 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 western history is one tremendous dialectic, the largest moments 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 could not be rigorously applied or defended: for any chosen thesis, the selection of any antithesis, other than the logical negation of the thesis was subjective. If the logical negation were used as the antithesis, there was no rigorous way to derive a synthesis. As applied in practice, where an antithesis was selected to suit the users subjective purpose, the resulting "contradictions" were rhetorical, not logical and the resulting synthesis was not rigorously defensible against a multitude of other possible syntheses.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed Hegel was "standing on his head", and claimed to put him back on his feet, ridding Hegel's logic of its idealist orientation, and conceiving what is now known as materialist or Marxist dialectics. The dialectical approach to the study of history then gave rise to historical materialism, the school of thought exemplified by the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. (Marx himself never referred to "historical materialism.") Dialectical method 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...
In their book, 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 would not reject this picture as much as look for ways in which the competing creatures lead to changes in the environment, as when the action of microbes encourages the erosion of rocks. Further, each species is part of the "environment" of all of the others.
See also: Dialectician
- Subotnick, Rose Rosengard (1991). Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816618739.