Dialectics (also referred to as the “dialectical method”) is a form of logical study that explores the relationship between two opposing viewpoints and how they resolve themselves in reaching a conclusion. In broad form, it explores the formulation of and relationship between the argument or “thesis”, the counterargument or “antithesis”, and the conclusion or “synthesis.” The structure of thesis / antithesis / synthesis has been studied and used by philosophers of various fields for centuries.
In classical philosophy, the Socratic Method is an excellent example of dialectics. Socrates and his followers believed that a “truer” state of knowledge could be reached through rigorous inquiry that would expose false beliefs and necessitate revisionary thinking. The mode of inquiry is often presented as a dialogue between two sides—hence it is dialectic. The Socratic Method is also a destructive approach—it does not seek to make truthful assertions but instead aims to eliminate untrue assertions.
In modern philosophy, a new way of approaching dialectics was expounded by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and is now known as Hegelian dialectics. In Hegelian dialectics, instead of viewing contradictions as evidence of falsity, contradictions are embraced as instrumental to the “whole.” That is, in Hegelian dialectics, it is not an “either or” scenario with the thesis and antithesis. The point is in how the two interact, almost as a “living” synthesis. In Hegelianism, the word Aufhebung sums up this relationship. Aufhebung does not have a direct English translation, although the term “sublation” is sometimes used interchangeably. Aufhebung is a German word that at once means “to overcome” and “to preserve.” In addition to Aufehbung, the concept of “totality” is a key feature of Hegelian dialectics. Totality is the all-encompassing whole, which for Hegel is the “truth.” Anything partial is partially untrue, and totality is that ultimate zero-sum moment where there is a perfect understanding of how each moment of thesis and antithesis simultaneously validates and negates the other.
Because Hegelian dialectics is complex and difficult to digest through rhetoric alone, we can look to a theoretical and practical example of two opposing concepts, “cause” and “effect.” While traditional thinking maintains separation between the two as independent concepts, Hegelian dialectics delves into how in their interaction, “effect” also acts as “cause” and vice versa. A “cause” is void of meaning by itself and is determined by the nature of its own “effect”, by which “effect” therefore plays a causal role in the relationship, and by which consequently “cause” can also be seen as an effect. This reasoning can become circular very quickly, but instead of spiraling into a nihilistic end, Hegelian dialectics incorporates the idea of Aufhebung to elevate the arc of reasoning to a level of totality. This is better illustrated through a concrete example. “Rain” can be understood as the cause for something being “wet.” Wet is the effect that rain imposes. In that moment when rain makes something wet, however, rain loses its form to becoming its effect: wetness. Since wetness cannot be isolated in this example without acknowledging that it is also rain, we require a greater understanding: that “rain” and “wet” in this example are the “self-same existing water.”
Hegelian dialectics has widespread influence, notably on Marxist dialectics and historical materialism. One point of contention from its critics is how/whether the practice of Hegelian dialectics gave rise to the waves of fascism that spread through Europe and abroad in the twentieth century.
Given that I have only brushed the surface of Hegelian dialectics and that it resembles a “grammar” of thinking more closely than it does methodology, I will revisit this subject in greater depth at a later date. My own philosophical disposition is rather attracted to the concepts of Aufhebung and totality, so exploring in further detail Hegel, his supporters, and his critics will be important to my future developments in political philosophy.