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What Is Dialectic?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A dialectic is a path to understanding, achieved through reasoned dialogue and the art of logical discussion. It shares many features with, but is distinct from, rhetoric and debate. Also known as dialectics or the dialectical method, the idea of the dialectic was first developed in Ancient Greece and India, and has been developed since philosophers the world over.

The purpose of the dialectic is to find the truth. Key features of this quest include the participants being of equal status to one another. When discussing the topic in question, participants refrain from persuasion and concentrate of truth seeking. This requires participants to perform critical reflection — in other words, to be judgmental of their own opinions — and it is necessary for them to be flexible and able to change those opinions.

Socrates and Plato defined the Socratic Method of dialectics, which is one of the older dialectical methods. This method tests belief through questions. Any discussion begins with asking a person about his or her beliefs or by stating a commonly held belief. It then asks the participants questions about the beliefs. Some believe the objective is to disprove the belief or idea, but in actual fact the Socratic Method is designed to examine the structure and reason behind a belief or idea.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is credited with creating the Hegelian dialectic, although it was actually Immanuel Kant who developed it. In this method, the idea is proposed as a thesis, which is then examined through its paradox or opposite, the antithesis. From these two ideas emerges the truth, which is the synthesis.

The idea of the synthesis suggests the possibility of a compromise between ideas. This fits with the idea of dialectal flexibility. It also implies that the truth can only be known if the opposite notion is also examined. For example, global warming can only be tested if its absence is also tested. The creation of a synthesis is not the end of the process because each synthesis becomes a new thesis, creating a developmental spiral.

Hegelian dialectics sought to reflect the real world through the discussion of ideas. Marxist dialectics, on the other hand, tried to show how the real world shaped the world of ideas in the mind. Developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the method has also been called diamat or dialectal materialism because the debate is shaped by the interaction of classes and practical economics in the real world. In this form of dialectic, a thesis is formed, but its flaws not its antithesis is what causes the thesis to change into a new thesis.

One important difference between Western and Indian dialectics is the presence of doubt. Jain dialectics take into account the possibility that the truth may be unknowable, and it also realizes that the truth may be impossible to describe. This notion of uncertainty is called syadvad.

Indian dialectics are much closer to the Hegelian version of dialectics than the Socratic, but there are differences. Dharmic or Indian dialectics are built on polemics, a type of argument, rather than paradoxes. Polemical dialectics are also a key part of Buddhist dialectics where the thesis is challenged and dissected, but is never out rightly rejected.

The presence of polemics puts Indian dialectics closer to debate. Debates share many methods of the dialectic, but are fundamentally different. In the debate, a participant seeks to convince others of his or her view. This means participants cannot change their position once the debate has begun. Unlike debates, the dialectic does not require a judge or jury to make an ultimate decision.

Dialectics share elements with rhetoric as well. In rhetoric, one person is trying to convince passive listeners of his or her idea and there is no counter argument. The dialectic can be more widely applied to intellectual and practical inquiries than rhetoric, and it can be broken down into questions and answers to make it more participatory. The dialectic also uses sentences that can be scientifically verified, while sentences and ideas in rhetoric are approved or disapproved by public reaction instead.

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Discussion Comments

By anon347102 — On Sep 03, 2013

Doesn't scientific experimentation and observation give examples of ideas that are stated and then refuted with modifications being accepted? And then the newer hypotheses are accepted and then refuted and new hypotheses are stated?

For me, the ability to pose ideas as thoughtful offerings subject to change and subject to thoughtful criticism of good will is a wonderful thing.

In the world of ideas, it is much more difficult to see examples of dialectic because ideas cannot be tested as can scientific hypotheses. This is not a very thoughtful statement and I invite thoughtful criticism. I hope this isn't too "cute". I don't have the time to make this a really good statement and I feel sorry for that.

By Dumitru — On Apr 21, 2013

Can you give an actual example from the real world where there was a thesis and antithesis that became a synthesis which then became a new thesis, and then what the new antithesis was to that and what new synthesis emerged from those, and then what the new antithesis was to that and what new synthesis emerged from those?

This has been touted as an infinite process, but I haven't yet found any example that can describe an actual example of this process going through even three of four cycles. Can you, or is this just empty theorizing?

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