15 March 2016

Dialectics Explained Simply


In Marxism the concept of dialectics is often complicated and mystified. It needs stating simply.

Dialectical theory describes and explains the development of systems which exist in the world. Here I will try to explain dialectics as a conceptual tool for understanding society.

What society is: a sketch map

To start, we have to answer another question: what is society? For Marxists – and indeed most other sociologists – society is conceived as a system made up of a complex network of interactive causes and effects. A change in any one element in the social system affects the others. For instance, a rise in unemployment causes an increase crime, which in turn changes the role of police, which has further effects, and so on.

If society is thought of as containing all the causes of change in society, then it follows that change originates from within the social system itself. In other words, at any given point, society contains within itself tensions and pressures (often called contradictions) which are the cause of social change. And when a new situation has established itself, there are yet again new tensions and pressures which lead to further social change, and so on.

A metaphor for understanding all of this is to see society as a huge piece of fungus, constantly changing over time because of developments from within.

Dialectics

The traditional explanation of dialectical change (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) is only a linguistic re-organisation of the points above. The argument is like this. Everything in a social system at any point in time is either a something (i.e. a thesis) or not that thing (i.e. its antitheses). As a result of the interaction of thesis and antithesis a new situation in society (i.e. synthesis) emerges for which the original thesis and antithesis have interacted and merged.

I think, however, that the theory of dialectics is better thought of as a summary or abstraction of the rules for understanding change in a social system. Dialectical analysis identifies pairs of social elements which co-exist, are dependent on one another and which interact with each other. Let us take an example.

Human beings and nature. We can clearly conceptualise everything that exists as either human beings or as nature minus human beings. We cannot imagine society without people, nor could we have a society without things (food, cupboards, water, etc). Nature affects us and we affect nature through building dams, houses, etc. Thus, it is said that the relationship between human beings and nature is dialectical.

Marxists in their analysis do not identify dialectical pairs (i.e. theses and antitheses) on an arbitrary basis, nor do they see the direction of historical change as entirely arbitrary or accidental, but what drives history forward is beyond the scope of this discussion.

To sum up, a dialectical analysis of society recognises that social change comes from tensions or pressures within the existing state of things. And when a new state of affairs has been created, then that too is subject to change for the same reason. When explained like this, dialectical theory can be seen as something which is almost certainly correct, but if not linked to other theories and observations, it is not very revealing.

Why dialectics is a dirty word

The theory of dialectics provides a number of valuable observations about the functioning of a any living system - be it the social system, or of the cosmos itself. But during the years of historical communism 1917-89, and particularly during the years of Joseph Stalin’s rule from the end of the 1920s till his death in 1953, dialectics was misused to explain and justify the decisions and dogmas of the Communist Parties in the World. After that the dialectical baby was thrown out with the Stalinist bathwater and people were reluctant to use the term.

In many instances, to avoid summoning up prejudice unnecessarily, the use of the term interaction will effectively substitute for dialectical; and, in addition, it is more easily understood. Of course they are not quite the same: dialectics implies a whole theory, whereas interaction merely means that X affects Y and vice versa.

14 comments:

Miguel said...

Here's another try at explaining dialectics simply.

Dialectics is the name of an advanced kind of thinking.

It is a kind of thinking that goes beyond the EITHER/OR absolute rigidity [never BOTH/AND] of formal-logic thinking.

Dialectics is a kind of thinking that the plurality of humanity will need to master before becoming capable of advancing from the state-capitalist, totalitarian, humanocidal dictatorship into which capitalisms converge, to equitarian political-economic democracy -- i.e., if humanity is to, first, survive, and then to thrive.

Call dialectic the kind of thinking that emerges in "the dialectical operations stage of adult human cognitive development", after the "formal operations stage of adult cognitive development" is surpassed.


The best way to briefly express the core principle of dialectic is via the Seldonian -- purely qualitative -- category notation.


A kind of thing category, call it "a", interacts with itself, or 'intra-acts', because of its internal strife -- in the internal mind, or in the external world, or in both.

[using "a^2" to stand for " acts on a", "a interacts with a", "a squared", "a in the 2nd degree", "a times itself", or "a OF a"] --

a^2 = a x a = a + b

-- where "b" names a 'contra-category' to category "a".

The self-negation of "a", modeled by its self-multiplication, produces "a" again, but also produces its opposite ["a", "plus" its opposite, "b", like apples "plus" oranges].

For example, "a" might stand for the "primitive communal" kind of society, with which humanity began.

Then, "b" might stand for its historical successor and opposite kind of society, class self-divided society.

The "formal operations stage of adult cognitive development" stops its kind of thinking with the "eternal" opposition of a and b, and demands the complete dominance of one, and the complete obliteration of the other.

But the "dialectical operations stage" thought-process expects to see negation again of that first negation --

a^3 = a x ( a x a) = a x (a + b) = a + b + C(a,b)

-- where C(a,b) stands for the combination, "complex unity", or "dialectical synthesis" of the erstwhile opposites a and b.


Note: This "category combinatorics" can continue beyond the third term, C(a,b).


But the simplest "image" of dialectics I know of is:

a ---> a(a(a)) = ~(~(a)) = a + b + C(a,b).

Ben Aldin said...

Thank you for your contribution.

There is much of interest in what you write, though I doubt whether a beginner coming to subject for the first time would be able to understand much of what you have written. I prefer to keep explanations as simple as possible.

Just one comment on the content of your contribution: You locate dialectics in thought – i.e. in concepts. That is undoubtedly correct, but I would say that the external world – or what one can call things-in-themselves – also have a dialectical character. And it is simpler to start with explaining the characteristics of “what is” before considering how we know that which is.

Miguel said...

Ben,

Thank you for your substantive feedback!!

I think that you are right -- my "simple explanation" of dialectics would only work for beginners who have familiarity with abstract algebras, or, at least, who are not intimidated by formulas, as so many are today.

I also agree with you that the dialectic pattern applies not only to movements of human thought, but to movements in the objective world of pre-human/extra-human nature as well.

I erred in not writing this viewpoint, which I share with you, into my explanation more clearly.

My seventh sentence should have read something more like:

"The reality that we represent by a kind-of-thing category, call it "a", interacts with itself, or 'intra-acts', because of its internal strife -- in the internal mind, or in the external world, or in both concurrently, and the same, generic category-notation can capture the dynamics for both idea-objects-only categories, and for categories of physical things."

In any case, the Seldonians, avoiding this mistake, have applied this category-notation to formulate dialectical models -- e.g., of the historical evolution of the social forces of production, of the historical evolution of the social relations of production, and of the historical evolution of human-social formations -- models that consist of MANY more than three categories in series.

Given that you are clearly NOT a beginner in the subject of dialectics, you might enjoy all seven of the Seldonians' "psychohistorical dialectical equations", including the three that I just mentioned --

http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Welcome.html

http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Aoristoss_Blog/Entries/2012/5/19_The_F.E.D._Psychohistorical_Equations.html



Regards,

Miguel

sailee ghorpade said...

i find your notes simple and easy to understand . i am a first year law student . please can you help me in explaining what is maxism theory of class struggle, dictatorship of proletariat state by karl marx . i find it confusing.
actually i have exam on tuesday
so please help me

Ben Aldin said...

Hi,

If you are a law student, I imagine that you only have to know about social theory in outline.

For a general overview of Marxism see:

http://benaldin.blogspot.hu/2011/10/historical-materialism-short-working.html

In a word, the Marxist theory of class struggle is the idea that in modern developed society there are two main classes: the capitalists (or bourgeoisie) who own money and business, and the proletariat (i.e. ordinary working people) who live on wages by selling their labour time to the capitalists. The theory of class struggle is that the interests of the capitalists and proletarians are contradictory, so there is political, social and economic struggle between the two classes.

But there is plenty of stuff on the net for you to consult: just Google the terms, or go to Wikipedia.

Good luck in your test.

Ben

Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis is in fact Fichte's method, not Hegel's:

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/Thesis_Anti-Thesis_Synthesis.htm

Independently of this, I have completely demolished this theory from a Marxist angle, including the a priori dogmatics evidenced by Miguel's contributions to this page, here:

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm



Ben Aldin said...

Yes, the triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is from Fichte. Even if these terms are unhelpful and confuse the concept, the terminology remains in nearly every explanation of dialectics, thanks to the work of Engels and his successors. What I have done in my contribution is to give a pencil sketch of dialectics first and then try to relate that sketch to the triad of terms.

Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Ok, fair enough, but you perhaps need to read these comments from Hegel expert, Terry Pinkard:

"This myth was started by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus. It appears in a history he wrote of recent German philosophy (published in the 1840s), in which he said, roughly, that Fichte's philosophy followed the model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, but Hegel went further and cosmologized that notion, extending it to the entire universe. The book was widely read (apparently the young Marx was one of its readers), and the idea stuck. It's still touted in a lot of short encyclopedia entries about Hegel. Like many little encapsulations of thought, it has the virtue of being easy to understand and easy to summarize. It's just not very helpful in understanding Hegel's thought. It has also contributed to the lack of appreciation of Hegel in Anglophone philosophy. It's not too hard to point out all the places where it doesn't apply, dismiss it as a kind of dialectical trick, and then just go on to conclude that Hegel isn't worth reading at all.

"Both ideas (Hegel as cosmological idealist, Hegel as seeing the development of this Great Mind as progressing from thesis to antithesis to synthesis) represent a falsification of Hegel's thought, and their ongoing popularity surely has to do with their sound bite quality. You can sum up Hegel quickly, get the impression you understand him, and also dismiss him just as quickly. Looking at the real Hegel is harder but more rewarding...."

Moreover, both Lenin and Plekhanov criticised this triad for its misrepresentation of Hegel.

Max Alexandrin said...

Dear Ben Aldin,

Thank you for your comprehensive and easy-to-read explanation. I've stumbled upon your blog due to my dealing with Dominick LaCapra's book "Writing History, Writing Trauma" in which he states:

„And, especially in poststructuralism and deconstruction, there has been a tendency to conflate perfomativity with variants of acting-out and even to celebrate excess, transgression, unreadability, simulated madness, or the repetition compulsion as forces that disrupt and disorient dialectical totalization.“

In the remainder of his book LaCapra continuously criticizes the "conflation" of history/culture and trauma and thus also views it as a negative aspect in terms of performativity.
Now, since LaCapra wrote various texts treating Sartre's works, I assume that with "dialectical totalization" he refers to Sartre's concept of dialectical and anti-dialectical totalisation but I can't quite grasp the meaning of it despite understanding the notion of "totalization" - I suppose the somewhat ambiguous meaning of "dialectical" hinders my thought processes. So I kindly ask for your feedback.

Best regards,

Max

Max Alexandrin said...

PS: What might help help are these statements which directly follow the ones stated above:

"Those taking this tack touch on some real problems that should not be avoided, including the questionable dimensions of the attempt to totalize. But these problems should be situated in the more general context of the interaction between excess and limits, including the problem of meaning and the forces that exceed, undercut, or question it - both blocking absolute or totalizing closure and stimulating quests for viable articulations and institutional changes in the broader framework of an open dialectic or dialogic relation of contending forces."

Here the use of "dialogic" almost seems syonymous to "dialectic" which makes LaCapras intimations a tad more confusing. In this 2014 preface to his book he does apply quite general terms to discuss larg-scale issues treated in his previously published book.

Ben Aldin said...

Dear Max,

Thank you for your comments, but I don’t think I can help you very much. I am not familiar with the book you cite, and in the two passages you quote there are too many terms I simply don’t understand. Understanding the terminology is a prerequisite for understanding the text. Non comprehensible terms and phrases (for me) in bold:

“And, especially in poststructuralism and deconstruction, there has been a tendency to conflate perfomativity with variants of acting-out and even to celebrate excess, transgression, unreadability, simulated madness, or the repetition compulsion as forces that disrupt and disorient dialectical totalization.“ (The whole sentence is meaningless to me)

"Those taking this tack touch on some real problems that should not be avoided, including the questionable dimensions of the attempt to totalize. But these problems should be situated in the more general context of the interaction between excess and limits, including the problem of meaning and the forces that exceed, undercut, or question it - both blocking absolute or totalizing closure and stimulating quests for viable articulations and institutional changes in the broader framework of an open dialectic or dialogic relation of contending forces."

I believe there is a duty on writers to write clearly, and this seems to be lacking in this particular author.

Max Alexandrin said...

Dear Ben,

That's no problem - I absolutely concur and thank you for your time. The remaining text in that preface does not really become much more explicit except for a few (also quite general) examples given.

Paul O'Doherty said...

......Bravo..you are indeed a smart person...but the beginner like me is lost from the start

Adam Spencer said...

Paul's unfortunate position of being lost and Ben's call for clear writing presents an interesting pedagogical debate. What form of writing is considered to be 'clear' what should be assumed of the reader.