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For other uses, see Dialect (disambiguation).

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method), from Ancient Greek διαλεκτική, 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.[citation needed]

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 the Indosphere (Greater India) and the West (Europe). These forms include the Socratic method, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian dialectics, 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.

According to the University of Chicago, dialectic can be defined as a, "mode of thought, or a philosophic medium, through which contradiction becomes a starting point (rather than a dead end) for contemplation"[18] Socrates proposed this form of dialectic through a Socratic method termed elenchus. To achieve the ultimate truth of opinions, hence dialectic, Socrates refuted propositions by proving his own statements true. In common cases, Socrates used enthymemes as the foundation of his argument. Discourse was applied to guide his reasoned arguments until the interlocutors had no other choice but to agree with him, conclusively contradicting their original theses. Therefore, Socrates, in result, would have reached ultimate truth.

For example, dialectic occurs between Socrates, the Sophist, Gorgias, and two men, Polus and Callicles in Plato's Gorgias. Because Socrates' ultimate goal was to reach true knowledge, he was even willing to change his own views in order to arrive at the truth. The fundamental goal of dialectic, in this instance, was to establish a precise definition of the subject (in this case, rhetoric) and with the use of argumentation and questioning, make the subject even more precise. In the Gorgias, Socrates reaches the truth by asking a series of questions and in return, receiving short, clear answers.

Socrates asks Gorgias if he who has learned carpentering is a carpenter, and if he who has learned music is a musician, and if he who has learned medicine is a physician, and so forth. Gorgias one way or another replies "yes," to all of these questions. Socrates then continues by asking Gorgias if he believes that a just man will always desire to do what is just and never intend to do injustice. Yet again, Gorgias replies, "yes." Socrates then brings up the fact that earlier in their conversation Gorgias stated that rhetoricians are just men. Gorgias agrees. In return, Socrates contradicts Gorgias' statements, because Gorgias had implied that if a rhetorician uses rhetoric for injustices, the teacher should not be at fault. If this were to occur, then a rhetorician would in fact not be a just man. Socrates discovered the inconsistency in Gorgias' statements and ends the excerpt by stating "there will be a great deal of discussion, before we get at the truth of all this."

This example demonstrates how dialectic is used as a method to maneuver people into contradicting their own theses. Reasoned argumentative discourse furthers the establishment of the truth. Dialectic, dissimilar to debates, naturally comes to an end. The ultimate truth will be arrived at and contradiction diminished.

There is another interpretation of the dialectic, as a method of intuition suggested in The Republic.[19] 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".[20]

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.[21][22][23][24]

Based mainly on Aristotle, the first medieval philosopher to work on dialectics was Boethius.[25] After him, many scholastic philosophers also made use of dialectics in their works, such as Abelard,[26] William of Sherwood,[27] Garlandus Compotista,[28] Walter Burley, Roger Swyneshed and William of Ockham.[29]

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).[30][31] 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 what they claimed to be a non-idealist manner. It would also become a crucial part of later representations of Marxism as a philosophy of dialectical materialism. These representations often contrasted dramatically[32] and led to vigorous debate among different Marxist groupings (leading some prominent Marxists to give up on the idea of dialectics completely)[33] 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 dialectic