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Summary Article: Dialectic(s)
from Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought

Dialectic(s) (ancient Greek dialektikē) is a form of argument or type of philosophy with roots going back to ancient Greece and that has been particularly influential in Hegelian and Marxist thought.

The term is used in a variety of ways. In the early (Socratic) dialogues of Plato, it describes a form of argument in which truth emerges from the clash of contradictory viewpoints. The term was reintroduced into modern philosophy by Immanuel Kant for whom it signified “the logic of illusion” by which contradictions arise when reason tries to go beyond the bounds of experience. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, by contrast, regards dialectic as an inherent feature of rational thought. The contradictions that arise within Kantian and other nondialectical forms of philosophy point toward a deeper truth. This outlook is most systematically presented in Hegel's (1969) Science of Logic. This is not a work of formal logic; it is a logic of categories, a work of ontology and metaphysics. Its most important tenets are that all concrete and determinate things are in relation and interaction with other things, that they contain contradictions and, as a result, are in a process of change and development.

Hegel uses this philosophy to comprehend concrete and specific aspects of human life, including society and its development. It implies that all phenomena must be understood in their interrelations and in their becoming and change, in terms of the contradictory aspects or forces that are at work within them. This basis has been a particularly fruitful for the understanding of social life, politics, and history. For Hegel, all human phenomena are historical and must be understood in their development. Historical change is not arbitrary or contingent; it is lawlike and rational in its course. It is a progressive process that moves through a series of stages toward an end: the realization of spirit (Geist), freedom, and human self-consciousness.

Karl Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel's philosophy. His theory of history—historical materialism—shares many of Hegel's ideas. Marx, too, sees human reality as essentially dialectical and historical. Moreover, he sees its development as a rational and progressive process that proceeds through a series of stages. However, Marx rejects Hegel's philosophical idealism. Instead of seeing history as spiritual and teleological, he insists that material and economic influences are primary. The conflicting forces in terms of which historical development must be understood are, for Marx, the economic forces and relations of production. These manifest themselves socially and politically as struggles between social classes, and this drives society forward.

All hitherto existing societies have been made up of conflicting classes (except perhaps the earliest and simplest societies). Each stage, or mode of production, is characterized by different classes in opposition. For the most part, historical change is gradual, but it is also punctuated at times by revolutionary upheavals. For Marx, history is a materially progressive process. The present stage, capitalism, will ultimately be superseded by socialism and communism in which class divisions will supposedly be eliminated.

Marx wrote little about his philosophical approach. It was left to Friedrich Engels to spell it out in a number of works published after Marx's death (Anti-Dühring, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Dialectics of Nature). Engels specifies three laws of dialectic: unity of opposites, transition of quantity into quality, and negation of the negation. These are often criticized for reducing dialectic to simplistic formulae. Engels also treats dialectic as a universal philosophy that applies not only to the human world but also to nature. In this he is following Hegel, who also treats dialectic as a universal logic applicable to all concrete things. Many of the leading figures of orthodox Marxism (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Mao Zedong) have followed Engels in this respect. However, the idea of a dialectic of nature has given rise to much controversy. Many other Marxists have argued that dialectical development occurs only in human and historical phenomena (György Lukács, Jean-Paul Sartre). In recent years, a school of analytical Marxism has attempted to interpret Marxism without any reference to Hegelian and dialectical ideas, but it is doubtful that Marx's ideas can be grasped satisfactorily in these terms.

See also Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Marx, Karl; Political Philosophy and Political Thought

Further Readings
  • Engels, Friedrich. 1940. Dialectics of Nature. International Publishers New York.
  • Engels, Friedrich. 1976. Anti-Dühring. Foreign Languages Press Peking.
  • Engels, Friedrich. 2001. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Electric Book London.
  • Hegel, G. W. F. 1969. Science of Logic. Allen and Unwin London.
  • Hegel, G. W. F. 1988. Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Hackett Indianapolis, IN.
  • Marx, Karl. 1971. “Introduction.” In A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. Progress Moscow.
  • Norman, Richard; Sean, Sayers. 1980. Hegel, Marx and Dialectic. Harvester Press Brighton, UK.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1968. “Materialism and Revolution.” In Literary and Philosophical Essays. Hutchinson London.
  • Sean Sayers
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