Dialectics: Guardian of Logic (1998)

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Dialectics: Guardian of Logic

by Roger E. Bissell

March 1998

In exploring Chris Sciabarra's arguments about the nature of dialectics, most people by now are catching on to the fact that its essential characteristic is contextuality and that it requires what may be called "perspectival thinking." In other words, in order not to overlook any important facets of our object of concern, we should take care to look at it from every angle and gather all the data we can, so as to give ourselves a higher likelihood of reaching a good conclusion.

Indeed, it does. But rather than putting dialectics on the soundest possible philosophical footing, some people seem to think that this reduces dialectical thinking to triviality--or, as one person called it, "an unenlightening equivalent of good thinking," invoking "Rand's Question" because he cannot see "the fact of reality that gives rise to the need for the concept of 'dialectics'."

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to cut through this confusion is to draw the parallel between dialectics and logic. Leonard Peikoff says that "...the same methodology--the avoidance of contradiction-- is at the heart of every process of logic..." (Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 119). We could easily say that the basic injunction to "avoid contradiction" is just as unenlightening as "avoid context- dropping." Logic is tarred by the same brush!

What is the fact of reality that gives rise to the need for logic? Just engage in "good thinking" and you can forget about logic. Oh, you can't engage in good (non-contradictory) thinking without at least implicitly using the principles of logic? Well, then, by the same token, how can you engage in good (non-context-dropping) thinking without at least implicitly using the principles of dialectics?

Seriously, as Chris has already made amply clear, the method of dialectics reflects the nature and needs of human consciousness every bit as much as logic does--and it also reflects the facts of external reality just as logic does. And just as the discipline of logic develops and employs numerous concepts to help one to avoid contradiction in specific situations, so too does the discipline of dialectics develop and employ numerous concepts to help one to avoid context-dropping. So there is a seamless connection between metaphysics, epistemology, and methodology, both for logic and dialectics.

But I'll go further: without dialectics, logic is in peril! Without the means (concepts, principles) to guide one in maintaining context --especially in complicated situations or fields of study--it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to keep one's thought process connected to reality. And as Peikoff aptly states: "If one drops context, one drops the means of distinguishing between truth and fantasy; anyone can then claim to prove anything, however absurd..." (ibid., p. 124). Without dialectics, whence logic?

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  • 4 weeks later...

I recently listened to a lecture by Greg Salmieri called "The Hierarchy of Knowledge", from the 2005 ARI Summer Conference. In this lecture, Salmieri uses the D-word: dialectic. [in what follows, I will be paraphrasing Salmieri, since the "quotes" will be based on my transcription of his lectures; so they aren't verbatim.]

The "context" of this use is in discussing Socrates' concern with context. He states that

Socrates’ technique is to ask people who claim to have knowledge a series of questions to find any contradictions. This method is called “dialectic”, which basically means “conversational method”.

And later:

Plato thinks the Socratic method of dialectics (the practice of testing systems of belief for coherence) can lead us to the higher Form of knowledge.


Dialectics is a polemical, or destructive, method. It can’t prove that anything is true. It can’t even prove that anything is false. All that happens in dialectics is that you show that some person or some set of beliefs is not consistent, so that some part of this set of beliefs has to be abandoned.

Of course, no mention is made of Dr. Sciabarra. But I find it interesting that Salmieri even brought up the term, when, given the way he is using it, "context" would have sufficed.


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Here is what I came up with in The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, for dialectic:

1. The art or practice of arriving at the truth by disclosing the contradictions in an opponent's argument and overcoming them.

I think Rand would call it "thinking in principles."

In order to arrive at a contradiction, a logical standard must be used. Rand often examined what is called dualisim, which she called dichotomies (for example, mind/body), by extracting and comparing underlying principles and coming up with a new truth. Many times she would then label the former duality as a "false dichotomy."

That pretty much goes the thesis-antithesis to synthesis route, with heavy emphasis on underlying principles thrown in.

I understand the reference to "dialectical method" in Russian Radical, so far, to mean that Rand used such a method of reasoning to arrive at many of her conclusions (but I haven't finished the book yet).

If your third quote by Mr. Salmieri is accurate, i.e., that dialectics can't prove that anything is true or false, then I can only state that his argument contradicts a widely used dictionary.

(How's that for a dialectical conclusion?)

Then we can go on to the syllogism:

Major premise: According to the dictionary, dialectics is an "art or practice of arriving at the truth."

Minor premise: Mr. Salmieri states that dialectics can't prove that anything is true or false.

Conclusion: Mr. Salmieri either does not understand dialectics at all, or he is trying to discredit the word.

(OK, I cheated and gave a two-part conclusion. It's not a very neat orderly world we live in anyway.)


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In my previous post my intention was to point out how a lecturer at the ARI Summer Conference was willing to even mention dialectics. As Roger points out in his "A review of Chris M. Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical “, in the Review of Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical (1996) thread:

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that, despite the overwhelming evidence and logic Sciabarra offers in his book, certain Objectivists have spoken out in rather caustic terms against his perspective. They vehemently resist identifying Rand's philosophic method with the dialectic, mainly it seems because of their acceptance of the traditional assumption that dialectical method is equivalent to Hegelianism or Marxism. Rand is not Marxist, therefore (they reason), her method could not be dialectical.

I find it to be a good sign that one of ARI's rising stars was willing to bring up the topic of dialectics, even in the simplistic way he did.



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That is interesting that they are now using the term. But parallel to this, there is this new DIM Hypothesis thing by Peikoff that is offered on CD and is being prepared as a book.

The VERY FIRST item in the course outline is: "Trichotomies in Philosophy. Why are they so numerous and which one(s) are fundamental?"

You think the "trialectical method" is about to hatch in orthodox Objectivism?



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Michael, I've been listening to and taking notes on Peikoff's DIM Hypothesis lectures, and I think you're right, that this "neither fish nor fowl, but instead a hybrid that transcends the two" is definitely revving up in the ARI side of the aisle. Rand started it all for the O'ist movement, but Peikoff has definitely pushed trichotomies into "turbo" mode. I've seen some discussion and application of this on Diana Hsieh's blog especially, though I don't hang out there anymore because of all the bashing of the Brandens, Kelley, etc.

One interesting note, though: Peikoff breaks down the D (Disintegration) and M (Misintegration) into D1 and D2 and M1 and M2. The 1's are better than the 2's, because they retain some amount of respect for logic and causality, whereas the 2's basically fly off into floating abstractions and the arbitrary. So, in practical application, Peikoff sees not three but five categories of thinkers, writers, etc. It's really fascinating how he applies his hypothesis, and where he categorizes people like Spinoza, Locke, etc.

I can't wait for the book to come out. It's muchy better, IMO, when Objectivists are willing to put themselves on the line by publishing. We can study it easier, and it is easier to assess what they have written for validity. (That may be why there is relatively little new theoretical Objectivism in print -- vulnerability of exposing one's errors!)


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  • 3 months later...

For the record, here are a couple of items from Chris on dialectics. The first is his essay called Dialectics and Liberty. It's a PDF file, but it gives a pretty good discussion of Chris's intent of wrenching classical dialectics (as a philosophical mode of inquiry) from communists and using it for liberty.

The second is an excerpt from An Interview Conducted by Jason Dixon (on Notablog, April 18 2006).

I define dialectics as the "art of context-keeping," but I develop a more formal definition of dialectics as a "methodological orientation" in my book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. That book is the concluding part of my "Dialectics and Liberty" trilogy of which both Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical are a part. And, in a sense, the three parts of this dialectical trilogy are an example of a dialectical approach. I view the three books as an integrated unity, such that no single book can truly be appreciated apart from the other books or from the "whole" context that the three books jointly constitute. I’ve had many readers write to me, telling me that their reading of Total Freedom, for example, first gave them an appreciation of what I had proposed in Russian Radical.

Now, this wasn’t just a marketing ploy! I had projected a trilogy on this subject that was twenty years in the making. I knew that in order for me to argue that Rand was a radical, dialectical thinker, I’d also have to confront the Marxists who had claimed a virtual monopoly in this area (hence, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia) and to reconstruct the history of dialectical thinking (hence, Total Freedom) so as to separate the rational Aristotelian wheat from the irrational Platonic chaff that had poisoned various dialectical conceptions. I say "rational Aristotelian wheat" because it was Aristotle, after all, who was the acknowledged father of dialectical inquiry, the first theoretician of dialectics, recognized as such even by Hegel and Marx. And any dialectical value that one might find in their works is, for me, traceable to whatever influence Aristotle had on their thought.

In my view, to be "dialectical" is to work with various techniques of abstraction so as to understand the object of one’s inquiry more comprehensively, more contextually. This requires us to examine any object not only from a variety of perspectives—or from what Aristotle called many "points of view"—but on different levels of generality as well. It also requires us to trace the development of the object over time and in relationship to other objects. These various techniques will often lay bare the complex nature of the object, its antecedent conditions and tendencies, and its place in a larger system of interrelationships.

When we apply this general methodological approach to social theory, where the object of our inquiry is "society," the advantages become apparent. Because "society" is not some ineffable organism; it is a complex nexus of interrelated institutions and processes, of volitionally conscious, purposeful, interacting individuals—and the unintended consequences they generate.

As I’ve stated on many occasions: A dialectical approach to social theory is one that recognizes that any given social problem will often entail an investigation of related social problems. The emphasis here is on investigation. I really want to stress that we’re not talking about a dialectical approach as if it were some kind of floating abstraction or a priori framework for interpretation. We truly need to do the difficult work of actually investigating the world objectively, if we are to grasp the real, concrete, empirical, and historical conditions before us.

What makes a dialectical approach into a radical approach is that the task of going to the root of a social problem, of seeking to understand it and to resolve it, requires that we make transparent the real relationships among social problems. Understanding the complexities and relationships at work within any given society is a prerequisite for changing it.

I am starting to get a funny feeling that that I touched on a parallel issue once before when I wrote about a cognitive-normative division, meaning that you have to understand something (cognitive) before you evaluate it (normative).

I have perceived that there is a school of Objectivist thought that holds that all identification is normative - and this opens the way for them to engage in blind hero worship of Rand and moralize to their heart's content. This is why approaches like "dialectics" or "cognitive understanding" cause so much hysteria. These approaches cut at the root of "rational faith," so to speak.


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