Magazine article Monthly Review

The Meaning of Dialectics

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Meaning of Dialectics

Article excerpt


There is so much misinformation about dialectics that it may be useful to start by saying what it isnot. Dialectics is not a rock-ribbed triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis which serves as an all purpose explanation, nor does it provide a formula that enables us to praise or predict anything, nor is it the motor force of history. The dialetic as such explains nothing, proves nothing, predicts nothing, and causes nothing to happen. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking which brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world. It includes how to organize a reality viewed in this manner for purposes of study, and how to present to others, most of whom do not think dialectically, the results of what one finds.

The main problem dialectics addresses is set out clearly in Marx's retelling of the Roman myth of Cacus. Half man, half demon, Cacus lived in a cave, coming out at night to steal oxen. He misled his pursuers by making the oxen walk backwards into his den so that their footprints made it appear they had emerged from the cave. People looking for their cattle in the morning found only these footprints and concluded that their oxen had come out of the cave, walked to the middle of the field, and then disappeared.

If the searchers had studied methodology in an American university they might have counted the footprints and measured the depth of each step, but they would have arrived at the same conclusion. Focusing exclusively on appearances, no matter how carefully, concentrating entirely on the evidence which strikes us directly, can be extremely misleading. How typical is the error found in this example? According to Marx, this is how most people in our society understand the world. Basing themselves on what they see, hear, and bump into in their immediate surroundings, they often arrive at conclusions which are the exact opposite of the truth. Most of the distortions associated with bourgeois ideology are of this kind.

To understand the real meaning of the footprints the owners of the oxen would have had to find out what had happened the night before and what the situation was inside the cave. Similarly, to understand anything in our everyday experience we must know something about how it arose, and developed, and how it fits into the larger context or system of which it is a part. Just recognizing this, however, is not enough. For nothing is easier than slipping back into a narrow focus on appearances. After all, few would deny that everything in the world is changing and interacting at some pace and in one way or another, that history and systemic connection belong to the real world. The difficulty has always been how to think adequately about them, how not to distort them, and how to give them the attention and the weight they deserve. Dialectics is an attempt to resolve this difficulty by expanding our notion of anything to include, as aspects of what it is, both the process by which it has become that and the broader interactive context in which it exists. Only in this way does the study of anything involve one immediately with the study of its history and encompassing system.

Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of "things," as something which has a history and has external connections with other things, with notions of "process," which contains its history and possible futures, and "relation," which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations. Nothing has been added here that did not previously exist. It is a matter of where and how one draws boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is "abstracts") in which to think about the world. The assumption is that while the qualities we perceive with our five senses actually exist as parts of nature, the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins, both in space and across time, are social and mental constructs. …

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