The Meaning of Dialectics

By Ollman, Bertell | Monthly Review, November 1986 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Dialectics


Ollman, Bertell, Monthly Review


THE MEANING OF DIALECTICS

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Meaning of Dialectics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.