Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Step Back: "What is Dialectic?"

You work for hours trying to disentangle two strands from a messy, knotted pile of string, only to discover that they are actually one and the same string.

You aim a telescope at a bright point of light in the night sky, and the closer view splits the star in two.

In reading an astronomy textbook, you learn that the morning star and the evening star are the same star.

All these experiences share a common pattern and all of them are images—not examples but images—of dialectic. Something that was somehow one is now somehow two, or vice versa. In each case, the second position is more truthful, and you won't return to the first position except through forgetfulness.

Dialectic does concern itself with the truth, with regard to questions of unity and multiplicity. But it is not about "looking closer" or "straightening things out" or "expanding your perspective," although each of these expressions can be (and often are) used to indicate the practice of dialectic in a vague way. It does not concern matters which present themselves at particular locations within a spatial field of vision in the first place. Rather, it aims at truth in universal matters, such as being, knowledge, justice, and the soul.

      • (NB: Experienced dialecticians will tell you that this opposition between the particular and universal is not as tidy as it sounds, which means that the present indication of the nature of dialectic is only a starting point, but don't worry about that now—you'll have the occasion to savor that twist later.)

The earliest natural scientists established the pattern of discerning unity and multiplicity as the basic structure of scientific thinking. On the one hand, the science of anatomy sorted the seeming unity of the body into a multiplicity of systems that function together, and astronomy broke the mythically simple sky into a field for the complex motions of individual bodies. On the other hand, early philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes thought that the seeming multiplicity of kinds of things in the world could be completely reduced to a uniform component (although they disagreed about what this component would be: water, air, or perhaps something less palpable). Parmenides later expressed the spirit of these early scientific thinkers as a choice: the decision to order one's thinking according to being, which is one and whole, rather than seeming, which presents what is really one as many and fragmented.

But this transition from seeming multiplicity to real unity is only one possible model of dialectic, and it is not obviously the right way to approach being, justice, and such. Perhaps the transition which makes our thinking more truthful is not from seeming to being, but rather from the partial to the whole, or from the relative to the absolute, or from the temporal to the eternal, or somehow a mixture of these, or something else entirely. To ask after the nature of dialectic is just to ask what it means to consider the "big questions" more truthfully, and to be precise about this is the first task of philosophy.