"Dialectics"?

post by CyrilDan · 2014-07-12T06:34:00.244Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 27 comments

Hi, everyone.

I just started reading Total Freedom by Chris Sciabarra (warning: politics book), and a good half of it seems to be about 'dialectics' as a thinking tool, but it's been total rubbish in trying to explain it. From poking around on the internet, it seems to have been a proto-systems theory that became a Marxist shibboleth.

Am I understanding that correctly? The LW survey says about 1 in 4 of us is a communist, so I'm hoping someone can point to me resources or something. Also, I've read through most of the sequences, and it didn't use the word dialectics in there at all, which seems strange if it's such a useful thinking tool. Is there something wrong with it as an epistemological practice? Is the word just outdated?

Sorry about the (tangentially) political post, I'm just kind of confused. Help?

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comment by pragmatist · 2014-07-12T08:11:25.590Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The LW survey says about 1 in 4 of us is a communist

No, it doesn't. In the last LW survey, 0.7% of respondents identified as communists. Perhaps you're talking about the 30% that identified as "socialist"? But "socialism" in the survey was defined as support for a highly redistributive, socially permissive political regime, like they have in Scandinavian countries. That doesn't imply allegiance to Marxist doctrine, or knowledge of it.

As for the idea of "dialectic", Marx got it from Hegel, and a full understanding of Hegel -- if it is possible at all -- is not something that can be effectively communicated in a comment or short internet article, I think (this might help, but probably not). As a rough approximation, though, the dialectical method is basically just systems thinking.

It's presented as an alternative to the analytical method, which involves breaking a system down into parts and attempting to understand each part individually. The idea governing analytical thinking (says the proponent of dialectic) is that the intrinsic nature of the parts can be understood prior to figuring out how they fit together to form the whole.

Dialectical thinking, on the other hand, is based on the idea that the concrete nature of the parts cannot be understood without understanding the role they play in the whole, the relationships between them. So the analytic project, which focuses first on understanding parts considered individually, is doomed to failure, because it ignores the extent to which the overall context is essential for our understanding of the nature of the parts.

"Dialectical materialism" in Marxist thought is basically just an application of this dialectical thinking to economics. One could approach economics analytically by first, say, constructing a model of individual economic agents, and then trying to figure out what happens when these agents interact under certain conditions. The proponent of the dialectical method (like Marx) would, however, insist that this is mistaken. Human nature and human needs cannot be understood in isolation. They are a product of the socio-economic context, just as the socio-economic context is itself a product of human nature and needs, and the individual elements and overall context are constantly changing in response to one another. So to truly understand the dynamics of the economy, you need to approach it from a systems perspective. You need to start by understanding the historical dynamics of the interactions and relationships between elements of the system and how that effects the evolution of the natures of those elements, rather than starting with a static model of the individual elements and only then moving to an analysis of their interactions. The natures of individual elements are constituted by their participation in the system, and they change as the system evolves, so you shouldn't treat those individual natures as logically prior to the system.

So that's a quick and clumsy attempt at explicating what the dialectic method is all about. As for whether the method is useful: There is something right about the idea that focusing purely on the analytical method can lead to mistakes, but a complete repudiation of this very useful pattern of reasoning also seems to be a mistake. It seems to me that the dialectical method (and systems thinking in general) should be regarded as a useful complement (and often corrective) to analytical thinking, but not as a wholesale replacement.

Replies from: CyrilDan, buybuydandavis, Vaniver, RichardKennaway, Luke_A_Somers
comment by CyrilDan · 2014-07-12T09:08:10.720Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, my mistake about the mistaken communism statistic; you're correct that I confused the two in my memory.

And that was a very thorough explanation; thank you. It seems to match what I could glean from my searches, but it was nice having it in one place and in more straight-forward terminology. So thank you.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-07-13T03:15:33.957Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But "socialism" in the survey was defined as support for a highly redistributive, socially permissive political regime, like they have in Scandinavian countries.

One of the many reasons why no one can have a sensible political discussion - everyone is using words differently.

Generally I see socialism defined as the government control of the means of production. Redistribution is government control of the output of production.

Anyone got a better ism to term being in favor of a liberal redistributionist welfare state?

Replies from: satt
comment by satt · 2014-07-14T00:26:02.355Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anyone got a better ism to term being in favor of a liberal redistributionist welfare state?

Social democracy or liberal socialism, maybe, although some potential for confusion remains as "liberal socialism" retains the s-word, and social democracy shades continuously into democratic socialism.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-07-12T21:03:45.096Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Dialectical materialism" in Marxist thought is basically just an application of this dialectical thinking to economics. One could approach economics analytically by first, say, constructing a model of individual economic agents, and then trying to figure out what happens when these agents interact under certain conditions. The proponent of the dialectical method (like Marx) would, however, insist that this is mistaken.

The example of Marx's economics book, Das Kapital, seems worth telling (as I remember it, having read it years before). There are three volumes: in volume 1, he sketches a basic picture of how everything fits together. (Here the 'labor theory of value' shows up, which is the claim that "if you turn A into B with an hour of labor, and the price difference between B and A is less than what an hour of labor is worth, this is an unsustainable practice that will only exist transiently.") In volume 2, he fleshes out the picture. (We can extend our example by pointing out that material also has costs that are determined by the other things that material could be used for, and so we should expect unprofitable uses of materials to be transient.) In volume 3, he finally has a working model. (Now we could also include capital- unprofitable use of machinery should also be transient.)

This makes sense as an explanatory model in that it's very difficult to talk about the economy from scratch. It's much easier to build a toy model of the economy, and then once you have basic reference points for every individual piece and their interactions we can make it more and more complex until it approximates reality closely enough to use.

But it also has the huge pitfall that you could, say, stop reading one volume in, and think that the labor theory of value implies that only labor adds value to anything.


I've found thinking about theories in terms of 'thesis,' 'antithesis,' and 'synthesis' to be useful because concepts are many-dimensional, and so 'antithesis' does not mean opposite instead of just a 'challenger,' and so a synthesis is often more of a course correction than a complete turnaround.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-12T09:22:44.765Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As for the idea of "dialectic", Marx got it from Hegel, and a full understanding of Hegel -- if it is possible at all -- is not something that can be effectively communicated in a comment or short internet article, I think.

I think David Stove did a pretty good job. :)

As a rough approximation, though, the dialectical method is basically just systems thinking.

I've never understood what that is either, even though I work with "systems biologists". I don't see a distinction drawn between "systems biology" and just "biology".

"Dialectical materialism" in Marxist thought is basically just an application of this dialectical thinking to economics. One could approach economics analytically by first, say, constructing a model of individual economic agents, and then trying to figure out what happens when these agents interact under certain conditions.

That is, microfoundations for macroeconomics. This appears to be a disputed idea in macroeconomics, some arguing that microfoundations are essential, others that they are impossible.

The natures of individual elements are constituted by their participation in the system, and they change as the system evolves, so you shouldn't treat those individual natures as logically prior to the system.

When I try to translate this into concrete terms, I start imagining chemists arguing that you can't understand molecules in terms of atoms, because atoms can change their ionisation state when they combine into molecules.

Replies from: fubarobfusco
comment by fubarobfusco · 2014-07-12T16:07:16.838Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I try to translate this into concrete terms, I start imagining chemists arguing that you can't understand molecules in terms of atoms, because atoms can change their ionisation state when they combine into molecules.

Well, suppose that someone claimed that a carbon atom is defined as possessing six electrons, always ....

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-13T20:10:02.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. That's pretty much orthogonal to what I heard as what dialectic is about: that when two systems - ideas, political, social, scientific - come into conflict, each expose some weaknesses of the other, and then both end up being replaced with a synthesis.

(Obviously, that's even more abbreviated than what you wrote)

Replies from: pragmatist
comment by pragmatist · 2014-08-05T12:42:03.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That isn't actually orthogonal. Hegel's whole thesis-antithesis-synthesis thing is his conception of how the analytical method fails. When you analyze a system's parts without regard for holistic context you often run into apparent contradictions. One piece of sound analysis seems to suggest one thing about the nature of what you're studying, while another piece of sound analysis suggests the exact opposite.

The problem, acciording to Hegel, is the process of analysis itself - trying to understand the nature of the parts prior to an understanding of how the parts fit together in, and are influenced by, the whole. What seemed to be a contradiction might often be resolved by realizing that the parts you're studying don't have fixed independent natures, that their behavior and properties are dependent on external factors. Factors that you are led to ignore by the analytical method, which encourages you to abstract a system away from its context in order to understand it. This process of abstraction is what leads to the appearance of contradiction, and assimilating the varying context into one's understanding dissolves the contradiction and leads to synthesis.

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-08-05T15:32:35.604Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, that clears up the connection!

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-07-12T17:28:09.665Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Reminds me of a joke. Not sure if it will survive translation and internetization, but let's try.)

Two university professors talk with each other, and one of them says: "You know, I have this problem, and it's bothering me. I teach dialectics for years, but I don't understand what it really means."

The other professor, helpfully: "That's easy. I can explain it to you right now!"

The first professor: "No, thanks. I can explain it, too."

comment by shminux · 2014-07-12T17:16:06.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not quite what you are asking, but. From what I recall from reading Engels' bastardized version of Hegel long ago, his "dialectic materialism" is not a thinking tool, but a meta-thinking caution. Of course this is neither Hegel's dialectics, nor the dialectical method in general. With this caveat:

  • What Engels called "quantity changes to quality", or some such, is just a statement of emergence, without explaining the reasons why it is so ubiquitous. A mathematical model of why and how accumulating many relatively simple but interacting entities results in sudden appearance of unexpected new complex behaviors once a certain vague threshold is exceeded is still an open problem, as far as I know. The "caution" here is that you should expect emergence when scaling things up, or even changing things incrementally, so you better plan for it. Unfortunately, this caution is neglected almost universally.

  • "unity and conflict of opposites" or however it is stated is an observation that what on the surface appears as a stable equilibrium is nearly universally a quasi-equilibrium where two or more opposing forces just happened to balance for a relatively short time. The caution here is against believing that the apparent stability during a certain time period will persist forever. This applies to politics, physics, economics, climate change, what have you. It is, too, nearly always ignored. For example people tend to believe that democracy is the best and final form of governance, or that US dominance will last forever, or that climate will never change, or that the laws of nature are immutable, or that cryonic or Christian resurrection will be the final happy state of humanity, not to ever go bad again, or basically any other "truth" about the world.

  • "negation of the negation" is an example of the "pendulum swinging" between the said opposites, when there are only a couple of them. Seems like a wild oversimplification.

EDIT: Wikipedia attributes this interpretation to a few mildly famous evolutionary biologists.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-12T20:44:40.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, I've read through most of the sequences, and it didn't use the word dialectics in there at all, which seems strange if it's such a useful thinking tool. Is there something wrong with it as an epistemological practice? Is the word just outdated?

Analytic philosophers generally don't like it. On the other hand continental philosophers and postmodernists still use dialectics. Dialectics has no real place in the Bayesian framework that Eliezer advocates.

Replies from: David_Gerard, buybuydandavis
comment by David_Gerard · 2014-07-14T11:43:20.952Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dialectics has no real place in the Bayesian framework that Eliezer advocates.

Eh? It's totally about a meeting of maps.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-14T12:21:33.576Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bayesianism means that every valid claim has a probability p of being true. If you look into dialectic writing you will find that the kind of claims discussed are often too vague for them to be labeled with a probability as it's not actually clear what it means for a claim to be true.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-07-13T03:37:46.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think dialectics would fit in nicely with Korzybski, of The Map is Not the Territory fame.

In the briefest terms, dialectical thinking is very similar to meta modeling, finding a model that expresses two competing models as two views of the same model.

In terms closer to General Semantics (as Korzybski's system is generally called), you find a higher order abstraction that represents all the truth available in supposedly incompatible and contradictory abstractions.

I expect Mr. Kenneway could correct my comments on General Semantics and expound further.

I believe this is also close to what Hegel would say, going by what I've read of the Left Hegelians, though it's been a while since I've read either.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-13T16:25:54.595Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think dialectics would fit in nicely with Korzybski, of The Map is Not the Territory fame.

Dialectics isn't in the index of Science and Sanity. The word was around before Korzybski did his work so Korzybski probably choose not to use it.

In terms closer to General Semantics (as Korzybski's system is generally called), you find a higher order abstraction that represents all the truth available in supposedly incompatible and contradictory abstractions.

I think the claim of dialetics isn't only that you combine two different model with have contradictions but that you get the best result if you maximize the contradictions of those models.

Looking at Korzybski reminds me of how Noam Chomsky finds no use for dialectics:

Dialectics is one that I’ve never understood, actually—I’ve just never understood what the word means. Marx doesn’t use it, incidentally, it’s used by Engels.7 And if anybody can tell me what it is, I’ll be happy. I mean, I’ve read all kinds of things which talk about “dialectics”—I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is.

For me the word appear like it doesn't appear to pay it's rent and doesn't help us to understand things better and it's probably more useful to frame the issues differently.

Replies from: buybuydandavis
comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-07-13T20:48:25.638Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dialectics isn't in the index of Science and Sanity. The word was around before Korzybski did his work so Korzybski probably choose not to use it.

Like many systematizers, he made up a boatload of his own terms by choice. In his case, there were ideological reasons to do so, as from his perspective, the general level of semantic hygiene was so low that you'd be better off starting from scratch.

I think the claim of dialetics...

There are all sorts of claims made by people who use the word. Much of it seems like crap to me.

But I think what I described is the basic Hegelian insight, which is both useful and in line with insights from Korzybski. The concept that seeming contradictions from competing conceptual systems can be resolved by a more comprehensive conceptual system which preserves the truth of both is useful, IMO.

For a change, today I'm focusing on the wheat instead of the chaff.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-13T21:14:00.044Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the general level of semantic hygiene was so low that you'd be better off starting from scratch.

As far as terms with bad semantic hygiene "dialectics" seems to be a prime example and that might motivate us also to avoid using it.

The concept that seeming contradictions from competing conceptual systems can be resolved by a more comprehensive conceptual system which preserves the truth of both is useful, IMO.

I think the core idea is quite obvious if one has a good grasp on what a conceptual system happens to be.

The more complicated question would be in what sense the existing systems have truth that could be preserved. I don't think the discourse about dialectics helps to answer that question.

Replies from: buybuydandavis
comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-07-13T22:14:36.240Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As far as terms with bad semantic hygiene "dialectics" seems to be a prime example and that might motivate us also to avoid using it.

The OP was specifically asking about "dialectics" and Sciabarra's use of it.

Also, it's a fundamental concept in Hegelianism and it's offshoots, so you shouldn't try to avoid it there either.

But I agree with you in general. I find it a much overused and inconsistently used term, much like irony and paradox, and often used to shovel crap.

I think the core idea is quite obvious if one has a good grasp on what a conceptual system happens to be.

Well yeah, but I find that quite a big IF, don't you?

The more complicated question would be in what sense the existing systems have truth that could be preserved.

Which would depend on the particulars of the existing systems in question.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-14T13:32:42.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The OP was specifically asking about "dialectics" and Sciabarra's use of it.

He was also asking about why we don't use it on LW and whether maybe we should use it if it's a potent thinking tool.

Well yeah, but I find that quite a big IF, don't you?

But if not, I don't think talking about dialectics has any use either. It will just seem like magic.

comment by yesenadam · 2015-01-29T08:13:59.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The David Stove piece that Richard Kennaway links to is important, wonderful, and very funny, but doesn't shed much light on Hegel, (Why on earth is he sometimes considered the greatest modern philosopher?!) and no light on dialectic, in the Hegel sense. (There is also the not-unrelated Plato sense; the dialogue model of philosophy; philosophy as a conversation, analyzing, developing, refining as it flows on.)

William James' essay On Some Hegelisms (in The Will To Believe) is very good on Hegelian reason and logic - James noticed remarkable similarities between Hegel's reasoning and his own insane thoughts while tripping on laughing gas, which he recounts with extraordinary candour and.. well, can you imagine an academic philosopher or psychologist of today writing such a thing?! He is onto something else - Marxism and Hegelism, like other huge and obscure systems, seem addictive and hard to escape from once inside, "lifelong romances", judging by their true believers.

Contra Chomsky, I do have a foggy idea of what it is; I studied it many years ago in some detail. I've done, among other things, a whole course on Hegel's Philosophy of Right, (given by an extremely sympathetic-to-Hegel Marxist) which examines many levels of society, community, politics, law, etc, in a way similar to pragmatist's excellent description, only with a dozen or so of these levels in a chain, or ladder, each passing to the other, because unsatisfactory or incomplete in its own terms. Thus Hegel's doctrine of everything being contradictory, except everything. (I was tempted to put that second 'everything' as 'Everything', then before I know i will be putting '-in-itself' after words to try to clarify them etc... hehe. A slippery slope.) I even once read McTaggart's Studies in Hegelian Dialectic with enjoyment and apparent understanding.

Hegel's dialectic seems to me as much a method of exposition, of telling ('just so') stories of the evolution of levels of complexity in a system, as a revelation of structure. I think experiencing the feeling of climbing one of these ladders of multi-level explanation gives the essence (or at least, appeal) of it better than an analysis from outside can. I highly recommend reading R.G. Collingwood's Speculum Mentis (1924), which passes 'up' through the realms of art, religion, science, history and philosophy in a recognizably Hegelian way. Only it's written delightfully, with great clarity and insight, unlike nearly all texts in the Hegelian universe. E.g. the chapter on art is one of my favourite things ever written about the nature of art and artists.

James again, on Hegelian dialectics : "The only thing that is certain is that whatever you may say of this procedure, someone will accuse you of misunderstanding it." At least Hegel has the partial excuse of not using the term, but his willfully obscure writing has done, and goes on doing and inspiring more mischief in the world than is at all easy to believe. Santayana's Egotism in German Philosophy (1915) brilliantly and entertainingly dissects the whole tradition, from Leibniz to Nietzsche, after which Nazism seems an unsurprising next step.

On the whole, I suspect ChristianKl is right (even generous) when he says "the word appears like it doesn't appear to pay its rent and doesn't help us to understand things better and it's probably more useful to frame the issues differently."

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-07-13T03:52:48.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Few communists would be useful sources of information on Chris Sciabarra's views on dialectics, as he is an Ayn Rand scholar and libertarian. He has studied Marx, but few Marxists would have studied him.

If the Marxist commentary on Stirner is any indication, even the commentary available will have next to no value.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-12T15:22:42.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Advocates of dialectic thinking / politics claim an idea (thesis) will meet an opposing idea (antithesis) and the outcome (synthesis) will be closer to truth / right.

Like Karl Popper, I disagree. An idea meeting a counter-idea might (hopefully!) result in being able to abandon an error but there is no assurance it will generate facts.

Replies from: Viliam_Bur, whales
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-07-12T17:04:02.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems to me similar to "emergence". Even if you know that some complex thing "emerges" from the parts, without details it does not allow you to construct the complex thing. (Only when someone else constructs the complex thing, you can say: See? I was right! It did emerge!)

Analogically, you can say: "If you have an idea X that seems good but imperfect, you can improve it by considering X and non-X, and trying to pick and put together the best parts of both." It seems Deeply Wise, but... without more details it's useless for generating knowledge. (Only when someone else comes with the improved idea, you can say: See? It has some similarities with X and some similarities with non-X! It is a dialectic outcome!)

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-14T12:23:55.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, as noted many times before, noting that X emerges from Y and Z is the beginning, not the end. It's just a way of reducing the solution space modestly, and predicting that the result is likely to be very complicated if it's not obvious.

comment by whales · 2014-07-12T20:21:55.732Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find this idea (or a close relative) a useful guide for resolving a heuristic explanation or judgment into a detailed, causal explanation or consequentialist judgment. If someone draws me a engine cycle that creates infinite work out of finite heat (Question 5), I can say it violates the laws of thermodynamics. Of course their engine really is impossible. But there's still confusion: our explanations remain in tension because something's left unexplained. To fully resolve this confusion, I have to look in detail at their engine cycle, and find the error that allows the violation.

Principled explanations, especially about human behavior or society, tend to come into tension in a similar way. That tension can similarly point the way to detailed, causal explanations that will dissolve the question. For example, you say that an idea meeting a counter-idea may well fail to generate facts, which is contrary to your understanding of dialectics. It's not very useful to merely state these ideas in opposition to each other, but there's something to be learned by looking at where they conflict and why.

So in this case, where you doubt that this process generates facts, consider how it might or might not reliably do so. One way it could do so is if there were a recipe for turning the conflict into an opportunity for learning, like "look for detailed causal mechanisms where the two big ideas directly conflict." One way it might fail is if people who held each one of the two ideas entrenched themselves as opposed to the other, and everyone continued to simply talk past one another without attempting to understand. Now you've refined your heuristic so you can better judge how well this will work in individual cases, and you can iterate.

I think of the moral version of this as a generalization of the argument from marginal cases against giving moral standing to humans alone (i.e. that there's no value-relevant principle that selects all and only humans). The generalization is to come at this from both sides of a debate, and say that you can expect any principled judgment to fail on marginal cases. The content of your principle is in large part how it treats those marginal cases. From this perspective, you study the marginal cases to improve your understanding of your values, rather than try to use heuristics to decide the marginal cases. (Sometimes this perspective is useful, and sometimes it's not. Hmm, why is that?)