Archive for December, 2014

The contrariwise ways of the English dialectic

The nature of reality has long puzzled human beings. How do you find a way to talk (or even think about) what the world the way it actually is without getting lost in the obvious limitations placed on your understanding by (for example) language?

As part of this ongoing project I’ve recently been pondering the dialectic. It seems an important word to have a feeling for if you are involved in the learning business or, as is perhaps more accurate, the awareness business. It’s an old word, which is to say that it captures an old idea taken from the ancient Greeks, one that is usually defined as something along the lines of ‘truth arrived at by discussion of two points of view’. Debate, in other words. As a discursive method of learning, it all has a rather Socratic, Platonic or Aristotelian ring to it.

Passed down from the Greeks through Medieval theological hands, there is another more recent use of the term dialectic that has certainly had a turbulent effect on our modern world, namely the dialectic tradition developed in the German philosophical tradition of the 18th and 19th Century. Most well-known of these ideas is probably the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” of dialectic logic as applied to the problem of working out what there is to know. There are several things assumed in the German use of the concept. From the Realism of Kant (whereby the true nature of reality (ding an sich) is open to enquiry indirectly through logic and reason), through to the counter-poised Idealism of Fichte and Hegel (wherein the true nature of reality is no more or less than the phenomenological experience), and on via the various twists and turns of continental philosophy ever since, there are three underlying precepts:

1. That our experience of the world is transient

2. That all is composed of oppositions

3. That change is spiral, and that over time it develops in a direction.

Marx and Engels famously constructed a material dialectic to propose a movement in history and society as fundamental inevitability. Charles Darwin, and other evolutionary theorists of the time, also allowed for a world of contradictory dualities and for there to be progress in nature. Thus, the survival of the fittest in speciation becomes synonymous with the perpetuation of culture in human society. For German dialectics, this is the bridging idea between social and natural sciences.

This is not the whole story, however.

Where German dialectics proposes contradictions, or dualisms, English dialectics proposes contraries. Unlike a contradiction, which is a negation and is destructive, contraries can and in fact must co-exist (rather like the poles of a magnet) in order for us to be able to draw distinction and differences. And, as Harries-Jones (1986) points out, “recognition of contraries does not cleave a unity.” By implication, on the other hand, the ‘thesis-antithesis’ viewpoint does, and in so doing creates something new and better.

But reality is, by definition, a unity, so it’s important to have a coherent philosophical position in tune with that. Not to be in tune with nature is not to understand how living systems operate, and not to understand how living systems operate (but to possess the wherewithal to unbalance the balance between you and nature) is a surefire recipe for disaster, sooner or later.

What’s more, the idea that differences can co-exist rather than battle it out for survival feels a lot more positive and ecological. It is the task of the observer to find a better method of explaining how this is so. For example, Gregory Bateson proposed a method of ‘double description’ which was in line with the English dialectic, where alternatives are not oppositions but just different mutual features of an inseparability. Science (rigour, description) and Art (imagination, metaphor) are thus understood not as negations of each other but also as contraries (sources of difference that enable double description). They are intrinsically connected, co-existing features of the same thing.

This has the distinct advantage of avoiding dualism, but more importantly creates a bridge between how we think about the world and how the world actually is. This is a new field of thinking, and one that may inform a more enlightened discussion of the purpose of management.


Harries-Jones, P (1986) Mapping, Continuing the Conversation: A newsletter on the ideas of Gregory Bateson, No. 5, pp 5 – 7

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