Where Did These Ideas Come From?
The ideas of dialectics have a long history. In Asia, the idea that everything is made of opposites--yin and yang--dates back to the I Ching around 3,000 years ago and the Taoist master Lao Tzu around 2,500 years ago. Taoism holds that change is the only constant. Taoist philosophy also understood that "gradual change leads to a sudden change of form (hua)." (Stephen Karcher, Ta Chuan, The Great Treatise, by Stephen Karcher, St. Martins Press, NY, 2000, page 53).
Also around 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, Heraclitus advanced the idea that all change comes through the struggle of opposites. For more about Heraclitus read Dialectics--It's All Greek to Me. The Aztecs also held the idea of nature being made of opposites, as did the Lakotas in North America. In Africa, the Dogon people of Mali hold the concept of "twin-ness"--perfection/imperfection, disorder/order, etc. in their view of nature and human existence. I'm sure there are many examples from other cultures.
For some reason the idea of everything being made of opposites died out in Western thought. Part of the blame goes to Aristotle. Aristotle's formal logic argued that things can't be both black and white, good and bad--they have to be either/or, not both/and. Unfortunately, St. Thomas promoted Aristotle's view, and this became the official word of the church in the middle ages. But, as Obi-wan Kenobi says, 'Only the Sith deal in absolutes." (Star Wars, Episode III)
By failing to recognize that everything is made of opposites, and that change comes through the conflict between opposing forces, Western philosophy has mystified or even denied change. Eastern philosophy recognizes change as the movement of opposites, but generally sees it as cyclical, without forward motion and evolution. So neither viewpoint was able to grasp the unprecedented changes that started with the industrial revolution in the 19th Century.
Kant and Hegel - Immanual Kant and G.W.F. Hegel reintroduced the idea of dialectics just as the industrial revolution was beginning. Their starting point was ancient Greek philosophy, from which they took the word, dialectics. Hegel writes, "Dialectic. . . is no novelty in philosophy. Among the ancients Plato is termed the inventor of Dialectic; and his right to the name rests on the fact that the Platonic philosophy first gave the free scientific, and thus at the same time the objective, form to Dialectic."
Hegel also describes Socrates use of, "the dialectical element in a predominantly subjective shape, that of Irony."
Hegel credits Immanuel Kant for resurrecting the importance of dialectics. "In modern times it was, more than any other, Kant who resuscitated the name of Dialectic, and restored it to its post of honour. He did it . . . by working out the Antinomies of the reason." (The three previous quotes are from Hegel's Logic, Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences(1830),, Translated by J.N. Findlay, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1975, page 117.)
Hegel addressed a paradox posed by Kant, that the world consists of antinomies-- contradictions that cannot be resolved. Kant discusses "a dialectical doctrine of pure reason" that must involve "a natural and unavoidable illusion . . . which can never be eradicated" (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (abridged), Translated by Norman K. Smith, Random House, NY, 1958, page 215). Kant goes on to say, "after they [the hypothetical opposing forces on the 'dialectical battlefield'] have rather exhausted than injured one another, they will perhaps themselves perceive the futility of their quarrel and part good friends." (Critique of Pure Reason , page 216).
The problem as Kant sees it is that reality presents us with an insoluble dilemma. Kant identifies four antinomies, in which it is possible to prove that both sides are true. These antinomies are:
1. The world is both limited in time and space and it is infinite
2. Matter is both made of discreet particles and is also a continuous composite
3. Everything is determined according to laws of nature and there are other causes apart from nature
4. An absolutely necessary being both exists and does not exist in the world.
Because of these irreconcilable dialectics Kant argued that we cannot know a "thing-in-itself." We can only know the appearance, not the essence of reality.
Hegel replied, yes, contradictions are inherent in reality, but so what? Everything is made of opposites. Â¡No Problemo! To quote Hegel, "Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of Dialectic." (Hegel's Logic, page 118.) Hegel believed that it is the interplay between opposites that leads to all observable phenomena and our interactions with the world. As he responded to Kant, ". . . profounder insight into the antinomial, or more truly into the dialectical nature of reason demonstrates any Notion whatever to be a unity of opposed moments. . ." (Hegel's Science of Logic,, Translated by A.V. Miller, London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1969, page 191).
Hegel argues that Kant's "conception of the antinomies . . . as contradictions which reason must necessarily come up against . . . is an important view." But Kant is unable to resolve the contradiction because each of the "opposed moments . . .[is taken] in isolation from the other." ( Hegel's Science of Logic, page 191) Hegel uses Kant's example of the antinomy/contradiction that matter is both discrete and continuous. Hegel argues, ". . . neither of these determinations taken alone, has truth; this belongs only to their unity. This is the true dialectical consideration of them and also the true result." (Hegel's Science of Logic, page 197)
Hegel states, "the Antinomies are not confined to the four special objects taken from Cosmology: they appear in all objects of every kind, in all conceptions, notions, and Ideas. . . .The true and positive meaning of the antinomies is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements. Consequently to know, or, in other words, to comprehend an object is equivalent to being conscious of it as a concrete unity of opposed determinations." (Hegel's Logic,, page 78)
The problem with Hegel, aside from his sometimes impenetrable prose (he clearly needed to read "Dialectics for Kids"), is that he expressed ultimate reality as "The Idea." In other words he believed that thought is primary over matter, that reality is ultimately a manifestation of our thinking. For him dialectics was essentially a matter of analyzing the issues of logic and the human spirit.
Hegel and Engels - Two young followers of Hegel, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, took Hegel's ideas and transformed them into a philosophical tool for analyzing history, nature, and making social change. They kept the idea of dialectics--motion and change coming about through opposing forces--but turned Hegel "upside down." They argued that thought is a manifestation of the natural world--that our thoughts flow from our experiences and the material world.
Most of the credit for popularizing the idea that this dialectical process is based in nature and human affairs goes to Engels. He boiled down the voluminous and opaque writings of Hegel into three "laws" as cited on the previous page of this site. Marx either didn't have the patience to do this or was not interested. He did remark to Engels in a letter in 1858 that he "would greatly like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence, in two or three printers sheets, what is rational in the method which Hegel discovered, but at the same time enveloped in mysticism."
Engels books, Anti-Duhring and Dialectics of Nature , mark his attempt to explain dialectics to a popular audience, but they are not exactly easy reading. This web site is aimed at popularizing dialectics to an even broader audience.
For those wishing to gain a deeper understanding into how Engels drew his ideas about dialectics from Hegel, below are some quotes from Hegel which lead to Engels' formulation of the three laws. These quotes only show that Engels (and this web site) owe a lot to Hegel, not that dialectics as Engels formulated it is identical with Hegel. I also don't think these quotes prove the validity of dialectics. Your daily experience and all scientific experience do that. The quotes just help show where the ideas come from.
1. Unity of Opposites - Hegel describes "The Law of Contradiction" - "Everything is inherently contradictory. . . . contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity. (page 439, Hegel's Science of Logic, cited above).
Also, ". . . the grasping of opposites in their unity . . . is the most important aspect of dialectic. . ." (page 56, Hegel's Science of Logic)
Also note the quotes above where Hegel both credits and refutes Kant's concept of antimonies.
Note that Hegel uses the word contradiction to mean the conflict between two opposing sides. (page 431, Hegel's Science of Logic) He does not mean simply a logically contradictory statement such as, "That object is a horse and a television." Rather contradiction in dialectics refers to two sides which are separate, but in relation with each other--positive proton/negative electron, husband/wife, being sleepy/staying awake, etc. as discussed in many examples in Dialectics for Kids. See also the essay Contradictions Everywhere on this web site for more discussion of this term.
2. Quantitative Change Becomes Qualitative - Hegel's Science of Logic , pages 368 -370, gives numerous "examples of such nodal lines", i.e. the leap from quantitative to qualitative change. He states that "metal oxides . . . are formed at certain quantitative points of oxidation . . . They do not pass gradually into one another; the proportions lying in between these nodes do not produce a neutral or a specific substance. . . . Again, water when its temperature is altered does not merely get more or less hot, but passes through from the liquid into either the solid or gaseous states; these states do not appear gradually; on the contrary, each new state appears as a leap, suddenly interrupting and checking the gradual succession of temperature changes at these points. Every birth and death, far from being a progressive gradualness, is an interruption of it and is the leap from a quantitative into a qualitative alteration."
In his book, Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel writes that the spirit of man
". . . is indeed never at rest, but carried along the stream of progress ever onward. But it is here as in the case of the birth of a child; after a long period of nutrition in silence, the continuity of the gradual growth in size, of quantitative change, is suddenly cut short by the first breath drawn--there is a break in the process, a qualitative change--and the child is born. . . . In like matter the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world . . . . This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a ingle stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world." (Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J.B. Baille, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd, 1964, page 75)
3. Negation of Negation - Engels describes his 3rd law as "negation of negation." He argued that this is "the fundamental law for the construction of the whole system" [of dialectics]. (Engels, Dialectics of Nature, International Publishers, New York, 1940, Page 26.) Unfortunately, Dialectics of Nature, is an unfinished work, and Engels never proceeded to give rigorous examples of negation of negation in the same way that he did for quantitative/qualitative changes. As noted on the page, "What the Heck is Dialectics?", Engels did say that negation of negation is "a very simple process which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand." (Anti-DÃ¼hring, International Publishers, New York, 1939, page 148) This quote helped inspire me to create this web site, to see if I could prove Engels' point.
With regard to the first two laws of Engels, I feel that they are correct because I can't think of any exceptions to them. On the other hand, with regard to negation of negation, I think there needs to be a further discussion. Hegel does use the term, but hardly in a simple fashion. He refers to the way "the bud disappears when the blossom breaks through. . .the former is refuted by the latter. . . the fruit appears . . . in place of the blossom." (Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, page 68).
Also Hegel repeatedly uses the three-fold process of negation of negation in his logic. E.g. Being-Nothing-Becoming; Essence-Appearance-Actuality; Theoretical Mind-Practical Mind-Free Mind; The Universal-The Particular-The Singular. In each case the first element is negated by the second, which is in turn negated by the third. And in each case the third element, the negation of negation, has features of the original element, but is at a higher level of meaning. The problem, as noted earlier, is that Hegel is primarily focused on the mind, not on nature.
Engels, similar to Hegel's example of a bud, uses the example of a grain of barley. ". . . if such a grain of barley. . . falls on suitable soil, then under the influence of heat and moisture a specific change takes place, it germinates; the grain as such ceases to exist, it is negated, and in its place appears the plant which has arisen from it, the negation of the grain. But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilized and finally once more produces grains of barley, and as soon as these have ripened the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten, twenty or thirty fold." (Anti-DÃ¼hring, page 149.)
In this web site, on the page Spirals A-Z, I have given many examples of negation of negation. However, unlike the case of Engel's first two laws, I don't think the case for negation of negation is so conclusive. As noted, with regard to everything being made of opposites, I just can't think of anything that isn't, so it makes sense to call this a "law" like Engels did. Likewise, with the change from quantity to quality, I can't think of any counter examples, so this also seems reasonable to be described as a "law." Now I know that a list of examples are not sufficient to prove a theory, but theory without concrete examples is a pure abstraction. Also, if new examples don't support the theory, the theory has to change. That's why I am always eager for examples of dialectical processes.
Consider the following examples that seem to contradict negation of negation. In each case the second negation does not appear to me to form a synthesis of the first two.
1. ice - liquid water - steam
2. fish - dinosaurs - mammals (evolution of life on earth in general)
3. formation of protons and electrons in the big bang - formation of atoms - formation of stars (evolution of the cosmos in general, although the example star - supernova - new generation star does follow the pattern of negation of negation)
I can also think of a large group of examples where the reappearance of some features of the original entity, but at a higher level, occurs after a number of negations, not just one step
1. the periodic chart -- inert gases with common properties occur at regular intervals along with other elements in columns as atomic number increases; e.g. hydrogen ...lithium ....sodium. .. . potassium etc.
2. the musical scale -- do re mi fa so la ti do (This was an example raised by Hegel, Science of Logic, page 368 and, of course, Maria von Trapp)
3. the internal combustion engine -- combustion - exhaust - intake - compression - combustion
4. a vacation -- journey begins - travel here/there/up/down/etc. - journey ends
5. the food cycle - cultivation - harvest - delivery to market - purchase - preparation - consumption of food - digestion - excretion - fertilizer for more cultivation
Now in each of these five cases, the end result is a negation of negation, i.e. the original condition is repeated, but at a different level. So these examples are at least in the spirit of Engels' third law. All in all, however, it seems to me that negation of negation is more of a general principle that repeatedly occurs in nature, but it is not at the level of a "law".
The importance of negation of negation is to understand that change does not simply go in circles. Cycles do occur--rain, CO2, seasons, life itself--but with each cycle some things change. Most importantly, every conscious act that we carry out should result in a higher level of information for us--e.g. try - fail - learn from mistakes and try again.
Dialectical Materialism - The philosophy that Marx and Engels originated is called dialectical materialism, a term coined by the Russian Marxist philosopher G. Plekhanov. See The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism by ZA Jordan, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1967 for a detailed, albeit theoretically flawed, account of this.
Does this mean that those who agree with dialectical materialism have to agree with Marx's writings on capitalism, or Stalin's 5 year plans, or Mao Zedong's cultural revolution, or other's who describe themselves as Marxist-Leninists? Not at all. Dialectical materialism is a tool for analyzing reality, not a set of dogmatic beliefs. Unfortunately in the former Soviet Union, particularly under Stalin, the Party leaders justified their actions in the name of dialectical materialism. Since history has shown that many of the Party's policies were repressive and/or inept, the concept of dialectical materialism was also discredited.
But dialectical materialism is not to blame for the failure of Soviet socialism any more than it is to blame for the failure of a car to start. Those who believe that socialism is impossible could argue that the fall of the Soviet Union is no more due to a failure of dialectical materialism than is the inability to get a car to fly. Personally I think that the problems of socialism have to do with what the free-market economist Ludwig von Mises called "the calculation problem". For a discussion of economics see: "What does dialectics have to do with communism?"also on this web site. My point here, however, is that the problem with socialism was not dialectical materialism.
While dogmatism on the part of Marxists was surely part of the problem, the failure of dialectical materialism to catch on as a popular world view is not just the fault of the left. People in power are generally not thrilled by a philosophy that teaches people how to change the status quo. It is a lot more comfortable for the powers-that-be (follow the money to see who that is) to downplay the way changes happen and how people can bring change about. With the end of the cold war, the victorious capitalists would just as soon see dialectical materialism disappear, like the former Soviet Union did.
Of course there is also the possibility that all of the examples and ideas on this web site are wrong. If so, I welcome any reader to point out the errors in this thinking. I know there are many points that need development. Also, along the same lines, I welcome anyone who has researched the history of dialectics and can offer more information about how different cultures have viewed dialectics and how different thinkers have approached the subject.
My favorite book on the subject is Dialectical Materialism by Ira Gollobin. The politics are outdated, but the exposition of dialectics is excellent. The book has lots of great examples. And it also has thorough rebuttals to philosophers such as Sartre, Tillich, Hook, Popper, Krishnamurti and others who oppose dialectical materialism. The book is in dozens of libraries. You can get it by inter-library loan.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
with any constructive criticism or suggestions.
Whew! That was a pretty lengthy essay. Maybe this is a good time to take a break and check out Dialectics, the Musical just for fun.