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What is Dialectic? From Heraclitus to Marx


Throughout history, from the time of the Pre-Socratic era, Dialectic (or dialectics) has sparked a multitude of ideas among philosophers. The concept itself has undergone different interpretations. It has been associated with sophistry, rhetoric, the Socratic method of questioning, Plato’s journey from the sensible to the spiritual, Aristotle’s examination of opinions, Kant’s exploration of transcendental illusions of understanding, Marx’s interpretation of socioeconomic stages from capitalism to socialism, and so on. In this article, we trace the philosophical evolution of the notion of dialectic, starting from its origins in ancient Greece and leading up to its development in modern Western philosophy.

The Philosophical Journey of Dialectic: from Antiquity to Modernity

The School of Athens by Raphael, 1511, via Vatican Museums

As the contemporary philosopher Barbara Cassin states in Vocabulary of European Philosophies,

“The history of the term dialectic would by itself constitute a considerable history of philosophy.”

Throughout history, dialectic has served as a source of inspiration and a tool used by different schools of thought. Its meanings and interpretations have varied, ranging from a method of debate and logic to a framework for explaining conceptual or socioeconomic development.

Philosophers have debated whether dialectic is inherent to reality or a process in the human mind and whether it involves two opposing views or the inner contradictions of a concept. Despite these debates, the term dialectic consistently points to a process of change or progress characterized by a back-and-forth movement.

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To trace the origins of Dialectical thought, we must delve into ancient Greek philosophy. One figure who prominently stands out in this regard is the philosopher Heraclitus. Considered a pioneer of dialectical thought by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in the 19th century, Heraclitus emphasized the significance of opposing forces in the cosmos and their role in development. It is the idea of the unity of opposites that earned him this recognition.

Heraclitus and the Unity of Opposites

Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse, ca. 1630, via Centraal Museum Utrecht

As a Pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus was among the ancient Greek philosophers who pondered the concept of arche. The Ancient Greek term arche primarily refers to the “origin” or “beginning” and relates to the fundamental principle from which all other things are derived. These philosophers primarily engaged in theories of cosmology and ontology, seeking to identify the substance from which everything else originates.

Thales, often considered the first philosopher in history, posited that water was the arche of the universe. Similarly, Thales’ contemporary Anaximander, from the Milesian school, attributed the arche to air, while Pythagoras believed that the universe was essentially composed of numbers. In contrast, the Ionian philosopher Heraclitus believed that fire was the arche of the universe. But why fire? For Heraclitus, the answer lies in the constant change that fire embodies, as he famously stated, “the universe was and is and will be: ever-living fire…

Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld by Salvator Rosa,1662, via Google Arts & Culture.

Heraclitus believed that the universe was in a constant state of flux. He illustrated this perspective with the analogy in which he argued that one cannot step into the same river twice, as both the person and the river are different each time. In his philosophy, fire symbolizes movement through self-consumption, representing the idea that everything is in perpetual flux after originating from fire. Heraclitus’ theory suggests that all aspects of nature are in a state of constant change, with fire transforming into water and earth, and vice versa, in an eternal cycle.

A crucial aspect of his philosophy is the coinciding of opposites. According to Heraclitus, each opposing substance contains within itself its own opposite, participating in a continual circular exchange and motion that ultimately maintains the stability of the universe. He contended that the unity of the universe is sustained by the dynamic interplay of opposing forces. Heraclitus provided examples such as life and death, waking and sleeping, aging, warming up, and cooling off to illustrate this concept.

Following Heraclitus, it took two millennia for another philosopher to recognize the fundamental significance of dialectical movement in reality, going beyond its mere application as a tool for argumentation or logic.

Plato’s Dialogues: The Socratic Method

Socrates Teaching Perikles by Nicolas Guibal, 1780, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dialectic in Ancient Greek philosophy is commonly understood as a form of reasoning based on argumentative dialogue. While Zeno of Elea and the Sophists employed some forms of dialectical reasoning, its classical meaning largely stems from the Socratic dialogues written by Plato.

The Socratic dialogues contributed to the development of dialectic as a method of inquiry that revolves around questions to uncover the meanings behind concepts and ascertain the truthfulness of statements. Plato’s Socratic dialogues feature Socrates as the protagonist, often challenging others’ knowledge of moral concepts. Employing an ironic approach and claiming to possess limited knowledge, Socrates exposes inconsistencies in the opponent’s understanding.

In the dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates poses a question to Euthyphro, asking him to offer a definition of piety, which Euthyphro connects with the idea of being favored by the gods. Socrates then prompts Euthyphro to acknowledge that the gods themselves have disagreements, indicating that there are things that some gods love while others hate. Socrates consequently concludes that, based on Euthyphro’s definition, there must exist things that are both pious and impious. Euthyphro realizes the absurdity of this outcome and acknowledges the insufficiency of his definition.

By employing this Socratic method, Socrates aims to lead individuals on a path toward genuine wisdom. It is important to note that these dialogues were written by Plato, a pupil of Socrates, and there is an ongoing debate about how accurately they represent Socrates’ actual thoughts.

Inspired by the Socratic method, Plato attributed a more precise role to dialectics in philosophy. In Book VII of the Republic, he expressed that “dialectic seeks through rational discourse alone, without using sense-perception to discern the true nature of a thing.” Therefore, Plato’s dialectic can be seen as a rational approach to exploring philosophical concepts like justice, truth, beauty, and others. In Platonic terms, it serves as a method for grasping the essence of each form and serves as a tool for accessing the world of reality beyond appearances.

Aristotle’s Dialectic and Its Influence on Medieval Philosophy

Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle in an illustration from a medieval manuscript,, ca. 1325-1335, from Devotional & Philosophical Writings, p. 276, University of Glasgow Library.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, took a further step and produced the earliest known mature work on dialectics. In Topics, a work comprising of six books on logic, dialectic is presented as the process of inventing and discovering arguments that are based on commonly accepted opinions. He even argued that dialectic was still unsystematic and basic before his own examination.

Aristotle distinguished between investigative dialectic and rhetorical dialectic, assigning the role of establishing first principles to dialectic through deductive reasoning and inference. While Plato viewed the clarification of ideas as the ultimate goal of dialectic, Aristotle incorporated the process into a more comprehensive theory of scientific and rational inquiry. However, he did differentiate dialectical reasoning from the process of logical proof in Topics: “it is the course of wisdom to realize the extent to which exactness and certainty can reasonably be expected in different sphere of deliberation.

This distinction highlights that dialectic does not provide us with demonstrative knowledge (apodeixis). However, it is important to note that Aristotle acknowledges that demonstration is not the sole path to knowledge (episteme). Consequently, he makes a clear distinction between scientific demonstration (apodeixis), which follows a process of inference (syllogismos) from self-evident principles that serve as foundational truths, and the experimental dialectical inferences drawn from hypotheses that are merely plausible. The primary distinction lies in their premises rather than their logical structure. Demonstrations require true and foundational premises, whereas dialectical deductions rely on accepted premises. Aristotle considered this type of proto-scientific dialectic not only appropriate but also essential and indispensable.

The Latin title page of Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, 1596, via Wikimedia Commons.

While Plato’s dialectic aimed at making distinctions and highlighting differences, Aristotle sought to go beyond that and establish the principles (archai) within a particular field of study. In other words, while Plato’s dialectic pursued ultimate truth (idea), Aristotle’s dialectic aimed at fundamental or basic truths.

Initially influenced by the Stoic concept of dialectic as formal logic, a particular understanding of dialectic was transmitted to the early Middle Ages through Boethius and his work De Dialectica. Consequently, dialectics became recognized as the science of precise reasoning by medieval thinkers of the time.

With the revival of Aristotelian thought in the 12th century, dialectic further solidified its esteemed position. For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas, a prominent medieval philosopher, employed a dialectical framework in his renowned work, Summa Theologica. He presented contentious questions and thoroughly examined the advantages and disadvantages of various plausible answers. This practice of comprehensively evaluating positions through an exploration of pros and cons among different perspectives became a standard approach until the Renaissance.

However, many medieval scholars interpreted dialectics as encompassing logic in its entirety. As a result, dialectic became an integral component of the medieval trivium, alongside rhetoric and grammar, within the institutionalized education system. Due to its prominent role in academic debates and discussions, dialectic maintained significant importance in higher education during the medieval period.

It was only with the rise of humanism in the 15th century that the ancient views on dialectic experienced a revival. Rodolphus Agricola’s De Inventione Dialectica played a key role in reestablishing the foundations of dialectic based on Aristotelian principles. The work emphasized that dialectics dealt with matters of probability by carefully considering conflicting arguments that either supported or opposed different answers to a debatable question.

German Idealism: Kant and Hegel’s Reestablishment of Dialectic

The German title page of Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant, 1781, via Wikimedia Commons

Rene Descartes‘ pursuit of certainty and his dismissal of mere plausibility grounded in informed opinions had already laid the foundation for a critical examination of dialectical reasoning by the 18th century. But it was Immanuel Kant, whose teachings marked the rise of German Idealism, who conducted a comprehensive examination of dialectics.

Dialectic at that time was essentially a tool for managing an eternal truth that was taken for granted based on the principles of logic. During the medieval period, revelation was introduced as an additional indisputable point of reference. For Kant, however, it is not within the reach of human beings to attain any definite theoretical knowledge regarding the fundamental nature of things. This especially pertains to matters that lie beyond sensory perception, such as freedom, justice, and God, which had been frequently scrutinized through dialectical reasoning.

In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant tries to establish the boundaries and extent of metaphysics. A central theme of Kant’s work is that we can never apprehend objects in their true nature (the thing-in-itself), detached from observation, but only their appearances. This is due to our inherent limitations, as we are confined to our concepts like time and space, perceiving things solely through these categories.

For Kant, reason is entangled in a dialectical process where each question gives rise to another question, as every answer itself generates further inquiries. In the chapter titled “Transcendental Dialectic,” Kant aims to elucidate the inherent contradictions found within unbounded reason. He utilizes what he calls Antinomies, which are four pairs of contradictory propositions concerning topics like the existence of God. In doing so, Kant aims to demonstrate that both opposing propositions can be logically supported, even though they are mutually exclusive.

This, he argues, is the futility of engaging in dialectical reasoning that pertains to propositions surpassing the grasp of human intellect. That’s why he considered dialectic to be a transcendental illusion of understanding.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger, 1831, via Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Dialectic acquired an entirely new understanding through the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, another significant philosopher of German Idealism. As a theory that explains change through their own internal contradictions, discursive dialectic is now superseded by natural-process dialectic, as the movement becomes a necessary progression. Rather than arising from a conflict between two independently existing entities, the dialectical movement in Hegel’s philosophy is an inherent potential prompted by contradictions present in all entities, whether mental or material.

Hegel developed two versions of dialectic. The narrower version, known as the highly formalized dialectic presented in his Science of Logic, sought to offer a theoretical justification for Kant’s categories. Hegel illustrates this through the example of the dialectic of existence from Science of Logic. First, existence is posited as pure being; however, pure being, lacking content, turns out to be inseparable from nothing. Yet, being and nothing are united in the process of becoming. Here, it is recognized that what is emerging into existence is simultaneously dissolving back into nothingness. This can be observed in life itself, where older organisms perish while new organisms are born. The crucial aspect of Hegel’s triadic dialectical process is that opposites are reconciled in the final stage by incorporating the positive elements of both sides.

However, Hegel also developed an ontological dialectic that pertained to historical progression. Hegel employs this dialectical scheme in various ways, such as in his exploration of the development of human consciousness in Phenomenology of Spirit and his examination of the actualization of human freedom in Elements of the Philosophy of Right. For Hegel, dialectical progress is not merely a tool for understanding reality, but an inherent aspect of the reality being understood. For the first time since Heraclitus, dialectic became an integral part of reality through Hegel.

Marx’s Historical Materialism: The Dialectic of History

Portrait of Karl Marx by John Jabez Edwin Mayal, 1875, via Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Marx, a former disciple of Hegel, utilized dialectic in a materialistic manner. Although he did not completely reject Hegel’s comprehensive view of dialectics, Marx believed that the dialectical method should be applied to the material world. Accordingly, he famously remarked that Hegel’s dialectic was standing on its head and that it had to be turned right side up again.

Marx sought to employ dialectics in the analysis of history by focusing on material transformations, as he believed that material conditions played a fundamental role in shaping human ideas and consciousness.

Marx’s dialectics is manifested in his materialist conception of history, which is simply presented in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx elucidates how individuals are situated within specific social relations that are determined by the economic framework of their society. The collective consciousness of society is ultimately molded by the mode and relationships of production within this framework. As time progresses, the economic structure undergoes transformation through a revolutionary process ignited by the arising contradictions between different social classes:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Marx & Engels, 1848

The statement above succinctly captures Marx’s dialectical materialism. The driving forces of history in Marxian dialectic are the opposing classes. Throughout different historical epochs, he argues, there have always been social classes in conflict, with one acting as the oppressor and the other as the oppressed. This relationship takes on various forms in different eras, as each mode of production has unique inherent dynamics: slaves and free men, plebeians and patricians, serfs and lords, proletariat and bourgeoisie. As the mode of production within a society evolves, it encounters new contradictions that ultimately lead to its replacement by a more advanced economic structure.

This is how Marx explained the process of primitive societies evolving into slave states, then feudal societies, and ultimately transitioning into capitalist states. Marx’s dialectical method, while the most concrete and attractive one, is probably also the most criticized, as it has had the greatest impact on the modern world.

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What is Dialectic? From Heraclitus to Marx


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