The nature of Aristotle's dialectic

| 26th September 2019
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To change the world we must understand it, and the foundations of this understanding are the definitions we use.

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Dialectic is - for the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle - the art of persuasion. 

This art can be understood through allegory: it is like a boxing  spectacle in which two individuals spar against each other in front of a braying audience. In boxing they rely on skill to land blows on each other until one person is knocked out or loses on points. In the art of public debate dialectic is the skill or ability to land blows on the opponent’s argument with the aim of landing that knock out blow. The boxer is restricted to punching above the belt. In public debate, dialectic is restricted to the use of questions and answers to validate or invalidate a logical argument. A knock out blow would be a contradiction, falsification or paradox. Boxing as a practice remains a popular sport. Dialectic is extinct as a public spectacle. This may not be a good thing.

Read more about dialectic and systems thinking at Endoxa.

To provide a more theoretical definition, dialectic is one of the forms of intellectual inquiry. For Aristotle, dialectic was an art - alongside medicine and rhetoric - as opposed to a science - such as logic or mathematics. It can be understood as the identity between rhetoric and logic. It is, like logic, a process of discovering and validating definitions, definitions that reveal the essence of that which we aim to define. It is different to logic - or pure reason - because it does not need true premises nor does it directly seek the truth. But dialectic is about a dialogue between two, whereas rhetoric is about the one speaking to the many.

Ecological crisis 

Why is any of this useful today? The aim of dialectic is not simply to win an argument but for two (or more) people to test their own definitions and arguments in conversation with each other. This process could prove incredibly useful at a time when difficult decisions need to be made by large numbers of people in order to solve extraordinarily complex problems, not least climate change and biodiversity collapse. 

Logic can be used to test whether a statement is valid - and therefore is a defence against propaganda and ‘fake news’. Dialectic is a method of two people using logic in conversations to test the arguments of each. It is also pedagogical as it can be used by an expert to transfer knowledge to a student Dialectic can help in calibrating the knowledge gained by each - finding correlations and contradictions that may validate both or invalidate either. 

We live in a time when some people understand and accept some findings of the natural sciences (for example, proving that climate change is driven by pollution) while others don’t. Dialectic can be useful in transferring knowledge between one individual, or one community, to another. I  believe that dialectic in conjunction with active listening (or nonviolent communication) could be one tool for finding consensus among the teams and institutions that we now need to avert our ecological crises.

In short, dialectic - and specifically the form advanced by Aristotle - could be precisely the method we need today to deal with complex and urgent problems. 

This solution, however, presents its own problems. The first barrier is complexity. Dialectic as a concept can be difficult to understand and to explain, and therefore difficult to practice. There are also problems of association. Aristotle derived this method, but his own findings are morally repugnant to us. Dialectic is also associated with Marxism (and in some of its most deformed forms) and some people will not be able to see the value as a result.

Testing definitions

The difficulties in understanding dialectic begins with Aristotle’s failure - indeed, his refusal - to provide a precise definition or text about this technique. Indeed, he argued that such a thing was impossible.

Dr John D G Evans, the author of the authoritative Aristotle’s Concept of Dialectic, says the ancient Greek philosopher warned that “precision beyond a certain degree is not be expected in a work on dialectic” (89). He adds: “[T]he work which seeks to produce dialectical skill in its audience is inevitably reduced in its precision…(92)” Nonetheless, I will be as precise as I can. 

The aim of dialectic is persuasion. Dr Evans argues: “In dialectic one is required to convince, by logical means, actual people of the truth of some particular assertion” (92). Elsewhere: “In dialectic, success is achieved when one has secured the agreement of a particular opponent. To secure this agreement one must produce a sense of conviction, but one must produce it in a particular person; and while it may be true that a sense of conviction is most likely to be produced by that which is really convincing, there is no guarantee that any individual will be convinced by this” (75).

Aristotle opens Topics, his clearest presentation of dialectic, with the following: “The goal of this study is to find a method with which we shall be able to construct deductions from acceptable premises concerning any problem that is proposed - and - when submitting to argument ourselves - will not say anything inconsistent.”

To change the world we must understand it, and the foundations of this understanding are the definitions we use. We must also explain our understanding to other people. The “task of the dialectic” is “the testing of proposed definitions” (36). An agreement on definitions is both the beginning and the end of the process of validating arguments. Dialectic is concerned with the testing of definitions (where logic is the pursuit of a singular definition). Dr Evans states: "[T]he dialectician works not on the definition, but on definitions” (35).

Scope

We can begin to define dialectic itself as a bridge between the art of rhetoric on the one hand and the science of logic, and the sciences in general on the other. “Its concerns are limited neither to the absolute truth of the matter under consideration [logic] nor to the views held by persons on the matter [rhetoric]: it embraces both of these and thus has the unique function of taking us from the latter to the former” (114). 

However, dialectic for Aristotle is not the same as logic, nor rhetoric. Dialectic is not simply a persuasive argument. “The concept of dialectic imposes limit and order on what would otherwise be formless mass of sophistic material (75-76)”, writes Dr Evans. Aristotle goes further in proposing that dialectic is the practice of persuading particular people - in one to one conversation - rather than persuading people in general. 

This is the meaning of this following statement from Aristotle’s Rhetoric: "Nor will rhetoric consider what is plausible to an individual, such as Socrates or Hippias, but what is so to such-and-such people, as does dialectic.” (76) To untangle this a little: rhetoric does not consider what is plausible to an individual, like Socrates, but does consider what is to a class or group of people. Dialectic does consider the particular individual.

What is the scope of dialectic? To begin with, dialectic should be deployed when discussing issues of complexity and difficulty, where no satisfactory answers exist. This makes it all the more attractive today. “Generally, Aristotle maintains that dialectic must concern itself with matters where there is aporia, the difficulty being caused either by the existence of conflicting arguments about the particular problem or by the lack of a satisfactory explanation of the matter.” (80) 

Further: “A question which everyone would agree in answering in the affirmative or negative cannot be allowed to be dialectical, nor can such questions as 'should we honour the gods', or 'is snow white'. Dialectical questions are concerned with matters about which there is difficulty and dispute; and questions to which all would agree the answer clearly do not belong to this class ... questions that would be answered by punishment or the uses of the senses and not by argument, are also excluded” (79).

Strategy

But dialectic may not be useful for those set apart by the current cultural wars. “Aristotle is concerned with the strategy which should be adopted by the answerer in dialectical exercises which are conducted not in a contentious spirit but for the sake of testing and examining the views on some question” (80), Dr Evans points out. Dialectic is a discussion in good faith, where each side aims to move the other but leaves themselves open to being moved. 

Dialectic can discuss anything, it is “indeed concerned with everything about everything” (48). Aristotle resists “limiting the scope of dialectic to any particular department of reality.” (38) But this is in part why dialectic for Aristotle is not a science. “The price which it pays for this universality is that, unlike first philosophy, it is not scientific in character.”

So far, I have attempted to provide a very broad outline of Aristotle’s dialectic. I have offered a thumbnail definition, and then a more dialectical one. Then I’ve set out why this may be useful. I have attempted to sketch out the aims and scope of dialectic, relying heavily on Dr Evans’ work.

Next I want to discuss the method of dialectic. And when I have done that, I want to turn this method back on the concept of dialectic itself. I hope in the process to arrive at a more precise definition of the term, and to have also persuaded some of you of its utility - thereby practicing dialectic in the process.

This Author 

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is part of the Endoxa.review project. 
 

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