ontological dialectic

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Fri Feb 24 00:19:35 MST 1995

Hans Despain wrote

>And this once again takes us back to the
>'principle of identity,' which is not only the subject-object, but
>thought-being, infinite-finite, identity-difference, etc.  These are
>what beckon for a dialectic method, and perhaps *is* the ontological

I don't want to sound like a one note instrument, but I am curious to pursue
the issue of an "ontological" dialectic. Despain gives us some candidates,
but I must admit that I still don't really get it. If we take
infinite/finite as an example, there would seem to me to be three
possibilities. Something could be *either* infinite or finite, it could be
*both* infinite and finite or it could be *neither* infinite nor finite.
There are plausible interpretations of all three, and I find it hard to
disentangle them. So here are some rambling thoughts.

Things could have finite and infinite dimensions which could either manifest
themselves sequentially across time or be visible depending on how the
object of study was viewed. Things could be transfomed from finite to
infinite and back again. An ocean to an ancient mariner was to all intents
and purposes infinite. It became finite when it was known to have been
crossed, only to approach the infinite once we knew how to count the number
of molecules it contains. Is it a property of the thing itself to be
analysable as finite/infinite or is it a property of our way of thinking
about the object? Are we back to Kant here? How does it help to use the term
"dialectic" in coming to terms with these questions?

Finite and infinite are each conditions of the other's existence. They are
categories of thought, yet we find them useful in referring to things which
exist independently of us. One couldn't think of one without having some
notion of the other. My life is clearly of a limited duration, yet the
possibilities of what I could do during my lifetime, however long it may
last, and whoever I may be, are in theory infinite. Is it a question of
which aspect I choose to emphasize, or does reality impose an interpretation
upon me? How does it help to use the term "dialectic" in coming to terms
with these questions?

Much the same could be done with identity/difference. Am I now the same
person I was ten years ago, five years ago, five weeks ago? Am I the same as
my parents or different from them? Am I the same as other men or different
from them? Am I the same as all members of the human race or different from

This is what makes me want to define dialectic as that which reminds us that
in all these cases mutually irreducible poles are the conditions of each
other's existence. At times I think it is similar to what I believe is the
quantum uncertainty principle. If we try to isolate one property we lose
hold of the other. They are both always there, but we can never grasp them

Despite their abstractness, I do think these problems have great concrete
significance, and crop up in discussions of everything from the nature of
class to "The Bell Curve". Our strategic choices could be influenced as
well: when do we unite with certain people and against whom do we fight? How
do we change ourselves in the process of changing the world? That's a
question that goes right back to the third thesis on Feuerbach, and I don't
know that we have a satisfactory answer to it yet.

Howie Chodos

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