Dialectics, Materialism and More

Chris M. Sciabarra sciabrrc at is2.NYU.EDU
Fri Jun 23 09:05:31 MDT 1995

     This is in response to a few points raised by Hans and
Joe on the issue of dialectics as method.

     Hans asks me to clarify the relationship of ontological
and epistemological concerns.  Perhaps the best way to do
this is the following:  I draw a distinction between
"dialectics" and "dialectical materialism."  Dialectics is a
formal, methodological commitment to reconciling dualisms and
to preserving the analytical integrity of the whole.  I
believe that implicit in this commitment is a broad ontology
of relations.  That all of human knowledge is internally
related is reflective of the fact that existentially, the
universe is a single whole, not a duality of heaven and
earth.  As a whole, all of its parts are related IN SOME
SENSE.  Dialectics as method is a formal commitment to
examining these relationships within specific contexts.
Since it is impossible for any human being to establish the
relationship of a single fact to every other fact in the
universe, it is imperative to relate facts to other facts in
a specifiable context.  Marx does this in that he defines his
context as capitalism, a social formation that can be
examined synchronically (as an organic system) and
diachronically (as a system with a history).

     Note that this is an epistemological orientation with an
IMPLICIT ontology, namely, organicism and internal relations.
So, we agree Hans, that this is an ontological step implicit
in the methodology.  But to say that there are internal
relations and that social reality is an organic whole is not
the same as saying that the relations are MATERIAL, or that
the whole is MATERIAL.  Dialectical MATERIALISM fills in the
formal methodological categories of dialectics with a further
ontological commitment--that the primary factor in social
reality, the factor which is most important in analyzing
internal relations and organicism is MATERIAL.  Naturally,
this does not mean vulgar materialism, but a kind of
materialism which implies reciprocal causation, a conjunction
of factors that are asymmetrically skewed toward the primacy
of material conditions.  I submit however, that it is
possible to be dialectical and NOT to be a materialist per
se, even though a dialectical commitment would obviously
involve an examination of the relationship between material
and non-material factors.  The difference, I take it, is
between a formal method and a formal method conjoined with a
substantive orientation.

     Now, it is very insightful of Hans to recognize that "if
dialectic as method cannot tell us HOW categories are
related, then it seems to me we have an *a priori* system."
Well, in a sense, a formal dialectic might be characterized
as "a priori"--though, as I've pointed out, there is
nonetheless an ontology that is smuggled in the back door
which recognizes "relation" as an ontological category.  I
prefer not to call it an "a priori" commitment simply because
this makes it sound as if dialectics is a purely
rationalistic system of thinking with no relation to the real
world.  The truth is that every method must be conjoined with
some content.  The relationship between method and content is
reciprocal in that the method will affect how we organize the
contents of the mind, and the content will have reciprocal
effects on how we think.  Thus, for Marx, for instance,
recognizing the internal relations of capitalism is a formal
application of dialectics to a historically specific context.
The context influences Marx's choice of what factors are
primary (namely, the material).  But the method of viewing
that context enables Marx to trace the internal relations
between the constituent parts of the system that is

     But in my view, it is possible to use this same formal
commitment to internal relations and organic system while NOT
employing the specific material categories that Marx has
defined or established.  It is possible to have a different
view of what is primary in social reality (e.g., the primacy
of ideas, or of culture, or of politics, or of philosophy,
etc.) and to trace its internal relations with other factors.

     Joe asks some very important questions on these issues
as well.  Recognizing fragmentation in the disiplines, Joe
asks if "the inherent polarizations of this analytic
structure impedes holistic analysis."  How can dialectics
accommodate radically divergent worldviews, especially in the
light of multiculturalism?  Would it be better to address
such diversities and fragmentations as racism, sexism,
classism, "queer-bashing," etc.?  How does dialectics
conflict with the emerging ideology of multiculturalism?

     First, it is entirely possible that inherent
polarizations can impede holistic analysis.  The problem
however, runs much deeper.  Specialization in social science
is fine, but specialization achieves analytical distortion
when disciplines are cut off from one another, economics not
speaking to psychology, psychology not speaking to politics,
politics not speaking to cultural anthropology, etc.
Contemporary compartmentalization mirrors the fragmentation
in social reality.  It leads certain thinkers to disconnect
events from broader issues, social problems from each other
and from their antecedent historical conditions, and specific
political policies from their inexorable consequences.  The
movement toward more "interdisciplinary" studies is
encouraging, though even here, it seems as if we are simply
ADDING economics to politics to culture, without INTEGRATING
these disciplines.  (Often, as is the case in economics,
there is a kind of economic "imperialism" such that economics
merely absorbs the other disciplines rather than INTEGRATING

     As to the whole issue of multiculturalism and
dialectics, I can only suggest the following:  a dialectical
analysis would not deny the diversification, fragmentation,
and virtual fracturing of modern culture.  But dialectics
would force us to, once again, look at the whole as an
organic totality, one with a structure and with a history.
This may help us not so much to oppose multiculturalism, but
to UNDERSTAND why fragmentation is inevitable in a system
that encourages it and perpetuates it.

     Now, by way of example, I can suggest too, how different
dialectical thinkers approach the issue.  This will
illustrate my conviction that while the dialectic is a formal
method (a primarily epistemic orientation), it matters
greatly WHERE one enters into social analysis, that is, the
consequent analysis of an organic totality is very much
dependent on what one believes is MOST important
substantively, or ONTOLOGICALLY speaking.

     Marxists might recognize fragmentation as an inevitable
example of "false consciousness" in capitalism, a system with
material conditions that in Marx's view, ENGENDER dualism.
Ayn Rand, however, recognizes fragmentation as an inevitable
outgrowth not of capitalism (which she believes is an
"unknown ideal,") but of statism, of POLITICAL factors.  But
like Marx, she recognizes such fragmentation on mulitiple
levels of generality.  For Rand, racism and statism are
reciprocally related.  The state requires fragmentation to
consolidate its power, while racism (like all forms of social
fragmentation) requires the state to perpetuate it.  Rand
would have agreed with Marx that it was the emergence of
capitalism (albeit an "impure" capitalism) which destroyed
the enslavement of African Americans in the South.  Focusing
on the political however, does not mean that Rand is
oblivious to the other components of racism.  She analyzes
racism on three levels of generality:  the psycho-
epistemological/ethical; the cultural/linguistic; the
structural.  The first level enables her to analyze racism as
a peculiar manifestation of what she calls, a "tribal" or
"anti-conceptual" mentality.  She condemns it as immoral for
sure, and recognizes that certain cultural and linguistic
practices perpetuate such fragmentation.  Finally, she
analyzes how politics in the neofascist "mixed" economy
engenders polarization between groups.  Tribal, group, and
sub-group identification becomes a primary concern because it
seems to be the only way in which individuals can defend
themselves from mutual parasitism and exploitation.  It never
occurs to the proliferating groups that it is the system
which must be fought... not the other groups, per se.

     You don't have to agree with Rand or Marx to recognize
that a dialectical analysis seeks to identify WHY
fragmentation exists by relating it to the larger whole and
to the history of the whole.  So, I wouldn't say that
dialectics conflicts with multiculturalism per se.  I would
simply say that a dialectical mode of analysis can help us to
explain WHY such movements exist in the first place.  And
since dialectics is, as Marx explains, both "critical and
revolutionary," there is the implication that critique will
move us toward an examination of real alternatives that might
radically transform fragmented social relations, alternatives
that are neither tribal nor barbaric, but eminently human.

     Finally, I'd just like to make this last point.  I have
noticed discussion about the nature of this group, and about
the interaction of Marxists and non-Marxists.  I can only
quote from Richard Bernstein:

     "The provincialism that is so fashionable among `true
believers' of different philosophic orientations can blind us
to a serious, sympathetic understanding of other philosophers
who are working in different idioms."

     I think that the dialogue of Marxists and non-Marxists
can help each of us to comprehend not only the perspectives
of those we oppose, but the strengths and weaknesses, and
further implications of our own beliefs as well.

                              - Chris
Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra
Visiting Scholar, N.Y.U. Department of Politics
INTERNET:  sciabrrc at is2.nyu.edu (NOTE NEW ADDRESS)

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