SAYERS VS. NORMAN ON DIALECTICS -- ROUND 1
rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sat Mar 11 02:29:39 MST 1995
DIALECTICS BOUT: SEAN SAYERS VS. RICHARD NORMAN -- ROUND 1
This is the first installment of my summary review of:
Norman, Richard; Sayers, Sean. HEGEL, MARX AND DIALECTIC: A
DEBATE. Sussex: The Harvester Press; New Jersey: Humanities
This book consists of five essays. Essays one to three I call
Round One of the debate. It remains to be seen who becomes the
champeen in the end, but I declare Norman the hands-down winner of
Sean Sayers initial defense of dialectical materialism is pretty
much the standard one: the laws of dialectics, metaphysics vs.
dialectics, etc. As such it is the usual hash of valid insights
and conceptual confusion. Worse, Sayers completely discredits
himself with copious citation of Mao, which is enough to merit
perdition in my estimation. Sayers is thus the perfect embodiment
of how NOT to present dialectics.
By contrast, Norma's treatment is exemplary. Norman is
sympathetic to some conception of dialectics, but he presents to
clearly and logically straighten out the mess of confusions and
conflations within the usual presentations. At times I have made
presentations almost exactly like his, but I was too lazy to write
out my ideas and publish them. I'm glad Norman did.
Norman sees the initial kernel of rational truth in the notion of
dialectics as a conceptual dialectic that serves as an alternative
both to reductionism and dualism, ie. the recognition of the
distinction and unity of polar opposites. Norman begins by
treating various notions presented in Hegel.
Especially exemplary is Norman's treatment of the paradoxes of
motion (p. 30-31). Norman correctly analyzes the problem of
motion: to leave motion as a logically contradictory phenomenon is
to leave it unexplained. The paradox arises because we have
viewed motion the wrong way, as an infinite series of states of
rest, which it cannot be.
Norman then analyzes how Hegel builds up his system of the
progression of categories. But then Hegel's metaphorical
expressions take over, and he sometimes conflates logical
progressions with real progressions. Nonetheless, Norman is
willing to grant the value of Hegel's _conceptual_ dialectic, but
here is where Engels mistakenly criticizes Hegel: Hegel sees
dialectics as the self-development of concepts, but his dialectics
needs to be turned upside down and viewed materialistically as the
development of real things. But Engels is wrong! Hegelian
conceptual dialectic is not incompatible with materialism.
One must first understand the distinction between conceptual
truths and empirical truths, and how the former can sometimes also
be the latter. To take a trivial example, a bachelor is always an
unmarried man purely logically, by the definition of the concepts
themselves, independent of empirical realities, while it may also
be true of actual bachelors in the real world. (p. 35) Hegel's
analysis of the relation between particular and universal would be
a non-trivial example. Lenin's treatment of the relation between
particular and universal is an analogous example (p. 36).
Hegel actually denies in his writings the possibility of evolution
in the physical world, for example the evolution of species (p.
37-38). But worse is his analysis of history as a logical
progression of the conceptual dialectic, eg. his analysis of the
historical progression from the ancient, feudal, and modern worlds
"as deriving from the logical relations between the concepts
'universal' and 'particular' (p. 40).
Pay attention people, because here is where Norman nails Hegel's
ass! Hegel uses the logical relations between universal and
particular to explain historical causation:
"Why should Hegel have held such a strikingly implausible view of
historical change? The answer lies in his philosophical idealism
...." (p. 41)
If the real world is the unfolding of Reason or God through time,
then the conceptual dialectic can be identified with the temporal
dialectic. And this is where Engels' criticism of Hegel is proper
The empirical-temporal dialectic should then be considered
separately, and it boils down to the pedestrian yet valid
recognition of change and development as opposed to a static,
unchanging conception of the world or of systems within it.
In chapter 3, Norman continues by analyzing the problem of
contradiction. This chapter too is a paragon of clarity and
Norman first of all stresses the necessity to distinguish between
dialectical contradiction and the logical law of
non-contradiction, and argues why the latter must be upheld even
if the former is admitted (p. 49). The very notion of rational
argument is at stake if one equinanimously accepts "that one and
the same proposition can be both true and false."
On the other hand, opposed to Popper, Norman does accept the
fruitfulness of paradoxes (p. 50). But while paradoxes may be
important and profound, and acceptable as fruitful statements,
they cannot be left to stand logically as they are.
And now we get to the nuts of what dialectical contradiction is
all about. Here the tender testicles of dialectics lie delicately
poised in the scrotum of their mutual interdependence: section II:
contradiction as interdependence of opposed concepts (see esp. p.
52-54). The issue is the interdependence of united yet mutually
opposed categories! (Didn't I say this in my first post?) There
are trivial examples and there are better examples:
"The relation between these opposed categories is tighter than
that between the rather trivial examples I have previously quoted.
here the point is not just that, for the one concept to be
applicable, the opposed concept must be applied to _something
else_, but rather that, for the one concept to be applicable, the
opposed concept must also be applied to _the same thing_." (p.
"The contradiction which is involved could, with more
plausibility, be said to require the assertion of a
self-contradictory statement -- for the statement that one and the
same thing possesses opposite characteristics looks like a
self-contradictory statement. However, I still want to resist
this suggestion. In all these cases the same thing can possess
opposite characteristics because they are ascribed to it under
different aspects, from different points of view." (p. 53-54)
In the text that follows, Norman's resistance is rather feeble,
however, in the footnotes on p. 65-66, he admits that the question
of logical formal contradiction is appropriately raised here.
Study carefully, folks because here is the essence of the whole
issue of dialectical logic!
In section III of the same chapter: Norman proceeds to analyze the
notion as contradiction as conflict of opposed forces, as it is
usually seen by Marxists. Here Norman agrees with Sayers that the
notion of contradiction properly goes beyond the mere notion of
conflict and opposed forces to included an interdependence of
opposed concepts as well (p. 57, 59). Norman nonetheless warns as
viewing this kind of contradiction as a logical law. When one
sees an interdependence of concepts as well as forces, then:
"... the vocabulary of 'contradiction' becomes appropriate. But
this does not entitle us to say that one force 'contradicts'
another force. The term 'contradiction' still refers to the
relation between the _concepts_ by which the forces are
characterized. The relation between the concepts 'inciting force'
and 'incited force' is one of contradiction because it is a
_meaning-relation_. The two have opposite meanings but at the
same time each depends for its meaning on its relation to the
other. this is what makes the relation between them an
interdependence of opposites, an opposition within a unity, a
contradiction." (p. 59)
Norman clarifies beautifully what I clumsily attempted to say long
ago about the tricky relation between objective and subjective
dialectics. Norman, wherever you are, I could kiss you, but no
To wind up this chapter, there is a discussion of
self-contradiction in human behavior and society. Norman promises
to return to the dialectics of nature in a future chapter, but he
distinguishes it from contradiction in human affairs.
End of Round One -- Norman wins pants down.
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