Chaos theory and dialectics

Chris Burford cburford at
Wed Sep 20 07:37:27 MDT 1995

Jerry's "Fourth question:

what is the *specific* relationship between chaos theory
(in *all* of its variations) and dialectics?

I think this requires an attempt at an overview of these two theoretical
approaches in their concrete historical context. It also requires taking
a marxist epistemological stand that the reality of the universe exists,
and that all ideas can at best only partially reflect it.

My dictionary tells me that "dialectics" is derived from the
exercise by mediaeval church men of structured disputation. (Hence the
expression about the devil's advocate.) I am not sure to what
extent through Aristotle or Plato they had connections with the
Socratic method of disputation, faithfully recorded by Plato.
Without knowing Aristotle well enough (can Chris S help?) I assume that
although he was a great synthesiser, his writings show strong evidence
of the effect of trying to understand reality in a disciplined
scientific way through looking at different aspects of the situation.

The discipline of disputation whether it is the Socratic method
or mediaeval "dialectics" I suggest can be seen as a method of science
suitable to a society without printing, and only laborious hand-written
books. (Legends, which often having dialectical aspects to them, are
sufficient for societies where hand written records are not necessary and
the understanding of the universe is passed down only orally.)

Dialectics as we venerate it, of the 18th and 19th centuries, is
in a world of printing. Hegel could not only elaborate a complex
structure of many apparently opposing interactions and their overall
synthesis, but he could see its reproduction in sufficient
quantities and imagine he was aproaching the height of consciousness.
Printing is central to this process. The catch is that someone may
manage to get published an alternative synthesis.

Chaos theory is virtually inconceivable except in a world of computers.

In one sense therefore it is wise to see these theories as linked to
the material base, without of course being mechanically deterministic
about it.

Given that all these theories are crude approximations to the
wonderful richness of the universe, I confess my bias that chaos theory
is "more scientific" than 19th century dialectics. I will therefore
address Jerry's question by rephrasing it to ask, if chaos theory
is now accepted as a recognised part of science, does this explain
anything about the workings of the universe that illuminates why 19th
century dialectics approached questions the way it does?

Yes I can see some features.

1) In a pattern that has some permanence over time there is usually
a mutually balanced feedback system between processes that could
in one sense be called opposed, but in the overall sense are complementary.
Ingestion and excretion. Heat loss-heat retention. Production-consumption.
The scrupulousness with which Marx looks at the commodity from all
different angles is a way of studying a dynamical system fluctuating
over time, without the advantage of more complex modelling methods.

2) One divides into two in dialectics. This is linked to the previous
point. It illustrates how discussion of the different factors of an
apparently coherent entity can illuminate in turn counterposing
features. A stone appears hard, but it is in the main a lattice of
empty space. Under certain conditions the balance of elasticity and
inflexibility will break down, and what appeared to us to be
such a durable stone, will be a stone no more.

3) Fractal scaling: each increasing power of magnification may show a
picture of comparable complexity to that at the lower level of
magnification. And this is not academic or a mere curiosity. The fine
detail at the higher power of magnification may illuminate a crucial point
about why the broader picture is at it is. Hence the validity of the
marxist principle that the concrete analysis of concrete conditions is
[I have forgotten how the quote goes - can anyone help?] - very important.

Thus the mess of Yugoslavia requires concrete analysis before it is
really possible to clarify a principled marxist line. With Bryan taking
advantage of his personal visit and connections, and me pursuing other
sources, it has been possible to get deeper and deeper into this with
some semblance of rationality. For example we have zoomed into discover
the contradiction between town and country. In order to study the
class ideology it is necessary to turn up the magnification still further:
what happens in a village between two peasant neighbours when a cow
dies. Ridiculous? Not ridiculous. Their lives depend on that cow.
This is not to say that the whole war in Yugoslavia is to be explained
by a microscopic examination of envy and jealousy in cattle rearing,
but no serious scientific analysis *rules out* the possible role of
such fractal scaling of attention. Dialectics in the idiom of the 19th
century was very prepared to shift focus in this war, and then to shift
back again.

4) Phase changes - chaos theory shows how in some situations a small
alteration in the factors may produce a big change. The temperature drops
one degree, and all the molecules of water realign themselves in chains
to form a glassy matrix, of slightly less density. The saying from
dialectics that marxists know, is about quantitative changes leading
to quantitative ones. It can be observed not only with water at the
freezing or boiling point, but with societies, when there is occasionally
and all too unpredictably a period of rapid explosive change, a revolution.

Any other similarities between the two theoretical approaches?

Chris B, London.

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list