dialectical logic - some ideas for Les Schaffer

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sat Jul 12 11:35:58 MDT 2003

> Jurriaan:
> can you give me a decent working definition of "dialectical logic"?
> i notice it is rarely well defined in marxist circles.
> by the way, i've been thinking about your comment to Huato yesterday
> that science is not mainly about modeling but about changing the
> world. i like applying "marx's razor" to science in that way.
> but how would you classify, say, relativistic cosmology in this
> context. how does insight into character of big bang help change the
> world. i would be curious to hear your insights.
> cheers
> les

Dear Les,

I cannot give you a working definition of dialectical logic (except see
below), because nobody can fully agree about what it is about, plus, many
people who write about dialectics are not experienced in logical
formalisation at all, whereas, if you went to study with Quine or Putnam or
Haack, then they would tend to say, yes, but that idea is already covered in
some or other type of logical formalisation (of course, nowadays the study
of logical formalisation is a lot more sophisticated then when Von Neumann
had his brilliant ideas). A lot of so-called "dialectical" logic simply
disappears at the level of a high-order formalisation, i.e., if you unpack
what is really asserted in the name of "dialectics" and try to formalise it,
which you usually can, if you can specify the dialectic involved
non-ambiguously in ordinary language. Formalisation simply spells out what
the particular dialectic consists in. But suppose human behaviour and nature
contains hundreds of dialectical processes, many of which operate at the
same time. Then, to formalise that, you might have an almost impossible
task. Okay, but I will make some comments for you.


Stalin wrote, or had written, this piece on "historical and dialectical
materialism", and it is fascinating how, in the context of his dictatorship,
he was able to impose this text on the most varied fields of human
inquiry/activity as a sort of overarching "metaphysic", a philosophical
guide. Of course, Russian rocket scientists had absolutely no practical use
whatever for dialectical materialism in designing launching systems, they
might have seen it as a bureaucratic apology or as a way of policing
thought, nevertheless the metaphysic of dialectical materialism, positively
interpreted, could define a sort of personal cosmology, or the boundaries of
experience scientifically/philosophically considered, or a way of thinking
about reality. In fact, an important purpose of dialectical materialist
philosophy in the Soviet Union was to assist the "rooting out" of religious
superstition and promote an atheist, scientifically grounded world view (the
majority of citizens in Stalin's empire were themselves raised in a
religious milieu of one stripe or another). It is wellknown in Western
science that scientific researchers do operate with personal metaphysical
beliefs, even if they are not religious believers (see Stefan Amsterdamski,
Between Experience and Metaphysics). Point is, apart from your professional
activity, you still have a world view, which is at least in part not based
on scientific knowledge, even if you are not aware of it. Your personal
experience is limited, and you have a need to concepts which transcend your
own experience to make sense of unfamiliar situations, and so on.


One day in 1981, I decided to a quick scan of the literature on dialectics.
I came up with a ten page bibliography or so, and analysing that, I realised
that people were talking about all sorts of things in the name of
dialectics. Some deal with methods of reasoning, some deal with problems of
epistemology, some deal with problems of ontology, some deal with problems
of language or conceptualisation, some use it to denote simply a form of
two-way "interaction" between two or more different variables or factors,
perhaps in a specific way, some talk about it in relation to problems of
history, some talk about it in relation to physics, some talk about it in
relating to abstraction processes or logical levels of inquiry and analysis,
some talk about a "metaphysic", some talk about a way of viewing causality,
and so on. Different people are fascinated by different aspects of Hegel's
thought, for example, Lenin is fascinated by the idea of the unity of
opposites (he trained as lawyer), and Trotsky is fascinated with the idea of
quantitative changes causing qualitative changes, and sometimes the
dialectic of the particular and the general (he was a dropout
mathematician), and Mao Ze Dong was very interested in the concept of the
negation of the negation (he worked as library assistant, clerical stuff or
something like that etc.).


The persistence of dialectical theory is explained really by the fact that
in human practical activity, numerous inferential processes are occurring or
are implied, at one and the same time, and that they occur, or are implied,
within one or several coexisting contexts or processes. If I would operate
strictly with the three basic laws of Aristotelian logic (identity,
non-contradiction, and excluded middle term), I would not even get across
the road. I may be so stupid, that I am only aware of these three laws, but,
in getting across the road, my brain is actually engaging in numerous other
inferential processes (systematic experiential associations) even if I am
not aware of that. These inferential processes do not conform to
Aristotelian logic, even although Aristotle might assist me, in formalising
those processes, if I could precisely identify their logical shape.


This is readily apparent in ordinary language as well. For example, a lover,
secret agent or a criminal may say some quick words to a partner with hwhom
he is intimate (as in a movie for example), which are highly meaningful, but
the outsider, who does not know the context or background or action involved
(or who has just switched the TV on), would regard the utterance as
illogical, arbitrary, meaningless or crazy, rather than determinate or
meaningful. The words denote maybe something very complex, but it would
require a lot of background knowledge, imagination or abstractive powers to
understand the full meaning, never mind the logic in it. This already
suggests that our ability to construct formalisations of inferential
processes is rather limited, because the brain infers a lot more, than we
are consciously aware of, it makes a lot more experiential associations,
searches for appropriate context, but the way that it does this is not very
clear or maybe consistent, even if we can demonstrate that the associations
can be made in a systematic, repeatable pattern. It is one thing to say that
a systematic pattern exists. It is another thing to formalise that process,
applying logic. This subject is sometimes studied in the context of research
on artificial intelligence.


George Lakoff has written books about the types of basic "metaphors" which
inspire the thought, language and communication of the ordinary American,
and he argues that these metaphors are derived from lived experience as
human beings, they use them more or less unconsciously, and they importantly
influence the patterns of abstraction that they use. These metaphors are
learnt through socialisation and "growing up".  I think you can place
dialectical thought in the same category, as an alternative way of
conceptualisation, which aims to restore historicity (the temporal
dimension, historical context, historical change, transience) to human
thought, operating freely between different logical levels (capitalism of
course has the spontaneous tendency to destroy historicity, historical
consciousness). If the direction of reasoning processes or inferential
systems can be guided or inspired by certain metaphors or analogies, it
could also in principle be guided by the kinds of dialectical concepts which
Hegel among others specifies. In American pragmatism, a project to specify a
philosophy of praxis in this sense is often not encouraged, because
pragmatism is not interested in the "meaning of praxis" itself, considered
in context, but only with practical effect or practical use as a motivation
for behaviour, i.e. pragmatism is unable to reflect on itself
systematically, and in order to reflect on itself, it must refer to a
perspective which is non-pragmatic. The pragmatic view insists on the
ultimate instrumentality of all thought, the complete opposite of Hegel


Some of the more interesting descriptions of dialectical processes, showing
what is involved, I read once on the subject (there are many more):

Joachim Israel, The language of dialectics and the dialectics of language
Karel Kosik, Dialectics of the Concrete
Adolfo Vasquez, The philosophy of praxis
Leszek Nowak, The structure of Idealisation
William Stace, The Logic of Hegel
Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic
Jindrich Zeleny, the Logic of Marx
George Novack, An Introduction to Dialectics
Graham Loren, Soviet Philosophy
Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science


The reason why Marxists considered that to be a true Marxist you had to be a
competent dialectician was, that Engels had written that manuscript
"dialectics of nature" which he did not publish, which implied some sort of
cosmology or at least an ontology. Engels felt that Hegel's dialectics had
potential to shake social and natural sciences out of arbitrary boundaries
within which they often operated, and make new connections between phenomena
by reframing the subjectmatter. His dialectics seeks to combine language,
logic and causality. But it is easy to go from there, to the idea that
dialectics is a philosophers' stone or crystal ball, a source of instant
answers. A cosmology or metaphysic may be useful to orient thinking, but it
does not deliver readymade answers and solutions to questions to might want
to ask - you still have to do research, gain experience, and so on. Marx
himself refers at times to the need to "discover the dialectics in the
subjectmatter", the idea being that only through real empirical research can
you find out the dialectical relationships involved, and thus present the
subjectmatter in a suitably "dialectical" way. In other words, you do not
superimpose dialectical schemas on the subjectmatter, rather you have to
discover them within the subjectmatter, and here there is "no royal road to
science". Similar Antonio Gramsci points out, that there is no universal
scientific method, it is the object of inquiry itself, which dictates the
method appropriate to inquire into it. The subjectmatter of Marx's
scientific application of the materialist approach to history, is the
theories of the political economists. In the critical analysis of these
theories, for the purpose of building a theory of the capitalist mode of
production, of  he is using Hegel's insights, because he is looking both at
the internal logic of the development of economic ideas as well as the
rational relationship between the development of economic ideas, and the
practical social reality or human interests which give rise to them.


The general conclusion I arrived at myself, was that dialectical thought
refers to the conceptualisation of something as (part of) a process or
developmental dynamic in motion, and in time, as an historically transient
phenomenon, which contains different aspects or forces which co-exist and
feature interconnections, in a way which is not easily captured by formal
logic, because formal logic would rule out that co-existence or tule out
those interconnections, or it would not be possible to understand it easily
in terms of formal logic. In dialectical logic, for example, one concept or
entity can merge into another, or change (undergo a metamorphosis) into
something else, but this is not easily depicted in formal logic, although
you can formalise the steps by which X merges into Y, if you can identify
discrete operations in the way that a programmer does. The suggestion in
dialectical thought is that historical processes feature systematic patterns
of a recurrent type, which we can abstractly conceptualise in a sort of
"logic", which could be useful for historical cognition. But this does not
say very much, because Hegel's concept of history is much broader than the
empiricist concept of "the past". Hegel's concept of history includes the
past in the present, and the future in the present, it connects the past,
the present and the future, it also deals with latent historical
possibilities which may not be realised.


Anything that has been conceptualised "dialectically" can subsequently be
formalised, using formal logics of some sort, at least in principle.
Inversely, our ability to invent systems of logical formalisation is
essentially limited by our ability to conceptualise, to imagine something in
a coherent way. The whole point however is that the formal logician may
become trapped by his own thinking, his own formalisation habits, his
propensity to interpret phenomena in terms of formal reasoning or logical
inferences. If that is the case, it may be that he begins to impute logical
attributes to external reality, which are not really there in external
reality, or which mask what is really going on. To operate a formalised
logical system, the meaning of terms and symbols (at least some terms) must
stay constant, if we are to manipulate them in a meaningful way. If the
meaning of terms and symbols suddenly changes, at the most elementary level
violating Aristotelian principles, then our logical inferential process
breaks down. It is a bit like talking to somebody in English, and then
suddenly switching to Arabic, or any such thing where the rules of the game
are suddenly changed. That inferential process is dependent on the stability
of meaning, and the constancy of logical operators. If that meaning changes,
then you have the equivalent of an error in your computer programme. However
in the real world meaning is not so "fixed" and changes all the time, sharp
logical boundaries do not exist, and, historical processes feature
characteristics, which are simply quite different from computer programmes.
Dialectical theory can liberate us from rigid, sharp, logically discrete
categorisations, and therefore can "unblock" our thinking, by offering a
whole series of concepts and categories which specify the characteristics of
"process, change, transience, transition, mediation and development",
providing us with a language in which to talk about that, which shows how
these characteristics are related to each other, or may be related to each
other. And this may aid our ability to conceptualise something new.


So my conclusion really is that dialectical thought is not in any way a
substitute for logical formalisation or practical verification, but rather
an aid to it. Dialectical thought might help to reconceptualise or reframe
the basis of the inferential process, or the basis of practical experience,
or it might help to adjust inference or practice is some way. Dialectical
thought focuses on the categories we have used to "fix" reality and might
relativise and historicise those categories. So dialectical thinking,
formalisation and practical experience all have to work together.
Dialectical thought may help to "free up our thinking", just as sometimes we
need to think pragmatically "("never mind theory") or do something without
thinking at all about anything. This is particularly important in the
innovative stage of scientific work.


Science is of course in part about modelling, but a model is an analogy, a
metaphor, a model is only a prologue to a substantive theory of the object
that it is supposed to model. A model tries to identify salient features of
an object which we interpret to be essential defining characteristics of
that object, and then we study how those features are related under certain
conditions. But why do we do this ? Because we lack a sophisticated causal
theory about how the object fits together, and what its place in the world
is. So we make a model of it, which, we hope, resembles reality in important
ways, and then we study the properties of the model logically, in order to
better understand the nature of the object. But the problem with models is
precisely that we build them armed with analogies and simplifications, we
may build those models only because we do not know how to theorise, and we
may not be fully aware of, where the assumptions we make in building the
model really originate. Those assumptions may be themselves arbitrary, or
based on inappropriate associations. The young Marx himself remarks, "in
analysing the questions of the day, it requires an experienced eye, to
separate out what belongs to the individual personality from what belongs to
the historical epoch, or social situation in which he lives."


As regards cosmology,  when people do scientific research they do have a
cosmology, and this does influence their thinking. This cosmology is
probably partly metaphysical, and partly based on scientific findings. But
if I apply my views about the origins of the physical universe, the
cosmology that I have about it, to research about social problems, then I am
likely to make Rylean "category mistakes" and apply a way of thinking to
society, which may not be appropriate to the study of society, because a
social totality has an ontological structure which has nothing much to do
with physical laws, although physical laws may impact on that social
totality. To take the example of socio-biology again, I may argue that
social behaviour is explained basically by biological forces and
characteristics, but in so doing, I may enormously distort the reality of
social relations and social interactions, which may not be reducible to or
explicable in terms of biological processes at all, but consist precisely in
the subordination of biological processes to other sorts of motivations,
interests and values, due to the fact that society exists in a way, which is
semi-independent from human biological processes, and gives social behaviour
a "plasticity" or flexibility which nature by itself does not provide
spontaneously. The whole tenor of dialectical thought is to reject a
reductionist approach, except in special, simple cases, and to emphasise
multiple levels of determination, the fact, that it is often impossible to
reduce everything to one simple factor. The cases where you can reduce the
explanation of a piece of behaviour to one simple factor are simple, limited
cases. As soon as we are dealing with something more complex, we have to
deal with an interplay of many different variables and multiple levels of
determination. And it is there that dialectical thinking remains relevant.


In analyising or explaining social relations, social interaction, and social
behaviours, we have a special resource as well as a special handicap, namely
that we are part of the social universe we seek to study, we are a conscious
human agent ourselves.
This circumstance is a resource because, as Vico says, "we can understand
society because we have been involved in making and remaking it, it is our
world, we get part of this knowledge for free through practical experience
with it". But it is also a handicap, because the social circumstances in
which we live may shape our very view of those social circumstances and
influence our view about society and history, in ways of which we are not,
or not fully aware. This is the problem of ideology to which Marx refers. It
requires a critical and reflexive approach in order to attain some sort of
objectivity about it. But not only that, reflexivity also implies that our
very notions about society which we may express observably, can influence
social outcomes, and change ourselves and society. In that sense, there is
no "neutral" social point of view, we are all partisan, we have an interest
or a stake, all we can do, is have appropriate regard for the available
valid empirical evidence. This predicament of social science suggests that
dialectical thought may be an important aid, either to revolutionise social
conditions and social thought about them, but also help us to adjust to
social conditions, by relativising our social abstractions in appropriate
ways and alerting us to ways in which fixed categories being used may impede
the understanding of society and its development. A sociology professor in
New Zealand I met said once, "there is room for fuzzy concepts in
sociology", which is a proto-dialectical conception. A philosophy lecturer
said to me, "there is room for speculative thought in philosophy", which is
also a proto-dialectical conception.

But now, my dear Watson, I must prepare for dinner.



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