A number of history’s most illustrious thinkers have wrestled with the meaning of ‘dialectic,’ and as a result, the concept has permutated considerably since the inception of Western philosophy. Generally speaking, dialectic is a mode of thought, or a philosophic medium, through which contradiction becomes a starting point (rather than a dead end) for contemplation. As such, dialectic is the medium that helps us comprehend a world that is racked by paradox. Indeed, dialectic facilitates the philosophic enterprise as described by Bertrand Russell, who wrote that “to teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it” (xiv).
The word ‘dialectic’ is derived from the Greek and has three classical connotations. In Plato’s writings, dialectic is a highly valued vehicle for truth; it is akin to dialogue and closely associated with the Socratic method. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that dialectic was an inferior form of reasoning, as it was based on a priori knowledge rather than empirical observation. Finally, Cicero associated dialectic with rhetoric. In modern times, dialectic has been vital within the German philosophical tradition beginning with Kant. His definition of dialectic, which is closely related to that of Aristotle, involves illusory knowledge that is reminiscent of sophistry. In other words, “[Kant's] dialectic no longer offers rules for executing convincing judgments, but teaches how to detect and uncover judgments which bear a semblance of truth but are in fact illusory” (Caygill 157). Kant’s dialectic could be considered a medium of false epistemology.
It is with Hegel, however, that the modern notion of dialectic crystallized. While his thinking was shaped by Kant’s discussion of antimonies in The Critique of Pure Reason , Hegel considered dialectic a medium of truth rather than a means to uncover illusion. Above all, Hegel’s dialectic was based on his emphatic belief in connectedness, or the interrelation of all aspects of the universe. In other words, “the apparent self-substinence of finite things appeared to him as illusion; nothing, he held, is ultimately and completely real except the whole” (Caygill 157). Indeed, dialectic was the cornerstone of his philosophy, and he conceptualized systems as diverse as the history of the world and the journey of the human spirit as operating according to dialectical structures.
Roughly speaking, Hegel’s dialectic involves the reconciliation of ostensible paradoxes to arrive at absolute truth. The general formulation of Hegel’s dialectic is a three-step process comprising the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. One begins with a static, clearly delineated concept (or thesis), then moves to its opposite (or antithesis), which represents any contradictions derived from a consideration of the rigidly defined thesis. The thesis and antithesis are yoked and resolved to form the embracing resolution, or synthesis. Succinctly put, the dialectic “actualizes itself by alienating itself, and restores its self-unity by recognizing this alienation as nothing other than its own free expression or manifestation” (Bottomore 122). This formula is infinitely renewable; Hegel contended it would only terminate upon the world’s end. Each time synthesis is achieved it “generate[s] new internal contradictions, and then a further resolution” (Macey 96). It is also teleological because “each later stage of dialectic contains all the earlier stages, as it were in solution; none of them is wholly superceded, but is given its proper place as a moment in the whole” (Russell 731). The infinite character of the dialectic reflects Hegel’s notion of holistic truth and his optimistic belief in progress.
Dialectic permeated Hegel’s philosophy, but his dialectical model of subjectivity as the interpenetration between subject and object probably holds the most relevance for us today. In The Phenomenology of Spirit , Hegel described subjectivity as “a being-for-self which is for itself only through another” (115). In other words, I can never define myself purely in relation to myself; it is through my interaction with the external world that I become aware of my self-consciousness. The subject only exists through its relationship with others: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (111). The following passage addresses this dialectical relationship: Among the countless differences cropping up here we find in every case that the crucial one is that, in sense-certainty, pure being at once splits up into what we have called the two ‘Thises,’ one ‘This’ as ‘I,’ and the other ‘This’ as object. When we reflect on this difference, we find that neither one nor the other is immediately present in sense-certainty, but each is at the same time mediated : I have this certainty through something else, viz. the thing; and it, similarly, is in sense-certainty through something else, viz. through the ‘I’. It is not just we who make this distinction between essence and instance, between immediacy and mediation; on the contrary, we find it within sense-certainty itself…(59, Hegel’s emphasis). Significantly, subjectivity is not merely a one-sided relationship through which the outside world, or [reality , (2)] , is defined (mediated) according to sensory input (see senses). Hegel’s subject is not an autonomous entity that interprets the world; additionally, the world interprets the subject. The subject is constantly adjusting its self-conception based on its interaction with external reality.
Marx shared Hegel’s interest in modeling subjectivity as a dialectical relationship. Dialectical materialism is the first important permutation of the Hegelian dialectic, and the ways in which it departs from Hegel can be summarized by a cursory glance at the fundamental difference between Idealism and Materialism. In short, Hegel’s dialectic assumed that rationality was the driving force in the universe, whereas Marx focused on material forces as directing the world’s course. In other words, “within the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism, the idea of the dialectic refers to the contradiction between classes, the forces and relations of production, and modes of production” (Macey 96).
The synthesis of Hegel’s cerebral metaphysics and Marx’s secular philosophy is embodied in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. Martin Jay, a noted Frankfurt School historian, writes that, “Critical theory, as its name implies, was expressed through a series of critiques of other thinkers and philosophical traditions. Its development was thus through dialogue, its genesis as dialectical as the method it purported to apply to social phenomena” (40). While aspects of Hegelian and Marxist dialectics played an important role in the formulations of the Frankfurt School at large, Adorno was particularly taken with dialectical formulations, an emphasis that can be registered in countless ways down to the paradoxical aphorisms for which he is famous. The rudiment of Adorno’s worldview is the notion that progressive and regressive elements of society derive from a single source. This principle is illustrated in The Dialectic of Enlightenment , in which he and Horkheimer posit that the “Enlightenment has put aside the classic requirement of thinking about thought” (25). This position is implicit in many tenets of Frankfurt School aesthetics, including conceptions of aura, modern sensory experience and the culture industry.
While Adorno’s appropriations of dialectic are not purely Hegelian, he shared Hegel’s interest in interpenetrative subject/object relationships. His work along these lines is particularly relevant to media studies because he often focused on the relationship between audience and artwork. He asserted that this relationship often worked according to a negative dialectic through which society influenced the commercialization of art and art, in turn, discouraged reflective experience in society. Additionally, Adorno elucidated the dialectical relationship between the artist and culture. For example, his essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society” uses a dialectical model to expound the interpenetration of poetry and society. Adorno explains that, “the subject and object are not rigid and isolated poles but can be defined only in the process in which they distinguish themselves from one another and change” (44). Thus, the ‘ lyric I’ is always defined through its antipathetic relationship to society. Furthermore, it is mediated through language, which is organically oriented toward society because of its communicative function. Adorno’s debt to the Hegelian dialectic is evident when he writes that, “The paradox specific to the lyric work, a subjectivity that turns into objectivity, is tied to the priority of linguistic form in lyric” (43).
The polymorphous dialectical formulations of Frankfurt School theory anticipated the multifarious interpretations of dialectic in the contemporary sphere vis-à-vis semiotics and the philosophy of language. Other intellectuals have adopted the term in a more generalized manner, e.g., Robert Smithson posited dialectic as “a way of seeing things in a manifold of relations, not as isolated objects” (119). Smithson criticized the Hegelian dialectic as “an inner movement of the mind” (119) and described earthworks such as The Spiral Jetty as exploding the “formalistic view of nature” (119). Generally speaking, dialectic can be a useful way to conceptualize subject/object relationships in any number of contexts, particularly artistic contexts. Dialectic allows us to break down the bifurcated model of spectator/artwork so that, for example, it becomes possible for both the reader and writer to create meaning in a poem, and for an abstract (see abstraction) painting to reveal something intrinsic to both artwork and beholder.
Adorno, Theodor. On Lyric Poetry and Society, Notes to Literature: Volume One. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Bottomore, Tom. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.
Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.
Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 2001.
Inwood, Michael. A Hegel Dictionary. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Macey , David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin Books, 2000.
Russell, Bertrand. The History of Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster 1945.
Smithson, Robert. “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” The Writings of Robert Smithson: Essays with Illustrations. Ed. Nancy Holt. New York: New York University Press, 1979.