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Dialectical Reason

The concept ‘dialectical reason’, as used by
‘marxist’ theorists, contains buried within it a
number of theoretical problems, problems which have
significance for where why and how we may use dialectical reason. There are three issues, in particular,
on which reflective clarity is both always needed and
often lacking. Firstly, what precisely distinguishes
‘dialectical reason’ from ‘analytical reason’?

Secondly, how does one legitimise the use of dialectical reason – that is, are there ‘laws’ of dialectical
reason, how are they discovered, and to what may they
be applied? Thirdly, given that the central concept
of dialectics is that of ‘totality’, and that it is
therefore assumed that the observer is always part of
the totality being observed, how, if at all, does one
escape from historical relativism?

level leads to an analogous recognition of some sort
of individual autonomy. For a materialist dialectic
the future is real and personal and urgent. The
individual is involved in it through his choices, and
so, even if it could be shown that inorganic nature
works dialectically, it would still be necessary to
show independently the way in which the projects of
individuals interlock to c~eate the historical


It is this that Sartre is trying to do in The
Briefly, he does it by showing that a free
activity is by nature dialectical, and that in the
world of scarcity this dialectic loses itself in the
phenomena of ‘alienation’ and of ‘serial praxis’, and
so becomes subject to a necessity of which it is
itself the origin. It is thus possible to speak of
patterns of historical development without postulating
that these patterns.are the expression of laws external
to and independent of human behaviour, or that they
derive from some human essence.


It is these problems that Sartre is dealing with
in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. * This important
contribution to the understanding of dialectic has not
been widely discussed in English-language circles, and
there are certainly many ‘dialecticians’ who have not
yet internalised it. So it seems to me to be useful
to give a brief account of the Introduction to the
Critique, in which he formulates the problem of the
limits and the applicability of dialectical reason.

Historically speaking, Marx and Engels’ s materialism began as a theory about the relations between the
individual, the world in which he produces his means
of subsistence, his fellows, with whom he enters into
specific relationships in his productive activities,
and the social, political and ideological forms which
arise on the basis of these relationships. This
theory was then used as an interpretative tool for the
study of social forms and historical changes, and used
very fruitfully. However, at some point it seems to
have occurred to them that they had only stated this
theory, and had not proved it by showing, from an
account of the nature of the individual, why he is
related to the world in this particular way. So they
– or, rather, essentially Engels, is the ‘Anti-Dtlhring’

and in Ludwig Feuerback and the end of classical
German philosophy – tacked on the theory of the
‘dialectic of nature’ to fill in the gap.

This involves a critical discussion of orthodox
marxism, and in particular of its epistemological basis,
and of the ‘dogmatic metaphysics’ of the dialectics of
nature. Sartre points out that the concept of a
unified and overarching dialectic of nature with its
deterministic and/or teleological implications, tends
to destroy the specificity of human history, and leads
to Engels showing us ‘men being produced by the system
without making us see the system being produced by men,
and reducing interhuman conflict to being no more than
a symbolic expression of the contradictions of the
economy’. (Situations VII p.lS)
If human history is to be made the result of the
working of a universal law or process, it becomes
impossible to justify, in the materialist philosophy,
one’s claim to know that this is in fact the case.

For since my thoughts are a part of the world my claim
to know must itself be a result of the process, just
like any other idea. Unless I can show some way in
which my statement could be independently verified, by
pointing to some sort of autonomy from external
historical determinism, I cannot claim that it is
true. Hence the importance of the ‘methodological
principle which makes certainty begin with reflection.’

(RD-QM 30). I have to start off from the reflectively
discovered fact that it is I who am doing the thinking,
and trying to discover the truth, and that any theory
which in principle denies me this autonomy contradicts
its own basis. The difficulty with this methodological
principle is that it sometimes gets confused with an
ontological principle to the effect that mind or idea
is ‘more real’ than matter, and so results in an
idealist philosophy in which only reflective knowledge
finds a place, and the breakthrough into the ‘outside
world’ never gets made. So Sartre stresses that such
a methodological principle ‘in no way contradicts the
anthropological principle which defines the concrete
person by his materiality’. (RD-QM 30)

Sartre argues (a) that the implications of this
theory are such that it contradicts rather than complements the first theory; (b) that Marx and Engels do not
use it in their social analysis; and (c) that his own
account of ‘being human’ in fact does provide an adequate foundation for their historical theory.

The Introduction to The Critique of Dialectical
Reason is divided into Part A – ‘Dogmatic Dialectic and
Critical Dialectic’ and Part B – ‘Critique of Critical
Experience’. In these two sections Sartre attacks the
inadequate theoretical foundations of the dogmatic
dialectic and sketches out the form which the attempt
to provide more adequate foundations must take. His
two major criticisms are: (1) that a philosophical
theory must at the very least justify its own existence,
and this historical materialism has failed to do “This totalising thought has founded everything except
its own existence” (RD 112); (2) that the necessity of
the laws of the dialectic is either taken for granted
or else ‘proved’ empirically, both of which are inadequate approaches; and that no attempt is made to
explain why the laws of the dialectic are as they are.

Considering the dialectic of nature on a practical

* Henceforth referred to as RD. The first
part: The Question of Method, will be referred
to as RD-QM.



(1) Knowledge is universal. It always involves an
excape from the particular, from the immediate given.

This raises a problem: “Thought is both being and
knowledge of being.” (RD 122). A true statement is
both a thing in the world, a particular fact, and also
a truth about the world. We have to account for this
dual status, and in particular we have to make sure

that any theory we are putting forward does not deny
one or the other of these aspects of thought.

Hegel reduces being to thought. Marx establishes
against Hegel that “being remains irreducible to knowing”.

(RD 121). But he appears to fail to establish that
autonomy of knowing ~hich is necessary to justify his
own claim to knowledge: “Doubtless dialectical
materialism has, in regard to contemporary ideologies,
the practical superiority of being the ideology of the
rising class. But if it was only the simple inert
expression of this ascension, or even of revolutionary
praxis, if it did not turn round on it to illuminate
it, how could one speak of a progress in becoming
conscious? How could the dialectic be presented as
the real movement of History revealing itself.” (RD 123)
The crude materialism of contemporary marxists seems
to accept that their theory is “the simple inert
expression of this ascension”. But at the same time
they claim their theory to be universally true. This
is dogmatic idealism – “an idealist materialism which
is basically nothing more than a discourse on the idea
of matter”. (RD 126). This type of theory ends up
“giving man a constituted reason, that is, making of
thought a form of behaviour rigorously conditioned by
the world (which it is), while omitting to tell us that
it is also knowledge of the world”. (RO 127)
(2) Sartre quotes Engels’ account of the “most general
laws of natural and social history”: “They can be
reduced essentially to three: The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice-versa.

The law of the interpenetration of opposites.

The law of the negation of the negation.

All three are developed by Hegel in his idealist manner
as simple laws of thought …. The mistake consists in
imposing these laws on Nature and History as laws of
thought, rather than deducing the laws from Nature and
History.” (RD 127, Engels’ words)

He points out that these laws, if they are to be
necessary, cannot be ‘deduced’ or ‘induced’ from Nature
by observation – “We know since Kant that experience
gives the fact but not necessity.” (RD 130). Further,
if they are to be understood, rather than simply
stated, it is necessary that the relation between them
should be explained, which Engels does not even try to

The laws of the dialectic are, then, an attempted
formulation of those categories which necessarily have
to be used in describin~ any totality or whole.

Justifying the application of thes’e laws therefore
always involves two steps, Ca) showing that these
categories are logically implied by the concept ‘totality’ and (b) showing that the phenomenon to which they
are being applied is in fact a totality.

For something to be experienced by me it must
enter into some relationship with me, and thereby also
directly or indirectedly into some relationship with
all the other things which I mayor do experience. If
there was something in this room which had no effect
on me or on any other thing in the room, then it would
not be meaningful to say that it was in the room. It
would be in a different universe. To say that something
is in the room is to say that it is in interaction with
every other thing in the room. That is, for something
to be experienced by me, it must be part of a totality
of which I am myself a part. And the first law of this
totality is the law of interconnectedness, or what
Engels here calls “The law of interpenetration of
opposites”. There are no polar opposites within a
totality, no entities which can be understood other
than in terms of their relations to other entities.

But this interdependence is not undifferentiated.

If every thing in the universe affected me in the same
way as every other thing affected me tkenexperience
would collapse into total uniformity. The concept of
interconnectedness of things implies that different
things are connected in different ways – that is that
what is involved is an interconnectedness of different
things, rather than a simple Oneness. The totality is
structured. To say it is structured is to say that it
is made up of substructures. This fact is formulated
in terms of a law of change. A substructure has a
relative independence, in that certain changes can
occur within it without affecting its relationship to
other substructures. However, if changes within it go
beyond a certain point, then changes in its relations
with other parts can ensue. If changes have occurred
within these relations then the nature of the totality
has changed. It has become a qualitatively different
entity. This is formulated in the “law of the transformation of quantity into quality”. Quantitative
changes are changes within a substructure, changes
which can occur independently, but which if they go
behond a certain limit, change the qualitative nature
of the structure as a whole.

Before glvlng an account of Sartre’s own solution
to these problems I shall give a brief schematic outline
of what I understand by the concept ‘dialectic’.

In our ordinary common-sense thinking we think of
objects as separate, independent entities. As Hegel
put it, the central logical category of this form of
thought is the category of identity. The thing is
what it is. It is di·stinct from other things. However,
further analysis reveals that the thing is in fact in
relation with the rest of the universe. The desk that
I am writing on is only where it is and what it is
because the rest of the universe has a certain configuration. If, say, the sun were suddenly to disappear the
desk would cease to exist, as a desk, for one of the
factors which keeps it in its present position and in
its present shape is the fact that it coexists with
the sun in a particular field of force. If the sun
were to be annihilated the nature of the field of
force would change. In a very important sense the
desk is its relations with the rest of the universe.

It is a specific, determinate, way of not being the
rest of the universe. The language may be rather odd,
but the thought is not. For what is being implied is
that to understand any particular thing we have to
unravel the ways in which it is related to other things.

We have to treat it as an interdependent part of a
totality, rather than as a self-sufficient Identity.

Dialectical logic is the logic of totalities, and
dialectical reason is the attempt to make sense of
totali ties. “Each of these so-called laws of dialectics becomes perfectly intelligible if looked at from
the point of view of totalisation.” (RD 137)

Let me now attempt to state this with a little
more rigour. To speak of dialectical logic is to
imply that the ‘laws’ of the dialectic are formal,
rather than substantive laws. They are what Kant terms

The statement “All events must have a
cause” is a formal law, in that it makes no attempt to
specify the cause of any particular event. “Germs
cause disease” is a substantive law, in that it
specifies the cause for a particular class of events.

If dialectical laws are laws of logic, they are of the
first type. And only if they are formal laws can it
be claimed that they are also necessary. For empirically discovered laws can never be necessary. They must
always be held open for possible falsification.


So far we have seen that the individual is
necessarily a part of a totality of interconnected
substructures. Our experience is temporal, and
therefore the totality of which we are a part is
itself temporal as well as spatial, diachronic as well
as synchronic. Here we encounter a problem. The
structure of a totality is a structure of interdependence. Causal relationships within a totality
are always two-~.”ay, rather than unidirectional. In
what sense, then, can the past and the future be part
of a totality? For we usually see the temporal
sequence as an unidirectional causal process. What
happened in the past is the cause of what is happening
now. What is happening now is the cause of what will
happen in the future. Only if we can show that the
future affects the present can we meaningfully speak
of a temporal totality.

It is here that we can draw on Sartre’s phenomenological account of being human in Being and Nothingness,
where he shows that human reality is temporally threedimensional. Consciousness is a project. The specific
way in which a human reality interacts with the whole
of which it is a part is by projecting a future and
acting in terms of that future. That is, consciousness
makes temporality into a totality. My present is a
particular way in which my past is organised in
relation to my future. The for-itself is its past in
the mode of not being it. In Hegelian terms, the foritself is the determinate negation of its past.

the knowing consciousness is itself an integral part
of the dialectical process. Consciousness is essentially
creative action, rather than simply observation. We are
“referred from doing to knowing and from knowing to
doing in the unity of a process which (is) itself
dialectical.” (RD 135)

The temoral law of totality is the “law of the
negation of the negation”. In dialectical terms the
negation of a negation is an affirmation, and the law
of the negation of the negation asserts (a) that change
occurs through a process of successive ‘negations’ and
(b) that the end result is an ‘affirmation’, or a
positive development in relation to the initial state.

This only makes sense if the initial state is a
‘consciousness-world’ totality. In such a totality
change occurs through action, which is the negation of
the given in terms of a projected future. Each action
is incomplete and its result is inadequate in terms of
the goal. It therefore has to be negated once more by
a further action which gets a little close~ to the goal.

Each negation is an affirmation in that it integrates
what is being negated into a new totality. Thus the
concept of the “negation of the negation” is an attempt
at a formal description of the ambiguous relationship
which human reality has to its past and to the natural
world. As Marx wrote in The 18th Brumaire of Louis
Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do
not make it just as they please; they do not make it
under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under
circumstances directly found, given and transmitted
from the past.” (Tucker,437). That is they are both
conditioned by their history and free to make something
new of their condition. They are both in a situation
and free to give that situation their own meaning.

In the Critique Sartre describes this as “the
perpetually resolved and perpetually renewed
contradiction of man the producer and man the product”.

(RD 158). Each new human transcendence dialectically
supercedes the previous historical given.

Thus the totality of which the experiencing (and
hence acting) consciousness is a part is a structure of
in~erdependent subsystems in which development takes
place as a result of the ‘negating’ character of the
experiencing consciousness itself.

I began the analysis of the concept dialectic by
pointing out that in the application of dialectical
logic we had to know whether the class of events to
which it was being applied was in fact a totality. Du
Our explication of the concept has itself revealed one
element which must be present in any process for it to
be dialectical – the element of negation. Negation is
part of the structure of the experiencing consciousness.

‘Nature’, considerely completely independent of human
reality, is not a diachronic totality. We cannot say
that there is development in Nature, for nature is
always simply what it is. States succeed one another.

Only a consciousness can relate them to one another
and evaluate them.

It is therefore possible and legitimate to treat
certain elements of the totality “human reality Nature” non-dialectically. The changes of state inside
a distant star cannot of themselves be subjected to
dialectical analysis. It is only insofar as they are
experienced and integrated into an individual’s consciousness that they become a part of the process of
development by changing both the ideas and eventually
the actions of a person in the world.

It is important to notice here that the
‘categories’ of the dialectic do not have exactly the
same status as Kantian categories. For Kant, the
categories are applied to phenomena from outside by a
‘noumenal’ consciousness which does not seem to be
itself in any way part of the process. Here, however.

The intelligibility of the dialectic comes from
the fact that “the so-called ‘laws’ of dialectical
Reason are each all the dialectic: it could not be
otherwise, or else dialectical Reason would cease to
be itself a dialectical process, and thought, as the
praxis of the theoretician, would necessarily be discontinuous. Thus the fundamental intelligibility of
dialectical Reason – if it is to exist – is that of a
totalisation. Or, to return to the distinction between
being and knowing, there isa dialectio if there
exists, at least in one ontological sector, a totalisation which totalises itself ceaselessly in its very
comprehension of the totalisation from which it
emanates and which makes itself its obj ect.” (RD 137).

Thus fully dialectical relations occur only in
the human world. But we still need to ask in precisely
what regions of the human world they occur. And this
is Sartre’s essential problem in the Critique. The
praxis of the individual is necessarily dialectical,
and each individual’s personal history is a dialectical
whole. But can we go beyond this? Can we, as Marx
does, treat society lInd ·the history of society as
dialectical wholes?

Each individual consciousness is a totalising
process. But history is made up of millions of individuals totalising separately. If Marx’s application
of the dialectic to society is to be shown to be valid,
we must be able to show that history is in some sense
one single totalising process. Sartre formulates the
problem as follows:

It is not a question of rewriting the human
adventure, but rather of carrying out the
critical experience of connections of interiority,
or, in other terms, of grasping in resPect of
whatever real enterprises, structures or events,
the answer to· this question of principle: what
are, in the human adventure, the respective roles
of interiority and of exteriority? If in this
total experience, which is, in sum, that of my
whole life insofar as it is dissolved in all
history, and of all history insofar as it is
gathered up within a life, we show that the
relation of exteriority (analytical and positivist
reason) is itself interiorised by practical
multiplications and that it only acts on them
. (as an historical force) to the extent that it
becomes internal negation of interiority, we shall
find ourselves situated by this research at the
very heart of a totalisation in progress.

(RD 146-7)
That is “we have seen that the universe vanishes
in a dream if man submits to the dialectic from outside
as his unconditional law; but if we imagine that each
individual follows his own whims and that these
molecular collisions produce a collective result, we
shall find average or statistical results, but not a
historical development.” (RD 131)
If we are to understand history as a dialectical
process, rather than as a mere succession of states,
we must, starting from individual praxis “follow with
care the thread of Ariadne which, from this praxis,
will lead us to the various forms·of human ensembles;
we must seek, in each case, the structure of these
ensembles, their real modes of formation from their
elements, and then their totalising action on the
elements which have formed them.” (RD 153)


When we describe social events are we doing anything other than describing the sum of a collection of
atomic behaviours? When Marx speaks of ‘classes’ and
‘class-struggles’ what does he mean? What does it
mean to say of an individual that he or she belongs to

a class, to speak of classes ‘struggling’, and to speak
of history as the result of the class struggle? One
could treat the term ‘class’, or any similar term, in
one of three ways:


dialectical intelligibility rests on the intelligibility of each new determination of a practical
totality, insofar as this determination is nothing
other than the maintenance and the totalising
transcendence of all the anterior determinations,
insofar as this transcendence and maintenance are
illuminated by a totality to be realised.” (RO 150)
As I write these words I am creating something
irreducibly new which is nevertheless only
intelligible in terms of what I have already written.

My present writing both maintains and transcends what
I have already written. My present act embodies the
intelligibility (to me) of my past. That is, it is
the determinate negation of my past.

It is a mere name – a word which can be used to
classify people in a particular way, without
saying anything about the relations between the
people. This is the nominalist or ‘sardine-tin’

use – sardines in a tin have no relationship to
one another other than the fact of being in the
same tin. They are related externally, rather than



It is a real entity, and the individuals who make
up the class are simple by-products of the class
– secondary and derived beings.

Sartre formulates this as follows:

If the dialectic exists, we ~st submit to it as
the insurmountable rigour of the totalisation
which totalises uS r and grasp it in its free
practical spontaneity as the totalising praxis
which we are; at each degree of our experiment,
we must find, in the intelligible unity of the
synthetic movement, the contradiction and the
indissoluble link of necessity and freedom …

necessity as the apodictic structure of the
dialectical experience lies neither in the free
development of interiority nor in the inert
dispersion of exteriority. It imposes itself,
as an inevitable and irreduceable moment, in the
interiorisation of the exterior and the
exteriorisation of the interior.

The class is not a real entity, but neither is it
a mere name. It is a set of internal relations
between people. Marx, following Hegel, distin-‘

guished between a class-in-itself and a classfor-itself. The latter is a class in which the
members are reflectively conscious of themselves
as belonging to a class. In this case the
relations between them are necessarily internal.

But if Marx’s use of the term is to be justified
we must also be able to show that the relations
between members of a class-in-itself are internal.

We must be able to show that even in this case
the praxis of each member involves the totalisation of his or herself as member of the class.

(RD 157)
Similarly, if we are to speak of History, we must
be able to show that the totalising activity of each
individual praxis includes within itself a totalisation
of all other praxes. Can we steer between the ideas of
History as a super-human process, on the one hand, and
history as a meaningless and accidental succession of
events on the other hand? In both these cases people
are mere products of the historical process, whether
it be super-human or subhu~an. If we can steer
between them, we can show hc:>w history might become a
completely self-conscious human process, in which
humans can take control. Freedom is a cultural
product, and unless this can happen we shall have to
conclude that freedom only emerges by accident.

The concept of ‘determinate negation’ formalises
the general relationship between freedom and necessity.

Sartre’s problem now is to spell out what is implied by
this in the field of social relations. To follow his
argument closely any further is impossible within the
limits of an article, so I shall just refer to the
central concept which he develops to handle the
tions between internal and external relations in
society: this is the concept of the series.

To say that history is purely made up of internal
relations is to imply that history is a ‘hyper-organism’

with a consciousness of its own. To say that history
is the arithmetical sums of purely external relations
is to make it unintelligible. The concept of the
series, and of serial praxis, is designed to describe
the way in which external relations between people
become internalised. To do this it is necessary to
show that I always act in terms of any relationships
of externality which exist between myself and other
people, and that these relationships then become
internal relations of a special kind – relations of
impotency. The market is of Course the paradigm of
the serial relationship. ‘The market’ is the serial
summation of the acts of each individual producer,
consumer or worker, and each individual internalises
it as his/her relationship to all the others, and at
the same time as the impotence of all of them to
effect the outcome. However, in the necessity to
internalise externality before it becomes a historical
factor lies the possibility of moving beyond the
impotence of serial praxis to self-conscious group

We can clarify this problem by looking at Sartre’s
concepts of intelligibility and necessity. “If dialectical Reason exists, it must define itself as the
absolute intelligibility of an irreducible novelty
insofar as this is irreducibly new.

It is the opposite
of the positivist attempt to illuminate new facts by
reducing them to old facts.” (RD 147). For ‘analytical
reason’ explanation consists in showing that some new
observed event is an example of some previously
observed class if events. When Newton explained the
fall of the apple he merely pointed out that its fall
was one particular example of the way in which bodies
move in relation to one another. That is, in the
positive sciences to explain an event is to show that
it is an exemplification of a particular descriptive
generalisation. What do we do if we find something
new? The tendency of the positive sciences is to reformulate the descriptive generalisation to show that
it is not new in itself, that it is not qualitatively
different from what was previously observed. As a
result of the Michelson-Morlay experiment Einstein reformulated Newton’s generalisation to include the
behaviour of bod’ies approaching the speed of light, and
showed thereby that the result of the experiment was
not something radically new, but a phenomenon of a
class of which the phenomena which act in accordance
with Newton’s generalisation are also members.

However, Sartre, and all dialectical theorists,
are arguing that historical ‘novelties’ are not of
this kind. As he showed in Being and Nothingness,
consciousness is free, and this means that it can give
new meanings to situations in its projection of itself
towards the future. Human praxis is a continuous
invention of new meanings, but these meanings are
nevertheless intelligible to the actor. ‘~his




prevents us, therefore, from starting
criticism with criticism of politics, with taking
sides in politics, hence with actual struggles,
and identifying ourselves with them. Then we do
not face the world in doctrinaire fashion with a
new principle, declaring, ‘Here is truth, kneel

We develop new principles for the world
out of the principles of the world. We do not tell
the world, ‘Cease your struggles, they are stupid;
we want to give you the true watchword of the

We merely show the world why it
actually struggles .•. ”

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