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On Dialectic

On Dialeclic
Richard Norman
This paper is the first stag,e of an attempt to
answer the question ‘What is dialectic?’ I
assume no prior knowledge of the subject and
only a minimal prior knowledge of philosophy.

I am aware that this task has been attempted
many times before. But one of the things which
I have found particularly confusing in accounts of
dialectic is that they seenl to run together, under
the heading of ‘dialectic’, a number of different
ideas. My own difficulties in understanding what
is meant by ‘dialectic’ have consisted largely in
trying to see how these different strands fit together. In this paper I shall attempt to show that,
initially, we can best understand their unity by
looking at the Hegelian origins of dialectic. Within Hegel’ s philosophy the various strands can be
held together, but once we abandon his philosophical system we can no longer connect the different
aspects of dialectic in the way that he does.

Marxist writers, and especially Engels, have
recognised this up to a point, and have made
correct and important criticisms of the Hegelian
dialectic. Nevertheless I find unsatisfactory the
way in which they have then described the relation between Marxist dialectic and Hegelian
dialectic, and in the latter part of this paper I
shall offer some criticisms of Engels’ account.


I begin, then, with Hegel – or rather, I begin
with the philosophical background to Hegel, since
one needs this in order to understand the HegeIjan
version of dialectic. One of the basic problems
of traditional philosophy has been the problem of
opposites, that is, the problem of the relation
between certain very fundamental opposed concepts such as mind and matter, essence and
appearance, universal and particular, society and
individual, freedom and necessity, and so on.

We can identify two characteristic ways of dealing
with this problem, which I will call Reductionism
and Dualism. Reductionism is the philosophy of
‘nothing but’. ‘Mind’, on this view, is ‘nothing
but’ a certain kind of behaviour of matter, for
example a certain kind of observable human
behaviour, or perhaps certain kinds of physical
processes in the brain and’ central nervous system. ‘Universals’, from a Reductionist point of
view, are ‘nothing but’ ideas abstracted from
many particulars; for example, the universal property of ‘redness’ is simply an idea formed by the
human mind as a result of abstracting from many
particular red things which have been observed.

Again, so-called ‘free’ action is ‘nothing but’ a
species of necessity, a certain kind of causally
determined behaViour, and the only difference
between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ behaviour is in the
kinds of causes which have produced it. I hope
that these examples sufficiently indicate what I
mean by Reductionism.’ I use it as a label to refer

not to any specific philosophy, but to a general
philosophical approach. No one historical philosopher exactly fits the picture, but typical representatives of this approach would be the Greek
atomists and Lucretius, the British empiricists,
ancf the philosophers of the French Enlightenment.

Contrast this approach with that of Dualism.

Philosophers of a Dualist tendency recognise that,
in these pairs ,of opposed concepts, one term cannot be reduced to the other; they therefore make a
complete separation between the opposed terms,
and apply them to two different worlds, to two
separate spheres of reality. The philosophy of
Plato is the classic instance of this approach.

Plato starts from the opposition of ‘particular’

and ‘universal’, and takes these terms to refer
to two distinct kinds of entity, which he assigns
to two different worlds. On the one hand there is
the material world, the world of physical particulars, and on the other hand there is the
world of universal ideas. The one is the world
of becoming, of change and decay, whereas the
other is the world of true being, an eternal and
unchanging world, outside space and time. We
are acquainted with the former world through
sense-perception, but all true knowledge is of
the unchanging universal ideas. The human body
belongs to the world of physical particulars, but
the soul, though imprisoned withiri the body, is
more akin to the world of ideas. Thus the original opposition of ‘particulars’ and ‘universals’

provides Plato with a complete dualist metaphySics in terms of which he can effect the
separation of the other fundamental opposites. (1)
P~ato’ s philosophy is but one example of a
duilist approach. As other instances we could
cite Descartes, or Kant, or Schopenhauer. It is
clear also that a great deal of religiOUS thought
is essentially dualist, positing a dichotomy
between, say, the world of the flesh and the
world of the spirit; certainly this dichotomy is
an important element in Christian thought.

I have provided this sketch of RedJ,lctionism and
Dualism in order to suggest that Hegel’ s dialectic can usefully be seen as a response to these
two philosophical traditions. As a first step
towards understanding the nature of his response!

let us consider the example of ‘universals’ and
‘particulars’. Hegel discusses this in the first
section of his Phenomenology of Mind, the section entitled ‘Sense-certainty’. By ‘sensecer~~inty’ Hegel means sensory exper’ence as
characterised by reductionist and empiricist
philosophers, as a direct and immediate sensory
acquaintance with particulars. Sense-certainty
would consist in directly seeing or hearing some
one particular entity, considered apart from any
relation to other entities of the same kind or of
a different kind. Such experience is regarded by
empiricist philosophers as the basis of all our
1 Hegel’s own interpretation of Plato is rather different. In his
Lectures on the Histo of Philosophv he interprets Plato as less
a Dua!ist and, in eflect, as more of a Hegelian. The account
which I have adhered to is the traditional onc. I believe that it is
also the correct one, but do not need to argue the point here. All
that matters for present purposes is that it is a coherent philosophical position and is a representath’e example of philosophical
Dualism which provides the required contrast with Hegel’s

knowledge, the rest of knowledge being built up
by the accumulating of sense-experiences, and
by comparing them with one another and abstracting universal ideas from them. Hegel’ s response
to the empiricist account is to say that there
cannot be such experiences unless we presuppose
also the possession of universal concepts. One
cannot be directly acquainted with sensory particulars unless one is also able to apply universal
concepts to the objects of such experience.

There are several stages iL Hegel’ s account
. here, but the most telling point which can be extracted from it seems to me to be the following.

Suppose that I take myself to be directly acquainted, in sens e-perception, with some one particular. How do I identify, either for myself or for
others, which particular entity is the object of
my awareness? Suppose that I point it out ‘What I am aware of is this’; or suppose that I
don’t-physically point it out but, as it were,
mentally focus on it and say to myself ‘This is
what I mean’. Does the word ‘this’, or does my
pointing or my mental focussing, successfully
serve to identify a particular? It does not in fact
identify anything. My pointing, for example,
could indicate indiscriminately this building, this
room, this wall, this point on the wall, this colour,
and so on. Only by characterising what I am
pointing to in .one of these ways can I identify
which particular I mean. That is to say, it is
only by using a universal term such as ‘wall’,
or ‘colour’, or whatever, that I can identify a
particular as an object of my acquaintance.

Hegel, then, is showing that one can have sensory acquaintance with particulars only insofar
as the particular is also a universal and is characterised by means of some universal concept,
that is, only insofar as it is connected with other
particulars of the same kind and contrasted with
particulars of other kinds. Now notice what Hegel
is doing here. He is not replacing Reductionism
with Dualism. He is not saying that we have acquaintance with particulars and also have knowledge of universals. He is saying that we have
acquaintance with particulars only insofar as this
is at the same time a knowledge of universals.

And unlike Plato he would add, I think, that these
universals can themselves exist only insofar as
they are embodied in particulars. Thus, in place
of both the reduction of universals to particulars
and the separation of universals from particulars,
he is asserting the mutual interdependence of
particular and universal. He speaks of this also
as the identity. of opposites, meaning thereby not
that the distinction between the opposed concepts
disappears, but rather that, though the concepts
are distinct, the applicability of the one is a
necessary precondition for the applicability of the
other, and vice versa.

Here, then, we have a first implication of what
Hegel means by ‘dialectic’. It is the breaking
down of the OPPOSition between concepts which
have traditionally been treated by philosophers
as polar opposites. It is the attempt to demonstrate the interconnection of opposites. I have
taken the example of particular and universal
from the Phenomenology of Mind, but Hegel’ s

systematic treatment of the philosophical opposites is in the Logic. He there discusses such
pairs of concepts as: being and nothing, quantity
and quality, one and many, essence and appearance, identity and difference, form and matter,
form and content, thing and property, inner and
outer, freedom and necessity. Each pair can be
treated, and has been treated by philosophers,
in the manner of reductionism and in the manner
of dualism. And in each case Hegel is concerned
to show how either term depends for its intelligibility upon its necessary connection with the

In the light of these examples, we can now
explain some of the vocabulary with which Hegel
typically refers to the dialectic – and first, the
word ‘contradiction’. The relevance of this
should now be apparent. To discover that one and
the same thing is both a particular and a universal is, for Hegel, to recognise the existence
of contradiction. Hegel sometimes seems to
imply that to recognise the existence of contradictions is, quite literally, to accept that logically self-contradictory propositions can be true.

He claims, at any rate, that there can be, and
are, logical contradictions in reality. This, I
think, is unnecessary and misleading. Let me
take an example. Hegel refers with approval to
the paradoxes formulated by the Greek philosopher Zeno, who claimed to have shown that
motion is impossible because it is self-contradictory. Perhaps the simplest of Zeno’s paradoxes is that of the Flying ArrQw. If we consider
a flying arrow at any moment it its flight, it
must, at that particular moment, be in one particular location. But if a thing is located in just
one pOSition in space, it is at rest. Therefore,
at every moment of its flight, the flying arrow is
at rest. Zeno concludes that, since we have
arrived at the contradiction that something which
is moving is always at rest, we have shown motion to be impOSSible. Hegel’ s comment, reiterated by Marxists from Engels onwards, is that
though motion does indeed involve a contradiction, this doesn’t make it impossible, it merely
confirms that there are contradictions in reality.

Now to respond to Zeno’s assertion of the selfcontradictoriness of motion Simply by saying
‘Oh well, that’s all right then’, is to abandon
rational argument altogether and to forfeit the
possibility of understanding the real nature of
motion. The appropriate response to Zeno’s
argument is to assume that since he has arrived
at this contradiction there must be something
wrong with the way in which he talks about motion, time and space. And indeed there is.

Zeno’s mistake is to suppose that we can understand time by seeing- it as the sum of an infinite
number of moments of time, and similarly to
suppose that we can understand the change and
movement of a thing by adding together an infinite number of states of the thing at particular
moments. This is in fact impossible. We cannot
construct change and motion out of static elements. We have to start from the fact of change,
we have to start with the idea of motion over a
period of time, and only then can we identify a

particular moment within that period of time and
starting from the concept of ‘being’, we are led
enqlire into the condition of the thing at that
on to the concept of ‘nothing’, then to that of
particular moment. And the more general point
‘becoming’, from that in turn to another concept,
is this. We cannot just accept that motion is
and so on. The point is, then, that we cannot
logically self-contradictory. If we do want to
consider any of these concepts just by itself, in
assert that what is in motion is also in some
isolation. In coming to understand it, we are led
sense at rest, we cannot just stop there. We
to posit another concept, and then led on from
have to elaborate the assertion in such a way as
this to a further concept. This is what Hegel
to remove the logical contradiction. We have to
means by saying that what we have to understand
find some way of distinguishing between the sense is, not static concepts, but a process, a conin which, or the respect in which, it is in motion
stant change and transition from each concept to
and the sense in which (respect in which) it is at
the next. Herein lies the essence of Hegel’ s
rest. Similarly with the other pairs of opposites. philosophical method – the fact that we can start
If every thing is both a l.1piversal and a particular: with one concept and from it generate a complete

there must at any rate be some way in which we
can distinguish between the respect-in which it is
It is important to remember that when, in this
a particular; and so on. (2) I therefore suggest
context, Hegel emphasises the fact of change and
that, Hegel’ s own assertions notwithstanding, we
movement, he is not referring to a process of
can best make sense of his notion of ‘contradicchange in the literal sense. Hegel himself sometion’ if we take it to be something weaker than
times seems to be rather carried away by this
strict logical contradiction. The interconnection
vocabulary. Here are some typical remarks
of opposites involves contradiction in this sense,
from the Phenomenology:

that the two opposed terms can both be applied to
We have to think pure flux, opposition within
one and the same entity, and the possibility of
opposition itself, or contradiction. .. This …

applying the one term depends upon the possibilmay be called the ultimate nature of life, the
ity of applying the other.

of the world, the universal life-blood,
Another prominent element in Hegel’s vocabulwhich
courses everywhere, and whose flow
ary for talking about dialectic is the stress on
disturbed nor checked by any obflux, change, movement, process, and so forth.

but is itself every disWhat is meant by this? Consider again Hegel’ s
tinction that arises, as well as that into
philosophical method in The Phenomenology of
which all distinctions are dissolved; pulsating
Mind. I have said that he begins with an examinawithin itself, but ever motionless,shaken to
tion of ‘sense-certainty’. ‘Sense-certainty’ proits depths, but still at rest. .. This absolute
vides the starting-point because it appears to be
unrest of pure self-movement (is) such that
the simplest and most immediate form of exwhatever is determined in any way, e. g. as
perience. But when one examines this form of
being, is really the opposite of this determinexperience one is necessarily led beyond it; we
ateness. (pp206-9)
have seen how, according to Hegel, acquaintance
with particulars necessarily involves also knowIn passages such as this, Hegel’ s metaphors take
ledge of universals. Accordingly we now need to
over. We need to remember therefore that they
give an account of this ‘knowledge of universals’,
are metaphors. Hegel is describing a logical
considered as a new aspect of experience. Hegel
progression, the process of development of a
calls it ‘perception’ in contrast to ‘sense-certain- philosophical system. When he says that, for
ty’, and describes it as the experience of things
example, the particular ‘becomes’ the universal,
in the world considered now as the bearers of
he of course does not mean that a particular tree
universal properties – for example the percepor a particular house somehow turn into Platonic
universals. He means that in considering the
tion of a block of salt, considered not as an isotree as a particular we are necessarily led to
lated particular but as possessing the universal
properties of whiteness, cubic shape, pungent
recognise its character as a universal.

I want finally to mention a third element in the.

taste, etc. Hegel shows that when we examine
vocabulary which Hegel uses to describe
‘perception’ we are in turn led on to posit yet
dialectic, namely his stress on system. I have
another new form of experience, and so on
mentioned that the process of the Phenomenology
throughout the Phenomenology. We finally
arrive at what Hegel calls ‘absolute knowledge’,
culminates in ‘absolute knowledge’, and that this
and this is simply the completed system of all the is equated with the system of all the possible
forms of experience through which we have
forms of human experience which have been enpassed. A similar development takes place in the
countered in the course of the work. Similarly
Logic. We begin there with what is apparently
the Logic culminates in the ‘absolute idea’, this
the Simplest concept, that of ‘being’. Hegel arbeing the totality of all the basic concepts or
gues that this concept is necessarily connected
categories by which reality is ordered. Since
each form of experience encountered in the
with its opposite, ‘nothing’, and then claims that
Phenomenology, and each concept in the Logic,
to recognise the interconnection between ‘being’

is only a particular phase in the total process,
and ‘nothing’ is to employ the concept of ‘beit follows that each one is properly understood
coming’, since ‘becoming’ is a change from notonly when we understand its location within the
being to being and from being to not-being. Thus,
completed system. The typically Hegelian terms
2 Hegel himself would deny this. er. Phenomenology of Mind trails
which are employed to make this point are the
J. Baillie p175
terms ‘totality’ and ‘moments’. The ‘moments’


of a ~’totality’ are not simply the parts of a
whole. The parts of a whole can each be known
and understood separately, in isolation from
one another, and the whole is simply the collection of the parts. The moments of a totality, on
the other hand, can be known and understood only
if we know the relation of each to all the rest, and
and it is this systematic structure of relations
which constitutes the totality. Thus ‘system’ or
‘totality”‘, and ‘dialectical process’, are the same
thing considered from a static and from a
dynamiC point of view.

The ideas which I have been outlining – the unity
of opposed concepts, and the related ideas of
.:process’ and ‘system’ – are ;what I take to be the
h.eart of the Regelian dialectic. They are not the
whole of it, as I shall show in a moment. But
they are its most characteristic aspect, and the
aspect with which we need to start. Notice that
it takes,the form of a conceptual dialectic. The
dialectical process is the transition from one
concept to its opposite, and the progression from
one pair of concepts to another and thence to
another, and so on to the completed system of
concepts. Now insofar as Regel’ s dialectic is to
be viewed as a conceptual dialectic, Engels and
other Marxists tend to repudiate it. Engels says:

According to Regel, dialectics is the selfdevelopment of the concept. .. going on from
eternity, no one knows where, but at all events
independently of any thinking human brain.

This ideological perversion had to be done
away with. We comprehended the concepts in
our heads once more materialistically – as
images of real things instead of regarding the
real things as images of this or that stage of
the absolute concept. Thus dialectics reduced
itself to the science of the general laws of
motion. .. Thereby the dialectic of concepts
itself became merely the conscious reflex of
the dialectical motion of the real world and
thus the dialectic of Regel was placed upon its
head; or rather, turned off its head, on which
it was standing, and placed upon its feet.

(Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical
German Philosophy pp386-7, in Marx and
Engels: Selected Works Vol. 11)
So Engels distinguishes between a ‘dialectic of
concepts’ and a ‘dialectic of the real world’ which
can be known _empirically, through the sciences.

Re regards the former as incompatible with
materialism, and considers that as materialists
we must abandon it and replace it with the latter.

This I believe to be a mistake. Engels is right
to make the distinction between two kinds of
dialectic, and the passage which I have quoted
makes a legitimate and important criticism of
Regel, as I shall indicate presently. But Engels
is, I think, wrong to suppose that a conceptual
dialectic is incompatible with materialism.

This I shall now try to show.

I must first emphasise that, in saying that
Regel’s dialectic is a conceptual dialectic, I am
not saying that it is about concepts as distinct
from being about things in the material world.

Such a view would be a regression to a Platonic
dualism of the kind which I have mentioned pre-”

viously. I do not accept this Platonic division
between the material world and a separate world
of concepts. I do, however, accept the traditional
philosophical distinction between conceptual
truths and empirical truths, and it is by reference to this distinction that I wish to describe
Regel’s dialectic as a conceptual dialectic.

Consider a standard philosophical example of a
conceptual truth: the statement ‘All bachelors
are unmarried’. The truth of this assertion is
not something which we have to discover empirically. We do not have to go round questioning all
the bachelors we can find in order to determine
whether or not they are married. We know that
the statement is true simply in virtue of the
connection between the concept ‘bachelor’ and
the concept ‘unmarried’. Part of what we mean
by the term ‘bachelor’ is ‘someone who is unmarried’. But this is not to ‘say that the statement ‘All bachelors are unmarried’ is a statement about concepts as distinct from being about
the real world. It is a truth about actual
bachelors, in the real world – but it is true of
them in virtue of the way in which the relevant
concepts are used.

This is of course a much more trivial conceptual truth than any of those which make up the
substance of Regel’ s philosophy. If it seems too
trivial to bear the weight of the comparison, we
could invoke another standard example, the
statement ‘One and the same thing cannot at one
and the same time be both red all over and green
all over. ‘ This again is not an empirical truth.

It is true in virtue of the connections between
concepts. The connections this time are more
complex, involving more than’ a simple identity
of meaning between two terms. Nevertheless the
fact remains that the statement is true in virtue
of the way we use colour concepts, that is, in
virtue of the way we use the language of colours.

And again, though this is what makes the statement true, the statement is not a truth about a
separate realm of concepts but about ac~
coloured things in the real world.

Regel’s ‘conceptual dialectic’ consists of conceptual truths in this sense. The Hegelian claim
that all particulars are also universals is not
something to be discovered empirically. It is
true in virtue of the relations between the concept
‘particular’ and the concept ‘universal’. But it is
a truth about all particular things in the real
world, about particular trees, particular houses,
etc etc; it asserts of them that they can be identified as particulars only insofar as they are also
known as universals. And to say that it is true in
virtue of the relations between concepts is to say
that it is true in virtue of the way in which the
relevant terms are used in the language. Thus
the re cognition of such conceptual truths is not
incompatible with materialism.

This is indeed too negative a claim. More
positively, I would say that any adequate philosophy within the general perspective of dialectical materialism would have to recognise and incorporate this con’ceptual dialectic. The classic
Marxist expositions of dialectic invoke what are
in fact examples of the conceptual dialectic, even
if this is not properly recognised. Lenin, for

example, in his ‘On the Question of Dialectics’,
disc?u.sses the identity of universal and particular,
and refers approvingly to Hegel’ s assertion of
this identity. Again, we have seen that Engels,
in the passage which I have just quoted, speaks of
the need to formulate certain general scientific
laws of dialectics, and when, elsewhere, he
comes to state them, they turn out to be the Law
of the Interpenetration of Opposites, the Law of
the Negation of the Negation, and the Law of the
Transformation of Quantity into Quality; but his
attempt to present these as empirical, scientific
laws seems tome to be entirely unsuccessful.

They are all best understood as instances of the
conceptual dialectic. To demonstrate this, however, and to identify the possible role of the conceptual dialectic within dialectical materialism,
would require further argument, which I shall
attempt to provide in a further paper. For the
time being I hope to have shown what this conceptual dialectic is, that it is compatible with a
materialist philosophy, and that it is important
in its own right; and I have tried to give some
indication of its importance by counterposing it
to the Reductionist and Dualist traditions in

This CGnceptual dialectic is not, however, the
whole of dialectic, even in Hegel. I have said
that when Hegel talks about dialectic as involving
change and process, he does not normally mean
change in the literal sense. Sometimes, however,
he does mean that. He does so, for example, in
the following passage:

We must not suppose that the recognition of
(the) existence (of dialectic) is peculiarly
confined to the philosopher. It would be truer
to say that Dialectic gives expreSSion to a
law which is felt in all other grades of consciousness, and in general experience. Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an
instance of Dialectic. We are aware that
everything finite, instead of being stable and
ultimate, is rather changeable and transient.

(The Logic of Hegel, trans. W. Wallace

And he goes on to instance such changes as the
movement of the planets, and changes in the
fortunes of an individual or of a state. We have
therefore to ask why Hegel should suppose that
there is any connection between literal material
changes of this sort and the conceptual dialectic
which I have been discussing.

The fact of change in the natural (non-human)
world plays only a limited role in Hegel’ s
philosophy. Though he does indeed emphasise
the fact of natural change, his assertion of it
tends mainly to take the form of a quasireligious insistence on the transitoriness of
finite things. He specifically denies that nature
as a whole exhibits a development:

The changes that take place in Nature – how
infinitely manfold soever they may be – exhibit only a perpetually self -repeating cycle;

in Nature there happens ‘nothing new under
the sun’, and the multiform play of its
phenomena so far induces a feeling of ennui;
only in those changes which take place in the
region of Spirit does anything new arise.

(The Philosophy of History, trans J. Sibree

This means, in particular, that Hegel rejects
the idea of the evolution of natural species:

It is a completely empty thought to represent
species as developing successively, one after
the other, in time. Chronological difference
has no interest whatever for thought. If it is
only a question of enumerating the series of
living species in order to show the mind how
they are divided into classes, either by starting from the poorest and simplest terms, and
riSing to the more developed and richer in
determinations and content, or by proceeding
in the reverse fashion, this operation will
always have a general interest. .. But it
must not be imagined that such a dry series
is made dynamic or philosophical, or more
intelligible, or whatever you like to say, by
representing the terms as producing each
other. .. The land animal did not develop
naturally out of the aquatic animal. ..

(Philosophy of Nature, trans A. V. Miller

Given that, as we shall see, the Darwinian
theory of evolution has been claimed as a
vindication of dialectic, it is ironic that Hegel
rejected Darwinism before the event.

Much more important than natural change, for
Hegel ‘s philosophy, is change in the human
world, that is to say, human history. It is
important in two main guises.

1 As the history of thought, and especially as
the history of philosophy. Hegel sees the history
of philosophy as the progressive elaboration of
the complete philosophical system, with each
historical philosophy providing a particular element in the system. Thus, in addition to the
elaboration of the system in works such as the
Phenomenology and the Logic, Hegel thinks that
it can also be elaborated in another way by recapitulating the history of philosophical thought
and retaining the contributions of each past

This does, I think, offer a valuable way of looking at the history of philosophy. One often hears
people expressing scepticism as to the value of
studying philosophy on the grounds that, in the
whole of its history, philosophy has made no
progress; one philosopher refutes another, so
that the history of philosophy takes on the
appearance of a series of discarded theories,
and nothing seems to have been achieved. Such
scepticism ought not to be simply dismissed; it
deserves an answer, and Hegel seems to me to
have been the only philosopher to offer one. He
claims that, even though no past philosophy can
be accepted if it is treated as final and complete
in itself, each such philosophy represents a
positive principle which needs to be retained
within a completed system of philosophy. Thus

by icfentifying this positive principle and discov
ering how it is to be related to and reconciled
with the positive elements of other apparently
opposed philosophies we can make progress in
the elaboration of a satisfactory philosophical
system. Past philosophies may be untenable,
but they are not wholly negative in significance.(3)
Hegel would however want to say more than
this. He would claim that the chronological progression from one past philosophy to another is
also a logical progression, that it evinces a
logical relationship between the content of the
one philosophy and that of its successor. Past
philosophies are not only to be treated as elements in a total philosophical system, but their
temporal order is to provide the logical ordering
and structure of the system. Hegel can then
assert that the conceptual dialectic is also exhibited in the chronological process of development which constitutes the history of philosophy.

(4). This is, I think, too strong a claim.

Certainly any philosopher will be in some way or
other responding to his predecessors, and consequently the temporal succession of philosophies
can often also be seen as a logical development.

The major philosophies of the 17th and 18th
centuries, for example, can be viewed in this
way, with the development of the rationalist tradition, the response of the empiricist tradition
whose implications are progressively unfolded
by Locke, Berkeley and Hume, and then the
philosophy of Kant as a synthesis of the two
tendencies. But to see the whole of the history
of philosophy as a single logical development
is to impose on it too neat a pattern, and one
which does violence to the facts. There is, in
the history of philosophy, regression as well
as progress, there are blind alleys as well as
positive advances.

2 I imagine that Hegel would not entirely disagree with what 1 have just said; the difference
is largely one of emphasis. What is much more
seriously questionable is Hegel’ s view of the
history of social and political life. Again, there
is great value in his approach. Hegel recognises
that social and political institutions require to be
understood in terms of their historical development, and that there are no timeless truths
about the necessary and inevitable structure of
human society. (I shall say more about this
when I come to consider the Marxist version of
dialectic.) But here too the trouble is that Hegel
identifies the historical development of social
life with the iogical progression of the conceptual dialectic. Chronological change comes to be
seen as simply a manifestation of the conceptual
dialectic. In the Phenomenology, for example,
Hegel divides history into three epochs: (a) the
ancient world, flourishing at its best in the
Greek city-states; (b) the feudal world, brought
to an end by the French Revolution; (c) the
modern world which the French Revolution inaugurates. But when ijegel sets out to give an
3 See the Introduction to the Lectures on tbe History of Philosophy
pp223-7 and pp239-244 (in G. W. F. Hegel, On Art, Rejl~ion and
Philosophy, ed. J. Glenn Gray)


account of the relations between these three
epochs and the transitions from one to another,
he appears to see these as deriving from the
logical relations between the concepts ‘universal’ and ‘particular’. In the Greek city-states,
the individual is absorbed in the universal life
of the community, he is completely identified
with the life of the nation, and finds the substance of his own life in the social substance.

The feudal world is characterised by Hegel as
the ‘Self-estranged World’, in which individuals
exist only as isolated particulars. In place of
the previous all-embracing social life, social
relations now consist simply in ties between
particular individuals, such as the relations
between lord and vassal and between the feudal
lords and the monarch. Consequently the social
world as a whole is experienced by individuals
as something external and alien, as the power
of the state and as the power of economic
wealth; according to Hegel this is the case
both in the feudal world itself and in the world
of Absolute Monarchy to which it leads. The
third epoch is that of a world in which these
opposed aspects are synthesised; the individual
once more finds himself at home in the universal life of society, not however, as in the Greek
world, by being simply absorbed within it but
rather by rationally accepting it and identifying
with it as a free and particular individual.

Thus the three epochs represent the principles
of ‘the universal’, ‘the particular’, and their
synthesis. And Hegel seems to suppose that it
is because of the logical relations between universal and particular that a society which emphasises one must necessarily pass into a
society which emphasises the other, and this
in turn into a society which synthesises the two.

For Hegel, it is just because the Greek world
represents the universal to the exclusion of the
particular that it must change into the selfestranged world, and it is just because the selfestranged world represents the particular to
the exclusion of the universal that it must pass
into the modern world.

Why should Hegel have held such a strikingly
implausible view of historical change? The
answer lies in his philosophical idealism, and
in fact in the worst and least plausible aspect
of his idealism, that aspect in which it becomes
a kind of pantheism. Hegel thinks that the structure of reason which he is unfolding in works
such as the Logic is not just the structure of
human thought. Reason is itself an independent
and autonomous force, a force at work in the
world. It is the creative force behind the natural
world, and it is the propelling force of history.

This’ reason’ is in fact to be identified with God.

Human history is the unfolding of rea30n, it is
the self-revelation of God in the world. This is
why he is able to identify the conceptual dialectic and the temporal dialectic.

It is also why he is wrong to do so. If it is his
idealism that enables him to identify the two,
then in rejecting his idealism, as indeed we
must, we have to recognise a distinction between the two kinds of dialectic. We have to


treqt them as independent of one another. We
have to recognise that the fact of literal change
in the world, and the form it takes, cannot be
simply derived from the conceptual dialectic,
but have to be established empirically. All this
is stated by Engels, in the passage from which
I quoted earlier, and in this respect Engels is
absolutely right. In deriving temporal change
from the self -development of the concept, Hegel
is standing the dialectic on its head, and it does
need to be stood right side up again. But, as
we have seen, Engels then supposes that we
have to reject the conceptual dialectic. I am
saying that we don’t – we simply have to recognise that the conceptual dialectic and the
temporal dialectic are distinct.

What then are we to make of the ‘temporal’ or
’empirical’ dialectic which Engels and other
Marxists would want to retain, once it is separated from the conceptual dialectic? We might
say that where the conceptual dialectic is the
claim that concepts change into one another, the
empirical dialectic is the claim that things
change into one another. But this by itself looks
incredibly banal. No one would deny that things
change (no one, that is, since Parmenides and
Zeno). So, in an attempt to understand what is
significant In the empirical dialectic, let us
forget the general statement and look at some
of the particular examples which Engels uses
to illustrate the empirical dialectic. There are
certain cases which he regularly invokes as
examples of how, by empirical scientific discovery, it has been shown that what was thought
to be static is actually something changing.

These are: (a) the view of modern physics that
the physical universe is to be comprehended
fundamentally as a complex of processes rather
than of things; (b) the discovery that our solar
system is not a set of unchanging planetary
movements but arose out of an original nebular
mass; (c) the Darwinian theory of evolution,
which replaces the conception of a timeless
classification of plant and animal species; (d)
the recognition that social institutions (such as
wage labour, capital, the family, the state) are
historically specific institutions which arose in
a particular social context and can likewise

What is important about these examples?

In cases (b), (c) and (d), at any rate, the point
is clearly that a set of phenomena may become
intelligible once it is seen not as static and
timeless but as the product of a process of
development. A situation which defies understanding when viewed simply in terms of its
present state may become intelligible when we
look at its past development. Darwin’s intellectual breakthrough, for example, was to explain apparent purposive adaptation in living
organisms. This is to be seen not as a massive
coincidence, nor as evidence of benevolent
design on the part of a divine creator, but is to
be understood by postulating a past development

of living species involving random genetic mutations, the inheritance of these mutant characteristics, and the elimination of less successfully adapted organisms. Similarly, in the case
of human society, the Marxist claim is that in
order to understand contemporary capitalist
society, we have to understand it as a historically specific form of social life, one which has
developed out of an earlier and different kind of
society. What is more, it has to be understood
in terms not only of its past development but
also of its future development; we have to look
not orily at its present actuality but also at the
potentialities within it, the social forces which
are an essential part of that society but which
at the same time are likely to grow to the point
where they destroy it and change it into a radically different kind of society.

This dialectical way of looking at social life
is opposed both to common sense and to intellectual theory, both of which tend to generalise
historically specific features of social life into
a timeless ‘human condition’. We are familiar
with the common sense view which says that
‘you can’t change human nature’, that ‘human
beings are naturally competitive, naturally
aggressive, etc’, and which fails to see how the
dominance of certain kinds of behaviour in our
society is required by and produced by the prevalent kinds of social relations. But we must
add that the same failure of historical awareness is to be found in major social thinkers for example Hobbes falsely generalises the
relations of a market society and presents them
as a supposed state of nature; he and Locke and
others found all human social life on contractual relations; Hume equates justice with the
protection of private property; the classical
political economists suppose economic laws
such as the laws of supply and demand or ‘the
iron law of wages’ to be the laws of all economic life as such. In all these cases the failure is
a failure to think historically, that is,

Engels rightly stresses that all these theories
of change in apparent stability (the Darwinian
theory of evolution, the Marxist theory of
society, etc) have to be established empirically.

They cannot be deduced from some general law
of dialectic. Each case has to be considered
separately and independently, on the basis of
the relevant empirical facts. The theory of the
origin of the solar system, the theory of evolution, the Marxist theory of society, are all
independent of one another and involve separate
sets of empirical facts. But what Engels does
seem to suppose is that when we have established each of these theories in their separate
domains, they can all be regarded as providing
empirical support for some further very general
thesis, a sort of super-scientific empirical
support for some further very general thesis,
a sort of super-scientific law, a claim that
reality as a whole is dialectical. This further
move is, I think, misleading and unnecessary.

What could be meant by the claim that ‘reality
is dialectical’? Not that ‘things change’, for,

as I ~have already said, this seems too banal
and obvious. Hopefully not that’ everything is
always changing’, since this is false. There is
stability within change. We cannot describe
change except by talking about ‘things which
change’, and to say that a thing is changing is
. to imply that within the process of change there
is sufficient permanence and continuity for us
to identify the ‘thing’ which has undergone the
change. If for example we speak of a change
from feudal to capitalist society, we are saying
that a certain identifiable society has changed
from being feudal to being capitalist, and in
that case there must be sufficient continuity for
us to be able to say that it is the same society
which has undergone the change. The only way
in which we could make plausible the claim that
everything is always changing would be in
terms of the first of the four examples which I
quoted from Engels – the example of theories
of modern physics, theories of the ultimate
constitution of matter which make use of some
basic concept such as ‘energy’. But if we accept
that ‘everything is always changing’ in this
sense, this would be perfectly compatible with
the denial of change at other levels. It would
for example be compatible with a completely
unhistorical view of human society. This cannot
be the kind of thesis we are looking for.

The empirical dialectic, then, is not to be
identified with any single general thesis which
could be either true or false. Rather, the notion
of an empirical dialectic points us to the value
of a certain kind of explanation – developmental
explanation. ‘Dialectic’ in this sense is not a
super-scientific law about the whole of reality,
but a way of looking at particular areas of
reality, a way of understanding them. It is an
immensely fruitful way of looking at things, but

how fruitful it will be in any particular case can
be determined only by examining the particular

In this paper I have been concerned to distinguish
between the’ conceptual’ dialectic and the ‘temporal’ or ’empirical’ dialectic; to give an account
of each; to show that they do not stand or fall ‘

together, but that each is valuable in its own
right. The enterprise has itself been a nondialectical one, an example of what Hegel calls
the exercise of ‘Understanding’, whose function
is to analyse and make distinctions, separating
one thing from another. That a discussion of
dialectic should itself be undialectical is not as
inappropriate as it sounds. Hegel himself recognises the need for ‘understanding’ in this sense,
describing it as ‘the most marvellous and mighty,
or rather the absolute power’. I would myself be
content with a more modest description of what
I have been doing; but, more seriously, I would
also recognise with Hegel that the role of understanding is a preparatory one. Having made the
distinctions, we then need to make the connections. I have criticised Hegel’ s· way of connecting the conceptual and the temporal dialectic,
which takes the form of identifying them. But if
this is unacceptable, we should not be content
merely to leave the matter there. We need to
work out an alternative account of the connections between the two kinds of dialectic. I shall
try to do this in a further paper, and in the process I shall take up some of the points raised
in Sean Sayers’ paper in this issue and Roy
Edgley’s paper on dialectic presented to the
Radical Philosophy Conference at Oxford.

The Mal’xisl Dialeclic
Sean Savers
“Wherever there is movement, wherever
there is life, wherever anything is carried
into effect in the actual world, there dialectic
is at work. It is also the soul of all knowledge
which is truly scientific. ”
Hegel, Logic, trans. Wallace, p148
The law of contradiction in things is the basic
prinCiple of dialectical materialism, the philosophy of Marxism. In Mao’s words:

“Marxist philosophy holds that the law of the
unity of opposites is the fundamental law of
the universe. This law operates universally,
whether in the natural world, in human society,
or in man’s thinking. Between the opposites in
a contradiction there is at once unity and
struggle, and it is this that impels things to
move and change. ”
(Mao, OCH, p91)

This doctrine, which is the fundamental basis
of Marxist thought, is easy to state and no doubt
already familiar, but it is not easy to grasp and

This difficulty is due, in part, to the inherent
difficulty of the subject-matter; for dialectical
logic sums up the laws of motion of things at
their most general level and provides the most
universal of all the principles of thought. But
there is also another difficulty to be overcome;
for the dialectical way of seeing things seems to
fly in the face of all traditional philosophy and
commonsense. The idea of contradictions existing in things seems absurd and impossible – a
metaphysical and mystical extravagance and the
very opposite of scientific and rational thought.

And thus, despite the ever-increasing influence
of :Marxism, its philosophy is frequently rejected
as violating the most elementary laws of logic
and preconditions of rational thought. The philosophy of dialectics is rejected and the attempt
is made to revise Marxism accordingly.


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