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Dialectics

Radical PhilosoRh:y rou..teen
Dialectics
In this iss!.le we are publishing two articles on
dialecticd. The topic aroused considerable interest at our January conference, and at the open
meeting on 13 March (see news section), we
decided to try to initiate a co-ordinated scheme
of collective work on the topic, leading up to a
conference next year. We will be holding a
planning meeting in June in London to discuss how
the inquiry ought to be pur sued.

Analytical philosophy constituted itself through
Moore’s and Russell’s break with Hegelianism,
and by implication with dialectical thinking; and
the mere mention of the topic is bound to elicit
complacent protestations of incomprehension
fronl most analytical philosophers. On the other
hand, if dialectics is interpreted as a doctrine
about the limits of formal logic, then, given the
centrality of formal logic to the methods and
doctrines of analytical philosophy, a serious confrontation between the two promises to be
fruitful.

Dialectic is referred to by non-philosophers
more than any other philosophical concept. In
particular it is an article of faith for most more
or less leftist prop;ressives: ‘the trouble with
bourg-eois culture and theory, and in particular
with bourgeois philosophy, is that it is non- or
anti-dialectical’: most of us would agree on this
formula.

But there are two very different perspectives
on the concept of dialectic on the left. The first
is that of Dialectical Materialism which, basing
itself on Engels’s ‘laws of dialectics’ (the laws
of the transformation of quantity into quality, of
the interpenetration of opposites, and of the
negation of the negation) (see The Dialectics of
Nature p62) insists on the existence of ‘the
dialectic’, that is to say of contradiction and instability, not only in society but also in nature.

Developed into the elaborOate philosophical
system of ‘Diamat’, this perspective has become
the official philosophy of all Communist Parties,
and, at least till recently, has not commanded
much support outside them.

On the other hand, Diamat has had plenty of
critics on the left. The ‘humanist’ movement in
Marxism, basing itself on the young Marx, on
the concept of alienation and on Marx’s debt to
Hegel, attacked Diamat, but clung tenaciously
to the concept of dialectic. Thinkers like
Hyppolite, Marcuse and Sartre, and their
followers on the New Left, saw Marxism as
based on a deep dichotomy between human history
on the one hand and nature on the other, asserting that dialectics is the understanding of history,
and need have nothing to do with nature.

The rejection of Diamat from the standpoint of
dialectics invites the accusation of neglecting
Inaterialism – and many ‘New Leftists’ have been
happy to proclaim their ‘anti-materialism’.

Recently however – particularly in the writings
of Colletti [see his Marxism and Hegel (New Left
Books) and his article ‘Marxism and the
Dialectic’ (New Left Review 93, September 1975]
– the opposite choice has been recommended:

dialectics, it is argued, is inseparable from
idealism, and ought therefore to be rejected.

(A conclusion which will of course recommend
itself to orthodox analytical philosophers)
Should materialism be preferred to dialectics,
or vice versa, or should we opt for both, or
perhaps neither? Or should we approach the
question from a different direction altogether?

The first planning meeting for the proposed
project on Dialectic will be held at Birkbeck
College, Malet St WC1 (nearest tube Goodge
St) at 11 am. The purpose of the meeting is
to work out how to co-ordinate collective
work on the project. The meeting will end
with a Radical Philosophy Group Open
Meeting.

For further information write to Colin
Gordon, 40 Langdon Park Road, N66QG

Whether or not we agree that the laws of
dialectics constitute the foundations of all
science, and/or that Marxism necessarily .

posits the existence of a dialectic of nature, It
is clear that, from Hegel onwards, dialectical
philosophy has always insisted that ‘real’

.

dialectical contradiction has to be understood In
relation to the presence of abstraction not just
in thought but in social reality: an abstractness
that becomes ever more nakedly visible in the
existence of individual men in industrial societies
– Built into dialectics is the theme of a continuous self-critique of philosophy in so far as it
tends always to construct for itself a ‘pure’

theoretical standpoint in abstraction from its
own social preconditions and subject matter.

Hence the claim of dialectics to recognition as
one strategic focal point for RP’s own theoretical
struggle within philosophy. Given the present
state of affairs in British philosophy, we might
well pay special attention to the dialectical
critique of formalism, investigating the possibility of a dialectical logic (discussed in this issue
by Sean Sayers) as an alternative appro”ach which
both contests and subsumes the tradition of
philosophical logic which underlies most philosophy done in this country since Russell and
Wittgenstein.

But it’s equally vital to couple such an investigation to a study of the role of dialectics, not
only in founding a general critique of bourgeois
theory, but as a philosophy and method for the
empirical researches carried out by a radical
social science, and indeed also for the work of
radical historical and cultural studies in general.

Without this practical commitment, dialectics
would run the risk of congealing into a new
formalism.

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