The Great Idea of Dialectic—Mortimer J. Adler

By Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Mortimer AdlerThe words “dialectical” and “dialectician” are currently used more often in a derogatory than in a descriptive sense. The person who criticizes an argument by saying, “It’s just a matter of definition” is also apt to say, “That may be true dialectically, but . . . ” or “You’re just being dialectical.” Implied in such remarks is dispraise of reasoning which, however excellent or skillful it may be as reasoning, stands condemned for being out of touch with fact or experience.

I. The great conversation It is a commonplace that men differ on fundamental subjects. They differ in their beliefs about God, in their conceptions of man and his place in nature, and in their views of the cosmos. They differ in their opinions about the goals men should seek and the way they should behave, in their standards for judging political institutions or economic policies, and in their evaluation of forms of government. They differ about the meaning of justice, the nature and uses of freedom, the limits of knowledge, the attainability of truth, the purport of history, and the destiny of the human race.

Most of us have been involved in such differences of opinion with our friends and acquaintances. But few of us feel satisfied with our experience of the discussions that resulted. We too frequently have been left in doubt about who agrees or disagrees with whom; and even when a disagreement has seemed plain enough at the beginning, we have been left in the dark as the argument proceeded. We have found ourselves and other men talking together, but not thinking together, because we have been talking without listening and arguing without responding to arguments. Yet we realize that the reason why we are engaged in discussion — the fact that we do not all think alike — is the very reason why we should try to think together.

Schopenhauer, in his Art of Controversy, offers the following advice: When you are involved in a discussion, he says, do not allow yourself to be distracted by listening to your opponent’s argument, but utilize the time to collect your thoughts and to plan what you are going to say when he has finished speaking. What Schopenhauer intended as irony is, unfortunately, the general practice of men. Our discussions of serious and difficult themes tend to take the form of alternating monologues. Whatever pleasure we may derive from soliloquizing in public, we can hardly learn much from listening only to ourselves. We cannot profit intellectually, as we might from good conversation. We cannot hope to get nearer to the truth unless discussion has something of the character of rational debate.

When we are serious about our fundamental beliefs or convictions, we are concerned with their truth. That is why we are also seriously concerned about agreement and disagreement. Anyone who claims truth for the opinions he holds must wish to persuade others; and if he regards his opinions as reasonable, he should be willing to offer reasons why others ought to agree with him. Anyone who does not regard himself as infallible should also be open to persuasion by those who disagree with him; he should be willing and anxious to hear the reasons that might be offered by those who claim truth for contrary opinions.

Discussion takes the form of rational debate when reasonable men talk to one another in the hope of persuading those who disagree, yet with a willingness to be persuaded by them. The first step toward such efforts at thinking together about what is true may take the form of conversation that merely explores the differences of opinion, in order to determine the points of agreement and disagreement. But once disagreements are discovered, the course of further conversation should be controlled by the issues on which men hold clearly opposed views.

Aware that a good discussion of basic issues frequently ends without agreement, we are prepared to admit that disagreement about fundamental matters will probably continue to prevail. Yet we expect a good discussion to clarify our differences, even when it fails to resolve them, and to bring about mutual understanding and a finer interplay of minds.

When our deepest convictions are at stake, we can hardly be satisfied with conversation that is just an exchange of opinions. Such talk tends to be desultory, even when it is about trivial matters. Who is not familiar with the experience described by the painter Degas? “We exchanged some ideas,” he said, “and now I feel quite dull.”

Our discussions of questions about freedom, justice, and the principles of conduct usually leave us with an uneasy sense of failure. The arguments get us nowhere, we say; nor has there even been a meeting of minds. We know, however, that these and many other fundamental questions have been discussed by the greatest thinkers in Western history. They, we assume, at least understood one another and conducted their disputes with clarity and precision.

This assumption is shared by scholars and laymen alike. Histories of thought in any field — philosophy, religion, science, politics, economics — take it for granted that the great writers throughout the centuries joined issue and carried on an intelligible dispute of their differences. Though in most cases they never met or talked with one another, and were separated in time and place and by the barriers of nationality, language and culture, they are nevertheless not regarded as isolated figures, indulging in lonely and magnificent self-expression. On the contrary, historians in any field of thought picture the great thinkers as if they were in communication, even about matters on which they did not explicitly refer to one another. They are placed side by side in agreement, or on opposite sides in disagreement, with respect to the fundamental issues which every century and every generation must face. Thus portrayed, the history of thought appears to be a history of controversy which, whatever its faults, presents us with the best example of men discussing their differences.

It was Scott Buchanan who, in 1927, first proposed that the diverse philosophies of the West be conceived “as if they were voices in the great conversation that has been going on for the last three thousand years.”[1] He expressed an idea that others had had before, but the phrase “the great conversation” conveys in a striking manner what all of us have in mind when we imagine the history of thought as a magnificent debate. It epitomizes Professor Arthur O. Lovejoy’s insight that “dialogue, discussion, the pursuit of truth through the interaction of two or more minds — this is the very essence of [the] method”[2] by which men must think about basic ideas. This continuing process Professor E. A. Burtt has described as “the sociable enterprise of philosophic debate.”[3]

The idea of the great conversation provides us with a bold but inspiring view of the cultural heritage which liberal education tries to transmit from generation to generation. In terms of it, we can see that the cultural pluralism of the West — its tolerance of a variety of beliefs about fundamental subjects — need not destroy our sense of its unity. As the prime contributors to Western thought, those who participated in the great conversation discoursed on the common themes or problems that have been persistent topics of that conversation across the centuries. By regarding these topics as the meeting places of minds that differ, we can find one continuous and coherent tradition in the history of Western thought, in spite of all the disagreements it contains. The threads of the great conversation supply the unifying warp through which intellectual differences have woven an intelligible and coherent pattern.

If a great debate has been going on in the great books of Western thought, each generation can find there the instruction it needs concerning the basic issues that confront men in every age, as well as the starting points for its own original thinking about those issues. What better way is there for us to take account of both the unity and the diversity of our culture, and to reap the intellectual heritage it affords us? Hence the proposal that the reading and discussion of the great books should be an essential part of liberal education for everyone, in school and after. The idea behind that proposal was the conception of the great conversation — as something to be listened to first, and then participated in.

When, in 1952, the Encyclopaedia Britannica published Great Books of the Western World as an instrument of liberal education, it was highly appropriate that the first of the fifty-four volumes should be an introductory essay on the great conversation.[4] It was no less appropriate that the second and third volumes should be an effort to make the great conversation more accessible to readers by providing them with something like a map of the ideas, the problems, and the issues that the Great Books discussed. These two volumes, which I edited, were called The Great Ideas or Syntopicon.

The Syntopicon, as the name suggests, consists of an orderly collection of topics, each a subject of discussion by the great writers of the West. We found writers in all centuries discussing the same fundamental themes, even writers as dissimilar as Dostoevsky and Thomas Aquinas, or Freud and Plato. The variety of those themes can be briefly indicated by listing some of the ideas under which they fall: art, beauty, chance, constitution, democracy, duty, God, good and evil, government, happiness, honor, immortality, justice, knowledge, labor, law, liberty, love, man, matter, mind, nature, opinion, pleasure and pain, progress, religion, sin, slavery, state, time, truth, virtue and vice, war and peace, wealth, wisdom, world. To the questions raised by such ideas, the Great Books and other books of signal importance in the Western tradition offer a wide variety of answers, which are indexed in the Syntopicon. The relevance of these answers to one another seems to be as plain as their diversity.

When, after eight years of work, in which a large research staff cooperated, we completed the Syntopicon, I felt that we had demonstrated the existence of the great conversation. “If the notion of the great conversation had been a myth,” I wrote, “the Syntopicon could not have been constructed at all. To say that these two volumes of The Great Ideas make possible a syntopical reading of the great books, is to say also that they bear witness to the actuality of the great conversation.”[5]

In the great conversation, there are many controversies, many disputed issues. These controversies can be constructed out of the raw materials to be found in the Syntopicon. The method to be employed in contrasting them and appraising the truth to be found in them is dialectic. In order to understand this method, we must first consider the nature of dialectical truth, then what is involved in dialectical neutrality, and finally the idea of dialectic itself. But before we do that, it is proper to state, in summary fashion, the aim we pursue by such a method, and the result that can be achieved by a successful employment of it.

Through dialectical inquiry, regarded in the most comprehensive terms, we can appraise ourselves of the extent and character of the agreements that are possible among men who disagree about what is true. That is our aim, briefly stated, and the result we seek to produce.

II. Dialectical truthLet us first, in showing how this can be done, consider the nature of dialectical truth — in particular, and by way of illustration, the discussion of law. When the dialectician succeeds in constructing the controversies about law, both special and general, which he finds implicit in the literature of that subject, he knows from his formulations the points of an issue, or the matters about which conflicting claims of truth are made. For example, the legal naturalists who claim truth for their views about law are opposed by the legal positivists who make a similar claim for their contrary views. The dialectician knows that certain authors are in nonagreement simply because they do not discuss the same subject; and that other authors, who can be construed as taking the same side of this or that issue, are in categorical agreement. Together they claim truth for the same views about law.

If we overlook for a moment such categorical agreements, it would appear that the chief effect of the dialectician’s construction of a controversy is to indicate how men are divided, either in their disagreement about what is true in fact or in their nonagreement about the subject to be considered. But that is far from being the whole story. Before a controversy was made to emerge by a dialectical clarification of the discussion of law, that discussion showed how men are divided by the diversity of their conceptions or views. The constructed controversy not only shows more plainly how they are divided, but in addition it also shows how they are united. It reveals the things they can agree about in spite of all the things they do not agree about.

They can agree on the description of the subjects about which they disagree in various ways. They can agree about the questions at issue on which they take opposite sides. They can agree about the content of the issues — the statement of the positions that are opposed. They can even agree about the connection of one issue with another, though in debating these issues they may argue against one another, as each reasons from the position he takes on the one to the position he takes on the other.

Their agreement on all these matters still permits them to disagree categorically about what is true in fact; more than that, they could not disagree at all unless they were in agreement in at least the first three of these four ways. But when men disagree, we regard them as differing about what is true. So, too, we must regard them as sharing some truth when they agree. What, then, is the nature of the truth they share when they agree in every way short of agreeing categorically on what is true in fact about the subject under discussion?

The answer is that such agreements are about what is dialectically true of the subject under discussion, in contradistinction to what is doctrinally true about that subject.

The naturalists’ doctrine of law contradicts the positivists’ doctrine of law at many points. On those points, one doctrine must be true in fact and the other false. Whichever is true as a doctrine is true in the sense that it accords with the facts or realities of the subject — in this case law. But, divided as they are by their conflicting claims of truth for opposed doctrines, legal naturalists and positivists can together affirm such dialectical truths as the following: (i) that human law as the subject under consideration can be described as a body of violable man-made rules of conduct enforceable by the state through sanctions for disobedience; (ii) that the question “Should positive law be based on natural law?” is a question to be answered; (iii) that taking opposite sides on the issue raised by this question has a bearing on the position to be taken on other issues about human law, such as the issues about its sanctions, its justice, its authority, etc. The truth of these statements about law, to which the disputants can agree, is unaffected by whether or not the naturalists’ or the positivists’ doctrine of law is true.

The foregoing exemplifies the general relation that obtains between (a) the dialectical truths to which disputants in a controversy can agree, and (b) the soundness or accuracy of the dialectician’s construction of that controversy. If the dialectician’s hypothesis about the discussion of law is tenable or, better, is the hypothesis most probable in the light of the observable facts of that discussion, then the soundness or accuracy of each of his constructive statements indicates a dialectical truth about law that can be shared by those who disagree doctrinally about it. Though he adds not one iota to the doctrinal truth about law, the dialectician can be credited with uncovering a large number of dialectical truths about it when he has succeeded in constructing a generally acceptable hypothesis about the discussion of that subject.[6]

The reason for this relation is not far to seek. The dialectician’s constructive statements indicate the dialectical truths on which the disputants in a controversy can agree, precisely because his formulations are neutral with respect to the truth and falsity of opposed doctrines or theories. Only to the extent that the dialectician’s constructions accommodate, without prejudice or embarrassment, the variety of doctrines that appear in a discussion, do they have the neutrality requisite for uncovering dialectical truth.

III. Dialectical neutralityNeutrality is not a virtue exclusively possessed or displayed by the dialectician. It is exercised by others who do not normally look upon themselves in that way. It is, for example, a virtue which the encyclopedist regards as a necessity of his profession; it is also displayed by the historian of ideas who wishes to preserve the purity of his historical approach to controversial subjects by maintaining his detachment from the truth or falsity of the theories, of which he aims to give only a historical account. Though the encyclopedist and the historian are not professed dialecticians, the neutrality they try to achieve is, nevertheless, like that of the professional.[7]

Nor is impartiality an ideal only for those who are aged in reporting other men’s thought. It is also the ideal of the thinker, insofar as he is concerned with the thought of other men in relation to his own. This holds for every field — history and science as well as theology and philosophy. Anyone who proposes a theory for which he claims truth is obligated to consider the rival claims of other theories. Wherever such rivalry makes anyone a partisan for the view he holds against the partisan views held by others, such partisanship needs to be supplemented by impartiality in order to get at what is dialectically true about the disputed matters.

Some philosophers have shown themselves able to achieve a modicum of impartiality in their understanding of theories they reject. Such impartiality, whenever and to whatever extent it is achieved, is akin to the neutrality that is essential to the dialectician. In a sense, the philosopher who manages to be impartial in his treatment of theories he rejects as false does so by functioning like a dialectician. It may be thought that in this respect he does not differ from the historian of ideas or the encyclopedist who also manages to be impartial toward the views he is considering. But to say no more than this would be to overlook a crucially significant difference between them.

The historian of ideas and the encyclopedist are not as such engaged in propounding philosophical theories of their own. But the philosopher, precisely in virtue of being a philosopher, takes that to be his principal task. To combine being a philosopher with being something of a dialectician requires the individual, who would try to do both, to overcome a tension between two different kinds of work that does not exist in the case of the historian and the encyclopedist. That is why it is more difficult for one man to be both a philosopher and a dialectician or, what is even harder, to be equally good at both tasks. Hence it can be said that the pursuit of truth requires a division of labor, not only to get the dialectical task itself done well, but also to enable philosophers, assisted by the independent work of dialecticians, to achieve more fully the impartiality that philosophers themselves acknowledge as ideal.[8]

But we are here concerned with quite another problem, the reverse of the problem of combining partisanship with impartiality. The question is whether impartiality can be separated from all partisanship. There are really two questions here. (1) Does the dialectician’s effort to be neutral require him to be totally without any doctrinal commitments, totally devoid of any point of view of his own? And (2) can anyone who is concerned with truth be so completely detached or open-minded?

Let us acknowledge at once that a completely open mind is the mind of an infant, not a man. To be completely without commitments is an unearthly and inhuman state of intellectual innocence. Since the dialectician is ordinary flesh and blood, the answer to the first question cannot be that dialectical neutrality requires the dialectician as a person to achieve absolute point-of-viewlessness or complete detachment from every vestige of philosophical doctrine. There is no reason why a man who engages in dialectical work should not have philosophical views of his own. In fact, if philosophizing is the general vocation of every man regardless of his more specialized profession, the man who engages in dialectical work is no more exempt from this common calling than is the physician or the engineer, the scientist or the historian.

Nor can there be any question whether it is possible for the dialectician to achieve the neutrality requisite for his work in spite of his own personal philosophical views, whatever they may be. We have already affirmed that, though difficult, it is certainly possible for the philosopher to combine an impartial understanding of his adversaries with partisanship for his own point of view.

In one sense, it should be easier for the dialectician, because he is more nearly in the position of the engineer or the physician. Philosophizing may be his vocation as a man, but it is not part of his work. He can perform his tasks as a dialectician, just as the engineer and the physician can perform their professional duties, without having to be active partisans for a particular philosophical point of view. The professional philosopher, on the other hand, cannot do his work without being an active partisan for the philosophical theories or doctrines he holds to be true.

In another sense, the dialectician faces a greater difficulty. Impartiality may be an ultimate ideal for the philosopher to aim at, but he can do his work without achieving it or even if he only approximates it to some degree. As history amply shows, a man may be a great philosopher in the originality and power of his work and, at the same time, have failed signally to combine impartiality with his partisanship. Impartiality, in other words, is an ideal for the philosopher, not a basic necessity. But it is a basic necessity for the dialectician, not an ideal. Unless he can maintain neutrality throughout every phase of his work, he cannot produce the result his method aims at.

These things being so, the problem is not whether the dialectician can maintain the neutrality that is indispensable to his work in spite of having some philosophy of his own. The real problem is whether the assumptions implicit in the dialectician’s method and aim bring him inevitably into conflict with certain points of view. If that were the case, then the very use of the method itself would elicit from certain quarters the charge that the dialectician cannot accommodate all points of view without prejudice or embarrassment to some of them, at least.

To estimate the seriousness of this problem, let us consider a few of the most obvious cases in which the exponent of a certain point of view might object to the dialectician’s attempt to treat his doctrine, on the grounds that the dialectical method itself inevitably violates its integrity.

The extreme skeptic, for example, might say that the dialectical method assumes that incompatible positions cannot both be true and that, when these are contradictory, one must be true and the other false. This assumption the extreme skeptic rejects. According to his position on truth, either no opinion is true or false or all opinions are equally true or equally false. If the dialectician were to construct the controversy implicit in the discussion of truth itself, the skeptical position would be one he would have to represent on certain basic issues. But this, the skeptic claims, is precisely what he cannot do, at least not fairly, because his method requires him to treat the skeptic’s position as if it were either true or false. To treat it that way is to misrepresent the skeptic’s intention.

The trouble is not that the dialectician as a person holds a point of view contrary to that of the skeptic. The fact that he personally holds a theory of democracy, law, or freedom that is contrary to certain points of view represented in the controversies on those subjects need not prevent him from preserving neutrality in his treatment of them. However difficult that may be, humanly speaking, it is by no means impossible. But if his method itself requires him to override or distort what is essential to a doctrine, like that of the skeptic, then it is absolutely impossible for him to apply that method to the doctrine and at the same time to claim that the doctrine has been treated with the requisite neutrality.[9]

The mystic, to take another example, might raise an objection more general than the skeptic’s. He might say that the dialectical method assumes that discursive thought is the only approach to knowing the truth. It is, therefore, able to deal only with thought that proceeds in terms of definitions and propositions, premises and conclusions, and the whole apparatus of analysis and reasoning or argumentation. But the mystic’s approach to reality is by intuition or vision — an immediate grasp of the whole without analysis or dissection of any sort, a knowledge of truth that can be expressed without resort to any of the logical articulations involved in discursive thought. Hence if the dialectician were to construct a controversy about any subject on which the mystic claims to have insight, he could not represent what the mystic claims to know without distorting it. The dialectical method itself would make it impossible for him to be fair in his treatment of the mystic.


The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought


In the foregoing example, the conflict seems to be one between the general methodological assumptions of the dialectician and a methodology (if one can speak of the “method” of a mystic) that denies those assumptions. The mystic is not the only one who might raise an objection of this sort. A similar objection might be raised by any philosopher whose method involves a logic which either transforms or transcends the principles of ordinary logic, such as the familiar “laws of thought” — the laws of identity, excluded middle, and contradiction.

The objecting philosopher can with justice point out that the logic of controversy, which underlies the dialectician’s method of constructing one, presupposes (a) that a subject of discussion can be identified and thereafter retain its identity unchanged throughout a prolonged and varied consideration of it; (b) that the answers to a given question are either compatible or incompatible; and (c) that if they are incompatible, either they are contradictory and so exclude a middle ground, or they are not and so permit other alternatives. But according to the method of the objecting philosopher, contradictory positions are seldom if ever exhaustive and exclusive. Their antithetical points can be reconciled in a synthesis that embraces both and includes the partial truths they represent.

Therefore, by its acknowledged logical assumptions, the dialectical method inevitably violates a philosophy whose method does not honor those assumptions. In constructing any controversy in which that philosophy should be treated as an important point of view, the dialectician cannot accord it the treatment its own method demands.

Closely related to the objection just considered is the objection of the philosopher who insists that the only way his doctrine can be understood is as a whole. To treat any part of it in isolation as a position which can be understood in separation from the systematic context of the whole is to distort the meaning of that part. Yet the dialectician’s method of constructing a controversy requires him always to represent the position an author takes on a particular issue, in isolation from that author’s whole philosophy. He can never bring an author’s whole philosophy to bear on a particular issue. In constructing each issue, he can only formulate positions that are opposed answers to the particular question at issue. He must, therefore, do injustice to any philosophy whose proponent insists that his views on particular subjects cannot be fairly treated when they are wrenched from the whole of which they are integral parts.[10]

Finally, since the dialectician’s method involves him in dealing with the language of thinkers, not for its own sake but for the sake of comparing their thought, he may meet objections from still another quarter. Concerning language in relation to thought or meaning, the presuppositions of his method are (a) that men can have the same conceptions or meanings in mind even when they use quite different words; (b) that they can have different conceptions or meanings in mind even when they use the same words; and (c) that it is possible to discover which is the case from the way in which they employ whatever words they use. In addition, that phase of his method by which he identifies general subjects of discussion, like democracy, freedom, or law, assumes that the words that name such subjects refer to objects of thought that have reality.

These assumptions underlying his method might be challenged by those who hold that language can be made to serve as a medium of emotional or practical communication, but that it sets up an almost insuperable barrier to intellectual communication; and who, in addition, maintain that when words do not refer to particular things, they can only refer to other words or to fictions in the mind itself. From their point of view, the dialectical method rests on a questionable metaphysics if it assumes that two men who are discussing democracy, for example, are referring to anything other than the word itself or the ideas each has in his own mind.

It might be said in reply that the method of the semanticist also rests on a questionable metaphysics if it assumes that when two men are talking and thinking about democracy in general, there is no reality whatsoever to which their words and conceptions refer (except, perhaps, such particular things as the democracy of Athens or of the United States, which they were not discussing). But far from removing the objection, this reply makes it clear. The semanticist’s objection is precisely that the dialectical method cannot impartially treat his view of language and thought, since the dialectician’s use of language rests on a contrary view. In constructing controversies on subjects to which the semanticist’s view might be relevant, the dialectician cannot use his method and still remain neutral to all relevant points of view.

The foregoing examples of conflict between certain points of view and points of view implicit in the dialectical method itself may not exhaust all the typical cases in which the dialectician’s neutrality seems to be destroyed or impaired by his own method. But even if an exhaustive enumeration of such cases had been made, it would still represent a small set of exceptional instances. In other words, the dialectician is not embarrassed by his method in handling most of the points of view with which he must deal on most of the subjects he wishes to treat. That still leaves these exceptions to be considered as a limitation or a blemish on the method, for which the dialectician might otherwise be inclined to claim universal scope or the possibility of unqualified success.

Confronted with these exceptions, the dialectician seems to have only two alternatives. (1) In order to preserve his neutrality unimpaired, he can concede the limited applicability of his method. It cannot be applied to all points of view on every subject, but only to those that are unaffected by the application of the method itself. (2) In order to achieve universal scope or comprehensiveness of application, he can explicitly acknowledge that his method is prejudicial to certain points of view. When he treats these points of view, he can compensate to some extent for his inevitable loss of neutrality by acknowledging it. On either alternative, the fact remains that the dialectician must, like any other investigator, pay a certain price for the use of his method.[11]

As between these alternatives, the dialectician does not need to make a fixed and unalterable choice. It might conceivably be prudent for him to adopt the first procedure in dealing with a subject like truth or language and omit any reference to the skeptic or the semanticist whose views he cannot treat with the requisite neutrality. But in treating a subject like democracy, law, or freedom, the other choice might be wiser; that is, to treat all relevant points of view even if the method of treating some of them distorts them somewhat, but calling attention, of course, to what is prejudicial in the treatment.

One subject that has not so far been mentioned might be thought to raise special difficulties for the dialectician, and that is the nature of dialectic itself. The discussion of dialectic across the centuries contains various, apparently conflicting, theories of what dialectic is and what it does.

IV. Theories of dialecticA theory of dialectic is, like a theory of science or of art, a philosophical theory. If the dialectician has a conception of dialectic itself, in addition to having and using a certain method, he does so in virtue of being a philosopher, not a dialectician. On the other hand, his conception of dialectic must square with the principles and objectives of his method. We have already seen that his method commits him to certain philosophical positions — about truth, human reason, the laws of thought, language and meaning. It also commits him to a certain theory of dialectic.

If theories of dialectic are philosophical theories, and if the dialectical method we have been describing is applicable to the diversity of philosophical theories about any subject, then it should be applicable to the apparently conflicting theories of dialectic which are to be found in the discussion of that subject. But the fact that the method commits its user to one of these theories would seem to impair, if not destroy, the neutrality he is obligated to preserve. Here is a case, therefore, where prudence might recommend not venturing on the unfeasible — a dialectically neutral treatment of dialectic.

Let us, however, risk the imprudence and see what can be said about the diverse theories of dialectic. The most likely hypothesis is that these theories only appear to be in conflict but are actually in nonagreement rather than disagreement. In the name of dialectic, they are really treating three different things and therefore cannot disagree. This does not exclude the possibility that those who are talking about the same theory of dialectic may disagree among themselves.

To apply the foregoing hypothesis in detail to the whole discussion of dialectic would require us to do extensive research. But, perhaps, that is not necessary for our present purposes. It may suffice to sketch the general outlines of the hypothesis from such acquaintance as we already have with the historic discussion of dialectic.[12]

Our hypothesis is that the word dialectic is used in the literature by three distinct groups of theories. Each group of theories may include diverse and even conflicting conceptions of dialectic, but we are immediately concerned with the subject that each group of theories is considering. How shall these three subjects, each called “dialectic,” be identified?

We can identify one by saying that certain authors who use the word dialectic have in mind the process of philosophical inquiry itself together with the kind of knowledge in which such inquiry results. Let us refer to the subject thus identified as “noetic dialectic,” because all conceptions of this subject regard it as a unique way of knowing reality. Plato’s conception of dialectic, in those passages in The Republic in which he identifies dialectic with philosophy as knowledge of the ultimate realities, is the archetypical representative of this group of theories.[13]

We can identify a second by saying that certain authors who use the word dialectic have in mind the fundamental laws that govern all processes of development in nature and history, such laws as the unity of opposites, the transformation of quantity into quality, and the negation of the negation. Let us refer to the subject thus identified as “regulative dialectic,” because all conceptions of this dialectic regard it, not only as a way of knowing reality, but also as the way reality itself behaves according to the dialectical principles that regulate its processes.[14] Hegel’s conception of dialectic is, in one sense, the leading representative of this group of theories, though it must be added at once that the Marxist conception, while following that of Hegel, is also its leading opponent.[15]

We can identify a third subject by saying that certain authors who use the word dialectic have in mind a method auxiliary to philosophy by which men think about things, not as they are in themselves, but as they are reflected in human thought. Let us refer to the subject thus identified as “reflexive dialectic,” because all conceptions of this dialectic regard it, not as a way of knowing reality directly nor as the regulation of reality itself, but as an independent discipline, separate from philosophy, which deals reflexively with all the things that philosophy deals with directly. It deals with them only as they appear in the context of diverse philosophical theories or doctrines. Aristotle’s statement that “dialectic is merely critical where philosophy claims to know” is typical of this group of theories.[16]

The conception of dialectic set forth in this article clearly belongs to the third group of theories. Dialectic, as we have been treating it, is not identical with philosophy as knowledge of reality, nor is it even one of the methods of conducting philosophical inquiry. It could hardly be mistaken for the inner logic of reality itself, whose laws regulate all developments in nature, history, and thought. It might, however, be thought to resemble logic insofar as the science or art of logic also deals with thought; but unlike formal logic, it is not a science of the forms of thought; and unlike the art of logic, it is not a method of correct thinking. It is none of these. It is simply a method of dealing with what men have actually thought on the wide variety of fundamental subjects about which they manifestly differ in their views.

Before we consider how this conception of dialectic relates to Aristotle’s conception of the same subject, let us first examine the three subjects that we have just identified. They are clearly distinct. In this respect, they are like man-made law, natural law, and divine law. Just as those who discuss only man-made law are simply in nonagreement with those who discuss only divine law, so those who consider only noetic dialectic or only regulative dialectic are in nonagreement with those who consider only reflexive dialectic. But in the case of law, there is disagreement as to whether there is only one kind of law or more. Some, for example, hold that manmade law is the only law, and deny that “natural law” is law or a kind of law, while others affirm that natural law and man-made law are both law, though of different kinds. Is there a similar disagreement about dialectic and its kinds?

There does not seem to be. Unlike theories of law, no theory of dialectic holds, for example, that regulative and reflexive dialectic are two kinds of dialectic. No author can be construed as asserting that some two or all three of these subjects, all bearing the name “dialectic,” must belong to one general class as kinds. Hence no issue about kinds of dialectic can be constructed.

In the absence of controversy about dialectic in general and in the absence of disagreement about its kinds, exponents of the three major types of theory are simply in nonagreement. Each is concerned with a different subject. Yet all bear the same name. A question arises, therefore, about the name itself. Does it connote any elements that are common to the three distinct subjects?

Any generic characterization of dialectic would probably mention at least two things as common to noetic, regulative, and reflexive dialectic: (1) some principle whereby a diversity is unified or opposites are reconciled;[17] and (2) the assumption that dialectic effects or facilitates the achievement of truth. But no one claims that this, or any other, generic characterization of dialectic identifies a general class, of which noetic, regulative, and reflexive dialectic are kinds. On the other hand, no proponent of a particular theory of dialectic would accept the two points stated above as sufficiently precise to identify the dialectic he is trying to define. What significance, then, does such a generic characterization have?

The answer would seem to be that it throws light on what is at least the nominal agreement that exists among those who discuss dialectic. It explains how they all happen to use one word to designate the different subjects they are writing about. Thus used, that word is not as plainly equivocal as is the word bull when it is used to refer to an animal and a proclamation. Some threads of common meaning connect the three uses of the word. But the word may have some systematic ambiguity even though there is no controversy about dialectic in general nor about its kinds at least between exponents of one major theory and exponents of another.[18]

This fact has critical significance for the theory of dialectic set forth in these pages. It means that there is no need to defend the dialectic with which we have been concerned against theories of noetic or regulative dialectic, for they on their part do not deny the possibility or validity of a reflexive dialectic. It also means that we can apply our own dialectical method to different theories of dialectic in the same way that we can to other problems, for the fact that the method commits its user to one of these theories does not impair its neutrality. The theory of reflexive dialectic does not challenge the validity of the other theories of dialectic since these deal with different subjects. The hypothesis that exponents of the three major types of theory are simply in nonagreement is not prejudicial to the sense or truth of any of them.[19]

One problem remains, which we mentioned earlier but postponed. It is the problem of the relation between the conception of dialectic set forth in this article and Aristotle’s conception of the same subject. The identification of that subject as a reflexive dialectic — a method of considering the content of thought itself — is acceptable to both theories. But do they, considering this same subject, (i) conceive it differently? If they do, (ii) must we regard them as offering incompatible definitions of dialectic? And if we have to construct a definitional issue, (iii) can we do so in a neutral manner?

The embarrassment of the third question can be avoided if the two conceptions of reflexive dialectic are not incompatible. It is certainly possible for them to be different without being incompatible, for one may simply be more complete and precise than the other. The more adequate conception can then be regarded as including rather than rejecting the less adequate conception. Unless the exponents of the less adequate conception insisted upon its adequacy as stated, no issue would arise between them and the exponents of the more adequate conception, for they would see that both held the same one, the latter in an improved form.

Let us, then, compare the two conceptions — the Aristotelian conception and the conception presented in this article. Because both regard dialectic as reflexive, both are concerned with the diversity of views that men hold on any subject. Since both conceive dialectic as a method of dealing, not with reality itself, but with the subjects of human thought, it is inevitable that both should be concerned with conflicts of opinion, apparent or real; for the realm of thought is the place where all contraries coexist. Finally, both agree that dialectic, while not itself a method of philosophical inquiry or a way of knowing reality, is auxiliary to philosophy and serves the philosopher in his pursuit of truth about the reality or nature of things.[20]

How, then, do they differ? The difference between the two conceptions must be said to lie in how they further specify the purpose of the dialectical method and its use. Is the method to be used (1) by a participant in discussion, and for the sake of getting at the doctrinal truth of the matter under consideration, or (2) by an observer of discussion, and for the sake of getting at the dialectical truth about the controversy that such discussion involves?

The dialectical method proposed in this article clearly takes the second alternative. Its primary aim, in constructing the controversy that is implicit in a diversity of views, is to get at the dialectical, not the doctrinal, truth about the subject under discussion.[21] Because this is its aim, detachment from all competing doctrines and neutrality with respect to them are essential to its proper use. Such detachment and neutrality are usually better maintained by an observer of discussion than by a participant in it.

To be different, the Aristotelian conception of dialectic would have to take the first alternative, and this in fact it appears to do. If that alternative makes the dialectical method essentially polemical and partisan, then the two conceptions are not only different but are also clearly opposed; for, on this hypothesis, they would attribute contrary properties to a reflexive dialectic. One and the same method cannot be both essentially neutral and polemical; it cannot be simultaneously used for nonpartisan and partisan purposes.

The hypothesis stated above must be rejected. It violates what is common to the two conceptions, however else they differ; namely, that dialectic is auxiliary to the philosopher in his pursuit of truth. Thus, no theory of reflexive dialectic can consistently conceive such dialectic as purely polemical and wholly partisan. Insofar as a method is purely polemical in its aim and partisan in its use, it may assist its user stubbornly to maintain the truth he claims for his own doctrine; it may help him to win forensic victories over his opponents; but far from assisting him in getting at the doctrinal truth about things, it will probably prevent him from doing so if any part of the truth resides in some doctrine other than his own. A philosopher’s loyalty is to the truth no matter where it resides, not to the claims of truth he has made for his own doctrine. If the ultimate objective of a particular individual is to maintain the truth of his own doctrine at all costs, then he is no philosopher.

Hence it follows that a method which is polemical and partisan, in the extreme sense indicated above, does not meet the first requirement of any theory of reflexive dialectic. Polemic defeats rather than promotes the ultimate objectives of philosophical inquiry. Indulgence in polemics on all sides degrades discussion and prevents fruitful debate from ever emerging when men appear to differ.


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These things being so, we return to the question of how Aristotle’s conception of the dialectical method differs from the one set forth in this article. We have already pointed out that Aristotle conceives the method with which he is concerned as an instrument to be used by a participant in discussion, and with the primary aim of getting at the doctrinal truth about matters on which there is an apparent or real difference of opinion. If the participant is a philosopher, not a sophist or a merely disputatious person seeking a forensic triumph, his being a participant will not make his use of the method purely polemical and partisan.[22]

He will try as a philosopher to temper his partisanship with some effort at fairness and impartiality in his treatment of conflicting views. Nevertheless, he remains a partisan of the particular doctrine to which he is attached. Detachment from all conflicting doctrines is not, therefore, essential to his use of dialectic; nor, in Aristotle’s conception, need the philosopher as dialectician attempt to achieve such a thoroughgoing neutrality. His primary aim is not to get at the dialectical truth about a controversy but rather at the doctrinal truth about the matters in dispute, and though he may try to defend the truth of his own doctrine, he remains hospitable to whatever elements of truth can be found elsewhere.[23]

As used by the philosopher for doctrinal, but not polemical, purposes, dialectic, according to Aristotle, is critical or exploratory. The philosopher uses it to explore, from the point of view of his own doctrine, the diversity of views on whatever subject he is treating. He uses it critically to examine and weigh divergent opinions, in order to take from them whatever truth he can find and thus perfect the truth of his own doctrine. Aristotle himself exemplifies such use of dialectic when he undertakes “to call into council the views of those of our predecessors who have declared any opinion on this subject, in order that we may profit by whatever is sound in their suggestions and avoid their errors.”[24]

The difference between the two conceptions being clear, one question remains. Are the two theories of reflexive dialectic opposed? Do they advance incompatible definitions of one and the same subject? Only if the two theories exclude one another are we faced with the embarrassing question of whether we can use our own method to construct in a thoroughly neutral manner the resultant issue about the definition of dialectic.

In the light of what has been said, two hypotheses suggest themselves, on neither of which are we faced with that embarrassing question. The first hypothesis is that each of the theories defines a distinct kind of reflexive dialectic. The second hypothesis is that there is only one kind of reflexive dialectic, of which one of the two theories offers a more explicit and adequate conception than the other. Let us consider these two hypotheses in turn.

On the first hypothesis, the two kinds of reflexive dialectic would be distinguished by their primary aim and use. To name the kind of dialectic with which Aristotle is concerned, we can use the key word in Aristotle’s description of it — “critical.” In contrast, “constructive” is the key word in the description we have given of the other kind of reflexive dialectic. A critical dialectic deals with the diversity of views from the point of view of a doctrine that itself contributes to the diversity; a constructive dialectic deals with diversity without attachment to any particular point of view. Whereas the primary aim of one is to get at doctrinal truth, though it may incidentally uncover some dialectical truth, the primary aim of the other is to discover dialectical truth, while at the same time indirectly serving the philosopher’s main quest of doctrinal truth. Complete neutrality is, therefore, not essential to the one as it is to the other.[25]

On this hypothesis, the two conceptions, each of a different kind of dialectic, are not opposed. They are no more incompatible than are the conceptions of human and divine law, for instance, when it is granted that these are two kinds of law. But would the proponents of these two conceptions be willing to grant that each defines a distinct kind belonging to the same general class, characterized as reflexive dialectic? There seems to be no reason why proponents of the Aristotelian theory would not admit that it defines only one of two possible kinds. We, on our part, can also accept the hypothesis that, while having certain generic features in common, a critical and a constructive dialectic are distinct kinds, differentiated by their primary objectives and by the way in which they are used. Yet we have one reason for favoring a different hypothesis.

This other hypothesis lays greater emphasis on what is common to the two theories. Both regard the dialectical method as auxiliary to the philosophical pursuit of truth about the nature of things. Its ultimate purpose is to assist the philosopher in ascertaining the doctrinal truth about any matter under consideration. Now if dialectic is not itself a method of philosophical inquiry, which both theories admit, then perhaps it can be said that its primary objective should be to get at dialectical truth through the construction of the controversy that is implicit in a diversity of views about a particular subject. For this primary purpose, complete neutrality is essential, whether the method is used by a dialectical observer or by a philosophical participant in the discussion. To be a dialectician, in other words, the philosophical participant must become, for a time at least, as detached and impartial as he could be if he were merely an observer.

According to this hypothesis, the theory of the dialectical method as essentially constructive and neutral offers the more explicit and adequate conception of what a reflexive dialectic should be. Insofar as the procedure is seen as critical rather than constructive, and insofar as impartiality is recommended rather than made obligatory, the conception of the method fails to make explicit and definite what is essential to dialectic as auxiliary to philosophy. A critical method, used directly for doctrinal purposes, is not a distinct kind of reflexive dialectic. It represents only a stage in the development of a constructive method, used directly for dialectical purposes and only indirectly for the attainment of doctrinal truth.

This hypothesis about the relation of the two theories seems to us preferable for the basic reason that dialectical rather than doctrinal truth should be the immediate and primary objective of a method which is admittedly dialectical rather than philosophical, because it is not itself a method of philosophical inquiry but only auxiliary to such inquiry. That reason, we think, justifies us in regarding the traditional statement of the Aristotelian theory as an inadequate conception of the method. It is inadequate to the extent that it fails to describe the procedure as constructive, fails to insist upon neutrality as essential, and fails to define the aim as the discovery of dialectical truth, first for its own sake, and ultimately for the sake of promoting the pursuit of doctrinal truth.

If proponents of the Aristotelian theory were to grant its inadequacy in these respects, then we would have no reason to reject the Aristotelian conception as false.[26] We would simply take the position that our more adequate conception includes their less adequate conception and improves upon it by making explicit and precise what should be said in a true definition of reflexive dialectic.

The most important consequence of having achieved the more adequate statement is the present formulation of the method itself as a method of constructing controversies with complete neutrality. Yet the truth of the conception that underlies the method by no means guarantees its workability or its production of the results at which it aims. These must be independently judged.

Endnotes

  1. Scott Buchanan, Possibility (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927), pp, 180-81.

  2. “On Some Conditions of Progress in Philosophical Inquiry,” Presidential Address before the American Philosophical Association in 1916, published in The Philosophical Review 26 (March 1917): pp. 123-63.

  3. ”The Generic Definition of Philosophic Terms.” In The Philosophical Review 62 (January 1953): pp, 42-44, “The fact that this debate goes steadily on, and that philosophers of all schools and convictions engage in it, is easily forgotten,” Professor Burtt declares, “because of its ubiquitous presence.”

  4. The Great Conversation was written by Robert M. Hutchins, who was also editor in chief of Great Books of the Western World, “The goal toward which Western society moves,” Hutchins declared, “is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race” (op. cit., p, 1). Alfred North Whitehead once said that the history of Western thought can be viewed as a series of footnotes to Plato. To regard the West as the Civilization of the Dialogue, Hutchins suggested, is to conceive it as the ever-expanding conversation that was initiated in the West by the dialogues of Plato.

  5. GBWW, Vol. 3, p. 1234.

  6. Thus seen as able to discover dialectical truth about a subject, the method of the dialectician does more than transform the diversity it finds in an extended and elaborate discussion. It not only turns that diversity into clear-cut disagreements and nonagreements, but it also reveals the unity that underlies the diversity. The extent and character of that unity is made explicit by the indicated agreements on dialectical truth, just as the extent and character of the initial diversity is made explicit by the formulated disagreements and nonagreements about what is doctrinally true. Because it is based on the sharing of dialectical truth, we can speak of such unity as “dialectical unity.” It is a dialectical unity that makes the whole intellectual tradition of the West the tradition of one culture, in spite of all its doctrinal diversity. It may even be that enough dialectical truth can be discovered to unify the diverse cultures of mankind.

  7. In his Prefatory Notice to the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the editor, Thomas S. Baynes, wrote that, in the conflict of opinion, “a work like the Encyclopediais not called upon to take any direct part. …It cannot be the organ of any sect or party in Science, Religion, or Philosophy. Its main duty is to give an accurate account of the facts and an impartial summary of results in every department of inquiry and research” (p. viii). Referring to this statement by Baynes, Hugh Chisholm added, in the Editorial Introduction to the Eleventh Edition, that “every effort has been made to obtain, impartially, such statements of doctrine and belief in matters of religion and similar questions as are satisfactory to those who hold them, and to deal with these questions, so far as criticism is concerned, in such a way that the controversial points may be understood and appreciated, without prejudice to the argument” (p. xxi).

  8. The main reason for a division of labor is that the philosophical and the dialectical tasks are each arduous and exacting and so make demands on time and energy that it would be very difficult for a single individual to fulfill adequately. It is the tension between the pulls of two different kinds of creative work, not the impossibility of combining partisanship with impartiality, that calls for a division of labor.

  9. What is said above about the dialectician’s attempt to construct the controversy about truth would hold as well for attempts to deal dialectically with the discussion of certain other subjects on which the skeptic takes an extreme position, such as knowledge or the power of human reason. It would also hold for a dialectical treatment of the discussion of the nature of philosophy, on which subject the contemporary logical positivist or semanticist holds the moderate skeptical view that science is involved with objective truth but that philosophy is not and cannot be. Since the problem about the nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical problem, the dialectician’s attempt to construct a controversy about this subject would itself be prejudicial to the view held by the positivist or semanticist, for his method of doing so presumes that objective truth is at stake in philosophical issues — about philosophy or anything else.

  10. In his essay “On Some Conditions of Progress in Philosophical Inquiry,” Professor Lovejoy mentions this objection to the dialectical dissection of whole philosophies, when they are treated problem by problem and issue by issue. He quotes, without naming, a colleague who said that philosophical knowledge is characterized by “its incapacity to answer any one of its problems, without anticipating in broad outline the kind of answer that has to be given to all the others. In other words, it deals with problems for which no method of successful isolation has yet been formulated. … The various philosophical problems cannot be, treated as so many separate issues.” Commenting on this, Professor Lovejoy points out, first, that only a few philosophers hold a view of philosophy that regards every philosophical issue as “inextricably intertwined with all of the others.” And, second, he suggests that by a process of hypothetical reasoning, it is possible to deal piecemeal with doctrines whose exponents insist upon their irrefragable wholeness. See The Philosophical Review 26, 2 (March 1917): pp. 155-58.

  11. Modern physics provides us with a striking instance of the general rule that every method imposes certain limitations or has certain defects. Over a large area of the phenomena that the physicist investigates, his methods do not embarrass him in any way. But at the fringes, where he deals with astronomical speeds and distances or with subatomic quantities, the contemporary physicist explicitly recognizes that his techniques of observation affect and limit the results he can obtain. The same thing is, of course, true of the biologist who experiments with living organisms, or of the psychologist who tries to observe mental phenomena under laboratory conditions.

  12. We can, in other words, do something like what we have done in the case of law. Though we have referred to the discussion of law as an “imaginary discussion,” its main lines were obviously drawn from the actual discussion of that subject. We called it “imaginary” to indicate that the dialectical hypothesis we presented was merely a sketch based on our general acquaintance with the historic discussion of law, and not a detailed working out of the hypothesis in the light of data supplied by protracted research.

  13. See The Republic, Book VI (511), Book VII (532-34). [GBWW, Vol. 7, pp. 387c, 397a-98c.] Other dialogues emphasize the method or process of knowing rather than the knowing itself; see the Sophist, Statesman, and Philebus [GBWW, Vol. 7]. Plato’s identification of the philosopher with the dialectician gives rise to one conception of philosophy and its method of inquiry. According to an interesting analysis by Richard McKeon, the dialectical philosopher, in Plato’s sense of “dialectical,” is in method and character only one of four types, the others being characterized by other methods, which he calls “logistic,” “problematic,” and “operational,” For McKeon’s description of the dialectical philosopher, see his essay “Dialectic and Political Thought and Action,” in Ethics 65, 1 (October 1954): pp. 1-33; for his classification of the four types of philosophy and philosophical method, see his Thought, Action, and Passion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), pp. 85-88, and his Freedom and History (New York: Noonday Press, 1952).

  14. For Hegel, the real is the rational and the rational the real. Consequently, for Hegel, dialectic is at once the inner logic of both mind and reality; the laws of dialectic regulate the development of thought and the development of things. See Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Logic, chap. 6, sec. 81. “Wherever there is movement,” Hegel writes, “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.” Cf. Philosophy of Right, Introduction, 31 [GBWW, Vol. 46, p. 19d], where Hegel says that his dialectic “is not an activity of subjective thinking applied to some matter externally, but is rather the matter’s very soul putting forth its branches and fruit organically.” For the full exposition of the principles of Hegel’s regulative dialectic, see The Science of Logic and Phenomenology of Mind, And for Hegel’s account of the history of dialectic, in which he attributes certain anticipations of his own theory to Plato and others, see the section cited above in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, and also his Philosophy of History [GBWW, Vol. 46].

  15. For Marx and Engels, the dialectic of nature or of history is to be found in the laws governing the transformations of matter only. Borrowing from Hegel the conception of a regulative dialectic and its laws, but differing from Hegel about whether the laws of dialectic are laws of matter or of mind, the Marxists developed what they called a “dialectical materialism.” See F. Engels, Dialectics of Nature (New York, 1940); Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (New York, 1934); and compare A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy, prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy and translated by A. C. Moseley (London, 1937).

  16. See Metaphysics, Book IV, chap, 2, 1004b25 [GBWW, Vol. 8, p. 523d]. For Aristotle’s conception of dialectic as “a process of criticism,” see his Topics; especially Book I, chap. 2 [ibid., pp. 143d-44a], where he explains the usefulness of the method as auxiliary to philosophy. Kant’s theory of dialectic is related to Aristotle’s. In the passage from the Metaphysics quoted above, Aristotle distinguishes sophistry from philosophy as well as dialectic. “Sophistry,” he writes, “is what appears to be philosophy, but is not,” Kant identifies ancient dialectic with sophistry, “This art,” he writes, “presented false principles in the semblance of truth, and sought, in accordance with these, to maintain things in semblance. Amongst the Greeks the dialecticians were advocates and rhetoricians who could lead the populace wherever they chose, because the populace lets itself be deluded with semblance. … In Logic, also, it was for a long time treated of under the name of the Art of Disputation, and for so long all logic and philosophy was the cultivation by certain chatter heads of the art of semblance” (Introduction to Logic [London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1885], sec. ii). Kant then goes on to say that in his own Logic he proposes to introduce “a critical examination of this semblance” or sophistry under the head of dialectic. In his Critique of Pure Reason [GBWW, Vol. 42], he called this division of his Transcendental Logic a “Transcendental Dialectic.”

  17. As, for example, the opposition of the One and Many in Plato’s dialectic, the opposition of thesis and antithesis in Hegel’s dialectic, and the opposition of conflicting theories or arguments in Aristotle’s dialectic or Kant’s.

  18. The word induction provides us with another example of the same situation. It is not completely equivocal as it is used in inductive logic and in algebra, yet those who are concerned with mathematical induction and those who are concerned with induction in the experimental sciences are simply in nonagreement, They do not think of mathematical and experimental induction as belonging to the same general class; they do not argue the question whether these two subjects are both kinds of induction.

  19. A particular individual who uses the dialectical method as auxiliary to philosophy may also be a philosopher who rejects Plato’s or Hegel’s theory of dialectic as a false philosophical theory of knowledge or reality. But he would do so on philosophical grounds, not because he used the dialectical method. As using the method, he is not called upon to judge the philosophical truth of these other theories of dialectic. He can, therefore, remain dialectically neutral in treating them, just as he can remain dialectically neutral in treating theories of freedom with which, as an individual philosophizing about freedom, not as a dialectician, he may disagree.

  20. The Topics, that part of his Organon in which Aristotle expounds the rules of dialectic as a method to be used, also contains a great deal that does not properly belong to the art or method of dialectic at all. The analysis of definitions which Aristotle gives there, and his famous classification of the types of predicates or “predicables,” belongs rather to the science of logic itself, in that division of the science which Aristotle’s medieval followers called “material,” as opposed to “formal,” logic, The justification for treating such matters in a book ostensibly devoted to an art of disputation, and to a critical method of dealing with the conflict of opinions, may be that the arguments for opposed positions often appeal to definitions and often turn on how the disputants employ their fundamental terms or predicates.

  21. The fact that its primary aim is to get at dialectical rather than doctrinal truth does not exclude all interest in the latter. On the contrary, if the discovery of dialectical truth did not ultimately serve the pursuit of doctrinal truth, the method would not be auxiliary to philosophy as a pursuit of such truth about the nature of things. But it aims at such truth indirectly, not primarily or directly.

  22. “In the second chapter of Book I of the Topics [GBWW, Vol. 8, pp, 143d-44a], Aristotle distinguishes between two main uses that can be made of the art or method of dialectic. The first is the use that can be made by men generally in “casual encounters,” wherein they are engaged in disputation with one another and in efforts to argue effectively or persuasively for their own views. This use of dialectic associates it with rhetoric. In fact, Aristotle declares, “rhetoric is a branch of dialectic. … Both are methods of providing arguments.” (Rhetoric, Book I, chap. 2, 1356a30-34 [GBWW, Vol. 9, pp, 595d-96a].) And in another place, he says that “all men make use of both (i.e., rhetoric and dialectic); for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others.” (Ibid., Book I, chap, I, 1354a3-6 [GBWW, Vol. 9, p. 593a].) This first use of dialectic — by men generally in casual encounters — verges on the disputatious or polemical. But it is also clearly distinct in Aristotle’s mind from the use of dialectic by philosophers. Aristotle describes that second use as enabling the philosopher “to raise searching difficulties on both sides of a subject …to detect more easily the truth and error about the several points that arise.” (Topics, Book I, chap. 2, 101a34-37 [GBWW, Vol. 8, p. 144a].) Aristotle’s dialectic is sometimes spoken of as the art of reasoning from merely probable premises in the form of widely accepted opinions or the opinions of experts, but that applies only to the use of dialectic in casual encounters and for forensic purposes. It does not apply to dialectic as a method used by philosophers to get at the doctrinal truth about a subject. If philosophers were to engage in reasoning from accepted or expert opinion, they would be arguing from authority rather than from facts and principles.

  23. This primary aim does not exclude the possibility that indirectly or incidentally the philosopher’s doctrinal use of dialectic may uncover or lead to the discovery of some dialectical truths about the controversy in which he is engaged. Cf. note 21.

  24. On the Soul, Book I, chap, 2, 403b22-24 [GBWW, Vol. 8, p, 633a].

  25. As we have already seen, the philosopher’s doctrinal use of dialectic can and should be tempered by some effort to be impartial, or at least to avoid the unfairness and subjectivity of merely polemical criticism or refutation. In one place, Aristotle speaks of dialectic as “an art of drawing opposite conclusions impartially.” (Rhetoric, Book I, chap. 1, 1355a36 [GBWW, Vol. 9, p. 594d],) Furthermore, his statement that the purpose of dialectic is “to raise searching difficulties on both sides of a subject” and “to detect … truth and error about the several points that arise” (loc. cit.) suggests some measure of impartiality. It is only when dialectic is used, not by the philosopher but in “casual encounters,” that it is, as an art of disputation, polemical in its partisanship. Cf. note 21.

  26. We can offer one reason why proponents of the Aristotelian theory should grant, in terms of that theory itself, the inadequacy of their conception of reflexive dialectic. In their view, as well as in ours, the line between a polemical misuse of the dialectical method and a proper philosophical use of it lies in the fairness and impartiality with which the philosopher, who is making a doctrinal use of dialectic, treats the doctrines of others. If he is truly a philosopher rather than a polemicist, open to the truth wherever it is found and not just a stubborn defender of the claims he makes for the truth of his own doctrine, then he is also truly a dialectician to the extent that he achieves impartiality in his treatment of whatever philosophical diversity he finds. To recommend neutrality, but not to make it obligatory, is therefore an imperfect conception of the method, It follows also that the philosopher should not use dialectic in a merely critical manner to deal with other doctrines from the point of view of his own. He should try constructively to see the controversy in which his own doctrine is included merely as one among others.


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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.