“Unfortunately, I discovered that there were two entirely opposed schools of thought regarding the unity of all things.”

This article is beginning to look like something of a blast from the past, but still holds some interest to me – it’s an attempt to put on a few pages what is right and what is wrong with dialectics, a school of thought developed (for present purposes – its origins go way back) in the thought of Hegel, and kept alive (some would say on an iron lung) mainly, but not exclusively, within the marxist tradition.

I’ll try to make it a bit more reader-friendly as the site is constructed. I’ve been doing fairly piecemeal revision lately, but it needs radical reorganization. It’s slowly becoming more discursive and less programmatic. The segment on the three “laws” of dialectics was always intended to be fairly deflationary; its presence so early in the article is a result of youthful bravado, which I don’t yet have the heart to countermand.

Acknowledgement – This article has been improved recently by the constructive criticism of Steve Masterson, whose take on dialectics, similar to mine, can be found here.


The Three “Laws” of Dialectics

The identity/unity/interpenetration of opposites

Some (but not all) terms which seem to be logically opposed presuppose each other.

Logic. Mutual definition of contraries. “Every limitation or determination is at the same time a negation.” – Spinoza, quoted in Engels – Anti-During, and often quoted by Hegel.

Some entities which seem to be separate, opposed, or in tension can only be fully understood by way of how they behave with that to which they are, or seem to be, opposed.

Symmetry in nature, e.g., charge with electricity and polarity with magnetism. Polar divisions. Attraction and repulsion as a unity of opposites.

Any “unity of opposites” can only be arrived at in the course of enquiry. And it is not an “identity of opposites”. If it were, then logic would be seriously compromised.

The transformation of quantity into quality

Within an organized system or order, the increase or decrease in the value of a quantitative variable (usually considered by Engels as amounts of matter or motion) can, at some point, that is, at the crossing of certain thresholds (or “nodal points”), alter the pattern, structure, organisation of the whole system, either

– changing the system into another system, or

– leading simply to destruction, a relative disorder (a lower order), or

– leading to a higher order. Higher is here, to avoid subjective value commitments, best taken as more complex.

None of these possibilities, even that of a higher order, necessarily involve sublation.

However, there is not necessarily only one “fundamental” variable.

Such a process can also lead to the end of the variable as a significant factor.

A variable of the type explored above can be an essential component of the system or process which it alters or destroys. This sort of situation links opposition, the transformation of quantity into quality, and negation.

A combination of increases or decreases along different quantitative axes might be involved in qualitative shift. For example, boiling point in terms of temperature can vary with differences of pressure.

The distinction quantity / quality is connected to the distinction of micro / macro, and also to distinctions of structure or organization / property. Perhaps the main point is that quantitative change can at some points force a change of organization / structure. In the terminology of the modern computer modeling language UML (Unified Modeling Language), this is something like alteration of the number in an aggregation necessitating a change in composition.

Note – For some aspects of reality, e.g. colour, quantity is quality. We see colour differences or changes (quality), but only with science do we understand that these differences are increases or decreases of the wavelength of light (quantity). The quantity/quality relationship is sometimes skewed by the structure of objectivity/subjectivity; thus, by “qualitative”, we often mean something like “phenomenological”. Locke is relevant here, regarding some qualities as primary (objective) and others, like phenomenological colour, as secondary (in a sense, subjective).

Some homilies which seem to be related to this aspect of dialectics –

– The last straw (that broke the camel’s back).

– For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost, etc.

The negation of the negation

Negation seems closely related to what I elsewhere call self-destruction, and endogenous transformation, rather than destruction or alteration by an exogenous factor. Dialectics has often been characterized as concerned with situations where full realization involves destruction.

Negation of the negation seems closely related to sublation, where something is both overcome (or transcended) yet preserved, and the spiral form of development, where something returns at a higher level. (The spiral here seems best conceived as an upward-turning helix.)

In changing something else, something might also change itself. This is something like a lesser form of negation.

Dialectical Thinking

“Thinking dialectically” or “dialectical thinking” has its virtues, and here I shall try to indicate what they might be.

Dialectical thinking shows an awareness of how simplifications can become inadequate,

– through a “historical” change of situations (dynamic transformation of structure and therefore elements.)

– through misapplication within the wrong context. There can be more than one context to an event or a process, possibly a narrower and a wider one. This can lead to apparent contradictions in an analysis.

– through being misinterpreted as essential or fundamental determinations, rather than as themselves effects.

Dialectical thinking shows an awareness of the wider context of a question.

Dialectical thinking is holistic rather than fragmentary. It understands the integrity of real theory as opposed to disconnected facts. Things can only be understood in their inter-relation. That inter-relation is internal, intrinsic, essential, an interpenetration.

Dialectical thinking is historical or diachronic. An important aspect of this is that it does not take categories as fixed for all time, or Platonic, but rather as evolved or evolving. See Engels on evolution and Hobsbawm on the impact of historical thinking in the nineteenth century.

Dialectical thinking is suspicious of a treatment of opposed terms as externally related, or as only externally related or interacting only externally. There can be a deeper form of inter-relation, a complicity which could be termed interpenetration. See for example the critique of interactionism (a position regarding the nature of the relationship between organism and environment) in Rose, Lewontin and Kamin – “Not In Our Genes”, and the critique of Giddens’ account of the relationship between action and structure, in Callinicos – “Marxism and Philosophy”(?) .

Dialectical thought is a particular tendency within the wider field of the understanding of complexity and emergence.

A dialectical thinker utilizes his ability to shift to an opposed or excluded point of view to open up new approaches – he is not caught within pre-established formalisms and categories, but has a subtlety, indeed, a suppleness and flexibility to his thought. To borrow what Lowenthal says of the artist, a dialectician focuses on “the idiosyncratic, on that which does not fit into the system.” Or rather, he has a creative dual focus, a capacity to maintain tension.

The aim, purpose or goal of an agent operating within a structure, system or process can be contradicted by the results of its operations, even though its operations were both rational and conducted in order to fulfil its aim. This is one way in which actions can have unintended consequences.

The concept of opposition, closely related to the concepts of negation and contradiction within dialectics, is quite problematic; a fairly typical article, by Sullivan – “Dialectical biology: A response to Camilla Royle” defines contradiction as firstly (there is a secondly and a thirdly, but they only further precise the meaning of contradiction within dialectics) involving opposites which are opposites “in the sense that they are of a contrary kind, diametrically different from one another”. The complete circularity of definitions like this, within a theoretical article in a supposedly theoretical journal, should be readily apparent.

It is an interesting question how far, and why, we think in opposites. Also, how far this mode of thought misleads us. On this issue there are relations of similarity and difference between dialectics, and structuralism and deconstruction.

Often, contradictions, or at least paradoxes (usually defined as apparent contradictions), seem to arise in situations where we have self-reference. Russell’s paradox, Godel’s Theorem, and related results do seem in some way to be “dialectical”.

I do not here directly address the issue of whether dialectics should limit its purview to history and society, that is, the human world, or whether there is a dialectics of nature. I believe dialectics, understood in an undogmatic form, has a general applicability. In this I am something of an Engelsian. See notes later about differences between Marx and Engels on their conception of dialectics. Marxists are often too willing to sacrifice Engels and nature to shirk the charge of mystified metaphysics whilst remaining both dogmatic and metaphysical within their supposedly “humanized” dialectics.

Marx and Engels never used either of the two terms “dialectical materialism” or “historical materialism”. They did use the term “materialist interpretation of history”. The term “dialectical materialism”, especially in its shortened form “diamat”, has come to be closely associated with Stalinism. Nevertheless I have little objection in principle to any of these terms as such. Only an ongoing conceptual clarification can distinguish acceptable formulations. I do not here discuss historical materialism as this would carry us into the specific historical truth claims of marxism and away from the necessarily abstract treatment of dialectics.

A materialism of relationships, patterns, and processes rather than substance, based partly on the liquidation of substance – res extensa – in modern physics (see Paul Davies – “The Matter Myth”) seems to me to be part of what dialectical materialism can and should be made to mean.

Process rather than substance materialism. Substance is something of a relative term – substratum and structure   shape is surely material.   Pattern?

Nature is not necessarily thoroughgoingly holistic. One might say the dialectic of connection and disconnection is the limit point of dogmatic dialectics.

A materialist can even accept a certain type of idealist dialectic – the development of ideas through dialogue, debate or contestation. This idea is in many ways normative, or “ideal” as in being an aspiration as well as “ideal” as in being of ideas.

Historically, of course, such a dynamic can have had only a limited sway, being overdetermined by other factors, for example power, in a complex way. The Hegelian dialectic of history is dubious even for ideas.

The Hegelian dialectic is one of conceptual inadequacy – conceptual inadequacy is its dynamic, and this dynamic, based as it is in ideas, cannot simply be inverted into materialism or have its truth extracted from within an idealist shell. Or, at the very least, this is no simple task.

Dialectical Logic

There are two questions involved in any attempt to “transcend” or “place” formal logic-

1) What is the historical development of logic as both discipline and human tendency?

2) What is the material, i.e., cognitive basis? For example, how does formalization figure as an aspect of the dynamic of thought?

Both questions are dealt with in this and the following sections, but the first is dealt with more adequately, because its history has, if you like, already happened; the second is still mysterious to me, so only dealt with in a tilting way, with my point on it taking only a negative form – that dialectics has not, so far, clarified the relationship of logical formalization to real thinking.

The expressions “laws of the dialectic” and “dialectical logic” are unfortunate, the latter because it implies a higher form of logic analogous to the “lower” form designated as formal logic.

There is an historical explanation for the misdirected dialectical critique of formal logic, being that formal logic was underdeveloped at the time when dialectics was being articulated as an approach, and, relatedly, the term “logic” was used in a loose way.

Aristotelian logic remained essentially intact through the scientific revolution, through the time of Kant and Hegel, and was only really replaced at the turn of the 19th / 20th century as part of a fairly collective effort of which the main luminaries include Frege and Russell. This revolution in logic owed little to Kant and Hegel, who had only adjusted and perhaps muddled Aristotelian logic within their wider philosophies, and it also utterly superseded and transcended Aristotle, but explains why Aristotle’s logic, which was no mean achievement, works as a sort of sub-sector. Now, a synonym for the bulk of Aristotelian logic is syllogistics, and modern logic is, basically, the combination of predicate calculus and propositional calculus.

The dialectical critique of formal logic is based on misapprehension, especially of the nature of formal systems. Today, our understanding of any logic as a logic implies that it be formal.

It is doubtful that formal logic is trivial, since it shows that calculi can be applied to sort out arguments.

However, if the provenance of formal logic is exaggerated, its critique, including some of the things said by dialecticians, can have a point, provided we do not fantasize a higher, dialectical logic.

To explore the limits of a formal system is not to employ a higher system.

We must distinguish the usage of the term contradiction within dialectics from that within logic. Failure to do so is idealism.

For the sake of completeness, the three classic laws of thought:

The law of identity                            A = A

The law of non-contradiction         Not (A & Not A)

The law of excluded middle            Either A or Not A

The three laws of dialectics seem to have an affinity, perhaps being an attempt to dynamize the static.

Trotsky’s Intervention

In 1939, towards the end of his life, which was cut short by assassination, Trotsky was involved in an ideological struggle on a number of fronts with his American comrades. As part of this struggle, some comrades were questioning the usefulness of dialectics, and so within the more broad-ranging polemical article “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party” Trotsky includes a defense of dialectics often extracted as “The ABC of Materialist Dialectics”. I believe that in many ways the tenor of this article is unfortunate, especially for its tendency to counterpoise a lower “formal logic” and a higher “dialectical logic”. It is also difficult to forgive Trotsky his lecturing tone, when knowledge of the revolution in logic mentioned above was by this time widespread, but of which he seems willfully ignorant.

Trotsky considers the difference between formal logic and dialectical logic as being analogous to that between arithmetic and algebra, but algebra is just as formal as arithmetic, if not more so. The revolution in logic brings arithmetic, algebra and logic closer together, without any recourse to dialectical logic.

Trotsky conducts a critique of the formal law of identity, viz. Aristotle’s A = A . (In this and the following, Trotsky’s examples may not be original but rather following a tradition from Hegel via Marx and especially Engels.)

(Technical Note – In what follows, I’m not going to bother distinguishing between use and mention, which would involve sometimes putting terms in quotation marks and sometimes not, as I don’t think it makes any real difference to my argument.)

Initially, Trotsky considers the As as signifiers, and talks of looking at them under a lens, thus revealing differences. (He is thinking about the actual As as ink blots on a page.)

Really, this is a matter of semiotics.

It is conventional that A = A refers to meanings, not the materiality of signifiers. Also, in formal logic we would usually, in discussing contradiction, be considering A (usually a lower-case a, or more closely to convention a p) as a proposition.

A and A are recognized as “the same” signifier despite having differences as well as similarities in their materiality. This is a matter of the distinction, first employed in linguistics, between token and type. Tokens are identifiable as being of the same type – tokens of a type in the relevant way. There is something quite subtle here – to be able to read someone’s handwriting is to be able to make the correct distinctions. Nevertheless, it is not often that for reading an a as an e even a minor skirmish gets lost, and I don’t see that dialectics has done much more with understanding tokens which exemplify type ambiguity than any other school of thought.

Some matters should be briskly covered for the sake of completeness; though they might not be what Trotsky is thinking of, they can arise in conversation with those who are hell-bent on undermining the claims of formal logic. They are problems of ambiguity rather than vagueness –

What of As that have different senses? It seems that then they have different meanings.

What of As that have the same sense but different referents? It seems that then they have different meanings. (Relevant categories from linguistics would be deixis, indexicals, demonstratives, and anaphora.)

Do the As in A = A have different meanings simply by being differently or differentially placed in the context of the statement? That is not obviously so.

Trotsky then shifts from consideration of the signifier in its materiality, to consider the signified, i.e., the concept denoted by A. He talks of the difficulty of defining a pound of sugar.

We would usually consider contradiction as between propositions, rather than as between concepts or within a concept (such as “a pound of sugar”). Trotsky has shifted from talking about logic, albeit Aristotelean syllogistic logic, to talking of the applicability of concepts to phenomena in an ever-changing world. This is a matter of the applicability of formal categories to reality.

Trotsky seems to be making much of problems in philosophy to do with vagueness, but it is quite unclear that dialectics has any superior way of clarifying or arbitrating matters of vagueness. He also overstates the problem of vagueness, as if it besets all formal conceptualisation – despite vagueness, many concepts still turn out quite sharp and clean.

Related to this issue of vagueness, the status of the law of excluded middle mentioned above is often regarded as uncertain – one of the shakier of our logical notions. This has some bearing on Trotsky and his ever-changing pound of sugar. This problem is explored within the fields of fuzzy logic, prototypes and connectionism.

[This section under construction] – Why equal quantities? And why measure rather than number? – quantity / quality – quality what remains the same – essential property? – tolerance – dialectical thinking and motion picture – quality and within limits – syllogism comes back into it – dialectics combines syllogisms – series of laws simple syllogism – Darwinism quantitative into qualitative? – atomic weights – transformation of one element into another – Linnaeus – infantile period of logic (cheeky) – Dialectic logic … laws of motion.

“since the forms of our thought develop” – but not within an argument – not at the same speed as an argument. The propositions and terms must be fixed within an argument.

Within a real-world discussion, terms (I’m thinking here mainly of concepts) can alter their meanings, and the development and refinement of terms within and as a result of debate can be a good thing, over the long haul, but not within what in logic we call an argument: for formal logic, within an argument, terms must have fixed meanings amongst all premises and conclusions, whatever is earlier or later. Any attempt to justify a procedure of allowing change in terms within an argument in formal logic is illegitimate, and there is not a higher form of logic called dialectical which could justify any such arguments.

A logical train of thought presented as an argument cannot allow the meanings of its terms to “develop” or change willy-nilly.

However, sometimes the presentation of findings might be ordered in a similar sequence to the course of thought by which the findings were discovered, moving from simpler to more complex conceptualizations of the subject matter. It is something like leading a pupil along the fruitful path of thought which one has already trodden, but neglecting any unproductive detours. Such a pedagogical manner of presentation may also involve the confrontation of contradictions within our earlier conceptualizations. I believe that it is this, a discursive or presentational matter, which is an important source of the “dialectical logic” conundrum.

Subject / Object , Mind / Matter , Theory / Practice

Here are some remarks on “old standard” dialectical oppositions, the problematic dialectics of subject/object, mind/matter, theory/practice.

Mind is not thoroughly “reflection”, this being a pseudo-explanation, but mind does seem to utilize correspondence or representation to some degree. (see the mature Lenin on “closer approximations”)

The laws of thought (whatever they are – Engels mentions “laws of thought” but delivers little exposition) and the laws of reality (whatever they are) are probably distinct, but dialectical thinking can play its part in helping us to understand a dialectical reality, insofar as reality is dialectical.

More generally, accepting the distinction of thought and reality, we can still accept the achievability of some level of correspondence of thought and reality / thought to reality.

What if the relationship of thought to reality is dialectical? This is an intriguing possibility, but the mainstream view of dialecticians seems to be something like that of Engels in Dialectics of Nature – ” … the dialectics of the mind is only the reflection of the forms of motion of the real world, both of nature and of history.” My point here is not to deny the primacy of reality over thought, but to spotlight that the mainstream regards the dialectic of the mind as merely a reflection, a copy. There is something very undialectical about “reflection”; it’s very commonsensical. In a bad way.

Thought is active, not passive.

Praxis. Theory and practice are often theorized as though they form, or should form, a sort of complementary opposition. However, if taken in a simplistic way, this way of thinking of things runs the danger of blurring fundamental differences between theory and practice: they are not the same thing, nor are they complementary opposites, and nor are they mutually exclusive. There is more to practice than theory, and more to theory than practice. When reason is applied in situ, factors way beyond reason’s grounding in theory come into play. Practice is not simply a matter of applying theory, but involves other capacities and has other aspects, for example: possibly tacit “good sense”, habits, differences between “knowing that” and “knowing how”, skill, Heideggerian ideas of “coping”, and so on. The most crude attitude sees theory dictating to practice, but even more sophisticated formulations, such as that practice informs theory and theory informs practice, under-theorize the relationship, seeing it merely as unity and complementarity. Beware – the dream of reason breeds monsters.

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

Again, for the sake of completeness: I have not yet dealt with the triad – thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The nearest point would be my treatment of the supposed three laws of dialectics which is itself an attempt to de-dogmatize. Hegel never uses thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and Marx only once when mocking Proudhon’s mystified pseudo-dialectic in “The Poverty of Philosophy”. There is no excuse for our explorations of dialectics to stop at such nonsense and serious dangers of misrepresentation and trivialization of the issues involved in even beginning with it for purposes of “popular exposition”.

Kaufmann – “Hegel: A Reinterpretation” p. 154 –

“Fichte introduced into German philosophy the three-step of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, using these three terms. Schelling took up this terminology. Hegel did not. He never once used these three terms together to designate three stages in an argument or account in any of his books. And they do not help us understand his Phenomenology, his Logic, or his philosophy of history; they impede any open-minded comprehension of what he does by forcing it into a scheme which was available to him and which he deliberately spurned … The mechanical formalism … Hegel derides expressly and at some length in the preface to the Phenomenology.”

Dialectics and Related Approaches

There are a number of developments in the history of ideas which seem to have an affinity with dialectics, and areas of human thought akin to dialectics. I will here run through some possible connections which I will leave to the reader either to consider worthwhile or reject as fanciful.

Popper’s concepts of falsification and trial and error, where we have a dialectic of theory and recalcitrant fact. Kuhn’s concept of paradigms where facts are only such within a mental framework, system, structure and where such structures collapse/transform at “revolutionary” speed. “Dialectical” ideas concerning aesthetics and creativity abound, for example Koestler’s concept of bisociation of different frameworks in relations of incongruity/incompatibility/explosion, creative tension, or transcending synthesis. Bateson explores a fourfold dialectic of mutation/selection and creativity/criticism. Freud and especially Jung can be interpreted as dialectical thinkers. J. J. Gibson in his critique of cognitivism stresses dynamics and practice, and seems to exemplify a dialectical approach to psychology and information systems. Stephen J. Gould and the idea of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary theory.

Alchemy as the art of spiritual transformation in its post-Jungian interpretation, a kind of spiritual dialectics. Blake and the dialectic of heaven and hell. See “Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic” by Lorraine Clark for an interesting take on Blake’s later works in this regard.

Buddhist dialectics. This seems to be mainly concerned with the way the egoic mind separates self from not-self, and in a subsidiary way compartmentalizes aspects of experience as separate, beyond legitimacy and usefulness.

General Systems Theory and Cybernetics. Bertalanffy acknowledges the dialectic of Marx and Hegel as among the illustrious predecessors to his work, in his book “General System Theory”. Arguably the problem with GST is that it is not dialectical enough, accepting closure of an undefinable system to its context. Nevertheless there are ideas of wholes and parts, emergent properties, and dynamics. Interestingly, the soviet-influenced introduction to Engels’ Dialectics of Nature makes an explicit connection between dialectics and cybernetics, the study of control and communication within animal, machine, and social systems. (The soviets were at the time attempting to take useful Western ideas to try to control their command economies, and were also keen to show their new openness to “progressive” Western ideas. Nevertheless, the connection is valid.)

Complexity Theory and Chaos Theory. Phase Transitions. Bifurcation. Tipping Points. Critical Mass. See Prigogine “Order Out Of Chaos” for acknowledgement of precursors, including Hegel, Marx and Engels.

Per Bak, early on in “How Nature Works”, one of the foundational texts of Complexity Theory, asserts that “… catastrophes can occur for no reason whatsoever. Mass extinctions may take place without any external triggering mechanism…” This is clearly related to dialectics both by its denial of the ubiquity of gradualism, and its assertion of the importance of endogenous causes.

Some notes from Cohen and Stewart – “The Collapse of Chaos” (in a discussion of the interaction of DNA space and creature space each with their own attractors) that seem particularly close to dialectical thinking –

“Because the two spaces have very different geography, their individual attractors don’t match up nicely, so the feedback between the spaces has a creative effect. It changes them both, usually in a rather unpredictable way. Feedback between spaces with different geographies tends to produce new types of behaviour that are seriously different from anything that you find in either system alone.”

“But because of the feedback, both dynamics are trying to operate, and each is also influencing the other. In place of compromise we find conflict, and conflict leads to unpredictable, complex interactions. These interactions create a new, combined geography that in no sensible way can be thought of as a mixture of the two separate geographies.”

Process Philosophy.

Holism, Gestalt, Synergy, etc.

David Bohm. From Lee Nichol – Foreword to “On Creativity”, an anthology of Bohm’s reflections on creativity –

” … Bohm puts forward the outlines of a new world view. One aspect of this view, drawing from relativity theory, is that “unbroken and undivided movement is taken as a primary notion” in how we see the world. Here, all “things” are understood as limited abstractions: “Atoms, electrons, protons, tables, chairs, human beings, planets, galaxies are then to be regarded as abstractions from the whole movement and are to be described in terms of order, structure, and form in the movement.” “

Additional Notes

From Engels – “Dialectics of Nature” –

“It is, therefore, from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development, as well as of thought itself. And indeed they can be reduced in the main to three:

The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;

The law of the interpenetration of opposites;

The law of the negation of the negation.”

“Dialectics as the science of universal inter-connection. Main laws: transformation of quantity and quality – mutual penetration of polar opposites and transformation into each other when carried to extremes – development through contradiction or negation of the negation – spiral form of development.”

From Trotsky – “The ABC of Materialist Dialectics” –

“Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.”

Regarding transformation of quantity into quality, it seems that this is something which sometimes happens, and this “sometimes” is rather deflationary to any claims for it to be a law: only at nodal points does a quantitative change lead to a qualitative change, sometimes there is qualitative difference without quantitative difference, etc. However, in its defence, significant and salient qualitative differences or transformations constitute something to be explained. Because of this, this “sometimes” “law” is not trivial.

From Engels – “Anti-Duhring” –

“In conclusion, we shall call one more witness for the transformation of quantity into quality, namely Napoleon. He describes the combat between the French cavalry, who were bad riders but disciplined, and the Mamelukes, who were undoubtedly the best horsemen of their time for single combat but who lacked discipline, as follows:

‘Two Mamelukes were undoubtedly more than a match for three Frenchmen; 100 Mamelukes were equal to 100 Frenchmen; 300 Frenchmen could generally beat 300 Mamelukes, and 1,000 Frenchmen invariably defeated 1,500 Mamelukes.’

“Just as with Marx a definite, though varying, minimum sum of exchange-value was necessary to make possible its transformation into capital, so with Napoleon a detachment of cavalry had to be of a definite minimum number in order to permit the force of discipline, embodied in close order and planned utilisation, to manifest itself and even rise superior to greater numbers of irregular cavalry, who were better mounted, more dextrous horsemen and fighters, and at least as brave as the former.”

Hobsbawm, in “The Age of Empire” p.11., talks of “the historical pattern of reversal, of development undermining its own foundations” and “endogenous historical transformations” as general phenomena which recur throughout history.

Note also Conway’s Game of Life where the self-generated extension of a pattern over the whole space (most perfectly the surface of a torus) often leads to destruction.

A lesser form of the same – extension leading to destruction / transformation because of economies of scale, (e.g. supply lines getting too long?) – see Bateson on optimum values, a sort of “keeping within limits”, for organised systems such as biological systems – for example, there are no massive stick insects, because they would fall apart.

From Rees – “The Algebra of Revolution” –

“These terms — totality, change, contradiction and mediation — are the key
terms of the dialectic.”

Rees regards these terms as more fundamental than the “so-called” three laws, which are merely “useful reminders of forms in which dialectical contradictions sometimes work themselves out”.

There is a nice comment by Callinicos in “The Secret of the Dialectic”, his review of Rees – “The Algebra of Revolution”, that the laws of dialectics are not laws but a sort of general framework or approach which does not challenge science –

“But the transformation of quantity into quality isn’t a mechanism in this sense. It rather generalises the features common to physical and social processes which are produced by a wide variety of different mechanisms. This line of thought suggests that we should see the dialectic of nature as a broad philosophical conception of nature rather than a set of general laws from which more specific ones applicable to particular aspects of the world can be deduced.”

But isn’t there some wimpery in that? – If something is held to be true, albeit provisionally and open-mindedly, then it ought to be formulated propositionally and be open like any other such general claims to critique or improvement. Such a broad philosophical conception of nature, if taken seriously, would necessarily have an effect on the direction of future research. Or – “What is the relationship between dialectics and the laws of science? Be precise.”

It seems most logical to organize this new triad as – totality, contradiction, change (mediation doesn’t appear to be given the same status); the reason for this is that contradiction is usually, within this literature, considered to drive change, thus, change presupposes contradiction. It might be useful to map the traditional laws onto this new triad, and at least provisionally we can say – the unity of opposites, with the emphasis on unity, falls under the category of totality, without necessarily exhausting it. The unity of opposites, with the emphasis on opposites, falls under contradiction. The transformation of quantity into quality falls under change. The negation of the negation falls mainly under contradiction and change.

The concern with totality within dialectical thinking bears much resemblance to the wider current of holistic thought, a key tenet of which is –

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

A minimal interpretation of this is something like the following –

The whole has properties which the sum of its parts does not have. Within the whole, the structure of interconnections between the parts must be taken into account.

“Concrete Universal” and “Concrete Totality” are terms with some traction within dialectical thought, so I include comments from two sources:

Concrete Universal:

From Charles Taylor – “Hegel” –

“As a concept underlying external reality, but taken on its own outside of, or ‘before’ this reality, the universal is ‘abstract’. It is rather like the traditional idea of the universal as a common formula of a given type of thing, arrived at by abstraction from the particular properties of its instances. But of course, as we now know, an abstraction of this kind cannot be; the concept must posit an external reality. And hence we get the concrete universal, the concept embodied in external reality which is there to realise it, to express the idea involved”

Concrete Totality:

From Meszaros – “Lukacs’ Concept of Dialectic” –

“Concrete totality … totality, the all-round, determining domination of the whole over the parts … exists in and through  … mediations through which the specific complexes – i.e. partial totalities – are linked to each other in a constantly shifting and changing, dynamic overall complex.” (n.b., lots of selective snipping on my part here)

See also Trotsky’s concepts of differentiated unity, equivalent to concrete universal / concrete totality, and combined and uneven development, a sort of geopolitical application of the concept of differentiated unity at a lower level of abstraction.

Prigogine addresses matters of history, development and irreversibility within nature, and mentions Hegel, Marx and Engels a few times in his book Order Out of Chaos;

Prigogine – “Order Out of Chaos” p. 253 –

“at the time Engels wrote his Dialectics of Nature,
the physical sciences seemed to have rejected the mechanistic
world view and drawn closer to the idea of an historical
development of nature. Engels mentions three fundamental
discoveries: energy and the laws governing its qualitative
transformations, the cell as the basic constituent of life, and
Darwin’s discovery of the evolution of species. In view of
these great discoveries, Engels came to the conclusion that the
mechanistic world view was dead.”

Note by Prigogine – “Order Out of Chaos” p. 332 –

“Many Marxist nature philosophers seem to take inspiration from Engels (quoted by Lenin in his Philosophic Notebooks) when he wrote in Anti-During…

“Motion is a contradiction…” “

Prigogine – “Order Out of Chaos” p. 90 –

“It is precisely this interchangeability that Hegel sets as a
condition for mathematization that is no longer satisfied when
the mechanical level of description is abandoned for a “higher”
one involving a larger spectrum of physical properties.”

The idea of motion (which we might regard as either synonymous with, or a sub-category of, change) as a contradiction seems to fall under two interpretations –

1) That the idea of motion draws us into logical contradictions. This can only be the case if our formalism is not taking account of time.

2) That contradiction is somehow the “motor” of motion and change, and in this I think would be included change of internal state or organisation. This idea seems in part to gain credibility through folk physics – often, motion seems to involve some sort of tension or conflict, though this may be so only because of our tendency to anthropomorphize, or animate. Perhaps politically-minded people are especially inclined to see the world in terms of conflict and struggle, and this gives these ideas an especial attraction for them.

Something “Taking on a life of its own” – emergence.

Emergent properties.   Structure, order, pattern.

–     the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

–     optimum values / economies of scale

–     quantity into quality


Maturana and Varela. Operational closure. Apply also to values, and aesthetics.

Engels, in what we take to be the opening sections of The Dialectics of Nature, and in the 1885 Preface to Anti-During, portrays the development of science as having had an earlier and a later phase, the later being superior.

The earlier phase of the development of science was prone to a view of the “absolute immutability of nature”, and dealt with different types or categories of things as separate, rigid and fixed, with their distinctions forming absolute gulfs between one and another, which in the 1885 Preface to Anti-During he terms “sharp, impassible dividing lines”. These types, in thought, became ossified. Indeed, he regarded ancient Greek philosophy as being superior in general outlook to this earlier stage of science, despite being at a much lower level of knowledge. Here, he is thinking of views such as those of Heraclitus, where all things are in flux and emerge from a primal chaos.

However, the later phase of the development of science had challenged and at least partially overthrown this view, up to Engels’s own day, breaking down such absolute distinctions of types. The challenge came from developments and findings within science itself.

Developments in cosmology, physics, geology and biology indicated a shift from the immutable view to the mutable:

Within cosmology, Kant’s nebular hypothesis particularly impressed Engels, as it opened up a way to understand solar systems and indeed the whole cosmos as things which had in a sense evolved, rather than as timeless, and he seems to wish that Kant’s insight had been taken up more widely or sooner, as it might have saved time. Regarding the mutability of nature, “Hegel fell far behind Kant”, he remarks ruefully in Anti-During.

Within physics, the discovery of the convertibility of energy pleased Engels – the different forms of energy, “physical energy, mechanical energy [kinetic?], heat, light, electricity,
magnetism [these two are now completely unified as electromagnetism], indeed even so-called chemical energy” – could be transformed into one another, and thus were not immutable “species”. Engels seems to accept matter and motion as perhaps the only bedrock, permanent, categories, and J B S Haldane, in a preface to The Dialectics of Nature, notes that in Engels’s time the concept of energy had not as yet been properly theorized. It seems reasonable to assume that “matter and motion” would have become “matter and energy”, had Engels seen later developments, and I am sure, given the whole tenor of his challenge to immutability here, that Einstein’s discovery of the convertibility of matter and energy themselves into each other would have delighted him.

The states of matter – solid, liquid and gas – were also undergoing a welcome problematization; “true” gases had been liquified, and some bodies put into states “in which the liquid and the gaseous forms are indistinguishable”.

Within chemistry, Engels is fascinated with the way that small changes in the proportions of different elements can lead to radically different properties of a compound.

Within geology, research found “not only the terrestrial strata formed one after another and deposited one upon another, but also the shells and skeletons of extinct animals and the trunks, leaves, and fruits of no longer existing plants contained in these strata. It had finally to be acknowledged that not only the earth as a whole but also its present surface and the plants and animals living on it possessed a history in time.”

Within biology, the view from Linnaus of the immutability of species, where rigid boundary lines of classification had been supposed to hold, had come under pressure both from the geological evidence just mentioned, and from exploration and observation in the colonies, where “animals turned up, such as Amphioxus and Lepidosiren, that made a mockery of all previous classification, and finally organisms were encountered of which it was not possible to say whether they belonged to the plant or animal kingdom”. Finally, Darwin’s theory of evolution and descent had overthrown the whole idea of the immutability of species.

It was also beginning to be shown that there was no absolute divide between inorganic and organic chemistry, and the understanding of biology as cellular meant that the higher organisms were now understood as federations of cell-states. I think that what Engels finds notable here is that the idea of an absolute singularity of a living being was breaking down into a sort of relativity of the whole and the part; he was particularly fascinated with the way that white blood corpuscles “creep about amoeba-like within the bodies of the higher animals”, that is, act in a way almost as independent wholes. The building blocks of the body are constantly being replaced, and even death is not instantaneous, but a process.

Now, provided that my presentation of these ideas is correct, it is important to note that Engels is not, here, denying the existence of different “species” (in the widest sense of the term) or of separable things; it is the taking of these “species” as absolute and without history or evolution which he thinks was the error of the earlier phase of science. In short, there is nothing here which offends against reason or logic. What is open to question is whether the two phases are correctly characterized – a historical question. I would, in conclusion to this section, like to make two observations –

1) The division into two phases is my own distillation of the essence of what Engels is saying. He does not indicate any decisive breaking point – indeed, Kant’s nebular hypothesis seems to have occurred in the earlier phase and hence have been ahead of its time.

2) Engels indicates that in the earlier phase the accumulation and classification of vast amounts of data was necessary, and that this might inevitably have tended to a certain reification of types. I would also note in passing that, at least in the materials assembled here, there is little indication of any necessary connection between such reification and the characteristics of the bourgeoisie, though proper consideration of this matter must await further studies.

From Terrell Carver – “Engels” –

dialectical method  +  positive science

from modes of production materialism to matter-in-motion materialism.

From G. S. Jones – “Engels and the End of Classical German Philosophy” in NLR 75  –

because of –

the development of history,

history as a discipline,


in the 19th century, for Engels, history and interconnection became related (?)

“The movement of the dialectic is in fact purely logical, and it is precisely the identity of being and thought within thought which creates motion. If, therefore, Engels, as a materialist, starts from the proposition of the non-identity of being and thought, there is no general law left.”

“We can now see that the inconsistency between method and system is to be found not in Hegel but in Engels.”

Concepts do not change from one to another, though their instances in the world may. Instances of concepts in the world can pass from falling under one concept to falling under another whilst at a surface level remaining the same object, but concepts do not do the same, unless one is, like Hegel, an idealist.

The movement of subjective thought from concept to concept via relations between concepts may give the impression of an objective change.

The “alteration” of a concept historically (at its best a development or refinement) may also make it seem that the concept is changing itself, by some sort of dynamic within conceptuality.

On this, see some pages on the Soviet philosopher Bakradze in Planty-Bonjour – “The Categories of Dialectical Materialism” p. 53 onwards. Bakradze seems to have been a beacon of light in a dark night of obscurantism.

From Hegel – “Science of Logic” p. 154-5 –

“Every philosophy is essentially an idealism or at least has idealism for its principle, and the question then is only how far this principle is actually carried out.”

Some thinkers have sought to distance the idea of contradiction within dialectics from any metaphysical or logical interpretation, and this usually involves seeing it primarily in terms of social tension, conflict or struggle.

Colletti, in “Marxism and the Dialectic”, distinguishes between

contradiction                 &                  real opposition

realrepugnanz (Kant)

antagonistic forces

Giddens –

Conflict –  Struggle between actors or collectivities expressed as definite social           practices.

+ opposition of interest

Contradiction – Disjunction of structural principles of system organisation.

1) Capital and Wage Labour. Class.

2) Use-value and Exchange-value.

3) Surplus value – rate of profit

4) Alienation. Wealth.

Private appropriation and Socialized production.

In illustrating the approach of the analytical school of marxism to translating and demystifying some traditional notions, Wright et al – Reconstructing Marxism p. 6 –

“Take the notion of “contradiction”, a key element of the purported dialectical method. One way of explicating this concept in conventional causal language is to treat a contradiction as a situation in which there are multiple conditions for the reproduction of a system which cannot all be simultaneously satisfied. Alternatively, a contradiction can be viewed as a situation in which the unintended consequences of a strategy subvert the accomplishment of its intended goals. Or finally, a contradiction can be viewed as an underlying social antagonism that produces conflicts: if a social relation has certain properties, which have an intrinsic tendency to generate conflict, one might say that the conflict is generated by the contradiction.”

Marx uses Hegelian language (inner connection, expropriators expropriated, etc) which Engels tries to systematize.

The dialectic of Marx seems to be more like a “logic” in the Hegelian sense than is the dialectic of Engels, in that Marx tends to work with the immanent inadequacy of a concept, its multi-levelledness, and with a methodology or approach to exposition based on internal contradiction and interpenetration. Marx is more Hegelian than Engels in many ways, and utilises a kind of Hegelian word-play, or rather, concept-play.

The dialectic of Engels tends to be one of awareness of complexity, dynamism, emergent phenomena, “developing matter”, transformation.

Where the dialectic of Marx is internal to conceptuality, in a way a “logic”, or perhaps an epistemology, a hermeneutic, a heuristic, or even, considered as the manner of presentation, a rhetoric, the dialectic of Engels is external to the movement and development of concepts as such, a view of the nature of things aside from conceptuality, a dialectics of nature. Rather than a logic, it is a metaphysics. Both approaches are valid.

Engels is correct in trying to understand complexity, but through over-reliance on Hegel unwittingly smuggles idealism into materialism, leaving no place for the laws of nature, fundamental forces, and a proper reductionism.

“Marx and the Origins of Dialectical Materialism”

seems to say that Marx saw dialectics in terms of humanity overcoming abstraction.

(unity of opposites. inner connection. capitalism as abstract)

Joel Kovel on Marxism as promethean.

The dialectic of Marx as one of subject and object,

the subject transcending an abstracted, externalized object.

reification. alienation.  Religious element in Marxism.

On this interpretation, Marx would be a transcendent humanist and Engels a materialist.

Abstraction overcome by practice


Contradiction overcome by motion


[There is some back-up for this in “Dialectic of Defeat” by Russell Jacoby.]

It is separation which requires explanation.

Capitalism and substantification of the abstract.

Capitalism as the essential contradiction.

Colletti seems to be saying that the clarification of dialectics is complicated by the paradoxical nature of capitalism, such that the issue of contradictions is tortuous when we consider, from within, a “system” which really does seem to twist reality out of shape.

Colletti – The paradox of externalized power?

Heraclitus and enantiodromia, the regulative function of opposites, a running contrariwise, by which he meant that sooner or later everything runs into its opposite, quoted from Jung. Note also the coincidentia oppositorum of Nicholas of Cusa, also influential on Jung.

We might distinguish different forms of dialectic, beyond the Hegelian –

  • rejection or casting off of one component (Kierkegaard and the later Blake – see “Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic” by Lorraine Clark) an “either … or …” dialectic rather than a “both … and …” dialectic
  • repression    held contradiction    creative tension    held tension    reconciliation (Adorno)
  • complementarity    sublimation     sublation
  • Buddhist identity of opposites, rather than unity
  • integration or synthesis of two, without privilege to either
  • compromise, blending, uncritical synchretism, “bad” mediation, unmastered irony

And accident and fortune play a part here, rather than as in Hegel necessity. In Hegel, the one becomes two; in other cases, we start with two, which become one.

Sheer difference might for some reason come to be felt as contradiction. And then, resolution, or perhaps some other shifting.

Dialectic as traditionally understood –

From Jack Myers and Michael Simms – “Longman Dictionary and Handbook of Poetry”   –

“Dialectic – rhetorically, the logical movement of ideas in an argument, and a major technique used by debaters to undermine an opponent’s argument by stating it, then pointing out its deficiencies, and then proceeding to state the strengths of the proponent’s point of view. The dialectic moves through a series of positive and negative statements either shuffled together or stated in separate groupings. Stylistically, dialectic is usually connected by a number of transitional words or phrases, such as “on the other hand,” “nevertheless,” or “in addition to,” which lend direction and coherence to the essay or speech. In prose and poetry, the dialectic moves by way of the hypotactic style, which uses connecting words such as “when,” “then,” or  “so.” It moves the ideas and plot forward by pointing out the logical relationships between ideas and events. The paratactic style features the juxtaposition of events, ideas, or images without any intervening connecting words, and thus forms a kind of disjointed dialectic. Poets such as Richard Hugo use the paratactic method of dialectic.”

[But we need a little more on the idea of dialectic as a way of arriving at the truth through disputation. Relation to dialogue. An idealist dialectic. Also, the relation of this to an ability to internally dispute, a psychological propensity.]

An Outline of Hegel’s Logic

Hegel’s Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences is divided into –

Logic      (dealt with here)

Philosophy of Nature

Philosophy of Spirit

Hegel also wrote The Science of Logic, which covers the same ground as the Encyclopaedia Logic, but in more depth. However, it is also an earlier work, and though in general both Logics have the same structure, they differ in structure at the more specific levels. As a cursory glance will show, the divisions of his logic follow a nested tripartite pattern, but to pursue the divisions below 27 categories to the more specific level of detail of 81 is beyond me, so I only indicate some of the more settled or notable divisions at the level of 81 categories.


PART I – BEING                           

First Division — Quality


being, nothing, becoming

Determinate Being


Second Division — Quantity



Degree / Quantitative Relation

Third Division — Measure



Becoming of Essence


First Division — Essence as Ground of Existence

Pure Determinations of Reflection

identity, difference, ground



Second Division — Phenomenon / Appearance


The Phenomenal / Content and Form

Mutual Relation

Third Division — Actuality



Reciprocal Action


First Division — Subjectivity







Second Division — Objectivity




Third Division — The Idea

Life                                                   the Beautiful


cognition                                               the True
volition                                                  the Good

The Absolute Idea


An expansion of two of the above sections –



(a) The Positive Judgement
(b) The Negative Judgement
(c) The Infinite Judgement


(a) The Singular Judgement
(b) The Particular Judgement
(c) The Universal Judgement


(a) The Categorical Judgement
(b) The Hypothetical Judgement
(c) The Disjunctive Judgement


(a) The Assertoric Judgement
(b) The Problematic Judgement
(c) The Apodetic Judgement



(a) First Figure of the Syllogism I-P-U
(b) The Second Figure P-I-U
(c) The Third Figure I-U-P
(d) The Fourth Figure U-U-U


(a) The Syllogism of Allness
(b) The Syllogism of Induction
(c) The Syllogism of Analogy


(a) The Categorical Syllogism
(b) The Hypothetical Syllogism
(c) The Disjunctive Syllogism 


About David Ruaune

My main interests are philosophy, psychology and semiotics.
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