On the Concept of a Dialectical Divide

Commenting on my lecture, “The Dialectical Laboratory”, Tony Hardy has raised a number of interesting issues. They take us to one overriding question: “What do we mean b the term dialectical? A dialectical question, I believe, splits our world-view down the middle: virtually all of our perceptions, and our purposes as well, are placed at risk.  A dialectical question, therefore, is not one which can be resolved by negotiation among familiar options. We stand before a new and altogether different court of review.

The principal model for this is the Socratic dialogue, which places a respondent’s life, and that life’s central goals under devastating review.  Worst, we might say – that review is not that of an external judge, but a hitherto unrecognized standard within. The orator Gorgias, acclaimed political expert of Athens of his day, is a prime target of Socrates’ dialectical art. His very life crumbles before our eyes as he recognizes that it has lacked one transforming concept, that of justice. He holds great powers, but he has used them to serve no good end.  This is a tragic fall, mirrored in the fall of Oedipus. The classic term for a life, or a world-view, based on false pretention is HYBRIS (pride). To live on the wrong side of a dialectical divide is an invitation to disaster.

Sight is the universal metaphor for this inner vision which can judge truth. Socrates images a dialectical emergence as the passage into sunlight, from the false lights and shadows of a cave, into the full light of the sun. Oedipus takes his own eyesight in rejection of the false vision which had guided his life.

In the spirit of the same metaphor, we rightly speak of the perspective we gain when as readers we witness a transformation of world-view, as fascinated readers of the Socratic dialogues, or terrified spectators of Oedipus’ downfall, in the theater.  We can weigh and discuss a dialectical world-change as if it were a mater for formal consideration, as I have done in a recent web posting on what I’ve characterized as the Lagrangian Dividebut we should not lose track of the stakes at issue. Dialectical issues cannot be resolved by reasonable adjustment or adjudication by a court located within either system.  From the point of view we all occupy as dedicated members of a present world system, exit from that system looks like apostasy, or a tragic fall.

Although the alternative we described as “Lagrangian” between organism and mechanism looks like a problem within natural philosophy, I believe our concept of natural philosophy sets the stage for our view of life and our social institutions.  Although it is the pride of our modern science to believe that its very success depends on its freedom from “metaphysics”, this illusion strongly suggests that of Oedipus or Gorgias. To elaborate this thought would be matter for a much longer discussion, but if I were to assume the mantle of Teiresius, the blind seer who counsels Oedipus, I think it might be enough to utter the keyword competition. The concept of lives, nations and a world, based on competition, strife and isolation, rather than (to put it simply) love and community, may well be killing our planet and leading our so-called “international community” to self-destruct.

It used to be fun to imagine a “visitor from Mars” taking a distant look at our human scene; he would regularly be thought to find us insane.  Ironists such as Swift, Aristophanes and Shakespeare have found ways to make that same judgment. If investing our lives in scenarios in flat contradiction to our own best sense of values is insanity, we can see how they might all be right.

There is a better way; we do have a choice – though in a thousand ways we forbid ourselves to think about it.

In one way or another, consideration of this option seems to be the ongoing concern of this website!

One thought on “On the Concept of a Dialectical Divide

  1. Tony Hardy

    Tom – –

    I think this is a very nice elaboration on your concept of “dialectical.” It points to the emotional, life-changing “weight” of certain dialectical happenings in contrast to their merely intellectual and rational aspects. I think the notion of perspective is relevant – – but again, it’s the kind of perspective that is quite comprehensive as opposed to kinds that are more limited in their scope (in my view, perspectives of different levels are what occupy our entire mental life). I try to capture this more comprehensive kind in my book: “One sees the operation of perspective on this kind of grander scale in instances of falling in love and religious conversion. In both these cases, it as though one has acquired (in the words of William James) ‘a shifting of one’s centres of personal energy.’ The all too different directions – – the changing interests, concerns, pursuits, emotions – – in which one has been pulled before have undergone a gelling now by virtue of the center that this new standpoint provides; and the uprush of feeling that accompanies these events is due, in part at least, to the relief of having acquired for one’s self a new unity and purpose. As is so often the case, the standpoint itself [a perspective always consists in a standpoint plus what comes to visibility from that standpoint] in such reorderings remains unworded: it is its correlative object, the loved one or God, that absorbs and fills consciousness.”

    There is much more to be said here. Did Gorgias undergo a similar emotional transformation when Socrates introduced into his system the notion of “justice”? – – I doubt it; he’s too set in his ways. Is the dialectical divide you are speaking about the same as the scientific “paradigm” that Kuhn discourses on – – but perhaps at a more universal level?



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