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I introduced the last post by referring briefly to the idea of dialectic, and meant it in a Hegelian sense. But I don’t think I adequately spelled out what I mean by that. It ties closely to the key point of synthesis over compromise, which I did note. A mere compromise can include the bad parts of the two extremes it puts together, as well as the good (as per Shaw’s quip about body and brain); a synthesis qua synthesis takes as much of the good as possible and minimizes the bad, and in doing so is more than mere compromise.

But a dialectical synthesis is more than this. A dialectical mode of thinking or inquiry, as it progresses through conceptions it finds inadequate, incorporates the best within these conceptions. But it engages with each of these conceptions deeply enough that they each leave their mark on the inquiry itself, and on what its conception of “best” would wind up being.

I might be best able to explain dialectical thinking by showing what it is not. Fortunately, there are handy examples of this in two books I have greatly enjoyed, by two of the contemporary thinkers I admire most: Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought. Specifically, its third part, whose content I had discussed in my first post on ascent and descent. Here Nussbaum proceeds to examine different accounts of love in various genres, beginning with Plato and ending with James Joyce (while passing through Augustine’s Confessions and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder), ending in a “transcendence by descent” that fully accepts our worldly imperfections.

When I discussed this work of Nussbaum’s in the ascent-descent post, I called her method dialectical, but I was missing something in doing so. Nussbaum’s approach bears a resemblance to dialectical thinking in that (as I said before) she sees each view or account of love as “responding to the inadequacies of the view before it, and in that respect providing a more adequate view.” But – I realize now – it is not dialectical in the kind of Hegelian sense I had in mind. (I used “phenomenological” as a rough equivalent for “dialectical” in that message, the Phenomenology of Spirit being the classic work that exemplifies Hegel’s dialectic.) It’s not even really dialectical in the more limited sense of dialectical argument, as opposed to demonstrative argument. A dialectical argument (like Zeno’s arguments for Parmenides or my arguments against Peimin Ni’s postmodern relativism) begins from the opponent’s point of view and tries to point out its inadequacies from within. Nussbaum is doing the opposite here: it is demonstrative argument. She has established what she takes to be first principles, and from these, she deduces each opposing position to be wrong – on her terms, not the opponent’s.

This is the key reason that Nussbaum’s account is not dialectical: she has already decided her criteria of evaluation in advance. Before we even begin the journey from Plato up (or down) to Joyce, Nussbaum gives us a couple paragraphs telling us what an adequate view of love needs to have: it needs to encourage compassion, reciprocity (so that people treat each other as agents and ends), and the recognition of individuals as separate and qualitatively distinct. Then as we encounter Plato we find him lacking in all three qualities, so we move on to the next thinker (Spinoza) who is almost as lacking, through many different thinkers and texts until eventually we get to their best exemplar, James Joyce.

The problem with this approach is that one is left wondering why Nussbaum bothered writing those hundreds of pages on everybody up to Joyce. They are mere pūrvapakṣas, opposing views placed there to be refuted. If Nussbaum had have skipped everybody from Plato to Whitman and just given her account of Joyce, there would have been little to no change in the final, substantive position that she presents. Moreover, the chapters do not work particularly well even as refutations of pūrvapakṣas, for the very reason that they are demonstrative and not dialectical arguments. (A Platonist may well not have cared so much about her terms of compassion, reciprocity and individuality, and her discussion of Plato will do nothing whatever to convince such a person; she needs to convince the Platonist on his terms, not hers.) A dialectical account would have learned something from Plato and Augustine on the way up (or down), well beyond “their approach is wrong and inadequate.” A Hegelian dialectic supersedes (aufheben in German), which is to say it transcends and includes.

Ken Wilber regularly refers to “transcending and including”; in that respect he gets the concept of dialectical thinking. What he doesn’t get is dialectical argument: starting from the opponent’s point of view and reasoning from there. The different stages of human thought put forward in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality – which Wilber himself has frequently referred to as his most systematic work – often are not responded to with arguments as to why they’re inadequate. Rather, when Wilber identifies different kinds of thought as more or less advanced, it’s based on Jean Piaget‘s empirically derived stage model of human development, extending it to spiritual development at levels that go beyond Piaget’s. One stage typically comes after the other, therefore it is a higher stage.

But this won’t do. If this stage model is not accompanied by sympathetic arguments revealing why each stage is better and not merely later than the one that came before it, then one might end up taking an Alzheimer’s patient, with cognitive faculties impaired by old age, as the ultimate end of human achievement. Happening later in human development doesn’t itself make something better. For example, Wilber claims that this development includes a move from “egocentric” through “sociocentric” or “ethnocentric” to “worldcentric” ways of moral thinking – becoming concerned about an ever larger group of people. But I never found any good arguments in Wilber’s book why egocentric ethics is wrong or inappropriate, certainly not ones that would make sense to an egocentric thinker. In effect, Wilber is making the kind of fallacious criticism often applied to Ayn Rand’s egoistic philosophy, that it is most popular among snotty teenagers who can’t get over themselves, and they’ll grow out of it. But Rand’s egoism is plenty popular among grown men and women as well, and one can’t show that their thinking is juvenile in this pejorative sense unless one can also show that their reasoning is inadequate on their own terms, which Wilber never does. Unlike Wilber, Hegel does not fall victim to a fallacy of “after this therefore better than this”; his account of the history of philosophy is an account of progress, of philosophy getting better, but he tries to draw out the reasons why this actually is a progress, why each stage responded to real rational inadequacies in the previous one. (Whether he succeeds at this is a different question.)

True dialectical thinking is not easy. I don’t think most of my own posts accomplish it. But I think it’s tremendously important if one wishes to do real justice to the great thinkers of the past and the truths they have found.