This week I’d like to continue to think through the topic of dialectic, which I began to explore last week in the terms of a double movement transcending and including. In my most detailed previous post on dialectic so far, I got at the transcend-include distinction much more obliquely. I distinguished between dialectical thinking in a broad sense, as a progress through inadequate conceptions which are incorporated and leave their mark on the inquiry, and dialectical argument more strictly, as beginning from the opponent’s point of view and pointing out its inadequacies from within. I would say now that this dialectical argument in a strict sense is the transcending moment of dialectic, whereas the broader progress is the including moment.
In expanding on this point, let me leave aside the including moment for now and start with the transcending. The transcending moment of dialectic essentially equates to dialectical argument as opposed to demonstrative argument. In drawing the dialectical/demonstrative distinction before, I had identified the two in Alasdair MacIntyre’s terms: dialectical argument proceeds to first principles, demonstrative proceeds from first principles. But this point can and should be fleshed out more. Where does demonstrative argument go to, and where does dialectical argument come from?
Demonstrative argument proceeds to the logical consequences of shared first principles. Such an approach can be quite productive. Thomas Kuhn would describe demonstrative argument as what happens within a paradigm. It is what happens in most of the natural sciences, where most premises are widely accepted, and debate is only about what follows from those premises given the evidence. It is also what happens under conditions of scholasticism, like medieval Christian universities, where theistic principles are taken for granted and what’s debated is their application. Demonstrative argument proceeds from basic, universal assumptions to particular details of application.
Dialectical argument takes place in situations where first principles are themselves among the topics up for debate. Because first principles – basic or foundational assumptions – are not shared, other shared ground must be found instead. The key: when one argues for one’s own first principles, one must argue to the first principles starting from the point of view of those one is trying to convince. I’ve previously used my attempted refutation of Peimin Ni’s relativist ethics as an example: to refute a philosophy that takes pragmatic effectiveness as its only criterion of truth, one does best to show that that philosophy is itself not pragmatically effective. For this reason, dialecticians must make an effort to understand their dialogue partners internally. One truly transcends another position only by understanding it from within.
That is the transcending moment of dialectic, as I understand it: dialectical argument. But as stated so far, it could mean leading one’s opponent entirely out of his starting position and into one’s own, so that there is nothing left of the original. The including moment of dialectic goes further: insisting that some element of one’s opponent’s view must be included and leave its mark on the final result. The including moment is more controversial, I think, because it presumes that this is a desirable result – and it is a desirable result on the grounds that there is indeed some truth to be found in everything.
Ken Wilber has a sense of the including moment of dialectics when he discusses natural science, where astronomy is a popular example. Wilber points out that the ancient astronomy of Ptolemy – which now seems absurd to us – is not wrong exactly; it’s “true but partial”. Why? Because
if you are standing on the earth and watching the planets move, the Ptolemaic map is phenomenologically 100% accurate: you will see exactly what Ptolemy said you will see; he had a legitimate paradigm–or a practice to bring forth a series of experiences–and an accurate map to match it.
When Copernican astronomy superseded Ptolemaic – and in turn, when relativity superseded Copernicus – they largely did not dispute Ptolemy’s data, the observations that made Ptolemy think as he did. They did not include his theory, but they did include his experiences. Indeed, what made their theories better than his was that they could include his experiences, and different ones besides. They superseded by including.
Wilber’s biggest problem, especially in Wilber-5, is that the only thing he allows to be included is replicable experiences. And that works fine when one is primarily concerned with natural science, which is based above all on inference from replicable experience. It doesn’t work well for much else. As I’ve argued in my article and elsewhere, most traditions do not have replicable experiences at their core.
Wilber’s own version of dialectical method is itself true but partial. His account of Ptolemy is correct insofar as Ptolemy’s astronomy was primarily an attempt to theorize his experienced observations (which may itself be a questionable assumption, as Kuhn would likely note). But other thinkers, like Anselm and Candrakīrti, specifically disclaim experience as a basis for their ideas. To really engage with the different varieties of human thought, what one must include are not merely the experiences underlying their positions, but the reasons. Wilber’s approach works well in the case of natural science, where experience and observation are the reasons underlying the position. But once one tries to engage positions other than natural science – where the primacy of experience is no longer accepted – then the process becomes more complicated. It’s not just about including the experiences and transcending the theories; it’s about including what’s right and transcending what’s wrong, and determining which is which is part of the process of inquiry in each case, not something that can be predetermined with a rule that one includes the experiences.