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Ancient Greece & You
Joe Greenwald, Champlain Valley Union High School, VT


8 Definitions of Dialectic

1. The method of refutation by examining logical consequences.

2. Educated reasoning

3. The division or logical analysis of the general into the specific.

4. Understanding general, abstract ideas through investigation of particular cases or hypothesis.

5. Logical reasoning or debate

6. Formal logic

7. Exposing contradictions in logic

8. The logical development of ideas through the synthesis of thesis and antithesis.

This term was originally derived from the Greek expression, "art of conversation". The general definition for dialectic is as follows: "a method of reasoning that compares and contrasts opposing points of view in order to find a new point of view that will incorporate whatever is true in the originals." The opposing points of view in dialectic reasoning are sometimes referred to as the thesis and antithesis; the new point of view is referred to as the synthesis.

However, this is a definition for dialectic that is both relatively modern and very general. Over the ages this term has been defined differently by specific philosophers and ways of thought. Dialectic is thought to have originated in the Fifth century BCE. This was around the time that Zeno of Elea presumably wrote his paradoxes, which were evidence of dialectic reasoning. They demonstrated the method of refutation by examining logical consequences (eliminating towards a single answer).

The next group with documentation of their use of the term were the sophists who defined dialectic as sophistical reasoning, (Sophistically). Around this same time Socrates, and Plato's arguments used dialectic as the method of division or repeated logical analysis of genera into species, (narrowing down). Aristotle used the term in the sense of an investigation of the supremely general abstract notions by some process of reasoning leading up to them from particular cases or hypothesis, (starting small and working bigger using known, provable facts.) Aristotle was also known to define dialectic as A. formal logic and B. logical reasoning or debate using premises that are merely probable or generally accepted. The latter could also be read as: basing reasoning on widespread assumptions.

Between the Medieval period and the Industrial Revolution dialectic expanded its definition once again, famously with the help of Kant. Kant used dialectic as the criticism of the logic of illusion, showing the contradictions into which reason falls in trying to go beyond experience to deal with transcendental objects, (showing that there is no human knowledge without human experience). Closer to modern history, Hegel developed the three-step (triad) process of organizing his thoughts, using the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. He felt that dialectic was, "the scientific application of the regularity found in the nature of thought.."


Zeno of Elea wrote his famous paradoxes in the fifth century BCE. He was recognized later by Aristotle for using dialectic reasoning in his arguments. Specifically, his paradox involving Achilles and the tortoise demonstrates a law of formal logic known as modus tollens . However, Zeno only set the stage for later philosophers, primarily Aristotle, and did not define or set new laws in argumentation.
Socrates (470 - 399 BCE):

* Socrates was a Greek philosopher and teacher who was known for considering moral dilemmas and the way life could be best lived.

* The term "dialectic" was used by Socrates as "the art of discussion" by which he searched for truth through questioning and answering.
* He looked down upon the Sophist's form of argumentation known as "eristic" and was derived from dialectic. Eristic discussions were an entertaining interactions in which illogical explanations and misleading statements were told.

* Although Socrates always searched for truth, he also worked hard to win the arguments.

Plato (327 - 347 BCE)

* Plato was a Greek philosopher and educator (of Aristotle) who was recognized most for the dialogues that he wrote.

* His form of dialectic was a process of division where the issue begins as a general one and is divided until it is less general, meaning that it could not possibly be divided again.

* To Plato, "dialectic" was a process applicable to both speech and thought.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Aristotle began his investigations with dialectic while still attending Plato's academy where he studied from 367 BCE through 347. Later he wrote Topics to serve as a handbook for dialectic argumentation. Aristotle used many forms of formal logic, and even calculus to further his points. Although this might not originally be considered dialectic, he claimed that it was stating that his logic developed as a result of reflecting on Plato's method of division. According to Aristotle, there were numerous benefits to the use of dialectic including: the intellectual training, its use for discussions with others based on their own premises, and for examining unprovable principles in science.

Stoics and Medievals

* The Stoic's definition of dialectic was "formal logic". The term "dialectic" was used because the philosopher of the time period were interested in Zeno's Paradoxes and related reasoning.

* They believed that the dialectic process happened in two different ways: meanings and words (things said and expressions used).

* Throughout the Middle Ages the term "dialectic" continued to mean "logic", but a variety of other meanings surfaced as scholars studied Aristotle and Plato.

Kant (1724-1804)

Two major principles were developed by Kant. The first stated that all dialectic used by the ancients was the logic of illusion. Kant felt that he used the term when referring to the critique of dialectical illusion. The second principle he coined was Transcendental dialectic and he used this to expose the illusion of transcendental judgments. The latter could also read as: judgments that claim to pass beyond the limits of experience. Kant felt that there could be no proven principles where there is no human experience involved.

Hegel (1770 - 1831)

* Hegel was a German philosopher who was known for his belief that to understand human culture one must first understand their history.

* The form of dialectic that Hegel used and adapted was similar to the form used in Ancient Greece. He believed that there must be contradictions (examination of the opposites) in order to reach a higher degree of truth.

* His form of dialectic has three characteristics that were later defined as thesis, antithesis and synthesis 

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