Greece & You
Joe Greenwald, Champlain Valley
Union High School, VT
8 Definitions of Dialectic
1. The method of refutation by examining
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
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
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.
(327 - 347 BCE)
* Plato was a Greek philosopher and educator
(of Aristotle) who was recognized most for the dialogues that
* 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 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
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.
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.
(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