Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Originating in ancient Greece, dialektike —or the art of argumentative conversation—derives from dialektos (from legein or logos , discourse, speech, reason, measure). Dialegein literally involves two participants who enter the play of discourse (logos).

For the ancient Sophists, dialectic was the art of disputation (eristic) , the dissoi logoi or "Twofold Arguments" that could be developed on any topic. At one level, as Aristotle later observed, dialektos is simply "everyday talk," the language of common life or the common medium of articulation (Poetics 1458b32), although in more technical works he gives a specific definition of dialectic as "a process of criticism wherein lies the path to the principles of all inquiries/methods" (Topics I 2, 101b 3-4). In the latter sense, dialectic becomes for both Plato and Aristotle the central philosophical method and queen of the sciences.

Following the lead of the church fathers, Scholastic theology made dialectics subservient to Logic (as part of the trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic "proper") as the "science of discourse" or, more narrowly understood, as the "science of reason," teaching the forms and procedures of valid reasoning (e.g., Robert Kilwardby [c. 1250] in his De ortu scientiarum speaks of Logic as "a ratiocinative science, or science of reason, because it teaches one how to use the process of reasoning systematically, and a science of discourse because it teaches one how to put it into discourse systematically").

The modern conception of dialectics derives from the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel who, in effect, revived the ancient art of dialogue and transformed it into a substantial principle of historical change. In Hegel's conception of Geist , or Spirit, the manifestation of the "world-process" proceeds as a dialectical process (although not necessarily restricted to the famous "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" pattern commonly associated with Hegelian logic). The Hegelian image of history as a realm of negativity, contradiction, and developmental changes enters into social theory when Karl Marx "inverted" the "philosophy of Spirit" to interpret the "real movement" of history as a dialectical struggle of groups and classes. It can be said that the tradition of "historical materialism" both revives the ancient theory of dialectic but transforms the "spirit of contradiction" into a real process—setting the scene for a continuing debate concerning the role of contradictions in history, the "laws" of society (as in Soviet "dialectical materialism"), and alternative and nondialectical views of history. In this way, the quest to think dialectically or to elaborate a non- or postdialectical method of inquiry continues to the present day as a vital source of modern philosophy and social inquiry.

Berry Sandywell


Aristotle, On Sophistical Refutations

N. Kretzmann et al., The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952)

G. E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason, and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)

G. E. McCarthy, Marx and Aristotle (Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992)

Plato, Republic (510-511, 530-534, 537-539), Sophist (217-225), Gorgias

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