D is for Dialectics
Updated: Jan 23
"Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two." Octavio Paz
Dialectic or dialectics (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ; related to dialogue; German: Dialektik), is defined as the art of investigating or discussing and determining the truth e.g.during a discourse between two or more people holding different perspectives or points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth by the logical exchange of ideas and opinions and reasoned methods of argumentation.
"History is one long chain of reflections. Hegel also indicated certain rules that apply for this chain of reflections. Anyone studying history in depth will observe that a thought is usually proposed on the basis of other, previously proposed thoughts. But as soon as one thought is proposed, it will be contradicted by another. A tension arises between these two opposite ways of thinking. But the tension is resolved by the proposal of a third thought which accommodates the best of both points of view. Hegel calls this a dialectic process"
Dialectics are concerned with balance between opposites, removing ‘black’ and ‘white’ thinking and encouraging us to find a middle perspectives where more than one view point can coexist. It is not concerned with absolutes but continually looks to improve understanding by seeing what other views could be applied. This open-minded approach leads to more flexible thinking and a never ending spirit of enquiry which is a characteristic of a growth mindset.
A dialectic occurs when two seemingly conflicting things are true at the same time just like in the story of the blind men and the elephant of Hindustan
The Blind Men and the elephant
It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant, (Though all of them were blind), That each by observation, Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant, And happening to fall Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl: "God bless me!—but the Elephant Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk, Cried: "Ho!—what have we here, So very round and smooth and sharp? To me 't is mighty clear This wonder of an Elephant Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal, And happening to take The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up and spake: "I see," quoth he, "the Elephant Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out his eager hand, And felt about the knee."What most this wondrous beast is like Is mighty plain," quoth he; "'T is clear enough the Elephant Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said: "E'en the blindest man Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can, This marvel of an Elephant Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun About the beast to grope, Than, seizing on the swinging tail That fell within his scope, "I see," quoth he, "the Elephant Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion, Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance, Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!
John Godfrey Saxe
In the poem, contradictory viewpoints create a dialectic but (unlike in the poem) when awareness is achieved through reasoned discussion of all perspectives, a greater truth emerges from their interplay.
Another example of a dialectical statement is a sensation that perhaps many can relate to at present: ‘Things are very different now from two years ago’ versus ‘Every day feels the same’
"The dialectic between change and continuity is a painful but deeply instructive one, in personal life as in the life of a people. To "see the light" too often has meant rejecting the treasures found in darkness." Adrienne Rich
In psychotherapy, a dialectic is normally associated with DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) but dialectics is also a feature of other approaches to psychotherapy. A core dialectic of DBT is acceptance of where we are right now yet having a desire to change for the better. It is about integrating change (thesis) and acceptance (antithesis) into a larger truth that incorporates, yet transcends, both sides of the argument (synthesis) and creating a ‘union of opposites’.
Here is another example cited from the skylandtrail website below:
Thesis: Because I make a lot of mistakes, I am worthless.
Antithesis: Making mistakes is not a big deal. I shouldn’t really care about it at all.
Synthesis: Acknowledging and improving on my mistakes is important and does not diminish my worth as a person.
"Differences must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic." Audre Lorde
Dialectics help us develop a growth mindset allowing us to take a step back to appreciate the validity of different perspectives and in so doing discover new insights and positions reconciling and transcending thesis and antithesis. Being more dialectical in our approach can help to reduce the emotional intensity that comes from unbalanced, all-or-nothing, black-or-white, thinking too and serves as a healthy reminder that people are unique and have different points of view therefore there is more than one way to see something.
"Rhetoric completes the tools of learning. Dialectic zeros in on the logic of things, of particular systems of thought or subjects. Rhetoric takes the next grand step and brings all these subjects together into one whole." William Blake
So how can we apply dialectics to everyday life?
“When you remain in your own authentic rhythm and peace
you can exist and thrive as both a strong and tender thing simultaneously.
Like poetry. Or plants. Or breath,
moving through the body.
This is where your power lives." Victoria Erickson
Not surprisingly, words and language are key when seeking to apply dialectics whether we are simply ‘talking to ourselves’ or thinking or in conversation with others. To reflect a change from ‘all or nothing’ language, we need to consider the words we use and avoid extremes of language like ‘always’ or ‘never’ ‘anything’
Instead of saying “I always make mistakes” or “I always forget” replace it with “I sometimes make mistakes, AND sometimes I get it right” or “I sometimes forget. I can remember when I am concentrating”.
Similarly, when in dialogue with others, instead of thinking or saying “You never listen to me” replace it with “ You don’t appear to be listening to me at the moment.
“I can’t do anything right” could be changed to “Sometimes I get things right AND sometimes I make mistakes”
Once you start looking, it is easy to start to notice dialectics in different forms around you everywhere because our lives are full of contradictions and impossibilities that we live with everyday
You can have an argument with someone AND still be friends with them
Your child can crave independence AND still want or need your help.
You can impose consequences for unwanted behaviour from your child AND still love them
You can love someone AND hate what they do
You can hear a sad song with happy lyrics or vice versa
I want to lose weight AND I want to eat that chocolate
I like to have a tidy house AND I am often prefer to spend my time doing other things
Dialectical thinking is the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at a reasoned reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information to arrive at a higher level of understanding. Two things can be very different or seemingly in conflict with one another, yet can still both have a grain of truth , so dialectics look for the truth in all sides and look at how these truths can merge.
This process is called ‘aufhebung’ but it eventually leads to more questions and different stances at the next level that initially appear irreconcilable and the process begins again leading aufhebung to be sometimes describes as the reconciliation of the irreconcilable !
"All truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today's truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number. This truth (the only one) is for the strong alone. Weak-nerved minds insist on a finite universe, a last number; they need, in Nietzsche's words, "the crutches of certainty". The weak-nerved lack the strength to include themselves in the dialectic syllogism." Yevgeny Zamyatin
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
What are some examples of dialectics at work within your life?
How can you use dialectics to improve your life and the relationships that you have with others ?
If you want to reflect more on this subject, here are some links to get you started: