Excerpt of John P. Clark on Dialectic

Because the radical thrust of ecosocialism is based upon an understanding of dialectic, it might be helpful to offer an overview and clarification of what the dialectical method entails. To provide this, we turn to the work of John P. Clark and excerpt a key portion of his essay, “Domesticating the Dialectic: A Critique of Bookchin’s Neo-Aristotelian Metaphysics.” Below this excerpt are references to other readings on the topic.

The prefix ‘”dia” comes from the Greek preposition dia, meaning “through, between and across” and is related to dy “two.” The rudiments of dialectic can be seen even in these etymological origins, which contain the idea of duality or otherness, on the one hand, and relatedness between the opposing elements on the other. Radical dialectic has always preserved these two crucial and inseparable moments: that of negation and opposition, and that of relation. All dialectical development encompasses both at once. … In the ‘‘Preface’’ to The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel explains that:

“. . . the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.”

What then, is radical dialectic really about in this sense of ‘‘looking the negative in the face’’ and ‘‘tarrying’’ with it? It is the view that change and transformation take place through negation, contradiction, and unexpected reversals of the course that conventional thinking quite reasonably and incorrectly expects. It claims that reality is always one step ahead of conceptualization, so that, as Heraclitus advised, ‘‘Always expect the unexpected, or you will never find it,’’ (it being the deviously dialectical truth). It holds that a thing always is not what it is and is what it is not. It contends that determination is negation and that opposites interpenetrate. It recognizes that the objects of investigation are always in motion, and that therefore the categories of analysis are themselves transformed in the process of dialectical inquiry. It asserts that phenomena are conditioned by the wholes (and partial wholes) of which they are a part (and also not a part)….

Radical dialectic is exhibited classically in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. There he shows that independent being and dependent being, contrary to all conventional expectations, begin to transform themselves into their opposites… because of the work of the negative. This includes the self-transforming work of coming to grips with and negating the real of nature, or the self-transforming work of not coming to grips with and not negating that real. It includes the self-negating work of looking death in the face and seeing necessity transformed into contingency. It includes the work of negating social reality through creating ideology and of struggling to negate ideology on behalf of social reality, and of one’s creative negation of that reality.

It is exhibited in Marx’s dialectical view of labor in which, where conventional reason might see the subject’s labor as the production of the object…, he sees labor as a dialectical process in which the subject is also produced through dialectical interaction with the other in specific forms of the social labor process and of human metabolism with nature. It is also exhibited when, applying the doctrine of internal relations, he shows that interrelated phenomena… are dialectically ‘‘identical,’’ generating one another and indeed having no meaning apart from one another. Thus production is not merely production, but ‘‘at the same time consumption and consumption is at the same time production. Each is simultaneously its opposite.’’

It is exhibited perhaps most radically in the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 C.E.). According to the tetralemma in Buddhist dialectic, when we consider whether some X can be attributed property Y, we must consider the ways is which X is Y, X is not Y, X both is and is not Y, and X neither is nor is not Y. For Nagarjuna, after we consider the truth of all these dialectical possibilities, we then consider the ways in which all of these attributions lead to contradiction. His negative dialectic is carried on in the practice of Zen, which uses, for example, the dialectical strategy,’’When someone asks you a question with being in mind, answer with non-being in mind. When someone asks with non-being in mind, answer with being in mind, etc.’’ Zen mind is dialectical mind. Zen practice is dialectical medicine for the non-dialectical mind.

It is exhibited in the dialectical concept that phenomena generate otherness not as mere opposition but as a supplement…. As Adorno states it, ‘‘the name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy. Contradiction . . . indicates the untruth of identity, the fact that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived.’’ Beings are pervaded with negativity; from a dialectical perspective the facile assumption that development leads merely to ever-increasing ‘‘wholeness,’’… is an illusion.

It is exhibited in the dialectical recognition that all thought takes place from and is deeply conditioned by a perspective. Dialectical inquiry involves a process of critical reflection on its own (that is, someone’s, some culture’s, some class’s, some gender’s, some species’) perspective, and a willingness to allow that perspective to shift and be transformed. This insight is expressed in the concept of the ‘Parallax View’’ that Zizek adapted from Karatani. In such a view, shifting between two perspectives (whether cultural, as when an outsider is able to absorb the ethos while retaining the alien perspective, or philosophical, as when one is capable of adopting the perspective of two or more critical theories and juxtaposing them) presents a new insight that goes beyond each. Radical dialectic demolishes all ‘‘identity theory’’ in the most sweeping sense…

Finally, it is exhibited in the kind of deeply dialectical view of the natural world that is exhibited well in some of Gary Snyder’s reflections on nature. For example, he writes that if we look at evolution not from the perspective of the individual organism… but rather

“from the side of the ‘‘conditions’’ and their creative possibilities, we can see these multitudes of interactions through hundreds of other eyes. We could say a food brings a form into existence. Huckleberries and salmon call for bears, the clouds of plankton of the North Pacific call for salmon, and salmon call for seals and thus orcas. The Sperm Whale is sucked into existence by the pulsing, fluctuating pastures of squid, and the open niches of the Galapagos Islands sucked a diversity of bird forms and function out of one line of finch. ”

Further Reading:

  • Clark, J.P. 2008. “Domesticating the Dialectic: A Critique of Bookchin’s Neo-Aristotelianism” in Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 19 #1: 51-68.
  • Levins, R. and Richard Lewontin. 1985. “Conclusion: Dialectics” in The Dialectical Biologist. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Marcuse, H. 1968. “Preface: A Note on Dialectic” in Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Beacon Press: Boston, MA.
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