[OPE] Dialectics for the New Century

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Mon Apr 14 2008 - 15:20:53 EDT


I agree that some of Hegel's work does have empirical content or does try to interpret empirical phenomena - I was thinking of the Science of Logic, which is mainly an extremely abstract story in which he transits from one concept to another. I did plow through Hegel's main works about 25 years ago but at the time I did not find it particularly useful for the purpose of thinking more dialectically myself. If I have learnt to think more dialectically myself, it has been more through practical experience, and reflecting on that, phenomenologically or otherwise. I may go back to Hegel lateron sometime to read it in a new light.

Marxists often regard Hegel (or Marx) as "the authority" on dialectics, but I do not, for three main reasons: 

Firstly, as I said, I think dialectical thinking is an ordinary, everyday experience in practical activity, and the only thing which makes scholarly works on dialectics special is that they try to achieve a much higher level of dialectical relativisations, discoveries and conclusions, based on much more, or deeper, knowledge of a subject, or of broad trends in the world than an ordinary person who doesn't have that knowledge might be able to achieve. 

Secondly, I think every person has his/her own dialectical understandings which may be in some respects unique, and in some respects conforming to a common pattern. It is always possible to discover new dialectical understandings which depart from what this or that scholarly authority might say about it. So I think there is not one "true" dialectical understanding, but many different dialectical understandings. Hence, I am always a bit iffy about the idea of a "doctrine" or "school" in this field - I would emphasize the importance of gaining insight into the dialectics of your own situation, which can be difficult enough.

Thirdly, there is a tradition of dialectical thought of some kind in all the main civilisations, which stretches back in time for centuries - Hegel is only one example of this - and which continues to develop and change. It would be rather "Eurocentric" to focus only on Hegel. Even if you read modern studies of neuroscience, you often find the authors making very dialectical observations about the reflexivities of human consciousness, in the attempt to define very complex causal chains. 

As I have argued in a very short piece in Science & Society edited by David Laibman, I am rather doubtful about the notion of a general theory of Systematic Dialectics in abstraction from a particular subjectmatter. I would argue, that since you have to discover the dialectics in a particular subjectmatter first, in order to present it systematically, it is not possible to specify in advance a general dialectical methodology of general application. It just depends on the subjectmatter you are concerned with, which has its own dialectical characteristics. So at best you can recommend some heuristics. 

I would say that a proof of the validity of my point of view is, that nobody can actually agree about just exactly what "Systematic Dialectics" actually consists in anyway, and how specifically it should be applied - the only agreement there is, is about the value of dialectical insights, and some very general ideas about what is required for a dialectical inquiry or presentation; but those ideas, precisely because they are very general, do not give such a lot of methodological guidance anyway. 

As a corollary, what I think is undesirable is if people propose grand dialectical schemes in advance of doing any sustained, systematic inquiry into anything in particular, or if they try to fit experiences to a preconceived dialectical schema they have invented. Because that is not really a true demonstration of the dialectics of a subjectmatter, but only an interpretive scheme or typology/taxonomy imposed on the subjectmatter, a bit like a Weberian "ideal type". 

I would not deny the utility of an "ideal type" (some kind of typology or taxonomy) as a prologue to analysis, but a central question is always "what is the real origin of the categorical distinctions we propose, and does the analysis validate those distinctions?". Thus Marx for example tries very consciously to derive his abstractions from a critical sifting of historical experience and the predominant distinctions which people actually used, carefully footnoting "who said it first". Whereas in Weber's ideal types, it is never clear what their epistemological or ontological status really is, they have a utility for comparative purposes, but you can never say why people necessarily ought to see things that way, or why one ideal type is necessarily a better interpretation than another. 

For example, the Weberian ideal type of "bureaucracy" is a kind of model or analogy, but it is not an explanatory theory grounded in systematically assimilated experience, which describes and explains real bureaucracy, or provides true knowledge about bureaucratic organisation. All you can say about it that it might be useful in "illuminating" aspects of the phenomenon. This is more pre-scientific than scientific, because science tries to obtain true knowledge about how things really are - the ideal type seems to explain, but really only describes interpretatively.

The ideological thinker (or ideologist) in the Marxian sense spins out concepts without being truly aware of the historical background (or context) which gives rise to these concepts (they are articulated in separation of the real practical context to which they apply), but for that very reason the concepts function more to rationalise a state of affairs, rather than saying anything very profound, and they are often rather quickly overtaken by events. Certain concepts are "in vogue" at a particular time, but go out of fashion lateron. To arrive at more durable concepts, really requires a much more comprehensive, throughgoing investigation, though some ideological notions may linger on a very long time, because they perform a certain justifying function for the social order, or the social position of a particular group.


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