[OPE] Dialectics for the New Century

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Fri Apr 11 2008 - 19:35:07 EDT


Dave, 

Just a small thought that occurred to me - in case you thought my post a good summary, I should perhaps add that, if the problem of deductive inference is that it provides by itself no criteria for the induction of premises other than that some are compatible with the deduction of a conclusion, and others are not, this precisely raises the whole vexed issue of abstractive procedures which has been debated many times on OPE-L. 

Summarizing is obviously also an abstractive procedure (which Marx uses) but it typically involves abstracting from abstractions, in a way which reduces the full complexity in the totality of a subject, i.e. all the different facets which play a role. Lenin found that a "dialectical summary" which is not simply a formal yea-nay definition was best stated as a "unity of opposites". Summarizing may not be so creative, insofar as you can only summarize what has already been thought, but a new synthesis can be very creative.

The problem with abstractive procedures is not only that the same goal, idea or conclusion can be reached by different non-arbitrary routes, but also that it may be impossible to establish that one route is more rational or reasonable than another. This is already obvious in computer programming itself where the execution of the same task can be programmed in many different ways, which can be evaluated according to many different criteria. But it is also obvious in dialectical thought. Different Marxist dogmaticians for example emphasize one dialectical category as the fundamental one: e.g. the unity of opposites (Lenin), quantity and quality (Trotsky), equilibrium and disequilibrium (Bukharin), totality (Lukacs), negation (Adorno), negating negation (Mao). The same idea surfaces in philosophy of science where they talk about "paradigms", "research programmes" and "theories within theories" which guide but do not stipulate questions and answers.

This problem of abstraction was already recognized by the young Marx I think, and what is at issue in (what I call) "critical dialectics"  (as opposed to Systematic Dialectics) is primarily "how the questions arise, what the questions are, why those questions are important, and how the questions are framed". More important than the answers are the questions themselves, something which the young Marx noted explicitly. Critical dialectics is a logos of discovery, while Systematic Dialectics is a logos of justification, or after-the-fact summation/rationalization/reconstruction.

Althusser also dabled with a notion of this, and moots the idea of a discourse centred on a "problematic", the idea being that at any time we operate within a field of theory which says that something counts as a problem, and something else does not. But he has no rational understanding of theory-choice, only party dogma. Paolo Freire has a similar idea, of developing critical or transformative understandings by "problematizing" experience in a structured way, through juxtaposing aspects of reality which prima facie contradict each other. Since the oppressors use their power to set the questions for the powerless to answer, the route to freeing oneself from oppressive conditions begins with setting one's own questions, and by daring to question the given questions themselves.

However I think myself Marx's own full concept is much richer in content than this, because he kept developing it in different contexts. Human beings are creatures of need who must cooperate to survive and develop as individuals, and they formulate problems and answers which arise in the first instance out their practical activity. But there is not necessarily any direct correspondence between their practical activity and their ideas, because the two could be mediated or become detached from each other by many different conditions, so that what the connection really is, becomes difficult to trace out completely. It provides a great source of behavioural flexibility and freedom (particularly in an age of mindless computational procedure).

Hence, while theoretical development and practical problem-solving are processes which occur at the same time, they may be synchronic or dissynchronic, or retard/advance each other. So it is not just that theoretical development and practical problem-solving are both driven along by their own internal contradictions and arbitrary influences, but also that there are also contradictions between the two. This being the case, the determinism in the relationship between thought and being can only be summarised with dialectical categories at any level, even just because any uni-linear or uni-directional causal chain is lacking. 

Marx said he toyed with the idea of writing a tome on the utility of dialectics once, but he did not do it. Why? I think, possibly, because in that case he would be falling into the trap that he accused Hegel of falling into: specifying the categorical distinctions of a universally applicable logos or grand metaphysic which is in reality inimical to science, not in the least because it isn't actually possible for anyone to apply it uniformly and consistently (as the pluralist literature on dialectics proves). We all have our personal metaphysics, which are a source of creativity, but it is quite another thing to pretend that this personal metaphysic has a universal application, and then superimpose it on the whole cosmos. In this sense, I think Marx was very much an anti-totalitarian, i.e. he relativised the limits of his own theoretical achievement, and he refused to over-extend it.

What is new about the dialectics of the 21st century? Karl Pribram indicates the future trend fairly well I think: "Well, I think in the twenty-first century we're going to be able to do an awful lot that we weren't able to do up to now, simply because science will be admitted to the spiritual aspects of mankind, and vice versa -- what has been segregated for at least three hundred years, since Galileo, where the spiritual aspects, in Western culture at least, have been sort of relegated over here. People have split this, you know. We build buildings, and we do surgery, and do all of these things. Then we have a spiritual aspect to ourselves; we go do that somewhere else. Whereas now I think these things will come together..." http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~sai/pribram.htm

Jurriaan



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