As thinking beings we always try and make sense of the world around us. (We wouldn’t last long if we didn’t). From the earliest days of antiquity, through the flowering of classical civilisation and on to the birth of modern society and developed industry, every advance has come about through our improved understanding of how things work. Dialectics is the tool for appreciating the inner workings of things, events, phenomena, but more importantly, how they change.
Elaborated first by the Greek philosophers (dialego – I debate), dialectics remained something of an intellectual curiosity, a philosophical cul de sac, particularly when religious beliefs dominated. It was Galileo’s dialectical approach which forced him to conclude that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not vice versa as the Bible insisted.
The signal breakthroughs in natural science which were a feature of the explosion of knowledge in the post-Reformation period were undoubtedly the work of geniuses, but what unites them is a dialectical approach. If conventional wisdom doesn’t explain why something happens, then jettison it and approach the problem with new eyes. Even if the conventional wisdom is as revered as the Old Testament. Think of Darwin and his theory of natural selection. Evolution over millions of years. Only impossible if you insist on wearing blinkers.
It was the German philosopher Hegel who finally drew out the laws of dialectics, principally that everything contains a pair of opposites, as seen for instance in a plane flying at a constant height – aerodynamic lift wants to take it ever upwards, gravity wants to bring it hurtling down. And that gradual, quantitative change between these opposites leads to a qualitative leap to something new. Apply heat to ice, a solid, and you get water, a liquid and eventually steam, a gas.
Hegel however was an idealist in the sense that he saw things as being a reflection of thought. Figments of imagination we would call it now. It was his materialist students Marx and Engels who understood correctly that thoughts and ideas are a reflection of the real, material world, and who took Hegel’s ‘upside down’ dialectics and stood it on its feet.
Contrary to other, fatalistic ways of looking at the world, dialectics enables us to see things and events as ever changing or capable of change. It is the working out of the contradictions within a thing which determines not if but how it will change.
True for the test tube and the nuclear reactor, at the microscopic and the cosmic level. True for all natural phenomena and true for society. Applying dialectics to Britain in 2009, we see a society full of contradiction. Millions of workers with the skill and capacity to make and do the things we need, held back by a system which puts profit before people. Fatalism says “It’s always been like this, nothing ever changes.” Dialectics says “Nothing is insurmountable. If we put our minds to it we can generate change. Possibly not a huge step all at once, but part of the process of changing the ice to steam.”