Equivocating on Dialectics

Chris Matthew Sciabarra has achieved some herostratic fame by claiming that Ayn Rand – her own protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – was a “dialectical thinker”. What does he mean by “dialectical” here? I will let him speak for himself:

Throughout the history of philosophy the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses. Aristotle recognized dialectic and rhetoric as counterparts of each other; for him, rhetoric was the art of public speaking, or the “faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”, whereas dialectic was the art of logical discussion and argumentation. In dialectic, the interlocutor proceeds from accepted (or specific) propositions and argues toward a more basic (or general) conclusion. Although mastery of this dialectic technique was the hallmark of Socratic and Platonic philosophy, Aristotle argued that it was insufficient for establishing scientific truth. Nevertheless, he valued the dialectic because it demanded the study of questions from multiple vantage points. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Marx, Engels, and Lenin recognized Aristotle as the father of dialectical inquiry. Engels, in fact, called Aristotle “the Hegel of the ancient world”, who “had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought”. And Lenin argued that within Aristotle lies “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it”. (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 15f.)

Now, Plato’s philosophy is called “dialectic” simply because it was presented in the form of dialogues. And Sciabarra immediately forgets the truth he spoke in the first sentence: that the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses – or else, he thinks that all those different senses are actually the very same sense. He continues:

More than two thousand years after Aristotle’s death, Hegel developed a conception of dialectics as an ontological and historical process. Hegel’s dialectical method affirms the impossibility of logical contradiction and focuses instead on relational “contradictions” or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history. For Hegel, opposing concepts could be identified as merely partial views whose apparent contradictions could be transcended by exhibiting them as internally related within a larger whole. From pairs of opposing theses, elements of truth could be extracted and integrated into a third position. Other philosophers saw this form of dialectics as a triadic movement in which the conflict of “thesis” and “antithesis” is resolved through “synthesis”. Dialectical materialists place this process on an economic foundation and used it as the basis for a philosophy of history. (Ibidem, p. 16.)

Now, this is a widely different sense from both Plato’s and Aristotle’s.

Hegel begins his dialectics by analyzing the widest possible of all concepts, namely “being”. To be is to be something: a thing may be red or blue or some other color; it may be quiet or noisy; it may be large – such as a solar system, a galaxy or the entire universe; or it may be small – as a speck of dust, an atom or an elementary particle; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum. When we form the concept “being” – says Hegel – we abstract away from all those qualifications, until there is nothing left. Then the concept “being” turns into its opposite, the concept “nothing”. And then – lo and behold! – those concepts merge into the concept “becoming” – where “nothing” turns into “something” (or “something” turns into “nothing”).[1]

And what on earth does this have in common with Aristotle?

Aristotle called an argument, or a line of reasoning, demonstrative, when the premises are certain, and dialectical, when the premises are uncertain or disputed. In his own words:

Now a deduction is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them. It is a demonstration, when the premisses from which the deduction starts are true and primitive,[2] or are such that our knowledge of them has originally come through premisses which are primitive and true; and it is a dialectical deductions, if it reasons from reputable opinions. Things are true and primitive which are convincing on the strength not of anything else but themselves; for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. On the other hand, those opinions are reputable which are accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the wise – i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and reputable of them. Again, a deduction is contentious if it starts from opinions that seem to be reputable, but are not really such, or again if it merely seems to reason from opinions that are or seem to be reputable. For not every opinion which we call reputable actually is reputable. (The very beginning of Topics, p. 167 in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. by Jonathan Barnes, Vol. 1; translated by W.A. Pickard-Cambridge; also available on the web.)

Aristotle being a reputable philosopher, we can at least argue dialectically with him! Hegelians ­– and Marxists – on the other hand are impossible to argue with, since they will turn everything one says into its exact opposite; hoping – I presume – for some synthesis to come out of it.

But the point is that Aristotle’s dialectics and Hegel’s have only the name in common. Sciabarra’s whole reasoning is based on an enormous equivocation or package deal.

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What, then, did Ayn Rand herself have to say about dialectics? Not much. The only thing that comes to my mind is that Floyd Ferris, in Atlas Shrugged, once accused Fred Kinnan of being unable to think dialectically. And – in case you have not read the book – Floyd Ferris is one of the worst villains, while Fred Kinnan is the best of the villains.

She certainly opposed Hegel’s philosophy – this is almost a “true and primitive” statement.. Not that she ever read him – she once wrote:

And no one has ever read Hegel (even though many have looked at every word on his every page). (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 143; italics mine.)

Well, I have not looked at every word on his every page; but I have read what he wrote about “being”, “nothing” and “becoming”.[3]

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I have not thought about Sciabarra for ages. The reason I do it now is a couple of Facebook discussions about a comment on his book, written by Anoop Verma.

My Swedish readers may recall that I wrote some criticisms of Sciabarra in the late 90s. If you happen to know Swedish, you may read Nattväktaren, årgång 2, nr 6, årgång 2, nr 9, årgång 3, nr 7 och årgång 3, nr 10–11.

For another critical appraisal, read James G. Lennox’s review. John Ridpath also wrote a highly critical review in The Intellectual Activist, but only a short summary is available on the web.

And here is a comment on Facebook by Brad Aisa, with which I concur:

That book is intellectual claptrap. The first, largely biographical section was interesting. But once he gets into the meat of his thesis it breaks down utterly. His entire schtick is taking two things with an inessential common attribute, then trying to claim fundamental parity. The sundry ideologies he tries to claim formed a basis for Rand’s own ideas are utterly opposite of Objectivism in every important way.


[1] In case you wonder what is wrong with this reasoning, I refer you to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

A widespread error […] holds that the wider the concept, the less its cognitive content – on the ground that its distinguishing characteristic is more generalized. The error lies in assuming that a concept consists of nothing but its distinguishing characteristic. (P. 26 in the expanded second edition)

[2] ”Primitive” here means ”primary”.

[3] You can read what he writes in an English translation here.

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Learning from History

There is an old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And recently several people (including myself) have posted this picture on Facebook:Image

It has been suggested that those who do study history should make an effort to educate the rest of us. But this presupposes that the rest of us are willing to listen and be educated, which I think is rather doubtful.

But I see a wider and deeper problem here. It is not enough to know what has happened in the past; one must also have some understanding of the underlying causes; otherwise one would just know what happened, not why it happened. Understanding those causes and then explaining them to others is the big challenge. And, as Ludwig von Mises once wrote, “Facts don’t speak; they have to be spoken about by a theory.”[1]

One small example of this from economic history: America had a depression in 1920–21, but it was over in about a year’s time. The depression that began in 1929, on the other hand, went on for a decade or more. Why? In 1921 there was no or little government meddling with the economy; by 1929 president Hoover had introduced a lot of interventionist measures, which were then continued and expanded by FDR. Will today’s politicians and economists learn from this experience? No. They cannot learn from it, because they either don’t know or reject the Austrian Business Cycle Theory.[2]

There are many theories of history, but most of them are simply false (and even bizarre). There is the theory that all of history is a manifestation of God’s will; and there is Hegel’s variation on this theme, that interprets history as a series of steps whereby the World Spirit seeks its own self-realization. And there is of course dialectic materialism. The first two theories do not explain anything (unless one is able to read the mind of God or the World Spirit); and the last one leads to severe misinterpretations of history. (And people who are steeped in this theory will stick to it, no matter what the facts are.)

Objectivism does have a theory of history, but unfortunately it is not developed in any detail (the exception to this is Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels). The theory is that history is ultimately determined by philosophical ideas, and history is, in Leonard Peikoff’s words in OPAR, a “duel between Plato and Aristotle”. And one has to stress that it is the ultimate cause, because there are so many other factors that have an influence on history.

One may also object to this theory that history did not start with Plato and Aristotle, so what determined history before their time? Well, there have always been philosophical ideas; most often they have been religious ideas, but religion is the precursor to philosophy. And if one takes Plato and Aristotle as symbols for an other-worldly orientation versus a this-worldly orientation, it does make sense.

One last remark: theories themselves ultimately have to be derived from facts. But I believe they have to be derived from facts that are very simple and basic, even self-evident. A case in point is what “Austrians” call the “axiom of action”, the fact that man is a being who acts purposefully and does merely react the way animals do. This, I think, we learn directly from introspection and from observing other human beings. Much can be deduced from this simple axiom, but the axiom itself is not deduced; it is a matter of direct observation. (As to the idea that this is “a priory” knowledge, not derived from experience but preceding experience, I refer to my earlier blog post Is action an a priori category?)

PS. Objectivism is not the only philosophy that sees history as a struggle between Platonism and Aristotelianism; Lyndon LaRouche (and his followers) hold the same idea. The big difference is that they take the side of Platonism and regard Aristotle much the way Objectivists view Immanuel Kant, as the arch-villain of philosophy.


[1]) I’m quoting this from memory; I have forgotten where in Mises’ writings I read it. Maybe some Mises expert can remind me.

[2]) You can read about this in Robert P. Murphy’s The Depression You’ve Never Heard of: 1920–1921 in The Freeman, and in Thomas E. Woods’ The Forgotten Depression of 1920 on The Ludwig von Mises Institute’s web site.