Here in the United States, whether we look to the language used amongst ourselves, in the media, or by politicians, we may find that our standard method of communication is based on rhetoric – a style of argument that relies on a set of distinctly isolated viewpoints, with each view-holder applying a range of persuasive techniques in an effort to prevail over a perceived opponent.
As we navigate our way into increasingly fragile ecological and social conditions unfolding around the world, however, another lesser-known approach with roots in ancient Greek, European, and Asian thought may be worth revisiting.
In stark contrast to the goal of rhetoric – to win an argument at all costs with all forms of manipulation (including willful dishonesty) on the table – the goal of dialectic is to earnestly expand overall understanding of a situation and the conditions that surround it.
It is not surprising that dialectic is so little-known and little-understood in contemporary culture; throughout the course of history the term has been appropriated by different people for different purposes. Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx each developed their own signature varieties. If we could get all of these thinkers in a room together to engage in a dialectical discussion about the definition of dialectic, they may or may not agree on at least two basic tenets: 1) participants in a dialectic dialog understand that reality and our perception of it is in a constant state of flux, therefore definitive conclusions may not be necessary 2) apparent paradoxes and contradictions are identified and embraced as inherently interdependent conditions whenever possible (cases in point: the notion of “light” ceases to be meaningful without darkness by which to compare it; each of us is simultaneously an individual and part of a society).
Throughout history, forms of dialectic reasoning have been applied to discussions of a wide range of political, philosophical, spiritual, and scientific matters. While horns are locked and the clock ticks away on all manner of pressing social and environmental issues, I am suggesting that now is a fitting moment to evaluate the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of prevailing mechanisms for the exchange of ideas, and develop a more modern, appropriate, efficient, and constructive paradigm.
A new dialectic method has revolutionary potential. Transparency in communication is a radical act. The powers of obfuscation, confusion, and polarization are wielded with great skill by those who seek to suppress and control, often inadvertently drawing in even those with an earnest interest in clarity. Dialectic technique is an antidote, a way of dissolving veils of calculated deception to reveal the inner workings of an underlying reality.
A dialectic method would be applied like a scientific method especially for communication and distillation of understanding. Like the scientific method, it would be taken for granted that any practitioner who wished to be recognized by his or her peers as a clear, principled communicator would be obliged to employ it.
In order for the dialectic method to work effectively, a few parameters would need to be established at the outset. All participants must understand that the primary goal of the dialectic method is to pool knowledge and compare and contrast differing viewpoints on a matter for the purpose of deepening overall understanding. Unlike forms of debate in which one side attempts to demonstrate the superiority of a singular view over an opposing one by any means available (including emotional persuasion not based in reason), those willing to engage in a new dialectic favor logic, analytical proof, and rational deduction. Those who participate in dialectic discourse recognize that all conditions are in a continuous state of flux, and therefore definitive resolution may not be possible.
A preliminary outline of steps in a new DIALECTIC METHOD:
1. Establish the matter to be considered.
2. Identify and define abstract or ambiguous terminology and concepts.
3. Acknowledge the existence of apparent contradiction, paradox, and nuance.
4. Determine commonalities and points of connection.
5. Reevaluate the matter in light of information gleaned through elucidation of both paradox and connection.
6. Develop and implement solutions based on a refined understanding of the matter at hand. If further clarification is desired, begin again at step 1.