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The Meaning of Dialectics


From the Chapter One of Dance of the Dialectics by Bertell Ollman
Alfred James A. Ellar Philosophy, Graduate School De La Salle University-Manila

The Bertell Ollman presented several meanings of dialectics basically derived from the ideas of Karl Marx, who is one of the most notable proponents of this process of thinking. From ontological description of Hegel about the nature of dialectics, Marx made dialectic process more concrete and applicable, though it always implies ontological description, in the analysis and demonstration on the reality of social conditions.

On one hand, before directly discussed the nature of dialectic, the Ollman reviewed what dialectic is not: dialectic is not a triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis which serves as all-purpose explanation of reality; it does not provide a formula to prove or predict about reality; and unlike Hegel, it is not a motor force driving the course of history. On the other hand, based primarily on the thoughts of Marx, dialectics is a way of thinking which centers in the analysis and demonstration of the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world. Dialectics restructures thinking about reality by replacing the commonsense notion of thing with notions of process and relation. In a sense, dialectics is more on process and relation of parts among themselves and to the entire system. Hence, it is how to organize a reality viewed in its entirety for the purpose of study and how to present the result of what one finds to others about it. In order to do this, Ollman suggested that one should know something about how certain part arose and developed and how it fits into the larger context or system of which it is an element. Dialectics as process focusing in relation is an attempt to resolve difficulties something the parts and the broader interactive context in which it is found the system.

Consequently, from the general notion of dialectics above, Ollman described Marxs dialectical method, as a form of research, in terms of how Marx studied the reality in questioned, how he organized what he found from it, and how he presented these findings to his chosen audience. As mentioned above, unlike the common way of inductive method which proceeds from part moving to the whole in the analysis of reality or the world, dialectical method begins from the whole as it appears as

such and understood in general, then proceeds in the examination of its parts as they fit and function in relation to the whole, and finally, towards the fuller understanding of the whole comprised with these parts of which the totality of the whole originated. The main arguments on behalf of this method is that studying the parts independent to other parts and to the whole would resort to distortion of the meaning and the loss of integrity insofar as the vital role of the parts to the whole is concerned. Thus, intricate and sophisticated as the method of dialectics seems; however, the entire venture of such methodical research is advantageous for the purpose of legitimate, deeper and fuller understanding of the nature of social reality. Moreover, insofar as relation is vital aspect of this method, Marxs dialectical research is primarily directed to finding and tracing four kinds of relations: identity and difference, interpretation of opposites, quantity and quality, and contradiction. First, in terms of relation between identity and difference, Marx argued that identity and difference is a dual property of the same thing undergoing process and having relation to other things. Dialectics is complex enough to accommodate that which appears different, which is in fact identical if taken into further examination. Second, Marx asserted that the interpretation of opposites is basically the recognition that in a certain degree, large enough, anything appears and functions due to certain set of conditions surrounding it. It is a mere perspectival element, a sort of framework, by which one views a thing which appears to other as different from what the former viewed it. Third, quantity and quality is a relation between two temporally different moments within the same process. This means that, quantitatively, the process is composed of certain relation of aspects (thing) in one time, and qualitatively, a transformation of such aspect as disclosed by their appearance and function. Finally, contradiction refers to the incompatibility of development of different elements within the same relation, that is, the relation of elements which are dependent to one another. In this regard, contradiction offers a systematic approach in bringing greater understanding of changes, interactions and transformations among the elements within a given whole. In conclusion, Ollman described the characteristics of dialectical thinkers based on the his entire discussion of Marxs dialectical method: (a) they operate beyond mere commonsense process of thinking; (b) they attribute change to the inner contradiction of parts or systems; (c) they methodically ignore parts to make generalization about the whole; (d) they tend to move into the bottom line to push the germ of a development into its finished form; and (e) they lead the people to be surprised when the expected upheaval takes so long in coming. Thus, as Marx claimed, dialectics is essentially revolutionary and critical. It is revolutionary since it presents the movement of society from one stage to another, and forces its audience, the people, to examine the origin and outcome of such movement. It is critical since it poses the role of the people for such examination of such social conditions. Such would provide the people to reconsider their vital functions, inherent limitations, and range of possibilities to responsibly and intelligently respond to these conditions as free individuals. One critical evaluation can be deduced from the entire article. Although Ollman had given legitimate treatment of exposition of the central theme of Marxs dialectical method, however, he did not make sufficient treatment of the possible weakness of it, which as he mentioned in the paper, he himself is guilt being thinking in one-sidedness.