Dialectical Thinking (Part 1)

Our own modification recognizes dialectic conflicts and contradictions as a fundamental property of thought. In contrast to Piaget, we maintain that at the level of dialectic operations at maturity, the individual does not necessarily equilibrate these conflicts, but is ready to live with these contradictions; stronger yet, the individual accepts these contradictions as a basic property of thought and creativity.

(Riegel, 1973, p.366)

Challenging Piaget’s established model of cognitive development, in which the highest form of development was the use of deductive reasoning to systematically and logically solve a problem, Reigel proposed a further sophistication of cognitive development in dialectical operations, cognition that has dexterity with inherent contradictions, movement, change, process; “able to transform contradictory experience into momentarily stable structures.”

The focus is a flexible, relational process of thought - dialogue - rather than creating firm identities.

The dialectical method has roots that extend back in western history as form of reasoning that resolves difference through dialogue. In contrast to rhetoric, where parties committed to their points of view aim to resolve the difference through persuading others to accept their perspective, dialectics aim at resolving differences through recognizing the interdependence of the differences from the perspective of a higher order.

Hegelian dialectics extend this discipline to an overall practice of engaging with knowledge itself, based on the emerging recognition that all meanings a) inherently contain their own contradictions, and b) exist in time and therefore temporary and transient. Thus dialectic does not aim at logically uncovering existing truths or final answers, but aims to engage with truth that is inherently dynamic, changing, emergent. And so any synthesis is not a stable resolution, but a new order with its own poles and tensions, open for ongoing dialogue.  Artist Alyce Santoro writes,

 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.

The goal of the dialectic process is therefore to deepen overall understanding.

Inter-personally, it is collaboration and power-sharing.  Intra-personally, it is a flexible and dynamic process of cognition. There is therefore both a public and a personal need for the cultivation of dialectical skill.  I will address interpersonal dialectic first.

In the public realm, rhetoric (the skill of persuasion), not dialectic, is the dominant form of communication.  Since Plato, dialectic has been contrasted with rhetoric, which is not interested with advancing the creation of meaning but in winning conclusive power through persuasion.  Like any polarity, there is a unity underlying these methods of seeking solutions to difference, and our culture likely benefits from the tension created between contest and compromise.  However, in the hyper-rhetorical spectacle of contemporary culture, from reality TV, ubiquitous advertising and corporate branding, political pandering and partisanship, evangelism and fundamentalism of all kinds, there is an absence of role models for dialectical process.

In an increasingly interconnected world, and with growing diversity within nation states, there is the risk of an escalating isolation of viewpoints as our models for engaging with difference involve differentiation and competition rather than interdependence and understanding.  I believe the widening ideological gap between progressives and conservatives is evidence of this trend, which accomplishes the near irrelevance of political process and the understandable disengagement of the public. Democracy is intertwined with the ability to bridge difference and collaborate.

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Santoro makes an interesting proposal for establishing dialectic more prominently in contemporary culture:

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.

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.

This kind of model can provide a structure for bringing difference – with its nuances and paradoxes – into the public dialogue where it is needed.  There can be multiple truths in civic and social planning, scientific discovery and conflicts of all kinds.

Alyce Santoro – The Dialectic Revival

Extending the practice into the internal, personal realm, dialectic is necessary to resolve otherwise paralyzing or self-destructive internal conflicts.  As a counsellor, cultivating dialectical thinking forms the backbone of my interventions.  I will write more about this in an upcoming post.


Riegel, K. (1973). Dialectic operations: the final period of cognitive development. Human Development 16, 346-370.