Dialectical Thinking (part 2)

Both analytic and dialectic knowledge practices are necessary to make insightful decisions and take committed action. With an overemphasis on the practice of analysis comes the stress and brittle violence of continuous attempts to wrestle reality into static boxes for prediction and control.  In addition, there is the harm caused by using lazy dialectics to dismiss, ignore, or assign inaccurate overarching schemas that promote ecological, economic and social systems of oppression. The key to genuine dialectic is found in one’s own vulnerability, which is often embarrassing and messy.

The analytic approach

Under the influence of western thought traditions, a contemporary person largely relies on using differentiation and formal logic to understand themselves and their world.  This understanding relies on discrete stable identities and linear causal relationships; there cannot be contradictions, and there is no middle state between this and that, good and bad, true and false. Like mathematics, this is a very coherent way of representing and manipulating a symbolic reality to achieve prediction and control.  But it is an abstraction.  If some part of the flesh and stone of experience is not fitting into this logical understanding, then this is generally assumed to be a problem of incomplete knowledge or reasoning, and as such, must be resolved, usually by a process of isolating and de-contextualizing information, forming polarizing contradictory perspectives in an effort to determine which identity, fact or explanation is correct.  Unfortunately, isolating, polarizing and differentiating have a variety of pitfalls from the political to the personal. There is violence to the project of prediction and control, often directed inwards.  The internal human landscape is replete with contradiction, paradox, and nuance.

The dialectic approach

As I described in a recent post, a variety of cultural, philosophical and critical thought traditions propose a different model of knowledge which sees transient, contradictory and emergent qualities of existence as valid and important.  These include 21st century critical theory, “eastern” philosophical and spiritual traditions, and the science of complex systems. These traditions acknowledge knowledge as:

  • Transient, dynamic, changing, nuanced, continuously escaping definition
  • Complex, contradictory, in tension, paradoxical
  • Emergent, associative, networked, contextual

This all sounds all well and good, but in experience, these aspects of life are usually deeply embarrassing and painful.  It may be easy to think, “I’m a creative innovator / active in social justice / freethinking po-mo intellectual – I’m at home with all of this.” But engaging with dialectic cuts deeper than diplomacy and social critique, brainstorming and thought mapping.

When we find paradoxical desires unresolved in us; when we confront our own grief and loss; when one’s own experience doesn’t fit into stable identities, expected consequences or explanation, it provokes strong emotions of anger, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, fear.  Which in turn provoke strong defensive responses: numbness, denial, aggression, rumination.  So strong is the social and internalized pressure to resolve contradiction and ambiguity that most of us are waging continual war against our own experience.

There are examples of this disorienting distress expressed in my therapy office every day.

It’s uncertain…
transient, dynamic, changing, nuanced, escaping definition

  • He/she/it’s changed, not what I expected, I’m not sure how to let it go.
  • I’m scared about what will happen next.
  • I wish I knew what really happened
  • I don’t know how I will go on without him/her/it.
  • I’m not sure if this is really love, I feel different every day.
  • I didn’t used to be like this.

The pieces don’t fit…
complex, contradictory, in tension, paradoxical

  • Why do I keep thinking about x when I should be thinking about y?
  • I want very badly a thing that hurts me: drugs, alcohol, relationship.
  • How can I hate someone I love so much?
  • I feel so bad about x it doesn’t count that good thing y happened.
  • I’m afraid I’ll explode there is so much there – afraid I won’t be able to put myself back together if I open it up.
  • I am a powerful accomplished person, how could I let this happen to me?

It’s bigger than me…
emergent, associative, networked, contextual

  • I should be able to control it.
  • I hate how I act around them.
  • I shouldn’t have let it get to me.
  • I hate that I am so defined by their prejudice.
  • It doesn’t make sense now but at the moment it just felt right.
  • Why can’t I get over it?

In my experience, it is analytic responses to these kinds of disorienting internal conflicts that tug us into paralyzing, self-destructive cycles of anxiety, depression, and relational distress.

The usual analytic response to these experiences looks something like this:

Differentiate a specific problem from the dynamic, complex field of experience, de-contextualize.

  • The problem is my drinking
  • The problem is that I am depressed
  • The problem is my partner

Define the problem by identifying two forces in opposition, usually one good and one bad, usually a division of the self or an alienation from others.

  • “Sensible Me” vs. “My Drinking”
  • “Normal Me” vs “Depression”
  • Helpless/Wronged “Me” vs Powerful/Unjust “Them”

Construct Arguments
Where one side can be shown to be good/true and the other bad/false, solidifies the alienation.

  • Beat myself up after I drink, tell myself all the reasons I’m bad for drinking
  • When I have an unhappy thought, memory or feelings, this proves that the depression still has control of me.
  • List all the ways my partner should support me but fails.

Apply logic of cause and effect, use mental resources to try to find ways the good side can triumph, usually reinforcing the original dysphoria.

  • Try to destroy the devil inside, find ways to numb, silence, stuff down, shame that part of me (motivating more drinking).
  • Try to isolate the causes of my depression, imagine what I could have done differently, how I failed in the past (bringing up further depressive thoughts, feelings, memories)
  • Rehearse all possible scenarios of confrontation with the my partner (stirring up more anger and resentment)

They may work well for discerning the best method to grill chicken, but when the problem-solving tools of isolation, polarization, counterargument and logical strategy do not work to resolve inner tensions we often think there is something wrong with us. Often we envision that the solution will involve finding the most correct description and logical explanation to the predicament.  But prediction and control are not always the recipe for a life well lived. As opposed to using the analytical cognitive tools to try to eliminate inner tensions, they can be engaged, mined for gold.

I find that more frequently, what is missing is a dialectical operation: tolerance for ambiguity and contradiction, an integrative recognition of interdependence or part-whole relationships, flexibility with rules and concepts, ability to conceive of a multiplicity of meanings, perspectives and functions. These cognitive skills are not innate traits, they can be learned and practiced. This actually forms the basis of my counselling interventions.

As a counsellor, my overall objective is less to eliminate distressing experiences, but support the client to change their relationship towards that experience.

  • Validate individual experience
  • Bring out contradiction, paradox: give voice to all sides within the individual’s experience
  • Seek to increase overall understanding: take multiple perspectives, look for what is being minimized or left out, explore nuance
  • Investigate interdependence, experience a qualitative shift in understanding or perspective,  see the issue as part of a greater context
  • Accept limit situations and the experience of not-knowing

Shifting to this model from the project of prediction and control can feel embarrassing, awkward and threatening, but also relieving and fulfilling. There are a number of psychotherapeutic frameworks that focus on developing dialectical thinking.  Existential psychotherapy encourages clients to confront limit situations where logical responses are inadequate, such as individual freedom, the inevitability of death, meaninglessness, individual isolation and the search for love. Gestalt psychotherapy focuses on bringing out difference and conflict as authentic and meaningful, and working to integrate context and find synthesis between parts. Somatic psychotherapy taps the holistic integrative nature of bodily felt experience. Mindfulness and acceptance based therapies focus less on eliminating narrowly defined problems, but look at the relationship the individual is having with their experience, the context they are giving it.  My discussion of dialectical thinking will continue with explorations of specific interventions to build dialectical cognitive skills.


Read Dialectical Thinking (Part 1)

This post drew inspiration from the article:
Culture, dialectics, and reasoning about contradiction. Peng, Kaiping; Nisbett, Richard E.  American Psychologist, Vol 54(9), Sep 1999, 741-754. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.54.9.741
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