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dialectic (dīəlĕkˈtĭk) [Gr.,= art of conversation], in philosophy, term originally applied to the method of philosophizing by means of question and answer employed by certain ancient philosophers, notably Socrates. For Plato the term came to apply more strictly to logical method and meant the reduction of what is multiple in our experience of phenomena to the unity of systematically organized concepts or ideas. Immanuel Kant gave the name “Transcendental Dialectic” (the title of one section of his Critique of Pure Reason) to his endeavor to expose the illusion of judgments that attempt to transcend the limits of experience. G. W. F. Hegel applied the term dialectic to the logical method of his philosophy, which proceeds from thesis through antithesis to synthesis. Hegel's method was appropriated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their philosophy of dialectical materialism.
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  1. originally a term which simply meant LOGIC and/or METAPHYSICS (Williams, 1976).
  2. (in German Idealist philosophy and in MARXISM) the process of contradiction and resolution – involving, or analogous to, the process of assertion, contradiction and agreement in an argument – in which conceptual and/or real world contradictions are resolved.
Formal logic licenses arguments, from given premises to conclusions according to strict rules, in which the conclusions are contained in the initial premises. However, ever since SOCRATES, thinkers have wanted to capture more of the reality of creative arguments, in which the conclusions reached involve genuine novelties. Socrates proceeded by a method of recurrent questioning of his interlocuters, multiplying their uncertainties, and enlarging their grasp by encouraging them to shift ground. In the 18th- and 19th-centuries, the attempt to establish inductive logic (see INDUCTION AND INDUCTIVE LOGIC) was another attempt to escape the formalism of conventional deductive logic. It was KANT and HEGEL, however, who first proposed the alternative of a fullyfledged dialectical logic, in which metaphysical and, for Hegel, the real world is ‘Catholic’ in its own self-understanding of what it wishes to reject, and its shape is in part fixed in that contradictions are surmounted in the course of ‘world-history’, realizing a more unified ‘truth’ – e.g. ‘Protestant’ preserves negation. Hegel's approach was taken up in MARXISM and in DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM. However, the interpretation of the dialectic as involving ‘dialectical laws of nature’ is usually regarded as a wrong interpretation: the opposite of a focus on the emergence of novelty. The notion of the dialectic in this latter sense lives on, however, in more open-ended conceptions of NEGATION AND NEGATIVITY, e.g. in the work of the FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(also, dialectics), the doctrine of the most general principles of emergence and development, whose internal source is viewed as the unity of and conflict between opposites.

In this sense dialectic, beginning with Hegel, is contrasted with metaphysics—the mode of thought that considers things and phenomena as unchanging and independent of each other. As characterized by V. I. Lenin, dialectic is a doctrine of development in its most complete and profound form, free from one-sidedness; a doctrine concerning the relativity of human knowledge (which provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter). In the history of dialectic, the following principal stages can be clearly distinguished: the spontaneous, naive dialectic of the ancient thinkers; the dialectic of the Renaissance philosophers; the idealistic dialectic of German classical philosophy; the dialectic of the 19th-century Russian revolutionary democrats; and the Marxist-Leninist materialist dialectic as the highest form of modern dialectic. In the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, the unity of materialism and dialectic has received a scientific basis and a logically consistent expression.

Dialectical thought has very ancient origins. Ancient eastern and Graeco-Roman philosophy created everlasting patterns for the dialectical world view. The ancient dialectic, based on a living, sensory perception of the material world, beginning with the very first conceptions of Greek philosophy, formulated an understanding of reality as something that changes and becomes, combining opposites within itself. The philosophers of early Greek classicism spoke about universal and eternal motion and at the same time imagined the cosmos in the form of a completed and perfect entirety, something eternal and at rest. This was the universal dialectic of motion and rest. Furthermore, they understood the universal mutability of things as resulting from the transformation of any one specific basic element (earth, water, air, fire, and ether) into any other one. This was the universal dialectic of identity and variety. Heraclitus and other Greek natural philosophers formulated the ideas of external becoming and of movement as the unity of opposites.

Aristotle considered Zeno of Elea to be the first dialectician. It was precisely the Eleatics who sharply contrasted unity with multiplicity and the intellectual world with the sensory world. Based on the philosophy of Heraclitus and the Eleatics, a purely negative dialectic came into being among the Sophists, who in the constant changing of mutually contradictory things and ideas saw the relativity of human knowledge. They developed dialectic to a point of extreme skepticism, not excluding even morality. The Sophists and Socrates played a great role in the history of dialectic. It was precisely they who, in departing from the dialectic of being as it was espoused during early classicism, led human thought into stormy motion, with its eternal contradictions and unceasing search for truth in an atmosphere of fierce quarreling. They pursued the truth by means of increasingly refined and precise intellectual concepts and categories. The spirit of the eristic and the question-and-answer, conversational theory of dialectic, as introduced by the Sophists and Socrates, began to penetrate all ancient philosophy and the dialectic that was a part of it.

Although he continued Socrates’ thought and treated the world of concepts and ideas as a specific, independent reality, Plato understood dialectic not only as the division of concepts into precisely separated species (as Socrates had done) and not only as the search for truth with the aid of questions and answers, but also as knowledge of relative existence and genuine existence. He considered it possible to achieve this knowledge only by means of adducing contradictory particulars into the whole, or the general. Remarkable examples of this kind of ancient, idealistic dialectic are contained in Plato’s dialogues. Plato provides the following five principal categories of dialectic: motion, rest, variety, identity, and being; consequently, being is treated by Plato as an actively self-contradictory, coordinated, separate entity. Everything proves to be identical with itself and with everything else; it is also at rest and in motion within itself and in relation to everything else.

Aristotle, who transformed Platonic ideas into the forms of things and, moreover, introduced the doctrine of potentiality and energy (as well as a number of other, analogous doctrines), developed dialectic further. In his doctrine of the four causes—material, formal, final and efficient—Aristotle asserted that all of them exist in everything, and each is completely indivisible and identical with the thing it exists in. Aristotle’s doctrine of a prime mover who thinks himself—in other words, is himself both subject and object—is a fragment of the very same dialectic. By designating the doctrine of probable judgments and conclusions or the doctrine of appearances as dialectic, Aristotle provides a dialectic of becoming, since potentiality itself is only possible in the sphere of becoming. Lenin said: “Aristotle’s logic is an inquiry, a searching, an approach to Hegel’s logic—and it, the logic of Aristotle (who everywhere, at every step, raises precisely the question of dialectics), has been made into a dead scholasticism by rejecting all the searchings, waverings, and modes of teaming questions” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 326).

The Stoics defined dialectic as “the science of correctly conducting a conversation with respect to judgments in questions and answers” and as “the science of the true, false, and neutral,” the science of eternal becoming, and the science of the mutual transformation of elements. There was a strongly expressed tendency toward the materialist dialectic among the atomists (Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius Carus), who saw the appearance of each thing made of atoms as a dialectical leap, inasmuch as each thing holds within itself a new quality in comparison with the atoms from which it originated.

In Neoplatonism (as expounded by Plotinus, Proclus, and others) the basic hierarchy of being is dialectical to a great extent: there is the One, and the numerical division of this One; the qualitative content of these primal numbers, or the world of ideas; the transition of these ideas into becoming; and so forth. Important, for example, is the concept of the division of the One into Two, the reciprocal reflection of subject and object in cognition, the doctrine of the eternal mobility of the cosmos, and the doctrine of becoming. Dialectical concepts of Neoplatonism are frequently expressed in the form of mystical judgments and scholastic systematism.

The domination of monotheistic religions during the Middle Ages shifted dialectic into the sphere of theology; the ideas of Aristotle and of Neoplatonism, moreover, were used to create scholastically developed doctrines of the personal absolute. Nicholas of Cusa developed dialectical ideas in his doctrines of the identity of knowledge and ignorance, of the coincidence of the maximum and the minimum, of eternal movement, of the coincidence of contradictions, and of all things being in all things. G. Bruno expressed the idea of the unity of opposites, the identity of the minimum and maximum, and the infinity of the Universe (stating that its center could be located anywhere, at any of its points).

In the philosophy of modern times, the doctrines of R. Descartes on the multiple nature of space, B. Spinoza on thought and matter and on freedom and necessity, and G. Leibniz on the presence of every monad in every other monad certainly contain dialectical concepts.

The classic form of dialectic in modern times was created by German idealism, which began with a negative and subjectivist interpretation in the works of I. Kant and passed through a transitional phase in the works of J. Fichte and F. Schelling to the objective idealism of G. Hegel. In Kant, the dialectic appears as an unmasking of the illusions of human reason, which desires to attain integral and absolute knowledge. Since scientific knowledge, according to Kant, is only the knowledge that relies on sensory experience and is proved through the activity of the intellect, whereas the higher concepts of reason (god, the world, soul, and freedom) are not governed by these characteristics, therefore the dialectic stands to reveal those inevitable contradictions in which the reason becomes confused as it desires to attain an absolute integrity. This purely negative treatment of the dialectic by Kant was of enormous historical significance, because it revealed the necessarily contradictory nature of human reason. This subsequently led to a search for ways to overcome the contradictions of reason, which in turn lay at the basis of dialectic in a positive sense.

According to Hegel, the dialectic encompassed the entire area of reality, beginning with purely logical categories, passing further on into the areas of nature and the spirit, and ending up with the categorical dialectic of the entire historical process. The Hegelian dialectic is a systematically developed science; Hegel was the first to present the general working of dialectics in a comprehensive and conscious manner (see K. Marx, Kapital, vol. 1, 1955, p. 19). Hegel divides the dialectic into being, essence, and concept (Begriff). Being is the very first and most abstract determination of thought. It is made specific in the categories of quality, quantity, and measure. After developing the category of being, Hegel reexamines the very same concept, but this time in its contradiction with itself. Hence arises the category of the essence of being; a dialectical synthesis of initial essence and appearance is expressed in the category of actuality. This exhausts the concept of essence in his work; but essence cannot exist apart from being. Therefore, Hegel also studied that stage of the dialectic in which there are categories containing within themselves, in equal measure, both being and essence. This stage is concept. Hegel was an absolute idealist, and therefore it was precisely in concept that he found the highest flowering of both being and essence. He considered his concept as subject, object, and absolute idea.

Pre-Marxist dialectic thus meant a general becoming of matter, nature, society, and mind (seen in Greek natural philosophy); a becoming of these entities in the form of logical categories (Platonism, Hegel); the teaching of correct questions and answers and of dispute (Socrates, the Stoics); a criticism of becoming and its replacement by a discrete and unknowable mutliplicity (Zeno of Elea); the doctrine of logically emerging, probable concepts, judgments, and conclusions (Aristotle): the systematic destruction of all the illusions of human reason, which inconsistently strives toward an absolute wholeness and hence disintegrates into contradictions (Kant); the subjectivist (Fichte), objectivist (Schelling), and absolutist (Hegel) philosophy of the spirit (Geist), as expressed in the becoming of categories.

In the 19th century the Russian revolutionary democrats V. G. Belinskii, A. I. Herzen, and N. G. Chernyshevskii approached a materialist dialectic. In contrast to Hegel, they derived revolutionary conclusions from the ideas of eternal motion and development: for them dialectic was the “algebra of revolution” (see A. I. Herzen, Sobr. soch. vol. 9, 1956, p. 23). Bourgeois philosophy after Hegel turned away from the achievements in the area of dialectic that had been attained in philosophy. Hegel’s dialectic was rejected by a number of philosophers as “sophistry,” an “error in logic,” and even a “diseased perversion of mind” (R. Haym, A. Trendelenburg, and E. von Hartmann). In the Neo-Kantianism of the Marburg School (H. Cohen, P. Natorp) the dialectic of “abstract ideas” was replaced by the “logic of the mathematical concept of function,” which led to a negation of the concept of substance and to “physical idealism.” Neo-Hegelianism arrived at the so-called negative dialectic, asserting that the contradictions revealed in concepts testify to the nonreality, or “seemingness,” of their objects. The unity of opposites was replaced by a unity of coexisting, supplementary elements for the sake of attaining an integration of knowledge (F. Bradley). Dialectic also emerged as a blending of opposites, with the aid of pure intuition (B. Croce, R. Kroner, and I. A. Il’in). H. Bergson advanced a demand for the irrational and purely instinctual merging of opposites, a combination to be treated as a “miracle.” In existentialism (K. Jaspers, J. P. Sartre) the dialectic is understood relativistically, as a more or less chance structure of consciousness. Nature is considered as the sphere of “positivist reason,” whereas society is known by means of “dialectical reason,” which derives its principles from human consciousness and the individual practical experiences of human beings. Other existentialists (G. Marcel, M. Buber) treat dialectic theologically, as a system of questions and answers between consciousness and being. Ideas of a negative dialectic conceived as a total denial of reality and not leading to a new synthesis have been developed by T. Adorno and H. Marcuse.

A consistently materialist interpretation of dialectic was provided by K. Marx and F. Engels, the founders of the doctrine of dialectical materialism. After critically going over the achievements of preceding dialectic, Marx and Engels applied their doctrine to the reworking of philosophy, political economy, and history and to the foundation of a policy and tactics for the workers’ movement. V. I. Lenin made an outstanding contribution to the development of materialist dialectic. The classics of Marxism-Leninism regard materialist dialectic as the doctrine of universal interconnections and the most general laws of development of being and thought.

Materialist dialectic is expressed in a system of categories and laws. In characterizing dialectic, Engels wrote: “Main laws: transformation of quantity and quality—mutual penetration of polar opposites and transformation into each other when carried to extremes; development through contradiction, or negation of negation; [and] the spiral form of development” (Dialektika prirody, 1969, p. 1). The law of the unity and conflict of opposites occupies a special place among all the laws of the dialectic; Lenin called it the central core of the dialectic.

The principle of the universal interconnection of phenomena was designated by Lenin as one of the basic principles of the dialectic. Hence the following methodological conclusion: in order to genuinely know an object, one must seize it and study it from all sides, with all its interconnections and mediacies. In characterizing dialectic as the doctrine of development, Lenin wrote: “A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed through but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (the ’negation of negation’); a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; ’break in continuity’; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses toward development, imparted by contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting upon a given body, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection of all aspects of any phenomenon … a connection that provides a uniform and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws; some of the features of dialectics, as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, p. 55).

The dialectical concept of development, in contrast to the metaphysical, understands it not as an increase and a repetition but rather as a unity of opposites, the division of a unity into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal relationship. Dialectic sees in contradiction the source of the material world’s self-propulsion (see ibid., vol. 29, p. 317). In emphasizing the unity of subjective and objective dialectic, dialectical materialism has noted that dialectic exists in objective reality, whereas subjective dialectic is the reflection of objective dialectic in human consciousness: the dialectic of things creates the dialectic of ideas rather than the reverse. Dialectic is the doctrine of the relativity of human knowledge, which is becoming infinitely more profound and extended. The materialist dialectic is a consistent, critical, and revolutionary doctrine; it has not suffered any standstill, nor does it impose any limitations at all on knowledge and its potentials. It demonstrates the historically transitional character of all forms of social life. Its nature is to not be content with what is achieved; its essence is revolutionary activity. “For it (dialectical philosophy), nothing is final, absolute, nothing that has been established is sacred. It reveals the transitory character of anything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher. And dialectical philosophy is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain” (Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 276).

Conscious application of dialectic makes it possible to correctly use concepts, to take into consideration the interrelationship of phenomena, their contradictory nature and mutability, and the possibility of opposites passing into each other. Only the dialectical materialist approach to natural phenomena, social life, and consciousness allows their genuine principles and motivating forces of development to be revealed and allows for scientifically predicting the future and finding the real means to create it. Dialectic is incompatible with any stagnant quality of thought or with schematicism. The scientific dialectical method of cognition is revolutionary because the recognition that everything is changing and developing leads to the conclusion that everything that has outlived its time and that is hindering historical progress must be destroyed. (For more detailed information on the laws and categories of materialist dialectic, See .)


Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23.
Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. Ibid., vol. 20.
Engels, F. Dialektika prirody. Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. Materializm i empiriokrititsizm.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, ch. 3, section 3.
Lenin, V. I. Filosofskie tetradi. Ibid., vol. 29.
Kopnin, P. V. Dialektika kak logika. Kiev, 1961.
Kedrov, B. M. Edinstvo dialektiki, logiki, i teorii poznaniia. Moscow, 1963.
Osnovy marksistsko-leninskoifilosofii. Moscow, 1971.
Cohn, J. Theorie der Dialektik. Leipzig, 1923.
Marck, S. Die Dialektik in der Philosophie der Gegenwart, parts 1–2. Tübingen, 1929–31.
Heiss, R. Wesen und Formen der Dialektik. Cologne-Berlin, 1959.
Goldmann, L. Recherches dialectiques. Paris, 1959.
Adorno, T. W. Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt am Main, 1966.
(See also references in and .)

A. F. LOSEV and


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. disputation or debate, esp intended to resolve differences between two views rather than to establish one of them as true
2. Philosophy
a. the conversational Socratic method of argument
b. (in Plato) the highest study, that of the Forms
3. Philosophy (in the writings of Kant) the exposure of the contradictions implicit in applying empirical concepts beyond the limits of experience
4. Philosophy the process of reconciliation of contradiction either of beliefs or in historical processes
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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