Along with the history of western civilization, dialectics has been presented to the public by philosophers of big names such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and many others, in very different tones. For example, the disagreement with Plato on dialectics might be one of the reasons for people to attribute the saying of “I love my teacher, but I love the truth more” to Aristotle. Consequently, after millenniums long practical applications, misuses, criticisms, and eulogies, dialectics is still like an elusive ghost wandering in the academic philosophical community without being clearly grasped, as attested by the confusion shown in the well reputed Wikipedia[i].
The most baffling part of dialectics and thus the biggest obstacle to learning dialectics is its apparent similarity with sophistry, as is typically reflected in the attitudes of Aristotle and Kant towards dialectics, and in the public confusion about the Hegelian dialectics.
To Aristotle, as he stated in his On Sophistical Refutations (350BCa ), “dialectical arguments are those that reason from premisses generally accepted, to the contradictory of a given thesis”, which does not offer any positive attribution to dialectics to make it free of fallacy; hence, it would not be surprising that he described dialectics and sophistry as the same breed by saying (350BCb ), “dialecticians and sophists assume the same guise as the philosopher…For sophistic and dialectic turn on the same class of things as philosophy.”
Kant’s attitude towards dialectics (1781) was perplexing. On the one hand, he showed his disdain for dialectics by claiming that ancient dialectics is “a name for the logic of illusion…is a tricky set of techniques for giving an air of truth to ignorance and even to intentional tricks.” But on the other hand, he seemed to love the name of “dialectics” so that he decided to use that name “to stand for a critique of dialectical illusion” in his famous theory on the critique of pure reason, because he considered “such a critique does count as part of logic”.
Although Kant did not make further clarification, his use of the noun “dialectic” was obviously quite different from what he considered as the ancient use of that term, considering his disdainful comment on the ancient use; and his passion for the name of “dialectic” was most probably based on his observation that “there will always be a dialectic of pure reason, because dialectic is natural to reason.” As for the cause for dialectics to naturally exist, Kant imputed it to the misuse usage of canon as organon. Put it in plain English, according to Kant, we may say that the so-called dialectics is to produce the materialized contents, which are additional to the premise, through logical reasoning itself without bringing in extra materialized information.
Kant even propounded: “the first and most important task of philosophy is to deprive dialectic of its bad influence, once and for all, by blocking off the source of the errors.” Nonetheless, his strategy “to deprive dialectic of its bad influence, once and for all” did not seem to be “blocking off the source of the errors” as he propounded, but rather was simply to use the term of “dialectic” differently from the popular ways.
How to Distinguish Dialectics from Sophistry?
Obviously, both Aristotle and Kant misunderstood the true nature of dialectics. By carefully scrutinizing how dialectics has been functioning in human intellectual activities since the ancient times, we might identify the nuance between dialectics and sophistry. They differ from each other so that the dialectics functions beyond the formal logic and science (including metaphysics) while sophistry violates either the formal logic or science (including metaphysics). In other words, what are revealed by dialectics complement the formal logic and science (including metaphysics), and thus the performance of dialectics should not violate the formal logic or contradict with science (including metaphysics), while sophistry operates in violation of either the formal logic or some scientific (or metaphysical) principles.
In mathematical terms, when the universal is given, something beyond a set of rules would be considered as violating that set of rules; in the Hegelian system, whatever is not A would be considered as the opposite of A. Therefore, it is a difficult task to discern between dialectics and sophistry, which demands a good mastery of logic and science (including metaphysics).
Hegel’s effort of integrating the so-called objective logic (meaning metaphysics) and subjective logic (i.e. the formal logic) with his dialectical elucidation suggests that he did realize the fact that dialectics functions beyond the territory of the formal logic and metaphysics. However, his dialectic theory has been greatly misunderstood for the past couple of centuries, partly because of his eccentric elaboration of his logic (1816), and partly because of the way in which his dialectic methodology was taught in the philosophy class around the world. Consequently, the Hegelian dialectics has often been accused as a kind of sophistry due to the sophistic effects from the application of the nominal Hegelian dialectics, which should not be what Hegel originally meant to.
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Aristotle. 350BC. On Sophistical Refutations. Translated by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge. Provided by The Internet Classics Archive. Available at http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/sophist_refut.html
Aristotle. 350BC. Metaphysics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Provided by The Internet Classics Archive. Available at http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/metaphysics.html
Kant, Immanuel. 1781. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Jonathan Bennett. 2016. Cambridge University Press.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1816. Science of Logic. translated by Di Giovanni, George. 2010. Cambridge University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK.