Dialectical Thinking Is the Best Bet
Nothing is perfect, so dialectics are likely the best epistemic “return on investment”
“The dialectic” is famously associated with Hegel, but it is also a general mental model that can prove very useful for making sense of the world. It is the gradual incorporation of a thing with “otherness” to generate “a new thing,” which then exists with what came before it—the past is not “subsumed into” the new, as the word “synthesis” can apply. New things certainly arise “in the image and likeness” of what came before, but this “new thing” doesn’t necessarily replace what came before it, nor is it the case that the new is necessarily “something better”—Hegel is far more contingent than we often realize, his “progressivism” far less determined (as elaborated on in in “ ‘Hegelian Dialectics’ Are Not ‘Discussion Dialectics’ ” by O.G. Rose).
When we begin thinking, we must “pick a starting position” and/or “initial framing,” and begin our thinking from there—it is not possible to start with “a view from nowhere,” as Thomas Nagel so well put it. Our “starting point” is a big choice, because it can greatly impact where we end up and might even make it impossible for us to arrive at “the right conclusion”: a bad start can fate us for a bad end (though we can’t say “deterministically,” for we could have picked a different start). But wait, if we have to pick “a starting point” before we begin a line of inquiry, and we don’t even know necessarily where we end up—how in the world can we “pick our starting point” well? Wouldn’t this require us to “know the answer ahead of time,” per se? Indeed, this is an existentially difficult realization: our “starting point” could impact where we end up, but we really can’t know where we should end up until after we start. It’s a circular problem, similar to the “hermeneutical circle” where we need to step outside interpretation to know if we are interpreting well, but this is “always already” impossible.
How we begin can impact what we conclude, so we should think hard about which framework we enter into thinking using. For me, the best “macro-framework” is Dialectical Thinking, which I associate with A/B-thinking versus A/A-thinking (language used throughout The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose). What do I mean? A/B-thinking is when we expect a concept to require concepts “outside of itself” to achieve “fullness,” but at the same time no concept or even set of concepts can achieve “completeness” itself (we are stuck with “(in)completeness,” to allude to Gödel). If we are to think about cats, we come to expect that we cannot understand “cats” unless we refer to concepts which are not found “in the thing” of a cat, such as atoms, the agricultural processes which generate cat food, the nature of human attachment to pets, and so on. Concepts always entail “otherness,” per se, and yet concepts can never “be” that “otherness,” only perpetually “be-come” the “otherness” in a strange and paradoxical way. A/A-thinking is basically the opposite: it treats concepts as whole and complete in their “self-reference,” which is to say that a cat is a cat, and everything we need to define and understand a cat can be found in the phenomenon. We can then “reduce” all relevant and important variables to this point in spacetime where the cat-thing is located—no “otherness” needs to be incorporated.
If we “choose” to make our starting position for understanding the world “A/A,” there is nothing in things which will force us to conclude that A/A-thinking is the wrong approach. Things indeed seem to “just be things,” and it indeed seems like cats can self-relate and fully be themselves. As discussed in “The Absolute Choice” by O.G. Rose on Hegel, I must choose to believe “otherness” needs to be considered and incorporated into my experience, which is to engage in A/B, but that means I must choose a different “starting point.” Whatever “starting point” I choose, that will impact what I see.
The points I’ve made here echo “We Must Begin Somewhere” by O.G. Rose; here, I simply want to go a step further and claim our starting point should entail/be Dialectical Thinking. Why? Well, hopefully The True Isn’t the Rational has made it clear why I prefer A/B-thinking over A/A-thinking, but in addition to that I will present my defense of the dialectic as follows:
1. Nothing is perfect. (Everything can be critiqued.)
2. Imperfection is not a characteristic or a “thing in itself,” but a “lack” or “privation” of a thing.
3. Whatever is imperfect is “lacking” something.
4. Everything is imperfect, so everything is “lacking” something.
5. Everything must be considered in light of what it might “lack” to determine if indeed that new thing is what the original thing “lacks.”
6. That new thing will also be imperfect and “lacking.”
7. That new thing will need to be considered in light of what it might “lack,” which could be the original thing or another new thing.
8. If the original thing, then the new thing never “becomes” the original thing through some kind of merging and “erasure of difference.” Thus, we in our thinking must continually “think back and forth” between the multiple things to create a kind of “mental” or “virtual” combination that isn’t possible in actuality.
9. This “virtual thing” can only exist in the mind.
10. Hence, dialectical thinking is needed.
When I say everything is “imperfect,” we could associate this with everything being “incomplete.” If a coward is lacking courage, even courage is “incomplete” in that my “courage” would only be good insomuch as it wasn’t oppressive and existed in concert with many other values (as I discussed with Ethan Nelson in O.G. Rose Conversation Episode #66). If I want the thing-cat to be “meaningful” to me, I need thoughts about the thing-cat (such as the word “cat”), but those thoughts cannot be found in the thing-cat itself: something external to the thing is required. And so on.
Everything is itself in relation to other things which cannot be located “in” things, while “complete things” would be totally self-relating and actually be such. We can also think of “imperfect” in the tradition of Aquinas, which associates “perfection” with “the ability of a thing to operate according to what it is” (a hand is “perfect,” for example, if it is able to pick up a cup), and claim that nothing can “meaningfully be itself” without reference to something outside of itself (the thing-cat needs the word “cat,” for example). We could even think about how a cat cannot stay alive and be itself unless it can find food, and that food exists “outside the cat” in mice, cat food, and the like; a bookcase needs someone to put book on it so that the bookcase can “be itself”; and so on.
No, I don’t mean to say that the thing-cat requires the word “cat” to exist: it’s easy to imagine a universe where cat-things exist but not humans to name them. Here, we are focused on “the best starting point of thinking,” and the moment we discus thinking we are discussing a “relation” between an idea and (a) thing(s). It is not the case that the world needs dialectics so that things can exist (no one can say such about “the ontic”), but rather we need dialectics if we are to think well. We have reason to believe this is the case because things are “imperfect” and/or “incomplete.” “Imperfect” and “incomplete” are not similes, no, despite their possible overlap, but both function similarly in justifying Dialectical Thinking.
We cannot avoid “starting somewhere,” so the question is what constitutes “the best bet” for where to start, and what starting position has the highest likelihood of generating a strong “return on the investment” of our mind and thoughts. For me, that is Dialectical Thinking, though perhaps it is more so a “meta-start,” something more akin to the language we start with (say English) versus a particular subject or word. Though it seems like we start learning with the word “cat,” we “actually already” started learning by operating in English versus Chinese — the choice to engage in Dialectical Thinking might be something more like “a language” than “the word(s) of a language.” Perhaps the choice to engage in Dialectical Thinking transforms the entire horizon according to which we engage with the world (so perhaps then I am talking here of our “starting horizon” more so than our “starting point,” but I won’t be a stickler).
In closing, Dialectical Thinking a “meta-mental model” that entails an entire toolbox of mental skills and tools. The whole movement of “mental model”-use can be in service of dialectical development, but “mental models” could just as easily serve A/A-thinking. In this way, Dialectical Thinking is not merely “another way of thinking amongst many,” but an “overarching way of thinking” that transforms how we approach and use “mental models” in general. Dialectical Thinking is “a movement of metathinking,” an “organizing principle” in favor of A/B over A/A, and it is in my view necessary if we are to have any hope of avoiding effacement and sublating into a “New Philosophy” — but that is another topic for another time.
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