YouTube: Dialectical Thinking (Part 1): Origins of the Search for Truth, and the Consequences for Fundamental Theory
This is a lecture series focused on dialectical thinking that will be focused in three parts. The first part focuses on “Origins of the Search for Truth, and its Consequences for Fundamental Theory”; the second part focuses on the “Principle of Dialectical Negativity, and the Beyond of Religion and Science”; and the third part focuses on “The Real In-itself, Hegel’s System, and its Final Frontier”.
In this lecture we will be focusing on Part 1.
In order to understand the origin of dialectics, we have to understand why it was necessary in the first place. Dialectics became necessary because of a problem of truth. People claimed to know the truth in an absolute way. But these absolute truth claims were internally contradictory in regards to other subjects claims to absolute truth.
Moreover, this claim to absolute truth elevated a subject above temporal relative discursive processes. Processes like argumentation, reason, and normative discourse. In these processes, how are we to discern the truth from opinion. How are we to know what is true?
Dialectics is thus a foundational logical exercise to mediate the truth in temporal appearances.
Subjects would attempt to do this by discussing, arguing, and attempting to come to some conclusion about the nature of truth. This could be achieved by self-reflectively identifying contradictions internal to one’s own truthful position. Or, identifying the way in which a position could be incoherent. Finally, by identifying the way in which one’s truthful position could have an opposite point of view.
Thus, for a dialectical subject, if someone came to them claiming absolute truth independent of discussion or argumentation; claiming that their view was contradiction-free, totally coherent, and internally one with no opposite; then this would be a subject that had totally identified with a body of knowledge that was anti-dialectical.
Consequently, the dialectician would set to work identifying contradictions internal to this “absolute” body of knowledge. What contradiction would corrode the positive knowledge from within? What is the condition upon which this knowledge loses sense? What is the opposite point of view to this knowledge?
The result was astounding: there was no coherent or consistent absolute view of reality.
In other words, in challenging the absolute view of reality, dialectics came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as an absolute. All positions were in fact historical, historically mediated by discussion between different subjectivities.
Consequently, if a subject still holds on to an absolute point of view, the dialectician seems to view this as an ideological-fantasmatic mask. A mask to obfuscate the fact that there is no absolute reality.
How are we to make sense of this conclusion?
If there is no absolute reality, and everything is historically mediated, how are we to discern between truth and opinion?
The problem of truth and opinion, in fact, structured most of human history. In the ancient world there was no well grounded dialectical mechanism to discern between truth and opinion. In fact, most civilizations presupposed a type of non-dialectical absolute reality, for example, in the notion of a transcendental God. God was a figure that a historical human figure could rely on in prayer, that they could ask for help independent of other subjects, with their arguments, reason and discourse, and be recognized by an absolute reality.
Moreover, this absolute reality could be inscribed into political processes, like in the divine right of kings, and structure entire civilizations.
This is foreign to the modern philosophical landscape. Starting with Immanuel Kant, the modern philosophical landscape dialecticizes the absolute, presupposing its existence, but claiming that we have no direct access to it, as in a subject of prayer, or in a King who claims divine knowledge.
Instead, Kant dialecticizes this absolute with recourse to the distinction between phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are human abstractions and perceptions, our reason, and the way we structure the categories of the understanding. Noumena, on the other hand, is external, independent of human reality, unknowable fundamentally, but positively existing as a reality.
One way to think about the distinction between phenomena and noumena, is in relationship to the sense perception and the things-in-themselves. For Kant, we can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear things in the external world, but we do not reach through these sense perceptions, the things-in-themselves.
The things-in-themselves positively exists, but our sense perceptions do not give us access. In other words, we are barred from accessing the thing-in-itself. We are stuck within our perceptions and abstractions, this is what we can dialecticize. But the absolute noumenal reality is non-dialectical and foreign to our experience.
Thus one can say that Kant introduces a type of “anthropology”. An anthropology of perceptions and abstractions, focused on our reason, our understanding, and the categories we construct, which are subject to argumentation, discourse and critique.
Through these mechanisms we can get a better and better understanding of what is external, independent and unknowable fundamentally, but we will never understand the thing as it is in-itself, only through a distorted sense perception and relative abstraction. This brings us back to the fact that dialectics focuses on contradictions, incoherence and opposition of our knowledge.
Thus our knowledge gives us no access to the absolute reality as it is in-itself, just to the way we perceive and abstract of this reality. What we perceive and abstract of this reality is historical, but what is invariant of these perceptions and abstractions is the “antinomies of reason”. In other words, the contradictions, incoherence, oppositions are all that is invariant to the historical process.
From this understanding we reach an incredibly important turning point in the history of philosophy, between the work of Kant and Georg Hegel. In this distinction between Kant and Hegel, we have an important distinction in regards to the absolute noumenal reality, and the things-in-themselves.
As discussed, for Kant, his dialectic operationalizes the distinction between human phenomena (our perceptions, abstractions) and the absolute noumena (or the things-in-themselves). However, here Hegel does not introduce any new difference to this scheme, but rather offers a perspectival shift on this very distinction, claiming that the absolute noumena of Kant, or the things-in-themselves independent of human reality is in fact a product of human phenomena, and a presupposition of human phenomena. Thus in response to Kant, Hegel operationalizes a type of Occam’s Razor, claiming it is simpler to assume that the absolute noumenal reality is a presupposition of human phenomena, and not a reality independent of human phenomena.
In what is now recognized as a classical Hegelian reversal, what was once seen as an in-itself, is transformed into a for-us. In other words, the noumenal in-itself that is impossible for us to reach, becomes something phenomenally for-us. The distinction is a difference that makes a huge difference. What was conceived in Kant’s system as an impossible outside that we can never reach, all of a sudden becomes the most close and intimate phenomena of our abstractions and perceptions.
Consequently, for Hegel, the antinomies of reason are still invariant, but again we get a perspectival shift on the nature of contradictions, incoherence and opposition. Whereas, for Kant, contradictions, incoherence and opposition were a sign that we were at a distance from the thing-in-itself, for Hegel, contradictions, incoherence and opposition were a sign that we were unified with the becoming of the thing-in-itself internal to phenomenal history.
Thus, we also get a perspectival shift on the ancient dialectic as a logical exercise in-itself. When historical subjects collaborate to work through their incoherent views, identify contradictions and reconcile oppositional determinations, far from being at a distance from the thing-in-itself, for Hegel, this was the very work that unified the subjects with the thing-in-itself as a historical work, over and above the subjects who would put up a mask as an ideological defense.
This point is so important that it is worth repeating: When the subject is actively working with and actively striving to embody contradiction, incoherence and opposition as a positive feature, Hegel claims that the subject is mediating the becoming of the thing-in-itself.
As a result, the historical work of such activity is the thing-in-itself, not as a perfect absolute reality beyond/behind appearances, but as an absolute tension internal to our perceptions and our discourse. From this philosophical understanding we can come to a type of dialectical or psychological diagnosis of those subjects who claim to know the absolute truth. What these subjects are doing is trying to psychologically escape from the historical work of tension. They are trying to, not reach the absolute thing-in-itself, but actually block or distort their access to the thing-in-itself, and participate with the other subjects who are all a part of the phenomenal spiritual history.
Now that we have covered the philosophy of the origins of the search for truth, and the role of dialectics, we can move to fundamental contemporary theory, where often times we do have a naive understanding of the thing-in-itself, or the noumenal reality. Whether this naivety is inscribed into the abstractions of mechanical, quantum, complexity or evolutionary theory, and so on, there is a presupposition that “we know the thing”.
Of course, in the philosophical transition from Kant to Hegel where the noumenal is first barred, leaving us interacting with the antinomies of reason; but then Hegel simply uses a perspectival shift and helps us realize that these very antinomies of reason are giving us direct access to the thing. Such a logic is not inscribed into the fundamental understanding of the thing-in-itself as it relates to fundamental theory, where a pre-Socratic knowing tends to emerge between those who engage in the theory, where they claim to have a truth of the thing. Moreover, they are trying to operate on a pre-Kantian noumena, where they believe that their abstractions are unified or symmetrically aligned with the thing-in-itself.
What tends to result is the formation of ideological bubbles, and as a consequence, the unity of the field in a historical tension is not properly recognized. If the truth of the field of the historical tension was properly recognized, we would be able to confront some fundamental problems in all the major fields of study that we are currently dealing with in the mode of an ideological illusion.
For example, if we were assuming the Socratic position that there is no absolute position, the Kantian position that what we are interacting with is rational antinomies, and the Hegelian position that these same rational antinomies give us access to the thing-in-itself, then we would be able to confront problems of science-humanities, the transition from the classical to the quantum world, and also the problem of applying evolution to the human world.
Let us analyze these three problems in turn.
When we look at the difference between the sciences and humanities through the lens of contradiction and opposition, we see that on the side of the sciences there is a presupposition of a reality independent of humans, and on the side of the humanities this attempt to understand human subjective reality, which structures the entire field.
When it comes to classical and quantum physics, what we see is a major problem in the attempt to understand physics inclusive of the nature of observers, and also inclusive of the fundamental temporality of reality, as opposed to an absolute spacetime.
Finally, when it comes to applying evolutionary theory to human reality we often run into a fundamental opposition between those who reduce human behaviour to biological reductionist paradigm, and those who would prefer an emergentist paradigm, where sociocultural reality takes primacy.
What brings all of these problems into a type of unity, is the understanding that fundamental theory is about the nature of abstractions, and not a noumenal substance that pre-exists the abstractions. The abstractions themselves and their antinomies are what we are mediating, in regards to the thing-in-itself, their internal contradictions, incoherent views, and oppositional determination.
All such antinomies are a feature of the becoming of the thing-in-itself, in relation to the distinction between sciences and humanities, the transition from the classical to the quantum, the difference between the biological and sociocultural, and even in the difference between the theological and the secular.
Thus, how we should approach a field in this unified tension, is in regards to a type of dialectical transformation. When we are talking about dialectical transformation, the sciences and the humanities, or the classical to quantum physics, or biological and sociocultural difference, will not be abstractions that stay with us forever, but in dialectical mediation, become something totally new and different. Thus the truth of these positions will be in their dissolution and not in their ideological eternity.
Again, the only “eternity” in dialectics is really in the antinomies of reason, which were first seen as barring us from the absolute, and were then seen as unifying us with the absolute.
Thus in ideological capture, when subjects believe that the knowledge we already possess is fine the way it is, and subjective identification to this knowledge is demanded as an “education”, there is a type of obfuscation of the truth. The truth is being mediated as a tension. Accepting and growing with this tension should be the point of real education.
Thus the more mindful we are of our own bodies and minds and the way in which we handle conflict, opposition, incoherence and contradiction, the better we will get from mediating the thing-in-itself.
This brings us far away from the pre-modern or pre-dialectical notion of an absolute reality independent of subjectivity, and brings us towards an understanding of absolute reality that is inclusive of subjective reality, and our own subjective spiritual growth.
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