Can someone explain the Hegelian dialectic to me?

I was talking with two friends the other night. They’re both grad students in theater, and I’m getting my M.A. in history. All three of us have run across the phrase “Hegelian dialectic” in our work, but no one has been able to explain satisfactorily to us what it actually is. I asked my historiography professor, and he launched into a spiel on Kant and Heidigger. :rolleyes: Now, I’m not a dumb bunny, but those guys don’t exactly make my light reading list. So, I’m asking my fellow Dopers. In Simple Terms for Tiny Tots, what is the Hegelian dialectic? What are some concrete examples? And why should I care?

Good link, Reeder. But I think the OP is asking for something aimed a bit lower.

Sadly, that may not be easy with Hegel. The usual recommendation is to learn to read German, then plow through Critique of Pure Reason, then on to some of Hegel’s stuff. :eek:

Here’s a ‘pop-philosophy’ summary. Hegel is talking about the evolution of knowledge (and/or art, which is probably why your theater arts friends are running across it). The classical understanding of science is as a linear ‘building’ process. We collect facts, and learn a bit about the subject, then we collect more facts, which helps us learn more, etc. Hegel argued for a radically different method of understanding, which he referred to as the ‘dialectic’.

Hegel’s idea was that when we start building up a theory (which he refers to as the ‘thesis’), everything seems to go fine for awhile. Then, as we start delving into the implications of the theory, we find that the deeper consequences seem to contradict the basic tenets of the theory. Eventually, this leads to the development of a completely incompatible theory, even a directly contradictory theory (the ‘antithesis’). Finally, we have a leap in our understanding, and create a brand-new theory that manages to combine these two apparently incompatible theories in a unique and unpredictable way (the ‘synthesis’). A good example (post-Hegel, oddly enough) is the development of Newton’s laws of motion into the realm of electro-dynamics in the late 19th and early 20th century, which eventually led to the synthesis of both Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s laws into modern quantum mechanics, which subsume those two (apparently contradictory, in several ways) systems.

In art, it’s probably easier to see. Some years ago, you could have seen film reviewers turning up their noses at, say, the French ‘film noir’ movement, because it didn’t ‘follow the rules’ of filmmaking. And of course, that was part of the point-the film noir creators didn’t like the rules, and were striking out into something completely different and obviously incompatible with traditional movie production. But some years later, these two ‘opposites’ had been synthesized into a new and different mode of creation that subsumed both systems, and became its own standard. (So, of course, the rebels now have to find different things to rebel against. :slight_smile: )

That’s the basic gist. Hegel went on to talk about how the process can continue until everything is synthesized into one Absolute Idea, or something like that. (My German was never very good …) But hopefully, that’ll help you understand what people are talking about when the mention this concept. (Presuming they do, that is.)

Furthermore, to add to what is above, each “synthesis” led to the primacy of a particular culture, and (at the time at which Hegel was writing) we were about to enter the last, greatest stage, which would, of course, be Prussian.


Nice citation Reeder, but still not easy to read and digest duing a lunch break.

“Philosophy for Beginners” said: Thesis --> Antithesis —> Synthesis. Ok, so it is a cartoon book. But cartoon books use simple terms for tiny tots.

I reckon this synthesis is the resolution or reconcilation of two seemingly contradictory ideas; the thesis and the anti-thesis.

I’ve heard of this diaelectic, but beyond what I’ve described here, I know nothing of it. Except that it seems Karl Marx (“Workers of the world, forgive me!”) developed it into something called diaelectical materialism. I suppose he was trying to confuse things (and people) further. Anyone who’s been to a socialist-run country can see that he was eminently successful in causing turmoil.

It’s a theory of the evolution of knowledge or culture. Earlier posters have explained it pretty well, but the one point that’s only been touched on is that the dialectic cycle continues. So first you have your thesis. This leads to rebel thinkers or a different political viewpoint in opposition, the antithesis. Eventually these to combine (often violently) into a new paradigm which takes the best parts of both into the synthesis. Now, the synthesis is the dominant paradigm, so it’s the new thesis, meaning there will be an opposition theory, a new antithesis, which will lead to a new synthesis, which itself becomes the third thesis, leading to a third antithesis, etc.


Good explanations above.

Sadly, the “leading thinkers” in the fields of political theory and sociology attach twenty-five-dollar terms to common-sense ideas that predated them by centuries. In essence, Hegel’s idea was a long-winded restating of the universal notion that two opposed ideas or forces can give rise to a third idea/force that combines elements of each. The rest is mere footnotes.

It’s amazing that gifted writers can describe the intracacies of quantum mechanics and cosmology in rather simple terms, yet political and sociologic(al) writers–especially those in academia–choose to confuse the issue at hand. If you distill many of the “brilliant” writings of leading political/sociological thinkers of past and present, their theories are not terribly challenging nor very fresh.

Thanks, y’all. I appreciate the explanations, and it does make more sense now. Now if I can just get a grip on Lacan…

tsunamisurfer, you’re absolutely right. I’m continually struck by how many academics use trendy jargon to disguise the fact that they can’t write their way out of a paper bag.

How to Deconstruct Almost Anything

Bertrand Russell wrote about Hegel (I think) in his “Unpopular Essays”. The Absolute Idea is pure thought thinking about itself. Hegel thought the Absolute Idea was embodied in the German State of his time (who was paying his salary). Why the dialectic is necessary is unclear. One might suppose that the Absolute Idea made mistakes when it tried to embody itself in events. This is not, of course, what Hegel would have said.

Milk: Thesis.
Cereal: Anti-thesis.
Result: Soggy Cereal Synthesis.

On a related point, a friend of mine once told me that in France they drill their high school students with the thesis / anti-thesis methodology. Paragraph 1: Thesis. Paragraph 2: The other side of the story. Paragraph 3: Tie it all together.

Not a bad formula. At least it forces the student to explicitly address opposing points of view.

(In the US, I learned “the keyhole method”.)

tsunami: Yeah, I’ve always suspected as much. But the language is sufficiently impenetrable, that it’s difficult to be sure. I might add though that your critique refers more to the Continental tradition than to the Anglo academic tradition. Relatively speaking.

Kant argued for a syllogism such that the ultimate rule of the syllogism was the Idea and from it was deduced every logical possibility. A subset of these logical possibilities were the schema, or where logical possibilities “fit” noumena (intuition).

Hegel argues that the Idea or ultimate syllogistic rule evolves in the dialectical process (even though its ultimate shape teleologically influences the evolution). Every dialectical movement is the lumping together of the thesis and the antithesis into a new rule. The only valid conclusions that can be drawn from a given rule are those conclusions that are wholly represented in the rule; once the thesis and antithesis are composites of the rule they can both be understood, that is to say, reason can deduce them from the rule.
Unhappy consciousness, for example knows itself to be dictated to by the lord’s categorization of sensation as the lord dictates what the servant qua unhappy consciousness does. Unhappy consciousness also knows itself not to believe any categorization because the unhappy consciousness directly experiences this sensation in productivity without being the author/designer/rational architect of the flow of sensation; not being the architect it is all simply random stuff.

The rule of unhappy consciousness ends up holding both the stoical “forms” of thought, and the sceptical randomness of content as if it had all happened for another. It is the first objectification of the reasoning process, stepping out of it as it were so one might look upon it .

Essentially, Hegel is rewriting Kant’s Critique of Judgement and reinventing the way the syllogistic rule for any forms that come under it come into being. Which is to say, it is a very weird take on how hypothesis works.

The words thesis, antithesis, and synthesis were never used by Hegel

Or perhaps it is confusing to you because you are not as smart as you like to think you are, and really do not understand the issues.

Certainly, if you think popularizing accounts of quantum mechanics or cosmology in “rather simple” terms are really getting at the “intricacies” of those fields, or giving their readers anything but the vaguest metaphorical overview, you certainly do not understand those fields.

I found this instructive:

I’m not sure I got any of that, but it reminds me of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I don’t think it followed the model outlined although the idea of an orthodoxy and a rising group that challengers of the orthodoxy sounds similar.

I was wondering if anyone happens to know if Kuhn was influenced by Hegel or if there where any other interesting connections. Thanks.

Just wanted to point out that the post you are replying to was written 11 years ago. Not that that negates your point.

Good thread, glad someone resurrected it.

I think (and I’d appreciate if somebody with a better understanding of the subject—njtt?—would correct my misconceptions there), that an important point that hasn’t been discussed so far is that Hegel was an idealist, that is, he believed roughly that the fundamental substance of the world is spirit, rather than matter. As such, he believed that the history of the world can be considered, in a sense, to be a reasoning process, which is where the dialectic comes in: at least in this domain, it’s then something like a process by which a dominant paradigm (the thesis) is challenged by a novel reaction to it (the antithesis), whose clash eventually gives rise to the synthesis as a new dominant paradigm, thus giving rise to a philosophy of history as, in some sense, a struggle of ideas.

Marx then is often said to have ‘put Hegel from the head onto his feet’, that is, eliminating the idealist substrate from the dialectic, and replacing it with a materialist one (hence, dialectical materialism), in which history becomes reconceptualised as a class struggle, with the dominant class embodying the dominant paradigm.

But I’m not gonna pretend to have studied this in any great detail, and I’d welcome any corrections and elaborations.

I think you mean “nouvelle vague,” (aka “new wave”) not “film noir.”

I came from an artistic background and stumbled upon Hegel’s dialectics while doing research for a term paper in a graduate class on modern Japanese drama. Needless to say, the idea was transfixing. Since then, I’ve thought of dialectics as a map for endlessly creatively improving the world through intellect, reason, creativity and effort. When I came across this thread, I wanted to share this point of view. Here’s a link to a similar perspective from a psychologist on the American Psychological Association website:

There’s an essay by James Thurber in which he talks about the concept of the Hegelian dialectic. He says that it reminds him of a scene in a Marx Brothers film. In that film (Animal Crackers) they need to solve a theft. Groucho says that he thinks that the stolen item is hidden in the house next door. Chico says that there is no house next door. Groucho says that then they’ll build one.

Thurber says that this is the technique of dialectic. Thesis: The stolen item is in the house next door. Antithesis: There is no house next door. Synthesis: We’ll build a house next door.