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Dialectical Wisdom (medium.com)
40 points by arikr 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments

From time to time there returns upon the cautious thinker, the conclusion that, considered simply as a question of probabilities, it is decidedly unlikely that his views upon any debatable topic are correct.

Here are thousands around me holding on this or that point opinions differing from mine—wholly in most cases; partially in the rest. Each is as confident as I am of the truth of his convictions. Many of them are possessed of great intelligence; and, rank myself high as I may, I must admit that some are my equals—perhaps my superiors. Yet, while every one of us is sure he is right, unquestionably most of us are wrong. Why should not I be among the mistaken? True, I cannot realize the likelihood that I am so. But this proves nothing; for though the majority of us are necessarily in error, we all labor under the inability to think we are in error. Is it not then foolish thus to trust myself?

When I look back into the past, I find nations, sects, philosophers, cherishing beliefs in science, morals, politics, and religion, which we decisively reject. Yet they held them with a faith quite as strong as ours; nay—stronger, if their intolerance of dissent is any criterion. Of what little worth, therefore, seems this strength of my conviction that I am right? A like warrant has been felt by men all the world through; and, in nine cases out of ten, has proved a delusive warrant. Is it not then absurd in me to put so much faith in my judgments?

-- Thinking as a Science, Henry Hazlitt

For Hegel this form of Skepticism/Pessimism is one of the "moments" of Spirit.[1]

[1] http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft7d5nb...

For anyone interested in the Phenomenology, I think the best guide is Peter Kalkavage's Logic of Desire. Kalkavage exemplifies the best of the pedagogical tradition at St. John's College. I spent a good number of years working through the 20th century secondary literature on Hegel (largely from French and German philosophy--Hyppolite, Kojeve, Heidegger, etc.) and really wished I had found Kalkavage's book earlier.

I ploughed through a semester of Phenomenology with other kids at Harvard and grabbed Kojeve and In the Spirit Of Hegel as guides. Very tough going for a young Anglo-American scholar. Phenomenology made more sense over years in rear view mirrors than at the time. I will add Kalkavage to the reading pile.

There's a famous quote on the dialectic:

> You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.

It is often mistranslated with "war" in place of "the dialectic" and is often misattributed to Leon Trotsky. [0]

The dialectic in this case was substantially more politicized than the one Lonsdale discusses. So the mistranslation to "war" is somewhat forgivable. I like this quote because it neatly captures the essence of dialectical thinking. The dialectic is provoking, extremes always are, and once you're engaged it's all-consuming. This isn't a bad thing, Lonsdale is encouraging us to engage with the dialectic, and I believe we should listen to what he has to say. However, the dialectic is a volatile thing, especially the modern dialectic, which might not be too many steps removed from the dialectic of Trotsky's era.

[0] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Leon_Trotsky#Misattributed

Relevant X-Files scene:


That really isn't from The X-Files, it's from a TV series called "Aquarius" (I looked this up because Duchovny's bouffant baffled me!).

My mistake, I haven't seen either show, I was just going by the Youtube comments... which I should have known wasn't a reliable source.

It's such a powerful mental model and a phenomenon that presents itself in social, political, and other types of systems.

I recently applied dialectical thinking in a discussion about progress in programming. The main question I was trying to answer: "are we make any kind of progress in programming or are we just randomly traversing the space of possible languages and frameworks?" (https://amasad.me/dialectical)

At first it seemed like there is a lot of arbitrary jumping back and forth. One example: in web development we started out by rendering the UI on the server, and then client-side rendering became the norm and now we're back at server rendering with the various "SSR" techniques. This seems like a totally useless hop back and forth. But in reality we might end up in a -- to use Hegel's language -- "synthesis" where we have universal rendering (server + client rendering).

Problem with dialectics is zero predictive force and zero utility. It can be used to argue about things in hindsight nearly universally, but otherwise entirely useless.

There are generative forces of new statements not "predictable" prior to statements like Euclid's or Newton's Laws that newly rendered features of both past and future suddenly known to be determinate upon measured examinations. What generates any hypothesis? Do we imagine exhaustive search of every generated hypothesis like monkeys banging on typewriters. Software developers should have a keen sense for evolving composition and syntheses against conundrums.

Let me illustrate. Consider this thread from dialectic perspective: a pro argument, followed by (my) cons, develops the spiral with more detailed pro followed by my (now taking it into account) counter. A very clear dialectic thread developing!

Was that easy to come up with hindsight? Yes.

Was it hard to predict the reiteration of pro and contra arguments? Not really.

Could you use dialectic approach to predict the exact character of follow up arguments? Of course not.

To sum up, none of dialectics observations are important or in any way non-trivial if you put Hegelian grandeur aside. The only attempt to put it for a practical test (Marxist theory of social development) didn't really pan out.

I don't think anyone is claiming they have predictive power. I think judging all our thinking tools the same way we judge Science (scientism) makes it harder to make sense of the world. That's why I emphasize it being a "mental model".

As for it being trivial, to prove otherwise I observe that a lot of things, if not most things, don't follow a dialectical pattern. Most things can worsen, improve, evolve, devolve, spiral, stagnate, or change randomly. Rarely do I find a dialectical pattern in say the weather, the economy, the stock market, my hunger patterns, my mood swings, or my shoes.

It was pretty funny to click on that expecting something on Dialectical Materialism and finding an essay on Hegel by a VC that co-founded Palentir no less. This idea of dialectics is very powerful, and his reasoning is sensible. I wonder how he balances helping build an omnipresent surveillance state unknown in human history with the moral principles he espouses.

Unrelated, I wonder if dielectrics (a material that polarizes in an electric field) maybe were named by scientists aware of philosophy that made a pun.

> Is it any surprise that Hitler and Mussolini displayed the cruelest forms of Nietzschean behavior — even drew directly upon Nietzsche as inspiration for their atrocities?

What he's calling "Nietzschen behavior" is not Niestzchean. But then again, Nietzsche is the most misunderstood philosopher.

If you have very simple concepts such as "thesis-antithesis-synthesis", "yin and yang", or "sheeps and wolves", then the conceptualization will apply to almost everything. That doesn't mean much, though.

Au contraire! Many people are seeking precisely the universal. It is their (and my) opinion that modern language and its interpretation is the barrier to distilling further meaning from these concepts without significant pondering. That doesn't mean that these concepts don't hold merit, unless you put a postmodernist spin on things.

Let's distinguish the epistemic from the instrumental. Epistemically, truths can't oppose each other. But instrumentally, different tools can have different strengths. For example, merge sort is simple, fast and stable but not in-place, while heapsort is simple, fast and in-place but not stable. Between them lies the deep unsolved problem of designing a simple, fast, stable and in-place sorting algorithm. That's exactly like the dichotomies described in the post: two kinds of effective leaders, two kinds of organizations, etc.

I've always been highly suspicious of those who resort to dialectic, and only dialectic, in their reasoning. I think its only a small part of the picture - that there are ways of synthesising ideas without requiring dialectic materialism.

Yet, its a common social structure - common enough that we use it without even thinking. And that, I think, is the worst possible outcome - assumption of correctness without correction.

(Oh no, I'm doing it too!)

From the article:

> But compromise is often even less accurate than the extreme poles of a dialectic.

One problem with dialectic thinking is that, the closer you get to one extreme (pole) being completely "true", the more likely you are to make a synthesis that is less true than the thesis. (This is even more of an issue where someone else is controlling the antithesis - perhaps a debater or a propagandist. In fact, if you're thinking dialectically, and I can supply your antitheses, I may be able to completely control the results.)

On to your comment:

> Yet, its a common social structure - common enough that we use it without even thinking. And that, I think, is the worst possible outcome - assumption of correctness without correction.

In particular, the idea that "dialectically is the correct way to think" is wrong. This is elevating the dialectic from a technique to a philosophy.

Why is that idea wrong? Well, take the statement "dialectically is the correct way to think". Make that your thesis (in the dialectic sense). Then, if the dialectic is correct, there must be the antithesis. I don't know what the antithesis would be, and I don't care; all I need is that there should be one. And then there should be the synthesis. Again I don't care what it is; all I need is that it exists, and it is different from the thesis. So starting with the statement that "dialectically is the correct way to think", and thinking dialectically, we immediately see that the dialectic is inadequate and needs to be replaced (because the synthesis is different from the thesis, and the thesis was that the dialectic is the correct technique).

You mentioned dialectic materialism. That's even worse. Marxist-Leninist philosophy started with materialism (the wrong starting point, in my opinion), proceeded six dialectic steps, arrived at communism, and then stopped. In stopping, they were untrue to their dialectic methodology. If the dialectic is correct, there is an antithesis to communism, and then a synthesis, and after the seventh step, the answer is no longer communism.

First, I must compose the statement: I used the phrase "materialism" in a real, materialist sense. I didn't mean communism, although that is a standing wave in a social context, but more that the material value of the effort is only gained by way of the process; i.e. its only for fun, yo. I'm no communist.

And .. 'wrong'?


Perhaps it was the social angle, which makes this relevant?

I'm not really wrong, until my friends and enemies tell me I am wrong .. until them, I'm just .. 'passively disengaged from the dialect' .. or, is it not so?

I totally get you on the philosophy vs. technology approach, though, and I acknowledge (comrade) your identification with my desire to actually bend that particular event horizon.

The truth as a matter of fact is quite a different matter than the process of coming to know the truth. I do not know what an "extreme" is with respect to the truth as a matter of fact, but where belief about what is true is concerned, this can mean, e.g., to hold as true an error that reduces reality in some way. Given that, it may be that, in retrospect, a person who has swung through extreme positions on some particular point has gained a certain depth of understanding and perspective, discovering the strengths and weaknesses of these positions over time. He may find himself facing aporia that he is unable to resolve (which is what Lonsdale seems to have in mind when he says we should be able to handle cognitive dissonance). However, the holding of extreme positions, i.e., errors, is not the end goal even if the end goal is not practically attainable. It is at best an intermediate state. If there is some truth to each position, it is not because reality is composed of contradictions (which is Hegelian), but because each position contains a kernel of truth that is exaggerated, misattributed, etc. The hard word of extracting, verifying and reconciling these kernels of truth lies ahead.

Second, that "oppositions" in organizations can produce good results is really a matter of practical prudence following on the recognition that each of us may have different strengths and weaknesses, that each of us has a limited perspective or perspectives on reality and that because of our character flaws, we may take things to extremes. So, to draw on Lonsdale's example, let's say we have a bureaucrat driven by an excess fear and desire to eliminate risk and an entrepreneur who is wreckless, rash and impulsive. When both kinds of person are pitted against each other at parity, the ensuing conflict can have a moderating effect on average. It's hardly a perfect situation, of course. The perfect man would be one in whom these two extremes of excess caution and wrecklessness are not merely "averaged" into some arbitrary and bland compromise via some "mechanical or thoughtless procedure". Rather, "finding the mean in any given situation [...] requires a full and detailed acquaintance with the circumstances" [0]. It requires the comprehension of the good and how the bureaucratic and entrepreneurial can best contribute to it in the given situation and acting in comformity with this comprehension. This virtue is called courage.

[0] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/#DocMea

> Extreme, conflicting viewpoints are often simultaneously true — whether in business or more broadly in human life. It is the hallmark of a wise individual to eschew the milquetoast path of middling compromise, and instead to embrace these "antinomies" of reason and fuse them into a concrete course of action; to be patient and comfortable with cognitive dissonance.

I fully agree, but I prefer to think of it in terms of Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis.[1]

When one has a mental model of how the world works; that's the Thesis. Then one comes across a different model that explains how the world works that contradicts one's Thesis; that's the Antithesis. Over time, one figures out how to reconcile these two contradicting models into a new model; that's the Synthesis.

This model of how thought evolves can be applied to large-scale movements in history. For example, a Thesis of Western capitalist economies in the 19th and early 20th century was that welfare programs were unnecessary in market economies. This led to the emergence of an Antithesis in the form of the socialist movement and eventually communist states, which represented a new form of political and economic organization. Eventually, a new Synthesis emerged: the modern Western welfare state, combining the wealth-generation forces of capitalism with a government-funded safety net that dulls the sharpest edges of the market.

The Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis model can also be applied to the evolution of scientific thought. For example, a widely held Thesis in Physics prior to Einstein's theoretical breakthroughs was that light must travel through a substance scientists called the "luminiferous aether" in order to satisfy Newton's and Maxwell's equations.[2] However, in experiment after experiment the speed of light somehow always appeared to be constant to all observers, regardless of conditions, which made no sense within the prevailing theoretical framework (Newton's and Maxwell's equations); this was the Antithesis to the prevailing Thesis. Finally, Einsten reconciled the Thesis and the Antithesis into a new Synthesis: the special and then the general Theory of Relativity.

The Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis model is a great mental model to add to one's arsenal.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thesis,_antithesis,_synthesis

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminiferous_aether

The original (and non-paywalled) version is here:


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