Friday, 7 September 2012

Dialectics and critical thinking

As an advocate for narrative-based education, my views on it are informed by what is called the 'dialectical method'. Among the great practitioners of the method, Socrates is the most famous but there is a long, long tradition of the dialectic method some predating Socrates. A Wikipedia entry says of it:

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method) is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to Indian and European philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. The dialectical method is dialogue between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter by dialogue, with reasoned arguments. Dialectics is different from debate, wherein the debaters are committed to their points of view, and mean to win the debate, either by persuading the opponent, proving their argument correct, or proving the opponent's argument incorrect – thus, either a judge or a jury must decide who wins the debate. Dialectics is also different from rhetoric, wherein the speaker uses logos, pathos, or ethos to persuade listeners to take their side of the argument.

The Sophists taught aretē (Greek: ἀρετή, quality, excellence) as the highest value, and the determinant of one's actions in life. The Sophists taught artistic quality in oratory (motivation via speech) as a manner of demonstrating one's aretē. Oratory was taught as an art form, used to please and to influence other people via excellent speech; nonetheless, the Sophists taught the pupil to seek aretē in all endeavours, not solely in oratory.
Socrates favoured truth as the highest value, proposing that it could be discovered through reason and logic in discussion: ergo, dialectic. Socrates valued rationality (appealing to logic, not emotion) as the proper means for persuasion, the discovery of truth, and the determinant for one's actions. To Socrates, truth, not aretē, was the greater good, and each person should, above all else, seek truth to guide one's life. Therefore, Socrates opposed the Sophists and their teaching of rhetoric as art and as emotional oratory requiring neither logic nor proof. Different forms of dialectical reasoning have emerged throughout history from the Indosphere (Greater India) and the West (Europe). These forms include the Socratic method, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian dialectics, Marxist, Talmudic, and Neo-orthodoxy.

Socrates had a real issue with the Sophists so it's not surprising that he regarded plain 'truth' superior and higher than the notion of 'excellence' (Gr. aretē), which, in the hands of the Sophists, became similar to our contemporary notions of strict legalism (ie, the use of clever staging and construction of arguments to get their way - much like unscrupulous lawyers who use technicalities rather than the spirit of the law to win their cases, or disingenuous pollsters/statisticians to try and influence human behaviour or further corporate agenda).

The dialectic method need not be strictly based on dialogue nor authoratative text. In fact, it can be used to formulate ideas and questions for further research or as an 'inner voice' to inform one's analysis and reflections on the reading of a text (interpolation/extrapolation of possible conclusions of any given statement). The most famous practitioner of this form of dialectic is Einstein.

Einstein's insights were often derived from his famous thought-experiments (gedankenexperiment), where he'd play with ideas and statements to test the truthfulness of them. But again, the important feature of this form of inner dialectic is the interpolation/extrapolation aspect rather than carrying a statement in extremis (literally, to the point of death) - which is often daunting to reconstitute into a workable reformulation (and reeks of the Sophistic technique, besides).


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