Essay on Dialectic

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The exact origin of dialectic — change generated by an internal dynamic of contradiction, negation and transcendence — is unclear. Whatever its origin, using Socratic Method in his dialogues — the continual questioning of existing knowledge which leads to the negation or overturning of previously held notions and produces increasingly refined ideas — Plato began to formalize dialectic. Aristotle continued the process, locating dialectic between rhetoric and logic. Dialectic revealed contradictions in argument and facilitated higher syntheses by demonstrating how two incompatible positions shared common truth although it was only non-contradictory logic that produced true knowledge.

By conceptualizing logic itself as dialectical, Hegel made dialectic critical to attaining Absolute Reason. The history of philosophy, Hegel (1971: 83) maintained, was more than ”an accumulation of knowledge ordered in a certain manner” — it was the ”in and for itself necessary development of thought.” Philosophy was thought ”brought to consciousness, occupied with itself, made into its own object” using its own, specific capacities and mechanisms for development (Hegel 1971: 82). Hegel’s (1991: 133) Logic followed the ”the doctrine of thought” beginning with ”its immediacy — the doctrine of the Concept in-itself,” progressing to thought’s ”reflection and mediation — [the doctrine of] the being-for-itself and semblance of the Concept, ultimately reaching ” being-returned-into-itself and its developed being-with-itself — that is, the Concept ”in-and-for-itself. As critical reflection, dialectic is ”the immanent transcending [force], in which the one-sidedness and restrictedness of the determinations of the understanding displays itself as what it is, i.e., as their negation and thereby progresses to grasp their ”immanent coherence (Hegel 1991: 128). Through dialectic — using the contradictions found within existing knowledge to transcend it through negation and incorporation into a higher form — philosophy progressed from immediate, partial, one-dimensional forms of understanding (Verstand) to a fully mediated, integrated, comprehensive Reason (Vernunft).

With Marx, dialectic is more complex because it informs two different facets of his work. First, by ”inverting Hegel, Marx located the dialectic of history in real, existing, ”material social relations. To capture and explain that reality, Marx s presentation had to be able to lay bare the dialectic of social history. The result was a massive (almost 5,000 pages of text), unfinished analysis of capitalism as a complex, dynamic, internally unstable, dialectical whole — and so was the presentation itself.

Marx transcended Hegel in his 1844 manuscripts. Hegel s greatness — ”the dialectic of negativity as the moving and producing principle — arose because he grasped ”the self-production of humankind as a process, objectification as loss of the object [ Vergegenstandlichung als Entgegenstandlichung], as alienation [Entauflerung] and overcoming that alienation” (Marx and Engels 1982: 404—5). Thus Hegel grasped ”the essence of labor and understood ”objectifying humankind as ”the result of its own labor. Marx located the fundamental, generative dynamic of class-divided societies in real, actual labor where, in the process-of-objectification [ Vergegenstandlichung], the product/ object stands opposite, confronts and is separated from [Entgegenstandlichung] the worker. The creative process that should affirm and actualize humankind alienates and ”deactualizes it. This dialectical contradiction creates the dynamic struggle to overcome alienated existence.

To comprehend the dialectic of capitalism, Marx moved ”downwards analytically from the capitalist system as a whole to increasingly specific relations of contradiction. However, to present his analysis, Marx began with the ”economic cell-form of capitalism — the commodity-form of the product of labor and the specific, dialectically opposed value-forms (use-value, value, and exchange-value) and the commensurate forms of labor. Marx progressed toward the concrete whole by explaining the exchange process, then money and its transformation into capital, followed by the labor process, valorization process, manufacture and machinofacture, leading to analyses of absolute and relative surplus value. Capital s three volumes were to reveal — comprehensively — the immanent dialectic leading beyond capitalist social relations.

Caricatured and distorted by Stalin as ”dialectical materialism, dialectic was revitalized by Alexander Kojev, Henri Lefebvre, Karl Korsch, Georg Lukacs, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and others as they reestablished the true Hegel-Marx connection to dialectic.


  1. Hegel, G. W. F. (1971) [1805] Introduction to the history of philosophy. In: Lauer, Q (ed.), Hegel’s Idea of Philosophy. Fordham University Press, New York, pp. 67—142.
  2. Hegel, G. (1991) [1817] The Encyclopedia: Logic, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, & H. S. Harris. Hackett Publishing Co., Cambridge.
  3. Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1982) Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (Marx-Engels Complete Works) part 1, vol. 2. Dietz, Berlin.
  4. Marx, K. (1976) [1890] Capital, 4th edn., vol. (1), trans. B. Fowkes. Pelican Books, Harmondsworth.

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