Michael Kinnucan

Disagreement and Dialectic


ISSUE 19 | DROUGHT | AUG 2012

Babble and Dialectic

The philosopher, in her quest for certain knowledge, does not begin from ignorance; philosophy is not written on a blank page. The reason for this is simple: ignorance is nowhere to be found. Search the world high and low, from the sanctums of the learned to the dwellings of the “common man”: everyone’s got an opinion, everyone’s got something to say. Knowledge is ubiquitous, multiform, and contradictory; people generate knowledge every time they open their mouths. Philosophy seeks to emerge not from a clean and modest ignorance but from the babble of a thousand voices. The desire called philosophy is, to be sure, a desire for knowledge about the things of the world, not for what is said about them; but the opacity of this world, the need for philosophy, is not manifest from the things themselves. The things present themselves as transparent and self-evident. Their trickery first becomes prominent in our contradictory attempts to speak of them. Socrates’ career is a parable of this: he set out to study the nature of things, sought a master, and found only the confusions of men; these confusions themselves became the object of his pursuit. Socrates’ irony expresses a constant sense of wonder at the confidence every man places in his opinion—they disagree with each other at every moment, they even disagree with themselves, and yet each of them is so sure! This wonder is a pathway into the strangeness of things.

Philosophy begins (it first began and in each case it begins again) as a negative relationship to the babble of contradictory opinions—which is to say that it begins at war. The most natural way to settle contradictions of opinion is to refer to the things which the opinions are about. But if this path were open there would be no profound contradiction, and no need for philosophy. Evidently the things do not yield answers so easily. What remains? In ordinary life, intransigent conflicts of opinion lead to argument, polemical rhetoric, in the limit case to war: one seeks to reduce one’s opponent to silence by force of one kind or another. But to pursue this path is to leave the plane of knowledge; a speaker may be reduced to silence, but his opinion is not thereby refuted. How might a war be conducted which would remain on the plane of knowledge—which would remain philosophical?

Here again, we should refer to Socrates. The philosophical war machine is the dialectic. The dialectician does not contradict his interlocutor; rather, he leads an opinion toward its very own contradictions. He does not confront the assertions of his opponent with assertions of his own; he merely asks dangerous questions. The self-confident interlocutor advances step by step toward his opinion’s inner impossibility—toward the point at which, though he is invited to say whatever he likes, he no longer knows what to say. To contradict oneself is to say nothing, and a contradictory opinion is no opinion at all; the interlocutor is confronted not with the uncertainty of his opinion but with its nothingness. The dialectic leads its opponent from certainty to aporia.

Such a path presupposes a great deal. First, that it is possible for certain kinds of opinions to be, not merely incorrect, but self-contradictory. Second, that this self-contradiction may remain hidden from the opinionated man until he encounters the dialectician. In ordinary life we have to do with thousands of opinions which are wrong because they contradict the truth, but not wrong because they contradict themselves; but these opinions are of no concern to the dialectician. What forms of opinion, on what matters, contain such hidden contradiction? We will attempt to address this question below; first we must examine the aporia.

Aporia and the Sophist

Dialectic leads from certainty to aporia; it forces the babble of voices to silence, a confession of their ignorance. Philosophy does not end in aporia; quite the contrary. As Aristotle says, he who cannot encounter aporia cannot even begin to philosophize. It is only when the babble of contradiction has been brought to silence in the impasse that the productive work of philosophy can really begin. Before dialectic there were many answers to the same question; now there are none. The revealed opacity of the matter in hand turns us back toward the question. This turning back is as central to Kant’s work as it is to Aristotle’s.

Philosophy needs the aporia. Hence philosophy’s most dangerous enemy is the one who refuses aporia. Dialectic produces the aporia by revealing to its interlocutor that he is not at one with himself; its weapon is self-contradiction. But the skeptic who believes nothing is certain, who sees ubiquitous contradiction not as a demand for philosophy but as a refutation of all claims to wisdom—he cannot be trapped in the dialectic. He knows very well that his speech is contradictory; indeed, to argue contradiction is his highest pleasure. Refute him in one view, and he’ll chuckle and switch to the other. The sophist embodies this skepticism in its most highly developed form; he, too, makes use of the dialectic, but for ends opposite those of the philosopher. He finds his pleasure and power in revealing the falsity of all views and the nothingness of all things. He is the one who, according to Aristotle, cannot begin to philosophize.

To be sure, the sophist cannot live his conviction that there is no truth; he like everyone else avoids walking off cliffs, just as if he like the rest of us were sure he would fall and die. The sophist’s words contradict both themselves and his mode of living. But here’s the thing about the sophist: he doesn’t care! His own contradictions even please him. He does not seek unity, so he does not suffer from division. From the philosopher’s perspective, the sophist is revoltingly cynical; from the sophist’s perspective, the philosopher is naïve. But they are both dialecticians, obscurely motivated producers of contradiction, producers of doubt about that which is held to be certain; to the sophist’s amusement and the philosopher’s horror, they appear uncannily similar.

Aristotle notes in the Metaphysics that the philosopher resembles two other kinds of men: the dialectician in a broad sense, as teacher of logic, and the sophist. He differs from the former in his object of study (the philosopher studies truth, not logic) and the latter in his “choice of life.” The sophist’s position cannot be refuted scientifically; the difference between him and the philosopher is one not of opinion but of ethos.

Dialectic and Critique

The modern history of the dialectic begins with Kant. Kant recognizes in the babbling confusions of heretofore existing metaphysics a single, central aporia: how is any judgment to be at once synthetic and a priori? It is clear that a judgment may be independent of experience if it is a tautology, given according to the meaning of its terms; it is clear that many non-tautologous judgments are to be gathered from experience. But the dream of metaphysics as Kant describes it—truths which are absolutely certain, non-tautologous and independent of the deceptive vagaries of experience—would appear impossible. Yet we do make such judgments; we believe, for example, that all events are caused, a judgment we could not possibly gather from the play of experience. The skeptics who pretend to forego such judgments are superficial. Hence an aporia.

Kant’s solution to this problem is to argue that a priori synthetic judgments may apply, not to all beings as such, but to all objects of experience. The subject produces experience; the subject’s capacities (forms and categories) guarantee its possibility and impose its conditions. We can know with certainty the world as it is for us, but not the world as it is in itself. The object of knowledge is knowable; the thing as it is in itself, “before” knowledge, is necessarily unknown.

A superficial response to Kant’s argument might run as follows: of what concern to us is this alleged “thing in itself”? The claim that the unknown thing, qua unknown, cannot be known, is a tautology and a sleight of hand. The thing in itself, slipped in behind the world of experience as a purported beyond of knowledge, is an empty word; we do not seek and have never sought knowledge of the unknown qua unknown, and we can with impunity ignore it.

Such a response misses both the necessity of aporia in Kant’s thought and its productive role in his system. The philosopher can by no means have done with the thing in itself, because knowledge just is a reaching out into the unknown; it constantly strives to transcend its limits. As he puts it in the first critique, “We shall always return to metaphysics as to a lover with whom we have fought” (B 878/A850). The antinomies which Kant describes in the “Dialectic” section of the Critique of Pure Reason are not arbitrary errors of the philosophers; they represent the intrinsic demands of reason as such. (Reason seeks causes for all things, hence at the limit it must seek the first cause, though this cause will never be found.) Critique, the erection of boundaries, corresponds to reason, the transcendence of limits. Hence the generative place of the antinomies in Kant’s system: without antinomy there would be no critique. If reason’s reach did not exceed its grasp, if metaphysics did not contradict itself, we could have no insight into the structure of experience, hence no synthetic a priori truth.

Knowledge, for Kant, is in relation to the truth—to the object as it is “in itself,” beyond knowledge, hence ultimately to the unknown. Kant refuses to accept a subjectivism like Hume’s, according to which all knowledge is merely knowledge “for us” (according to which, for example, the concept of causation is merely a psychological artifact); knowledge has no business with what is merely “ours.” It is a relation (for us) to the non-relational (the in-itself). The relation is preserved in the self-transcendence of reason, the non-relation in the moment of critique. The philosopher presides over this movement, reestablishing forever a peace which is forever broken.

Dialectic and Absolute Knowing

In the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel credits Kant with the “rediscovery” of the dialectic as philosophical method, but accuses him of failing to grasp its implications. For Hegel, dialectic is opposed to deduction, the more geometrico of Descartes and Spinoza, which reaches its conclusions by reasoning from purportedly certain axioms; such a method cannot justify itself, since its axioms remain open to question. The philosophical system as system of deductions does not deign to involve itself in the dispute of knowledges; it remains alone. But such a system remains merely an assertion, to be met by other assertions. Philosophy must enter into dispute with other knowledges; this dispute can take place only as dialectic, which is to say that the knowledges which challenge philosophy must be led to productively confess their contradictions.

This concept of dialectic imposes on philosophy a paradoxical methodological demand. Philosophy does not present a criterion of truth and test various knowledges against this criterion; to do so would be unphilosophical, because the criterion would just be another knowledge. The philosopher does not challenge knowledges at all; knowledges must challenge themselves. The philosopher, in fact, does nothing at all; he merely watches and waits. But how, after all, is this possible? Knowledge may well contradict different knowledge—this happens all the time. But how could knowledge contradict itself?

Hegel’s answer to this question reveals both his debt to Kant and their fundamental disagreement.

This contradiction and its removal will become more definite if we call to mind the abstract determinations of truth and knowledge as they occur in consciousness. Consciousness simultaneously distinguishes itself from something, and at the same time relates itself to it, or, as it is said, this something exists for consciousness… But we distinguish this being-for-another from being-in-itself; whatever is related to knowledge or knowing is also distinguished from it, and posited as existing outside of this relationship; this being-in-itself is called truth. (Phenomenology of Spirit Section 82)

Here Hegel takes up the Kantian account of the possibility of dialectic: knowledge attempts to relate itself to the unknown qua unknown, to get “beyond.” The question was: how can a knowledge test itself? What criterion could there be for judging a form of knowledge other than a different, purportedly truer knowledge? The answer: knowledge just is the testing of itself against the truth. Knowledge contains its own standard—and this is the standard by which it must be judged.

But this provisional determination of knowledge seems to condemn us to ignorance: it seems not merely contingently difficult but impossible to look “behind” the for-us to the in-itself. Such, indeed, is Kant’s opinion: knowledge will always be the unhappy lover of truth. But here Hegel introduces a crucial modification:

But the essential point to bear in mind throughout the whole investigation is that these two moments, ‘concept’ and ‘object,’ ‘being-for-another’ and ‘being-in-itself,’ both fall within that knowledge which we are investigating. (Phenomenology of Spirit Section 83)

Truth, then, is not radically exterior to knowledge; it is “within” the relation of knowledge. What could this mean? An example may help us to grasp the import of this extraordinary claim. The Newtonian physicist, who seeks mathematizable laws which apply to the whole of nature, differs both from the Scholastic physicist seeking to grasp the distinct essence of each genus of natural thing, and from the modern physicist seeking particles as manifestations of fields. He differs not only in the extent of his knowledge but in his conception of the object of physical knowledge, which is to say: in his conception of truth. And all forms of knowledge of nature differ from the form of knowledge represented by the religious mystic, who seeks knowledge of God through the inner light—again, not merely in the adequacy of his knowledge but in his concept of the in-itself, the truth. Every kind of knowledge corresponds to a concept of the object as it is in itself, to its very own truth. Being-in-itself is not the radical other of knowledge, the pure given toward which knowledge is condemned to strive; it is “within” knowledge. Every knowledge gives itself a truth.

The Hegelian dialectician does not confront various knowledges with the truth he himself has already discovered; rather, he watches as forms of knowledge are forced to recognize their inadequacy to the truth that they themselves demand. The dual nature of this process, its generative destruction, should be familiar to anyone who has seriously pursued a question. A simple example: the layman might demand to know: is light a particle or a wave? He might insist that, by the law of the excluded middle, this question must have a yes or no answer. The physicist will respond that the question does have an answer, but not such an answer. It cannot be answered without an examination of the terms “light,” “particle,” and “wave”; it cannot be answered until every element of it has changed. The layman demands a bit of knowledge and presupposes a kind of truth; he cannot be answered until his understanding of physical truth has changed.

Dialectic and Education

In Hegel’s view, Kant establishes peace too soon: Kant’s dialectic reinterprets knowledge but leaves truth, the in-itself, unchanged. It washes its hands of the “given.” I cannot say whether Hegel is right here. But Hegel’s dialectic is immensely fruitful in another direction: it provides a way of thinking, for the first time, the historicity of knowledge. So long as all knowledges are thought in relation to a single truth, the observer of knowledges can see in them no more than an arbitrary series of failed attempts; their inadequacy is as inexplicable as the purported correctness of our own views. But to think a knowledge from the perspective of its truth is to recognize both its internal justification and the dynamic by which it can overcome itself. The dialectic, in this sense, is an account of what it is to learn. And what occurs at times in an individual life can be seen on a vaster scale in the history of thought: what seemed at one time like a waste of time, like an unaccountable stupidity, finds its justification as a form of education. Even the dead ends lead somewhere.

So it is not quite true that the Hegelian dialectician does nothing but watch. To be sure, Hegel warns in the introduction the Phenomenology against importing “our own bright ideas” into the history of consciousness; we must let the truth appear, not impose it. The dialectician learns exactly what his subject learns, simply following his path through history. But there is one thing the dialectician learns that his subject does not: the process of learning. The historical subject seems merely to bump into truth: “It usually seems to be the case… that our experience of the untruth of our first notion comes by way of a second object which we come upon by chance and externally” (Phenomenology of Spirit 87). Development appears contingent, a stroke of luck. And necessarily so: you can’t understand what it is to learn while you’re learning. To learn is always to be a step ahead of yourself, feeling your way in the dark. (If you knew where you were headed you would already be there.) Hence the learner understands his path to knowledge as an unmitigated stumbling among contradictions, and his arrival at truth as a happy accident.

The dialectician knows better: he knows the generative possibilities of contradiction. Where the historical subject sees only a babble of dissenting voices, a desert of ignorant opinion, the dialectician finds fertile ground and the seeds of knowledge. The dialectician restores to thought the history of its becoming; he recognizes the productivity of the aporia.