Dialectics in Brief

Belal E. Baaquie, Associate Professor of Physics, National University of Singapore

Dialectics is the study of opposites that are mutually exclusive and in essential negation to each other, but at the same time, paradoxically, are interconnected and interpenetrate each other. Dialectical opposites should not be thought of as static and inert categories, but instead should be grasped as being dynamic and active, making transitions into each other. A particularly transparent illustration of dialectics is time, in which past and future can be taken as opposites, with the present being the transition of one into the other.

It is the transition that is the essence of dialectics, the opposites being what they are because they are related by a transition. The transition is neither of the two opposites, while at the same time being a part of either. In philosophy, the transition is said to sublate the opposites, which means that in the transition the opposites are both preserved and destroyed. For physical objects the transition is essentially dynamic; without time there would be no dialectics and no transition.

The paradoxical nature of the transition is referred to as being a contradiction, and dialectics is also called the study of contradictions. For example, the metaphor "the mind is an ocean" implicitly equates two dissimilar things. The metaphor can be seen to be a dialectical transition in which both the mind and ocean are negated, while at the same time some of their essential features are carried in the transition.

A particularly dead and rigid formulation is to think of dialectics as thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Although this formulation has a grain of truth in it, it poses dialectics as the sequential relation between static concepts, and the idea of constant activity, instability and change is absent, as is the concept that the opposites interpenetrate, interrelate and interconnect, and continuously make transitions into each other.

Of course a thing may have a multi-dimensional relation with its "opposite," and hence a single dialectical relation should not be taken as exhausting all relations. Rather, a dialectical transition should be seen as describing the relation between any two of its characteristics, and the complex of the multi-dimensional relation should be viewed as an integrated totality of many dialectical transitions.

Critical Theory