What is the dialectic? For Hegel, it became those things that wouldn’t fit into his theory of history. He could see situations in which causality seemed not to make sense, and was left to ascribe it to an undefined dialectical factor. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis: a very interesting answer to situations where you cannot explain why it is the synthesis rather than the thesis conditioning causation. But is there a thesis/anti-thesis duality? Or was it necessary to posit this duality to clean up his theory? I will give him credit for coming up with the recognition that there are causal relationships outside his system. I believe they also exist within much if not all of his system. It may be more obviously a factor in the minority situations, but actually exists most everywhere.
For Marx, it ultimately came to represent a rationalization of his hopes for the future course of history. He was correct to identify it as an important causative factor in history, wrong to ascribe content to it and make it an actual historical force with inevitable direction. In both cases the certainty of their thinking lead them astray.
The dialectic has no direction or content. I believe its source is the interface between man and physical reality. For humans, all reality is mediated by the brain. Thus perception is by nature an idealism—we can only have concepts in the brain. These concepts are related to, but importantly distinct from, the physical world. We manage this space very well most of the time. We see, we think, we act. We also do quite poorly when we forget about of the disparity: the dialectical gap. We forget the idealism and mistake it for the actual.
We can be realistic idealists, as well as idealistic idealists, but we are always mediated by idealism. We are never only realists. While I disagree with much of what Donald Rumsfeld believes, I always thought he was sagacious with his usually ridiculed notion: “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know that we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things that we don’t know we don’t know.” His purpose in making this statement may be questioned, but not the content. I would only add that we don’t always agree what is which, or which is which. This I will call the Rumsfeld problem.
Additionally, we make mistakes–mistakes of perception, mistakes of reflection, and mistakes of attribution. Mistakes are a major, often ignored, causal factor in life and history. Mistakes are often dialectically conditioned, being mistakes directly attributed to brain systems rather than mistaken reality.
We also lie: intentionally, unintentionally and otherwise. We lie as individuals, as groups, as groups of groups and as a myriad of imaginative ways. I am fond of saying, “truths are the lies we agree to recite to each other.”
The dialectic is also very active in a large range of what we call “reality” that only exists in our minds. This is the recognition that certain concepts are just that: concepts. “Democracy” does not exist in the same way a rock does. It is a shared concept and as such fully subject to the Rumsfeld problem. The American democracy is a compound idealism. The Confederate States of America—an idealism—disagreed with what constituted the democracy of the United States and attempted to leave. The Union—the concept of which somehow distinguishes it from the United States—won the argument and once again the United States reestablished its idealistic reality. Or did the U.S. consistently exist throughout this period? It did for some, didn’t for others. Is the U.S. a lie we agree to recite to each other? What is capitalism? It gets complicated, something else we should never forget.
Is the dialectic the primary causal factor in history. No, though it is perhaps a fundamental human characteristic and ever-present in historical action. It manifests itself at every level of historical action, when we act and when we both think about acting and when we reflect on past actions. It operates at the individual level, at the group level, and at every level of human interaction. It interacts with other forces. One such force may be what is often described as chaos theory in science. The most popular expression of this is what is called the butterfly effect. The true beauty here is not the effect of the single butterfly in South America, but the fact that there is never only one butterfly. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could be described as an historical analog to this effect. Another concept borrowed from physics might be the so-called “third body problem.” Again there are almost never only three bodies. More on these last ideas later.