During the oral arguments prior to the Supreme Courts’ evisceration of The Voting Rights Act, Justice Scalia made reference to the problem of racial entitlements. “It’s been written about,” he said. What in the hell does this mean? Is this an example of the great minds we need on the SCOTUS? Someone wrote about it? It reminds me of the TV ad where a man announces he has finished the Internet: he has been places no one should go! Places it is not even legal to go.

A lot of what has been written should be ignored. Like Scalia’s majority and minority opinions.

What is the Dialectic?

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.

The Problem of False Dichotomies

I was required to read David Hackett Fishers’  Historians’ Fallacies  for a graduate school course in historiography. While I quibble with some of what he writes, this is the most important book I have ever read on history. It simply haunts me, and is sadly out of print.
One of Fishers’ first fallacies covered is the “fallacy of false dichotomous questions”. I know this is a problem for historians because Fisher commits it later in the book. I always respect writers who supply the evidence for both the point the make and the one they argue against.
Dividing the world into simple pro and con positions is rampant not just in history. In another blog of mine I was accused of supporting totalitarianism within minutes of posting a mild criticism of capitalism. That reader would probably feel confirmed in his views when I now posit the dialectic as the answer to false dichotomy. Certainly I must be a communist. Anarchist perhaps, but I am not thinking of Marx here (not, to channel Jerry Seinfeld, that there is anything wrong with that). It has more to do with Hegel, though he didn’t quite decide what exactly he meant by the dialectic, he put the concept on the table as an historical force.
For me the dialectic is a description of an emergent property of mostly human interactions that is not linear in its causal reality. Thus one plus one equals something other than two. This is to say that for instance human groups are usually more diverse than the individuals that comprise them, and act in ways that are not always strictly logical. This is sometimes viewed as irrational, and it certainly can be. The important point is that it is often not what one might assume when trying to force logic into the question. It is similar to the idea of the golden mean, as long as one is aware of the fact that it is neither inherently golden, a mean, or any other clearly mathematical calculation.
It is closer to what Nassam Nicholas Taleb calls antifragility in his book of the same name. Here what we are dealing with is dynamic complex reality rather than simple linear causation.
So, getting somewhere back to our point, false dichotomies are a function not just of fallacies often committed by the human mind: we love patterns and dichotomies are the easiest to imagine. This is close to Hackett’s argument. They also happen because human interaction is incapable of being dichotomous. And the dialectic, dispite the “dia” is anything but a simple dualistic reality. I like to compare it to the three body problem in physics. There are always more than either two or three bodies in history, or even biography. It is always complex, no matter our insistence otherwise.

Starting a project

I am starting this blog to force myself to write about a number of issues dealing with the writing of history that have consumed my attention since dropping out of graduate school in history.  We will see what happens.

I am largely influenced in this project by the historiography courses I attended at Miami University taught by Jeffery Kimball, though he is not responsible for my misunderstandings of what he taught.