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Richard Norman and Sean Sayers, Hegel, Marx and Dialectic: A Debate, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980.

First of all, I never intended to read this book. Last Thursday I was looking for a copy of Hegel’s Shorter Logic in our Humanities and Social Sciences collection, which wasn’t on the shelf, so I browsed through the other books on Marxism and dialectics, choosing a few at random. I read a few pages of Hegel, Marx and Dialectic on a break that afternoon, and quickly became pretty engrossed in it. It was certainly one of the most readable books on theory/philosophy I’ve ever read, and I imagine this had something to do with the fact that both authors come out of the Anglo-American philosophical approach, which relies more on accessibility and plain language than its continental counterpart (and Americans like Jameson who are heavily influenced by the continental tradition). In any event, I found this one of the most accessible introductions to and discussions of the dialectic I’ve ever come across.

When I was doing my undergrad in the mid-1990s, when Marx and Marxism was generally considered dead, buried, and of purely historical interest, the idea of the dialectic would occasionally come up, often dismissed as “simply” the idea that thesis + antithesis = synthesis. It took me a long time to get beyond this simplistic view and start to dig into what the dialectic really is. I have to admit that this was provoked by being the target of that traditional Marxist accusation, that I wasn’t being dialectical enough in something that I’d written.

Hegel, Marx and Dialectic is framed as a debate between two philosophers at the University of Kent. It is organized into five chapters, beginning with a fairly straightforward introduction to the Marxist dialectic, with some discussion of Hegel. Each subsequent chapter engages with the previous one(s). What it interesting is that, while Sayers is clearly the more orthodox Marxist, and Norman the more solidly in the camp of formal logic, neither author dismisses the dialectic out of hand. Both understand and recognize the importance of Hegel’s logical system and of dialectics more generally. This gives the debate more nuance and subtlety than it would have if, for example, eithe Sayers or Norman was an out-and-out opponent of dialectical thinking.

The crux of the debate is the relationship of dialectics as a logical system to the more widespread (not to say hegemonic) use of formal logic. This debate hinges on the question of contradiction which, to Hegel, Marx, and Engels, provided the motor of all change in both the natural and human worlds (whether the natural and human worlds can be so easily distinguished is another part of the present debate). In formal logic, the “law of non-contradiction” states that a thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time. This leads adherents to formal logic often to dismiss dialectics as irrational, since dialectics insists on the importance and value of contradictions. Sayers and Norman come at this problem from various angles: does “contradiction” mean something completely different in formal logic than in dialectical logic? If the word means the same thing, does this make the two logics incompatible or not?

A lot of the debate is taken up by distinguishing dialectics, and Hegel’s philosophy as a whole, from those “metaphysical” philosophies that rely on formal logic, namely those philosophies that can be described as either dualist or reductionist. For Sayers, dialectics is positioned between the dualist and reductionist models. Dualism, in his view, requires strict binary divisions between categories, things, and concepts. The natural world is different from the human world. Universals are completely different from particulars. Reductionism, on the other hand, reduces one side of the division to the other: the human world is the same as the natural world; universals are derived from particulars. Dualism insists on difference, while reductionism insists on identity. The dialectic, on the other hand, insists on the “interpenetration of opposites”, that is that difference and identity are integral parts of any category, thing, or concept. The human world is both different from and a part of the natural world; universals can only be universals with respect to particulars, and vice versa.

The discussion of the distinction between the human and natural worlds leads to the question of whether there is a “dialectic of nature” separate from the dialectic of concepts and ideas that are only of human significance. Sayers takes a stronger line on this than Norman, insisting that, for Hegel, Marx, and Engels, natural processes are dialectical in the same way as human concepts: things in nature are constantly changing through the presence of internal contradictions, quantitative changes lead to qualitative changes, and all this movement constitutes history. Much of this discussion hinges on the definition of materialism, and precisely how Marx and Engels set Hegel’s idealist dialectic on its feet. The discussion of dialectical materialism versus other kinds of “metaphysical” materialism becomes quite esoteric, but is never wilfilly obscure.

The presumptions of formal logic are widespread in the sciences and in daily life (the “law of non-contradiction” seems to be intuitively true), so much so that one might wonder whether dialectical logic still has any bearing on the way we look at and interpret the world. It should come as no surprise that as Marxist I think the answer is yes. An interesting example of how simply relying on formal logic might distort the true picture of reality and pose a potential danger is in the question of open civic data. If we regard empirical data only formally, that is without recognizing its context, its contradictions, and how it changes over time, then we are not only providing an inadequate picture of the world the data is meant to describe, but we then use the data to make inadequate or incorrect decisions/predictions about the world. Formal logic provides easy to analyze models of the real world, but they cannot be the basis for policy and decision making.

An interesting example of how dialectical and formal logic can be seen as antagonistic is in Zeno’s arrow paradox. For Zeno since, at any discrete moment in time, the arrow is at rest, the arrow is at rest at every discrete moment throughout its flight. The arrow is both moving and always at rest: a paradox. For Hegel, the problem is with halting the arrow in its flight in order to “grasp” it at every distinct moment, much as we do when we capture a “piece” of data. It is clearly impossible to build up motion from a collection of moments at rest. However, if you start from the fact of motion, it is obvious that every moment of rest is merely a convenience, a way to “grasp” the arrow for analysis, but does not represent the truth of the arrow in motion. From a socio-political point of view, whenever we try to “grasp” a concept, institution, or phenomenon, we have to hold it still, violating the fact of its motion (i.e. how it changes over time); we also have to make it distinct (A and not not-A) by shearing it of all its relationships. Both of these operations do violence to the complexity and reality of the phenomenon under analysis. It is to try to resist this violence that dialectical logic is still important.

To sum up, this book is perhaps a little dated, but for me at least, it gave me a much better sense of the scope and power of dialectical logic.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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