The word dialectic is closely related to the word dialogue. If you can imagine an argument or debate, then you can basically understand dialectics. To begin any argument, there must be a disagreement between two parties. In dialectics, this disagreement is called a “contradiction.” Contradictions are central to the dialectical method. In the same way a dialog is the method of understanding disagreements, dialectics is the method of understanding contradictions.
Just as a disagreement has two distinct sides, each contradiction has two sides as well. The primary, or positive, side of a contradiction is called the “thesis.” The thesis is the main idea or status quo. It contains within itself the inherent contradiction or contradictions which give rise to the second side of the process, the “antithesis.” As the name implies, the antithesis is the exact opposite of the thesis. Just like any argument, even the best argument, every thesis contains flaws and contradiction which are manifested in the antithesis.
But like any good dialog, there is a dynamic tension and force between these two sides. They are not static. So also like a dialog, the purpose of the dialectical method isn’t to remain frozen between two points, but to reach new conclusions. This new conclusion is called the “synthesis.”
The synthesis is like the agreement reached at the end of the argument. It takes the positive aspects of the thesis and resolves the contradictions of the antithesis, creating something better, higher, and more accurate. However, even this new conclusion will contain contradictions because nothing stands still. Thus, the synthesis becomes the new thesis and the whole process starts again. Now we can ultimately see that dialectics is the process of growth and development.
Dialectics is made up of three laws:
Law 1: The Law of Unity of Opposites
Law 2: The Law of Quantitative and Qualitative
Law 3: The Law of the Negation of the Negation
The Law of Unity of Opposites
This first law asserts that in any contradiction, the two sides are both the exact opposite of each other, as well as mutually dependent upon each other for existence. There can be no up without down. Good is meaningless except in relation to bad.
In our society, you can see this unified opposition in many different ways. One of the most common and fundamental can be seen in the relationship between business owners, or capitalists, and their employees, or workers. The interests of the capitalist is to work their employees the hardest and longest they can while paying them the least amount possible because this increases their profits. The interest interests of the worker are the exact opposite; to work as lightly and as little for the highest wages possible. Their interests are exactly opposite.
Yet in capitalism, capitalists need workers to do the work in their businesses and workers need capitalists to provide jobs. The survival of each is dependent on the other. Therefore, they are unified.
Another example can be found in the current economic crisis. Throughout the ’90s, there was a global economic boom that created billions and billions of dollars in more wealth, increasing what This American Life called the “Big Pool of Money.”
But there was a problem, a contradiction. The owners of all this newly created wealth needed somewhere to invest it, because A) they can’t put billions of dollars under their mattresses and B) they wanted to invest it so they could get a return on it.
The problem was, though, pretty much all the available investments had been taken. There was simply too much money and not enough investment opportunities.
So now we can see the opposites of too much and not enough and we can also see that each side of that is meaningless without the other. You can’t have too much unless you also have not enough. You can’t have too much hunger unless you have not enough food. You can’t have too much clothing unless you have not enough closet space. Now we can, in a real world example, the Law of Unity of Opposites.
The Law of Quantitative and Qualitative
The second law of dialectics is that of the relationship between quantitative change and qualitative transformation. While these two words may sound cumbersome, they are really quite straight forward. Quantitative means the quantity of a thing, such as how much, how many, or to what degree. Qualitative means the quality or nature of a thing.
As an example, imagine liquid water. If you heat it up, this is a quantitative change because it is just a change in the temperature. The quality of water remains liquid, at least to a point. Eventually though, the quantitative energy can’t be contained and there is a rapid jump in the nature of the water. It begins to boil and transform into a gas. This is a qualitative transformation. Quantitative changes are slow and build energy. Qualitative transformations are rapid and release that built up energy.
This law can also be demonstrated in the current financial crisis. The creation of more and more wealth was quantitative. Nothing fundamental changed nor was anything particularly new created. This went on, building energy as more and more wealth was created with fewer and fewer places to put it. Suddenly, there was a qualitative transformation: the creation of mortgaged-backed securities.
These new securities were created for the express purpose of finding new places to begin investing all that newly created wealth. Previously, mortgages were too big of a hassle for large investment banks to deal with. They were left mainly to smaller commercial and community banks.
The drying up of investment opportunities put tremendous pressure on the investment banks to create some type of solution. They found it by devising a way to buy up individual mortgages from the smaller banks and package them into securities. These securities were then sold as major investments with highly profitable returns. The problem had been solved with this qualitative transformation and energy was released as profits soared.
This is the law of quantitative change and qualitative transformation.
The Law of the Negation of the Negation
The third and final law of dialectics is the negation of the negation. This law in instrumental in understand dialectics as a process of development.
As stated earlier, the resolution of the contradiction between the thesis and the antithesis is called the synthesis. This synthesis, however, also contains inherent contradiction. Thus the synthesis becomes the thesis, which creates a new antithesis based on the new contradiction, which is resolved with a new synthesis. This is the negation of the negation. The synthesis is the negation of the first contradiction, which is then negated by the synthesis of the next contradiction.
The process is a cycle but it never arrives back at the point it began. It’s like a spiral with each resolution higher than the last. This is what makes dialectics developmental.
Imagine the seed of a plant. You plant it and it grows. When it is mature, it creates more seeds and then dies. This is the negation. The plant doesn’t just create one seed to replace the original though.. It creates many more seeds. So we see the original grows to become greater than itself. These many new seeds grow and create new plants, which negates the negation. These new plants create more seeds and process is repeated, creating more and more plants. It is a process of cyclical development.
This final law can be applied to the economic crisis as well. We already saw that mortgage-backed securities were the synthesis to the contradiction between too much wealth and not enough investments. But these new securities contained contradictions as well. To create them, there had to be enough individual mortgages to package up.
This wasn’t a problem at first and all the mortgages packaged up were the type backed by good credit. and responsible lending. These securities were so popular and profitable that banks began lending more mortgages in order to create more securities, creating a quantitative change in the number of mortgages and securities.
When the good mortgages had all been lent out, banks began issuing riskier and riskier ones. Before too long, you didn’t even need a job to get a mortgage. This wasn’t a problem as long as housing prices kept rising.
But we already know that nothing stands still and everything contains inherent contradictions. The problems started when houses kept being built but all the mortgages had been lent out and people began defaulting on bad mortgages. The contradiction became obvious that there were too many houses and not enough people to buy them.
Suddenly, housing prices plummeted. Banks began writing off billions in losses. Evictions ran at record numbers. The Dow dropped like a rock, erasing the record profits of the last decade in a matter of weeks. The Federal government, in concert with other governments around the world, had to intervene in their economies in ways never before seen. A qualitative transformation of the global financial system had begun. The negation was being negated.
Taken together, these three laws make up the basic method of the dialectical process. By understanding them, the dialectical analysis can be used like a tool in a tool box. Like any tool, it can’t be used for every problem, but if used properly then it can be key to understanding the interconnectedness and development of our social world. It is not mystical and cannot allow a person to see into the future. It is simply a logical process that allows a person to untangle the threads of the past and make the best decision in the present to move into the future.