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Social Philosophy

The Journey of the Dialectic

Anthony Mansueto
Foundation for Social Progress/Institute for Religion and the Common Good

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ABSTRACT: This paper argues that: a) philosophy generally, and the dialectical tradition in particular, first emerged in Ancient Greece in response to the nihilism and relativism generated by the development of a market economy; b) despite differences between its 'idealist' and 'materialist' wings, it is possible to speak of a basically unified dialectical tradition extending from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through the great medieval Aristotelians (Ibn Sina, Ibn Rusd, Maimonides, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas), up to Hegel, Marx and their interpreters, a tradition unified around the proposition that we can rise by rational means to a first principle which in turn serves as a principle of value and a criterion for ethical norms, thus becoming a standard by which to criticize the market order and argue for an alternative allocation of resources; c) the historic difficulties and current crisis of the dialectical tradition arise from a failure to demonstrate that the universe is a teleological system ordered to the perfection of form or the development of increasing levels of organization; and d) recent developments in the physical, biological and social sciences suggest that we may soon be in a position to remedy this difficulty. This paper criticizes those who say that it is no longer possible to "do philosophy the old way," and argues for the critical importance of philosophy generally and the dialectical tradition in particular for the future of the human civilizational project.

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Philosophy means war on the marketplace. Premarket societies have no philosophy and they need no philosophy. Life in a village community provides a basis in experience for understanding the universe as an organized system, ordered to a common end, which in turn provides a criterion of value by which to judge human action. Even when villages become subjected to warlords, and the warlords claim to be divine, or at least divinely ordained, the people know better. The prophet who denounces the ba'alim (1) and calls the people to return to the living God needs no argument. His word, the word of justice, is enough.

It is different when markets begin to develop. Under the market system people experience society either as a system of quantities (prices) or else as a system of only externally related individuals. Not surprisingly they begin to experience the universe as a whole in much the same way. Thus the rise of mathematically oriented rationalism and of atomistic empiricism first, in a tentative way, in Ancient Greece, humanity's first market society, and thus the triumph of these doctrines with the emergence of generalized commodity production in the seventeenth century. Systems of quantities and systems of atoms have no telos, no global purpose. Analysis of such systems provides no way to rise to first principles, no way to find a criterion of value. The result is skepticism and nihilism-which, once again, we see emerging for the first time in Ancient Greece, in the form of sophism, and which has gradually become hegemonic in our own, more or less completely marketized society. And this skepticism about first principles and about principles of value is not just a reflex of the marketplace; it also serves to legitimate the market order. For without some criterion of value, grounded in a doctrine of the first principle, there is no basis on which to criticize the market allocation of resources or to argue for some alternative.

Philosophy emerged first and foremost as a response to the nihilism of the marketplace and as an attempt to reground ethics in an adequate doctrine of first principles-as an attempt to prove, contrary to the way things appear to people formed by the market, that the universe really is grounded in and ordered to a transcendental principle, a principle which can be known rationally (if also only very imperfectly) and which provides a criterion for judging actions and for ordering human society. Dialectics is the method of this quest for first principles, which is also always a quest for justice. Thus Socrates' debate with the rich young men who apprehend him at the beginning of the Republic (Republic 327a-331d). The task of finding the right way to order human society and the task of finding a way to rise to first principles are inseparable. Thus Aristotle's attack on "moneymaking (Aristotle, Politics 1256a-1258b)," and his argument that society exists to cultivate virtue (Aristotle, Ethics, 1178a-1181b), which, in turn, consists in the ordering of human beings, through knowledge, to the arche and telos of all things. Hegel, who argues that the market order must beregulated by a state with universal aims (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, sections 205, 236, 241, 243, 245, 246, 255, 290, 324) and Marx who argues that it must be transcended entirely (Marx 1848/1978) continue a long tradition of dialectical philosophy.

It is, however, precisely this kind of philosophy which has come increasingly under attack from the most diverse quarters. As early as the seventeenth century rationalist and empiricist thinkers began to call into question the teleological cosmology on which this kind of philosophy depends (Spinoza 1675/1955, Hume 1779). Kant (Kant 1781/1969) went further, calling into question the very foundations of rational metaphysics and rendering the whole enterprise of rising to first principles suspect to say the least. Analytic philosophers reject much of the dialectical tradition out of hand as nothing more than a collection of "language games" while postmodernists indict all attempts to ground ethics in rational knowledge of God and the universe with responsibility for the most diverse forms of totalitarian terror (Lyotard 1979/1984). Even those sympathetic to the dialectical tradition seem convinced that we can no longer "do philosophy in the old way." (2)

I would like to suggest that this judgement is terribly mistaken. Not only can we do philosophy in the sense in which it has historically been understood by the dialectical tradition, but we must. In order to understand why, we need to turn back and examine more closely what we have already suggested about the origins of the dialectical tradition, and then analyze just why philosophy in the sense understood by this tradition has come to seem so difficult. In the process we shall arrive at some interesting conclusions regarding the unity of the dialectical tradition and the reasons for the current crises of both its materialist and idealist wings.

We have already suggested that dialectics emerged as a response to the nihilism of the marketplace, as an attempt to reground ethics in an authentic doctrine of the first principle. There were, to be sure, earlier reflections on the organization of the universe, reflections sometimes remaining at the level of the imagination, as did the religious symbolisms of most communitarian and tributary societies, (3) and which sometimes achieved a modest degree of abstraction, as did the cosmological speculations of the Pre-Socratics. Philosophy as we have come to understand it, however, involves more than just a reflection on fundamentals. It requires rigorous argumentation, argumentation which yields a judgement regarding beauty, truth, goodness, etc. And this kind of argumentation becomes possible only with the advent of a market society. This is true for two reasons. First, rigorous argument requires formalization: the clarification of definitions and the discovery of the rules of logical inference. And this, in turn, is a by-product of the emergence of theoretical mathematics. And where is mathematics born but in the marketplace, that universe of quantities par excellence? It is little wonder that the founders of theoretical mathematics-Thales of Miletus and his student Pythagoras-were both merchants, and that Thales, in addition to his more theoretical achievements, was perhaps the first to recognize the determination of price by the play of market forces. (4)

But formalization is not enough. The speculations of the Pre-Socratics are not yet philosophy in the same sense as the dialogues of Plato. It is necessary to go beyond true judgements to a judgement regarding truth, to go beyond a judgement that something is good to a judgement about the good. And for this to happen the very principles of value themselves must have been called into question, so that it is necessary to re-establish the criterion before the particular judgement can be made. This, precisely, is what happened in democratic Athens, and it happened because of the operation of the marketplace.

What makes Greece so unique is that it was the planet's first market society. Long on the periphery of the great empires of the Mediterranean Basin, Greece benefited from the emergence of new agricultural technologies centered on the cultivation of grapes and olives. The result was the development of a vigorous commercial economy centered on production for export. Gradually Greece and its colonies replaced the tributary empires as the "center" of the Mediterranean system. The marketization of Greek society was accompanied by internal differentiation. Nouveau riche elements challenged traditional dynasts while many of the peasants fell into debt peonage. But then something interesting happened. A series of rebellions in the fifth and sixth centuries halted this process, and imposed a kind of compromise. The reforms of Solon and Pericles guaranteed the land rights of the peasantry, providing credits and other protection against debt peonage and permitted them to participate in the political arena. But these reforms also left intact the landholdings of the ruling classes, who were forced to turn to chattel slaves to work their large estates (Anderson 1974: 29-32, 38).

This combination of a formally democratic political arena and fundamental class conflicts imposed on the ruling classes the task of securing the consent of a majority which did not share their interests. Thus the function of the rhetor, whose job it was to sway the masses in the public assembly. The sophists, of course, were first and foremost teachers of rhetoric, who trained rich young men in the arts of persuasion, so that they could ably serve their families' interests in the public arena. Trained by the sophists, these rhetors could "make the worse appear the better cause," so that in a few short years people began to doubt that there really was any such thing as the beautiful, the true, or the good. Where in the tributary state there was still one common end, even if it was deformed and turned to the interests of a single warlord, here the state became simply an instrument of purely private ends. The polity itself lost all integrity.

The Socratic dialectic is first and foremost an attempt to rectify this situation, by showing that there is, in fact, something Good in itself which can serve as a criterion of judgement-a standard by which it is possible to find the money-makers wanting and argue for an alternative allocation of resources. This is the program which is set out so powerfully in the Republic and to which, despite their many differences, both Plato and Aristotle, and the whole body of their successors adhered. But is the dialectic successful? Are Socrates and Plato and Aristotle actually able to rise to knowledge of the first principle? In order to answer this question we need to examine the nature of the dialectic a bit more closely, in order to see just what is involved.

At first sight it might appear that there is no such thing as the dialectic. Surely Plato's method is not Aristotle's, and even between thinkers generally recognized as "Platonic" or "Aristotelian" there appear to be fundamental differences of approach. Compare, for example, Philo and Augustine, or Ibn Sina and Aquinas. And surely there is a vast gulf between these philosophers and such later dialecticians as Hegel and Engels. I want to argue, however, that all of these thinkers, their very real differences notwithstanding, share a common aim, as well as significant common ground with respect to method and doctrine.

A first approximation of this method and doctrine is laid out by Plato in the Republic. Plato argues that those who rule the city, the Guardians, must be knowers of the Good-and that they can become knowers of the Good only through a long process of theoretical and practical education. This education begins with gymnastic and music (which for the Greeks included all those activities over which the Muses presided, roughly corresponding to the later liberal arts). This training, which the guardians share with their military auxiliaries, lasted until about 15-18; after which there was a period of military training. Only after this will those selected as Guardians proceed to the study of more advanced mathematics, and then, after the age of 30, to the study of dialectic in the narrower sense, or logic. Only after a long period of political service in subordinate posts between the ages of 35 and 50 will they be called to membership in the high council which devotes itself at once to philosophical reflection and to governing the city (Republic 376e-412b, 521c-541b).

This means that the dialectic by which we rise to first principles is both theoretical and practical. It begins with a solid grounding in the arts, especially the arts of argument. We must master the process of drawing out the implications and internal contradictions of our own ideas and those of others and driving towards a higher synthesis. This, in turn prepares us to engage the people regarding their interests and projects, drawing out their latent potential, wrestling with difficult social contradictions, and gradually leading the polis, as we ourselves are led, to seek a higher good.

There is, however, one respect in which Plato's Republic falls short of being a complete validation of the dialectical approach. At no point does he demonstrate or even attempt to demonstrate that the universe itself is actually ordered to the first principle. Indeed he seems to argue that even if the perfect state were attained, it would inevitably degenerate (Republic 543a-576b), something which he later argued, in the Timaeus, was the result of a fundamental cosmological fact: the resistance of matter to form, imposed with difficulty by the Demiurge, whose universe is the best copy possible of the First Principle, but which nonetheless represents a fall from perfection. Because of this pessimistic cosmology Plato is left with the conclusion that we can know the Good, but that we cannot realize it, at least not perfectly, in this world of change and becoming.

It was precisely this defect in the Platonic dialectic which Aristotle attempted to remedy. Aristotle's ascent to the first principle runs not around but through physics. Matter for Aristotle is the possibility of organization, form its actuality. Motion is the gradual realization, over the course of time, of the latent potential of matter as it moves towards the perfection of form. The explanation of particular forms of motion involves an understanding of the matter in question, of the form which is being perfected, and of the efficient cause-that by which the change takes place, as well as the end towards which the change is ordered. Ultimately, however, the whole process of change is grounded in the attractive power of the first unmoved mover, the incredible beauty, truth, goodness and integrity which draw all things to itself. A complete explanation of the universe is possible, Aristotle argues, only in terms of this Unmoved Mover, a principle which on later reflection he was able to show to be infinite and necessary and perfect-and thus divine. It is this conviction that the universe is ordered to-in fact tends towards-the Good which explains the hopefulness of Aristotle and his followers regarding the cultivation of virtue and the development of a just social order.

But even Aristotle was not able to show that all things are perfectly ordered to the unmoved mover. The sublunar realm is subject not only to natural motion, which tends to the perfection of each form, but also to violent motion-bodies decay, javelins are thrown-which cannot be so easily explained in teleological terms. This sublunar realm will always fall short of perfection. Thus the tendency towards authoritarianism in Aristotle and his fondness for monarchy (Metaphysics 1075a-1076a), and thus the static character of the cosmos as a whole, in spite of growth and development at the level of the organism and the individual.

But this is not the full extent of the problem. The very division between natural and violent motion, and between the celestial and sublunar realms, constitutes a fundamental defect in Aristotelian science, a defect which eventually brought the whole edifice of teleological cosmology-and the dialectic ascent to the first principle-crashing down around us. The new mechanistic science which replaced it renounced explanation in favor of formal (mathematical) description and thus "had no need" of the "hypothesis" of God.

The effect was not, to be sure, instantaneous. Rationalist philosophers attempted to revive the formalistic ontological argument (Descartes 1641/1975), which was not dependent on the results of physics. And Newtonian science left room for, even if it did not really require, a creator and cosmic architect. Thus Leibniz' argument based on the principle of sufficient reason (Leibniz 1713/1992) and Paley's Natural Theology (Paley 1802/1994). But when the full implications of the mechanistic program became apparent with the discovery of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, with its somber prophecy of an inevitable heat death of the universe, these arguments rapidly lost their credibility. I would like to suggest that it is this cosmological pessimism which lies behind the conviction that "we can no longer do philosophy in the old way." Mechanistic science has convinced most people that the universe is ultimately meaningless. In such a universe there is no first principle-no God-and no criterion for moral judgement.

It is in this context that the fate of dialectics since the beginning of the nineteenth century must be understood. Hegelian dialectics represented an attempt to reground and revitalize the dialectical tradition on the basis of a newly discovered teleology-that of human history. The history of human civilization between 3000 B.C.E. and the European Middle Ages had been one of stagnation and decline (Childe 1851, Lerner 1991). It is little wonder that earlier dialecticians found teleological development only in the organism and in the human person, and not in society or the cosmos has a whole. The tremendous progress ushered in by the industrial, democratic, and scientific revolutions changed this radically. For the first time in millennia humanity began to experience its own history as one of growth and development. Hegel joined this historical dialectics to a philosophy of nature based on Newtonian (or, as he would prefer it, Keplerian) physics which, as we have noted, while not strictly teleological, nonetheless still permitted conclusion to a meaningful universe if the source of this meaning could be found elsewhere than in basic physical law. The result was the only "modern" system to attempt an ascent to the first principle by means of reason and rationally oriented practice. Even so, "nature" was subsumed as something alienated and external which found its truth only in subjectivity and Spirit.

Dialectical materialism rejected the Hegelian solution for two distinct reasons. Marx in particular was deeply rooted in a Jewish tradition which located knowledge of God-da'ath elohim-in the just act, and which was skeptical about any attempt to capture this knowledge whether in representations or in concepts. That this tradition was reflected, however, not simply in an iconoclasm and a tension with religious institutions which had abandoned the struggle for justice but rather in a hardened atheism, can largely be attributed to what science, by the mid-nineteenth century, seemed to be saying about the ultimate meaning of the universe. And here it is Engels rather than Marx who is the key figure. It is impossible to read the Dialectics of Nature (1880/1940) without sensing the urgency of this question for Engels-and the tragedy of his inability to resolve it satisfactory. And Engels' project founders on nothing more or less than the Second Law of Thermodynamics which, for him as for most of his contemporaries, appears to condemn the universe to a slow thermal death, and to predict a gradual degeneration and disintegration of intelligence, of life, indeed of all complex organization. Such a universe is clearly not ordered to an end, much less an end infinite, necessary, and perfect, and thus divine in character. Thus the atheism of the materialist wing of the dialectical tradition.

But there is more. In the absence of a divine telos the merely human-historical dialectic becomes limited and contingent and loses its authority. Why side with labor and the development of complex organization? Why not side with death and disintegration? Why produce when one can just consume? Indeed, the whole socialist project, rather than expressing an immanent cosmic teleology becomes what the postmodernists have been claiming all along that it is-an attempt to represent as universal an interest and a tendency which is partial and particular, and an attempt to impose order from the outside, a project at once totalizing and totalitarian in character (Lyotard 1979/1984).

From this point of view the crisis of the dialectical tradition seems inevitable and inescapable. How, after all, can philosophers, who above all are committed to reason and to truth, evade the harsh verdicts of science? There is, however, another way to look at the question. We have already suggested that moral relativism, and the larger inability to perceive the ultimate meaningfulness of the universe in which it is embedded, are in fact a product of the alienation engendered by the marketplace. Would it be surprising if a tendency which was already apparent in the petty commodity society of Ancient Athens were to become absolutely overwhelming in our own society, in which market relations have penetrated every sphere of social life? Is it possible that the "harsh verdict of science," far from representing reason's best attempt at the truth, is in fact little more than the spontaneous ideology generated by the market system?

This insight is powerful and compelling, and if we had more time we could demonstrate it convincingly. It does not by itself, however, show that the "verdict" in question is wrong, and that the universe is, in fact, an organized system ordered to a divine telos. For this something more is needed-we must actually make an argument about the organization of the universe. This is a daunting task, but one place to start is with the crisis of Aristotelian physics, the crisis of which, we have argued, was the proximate cause of the crisis of the whole dialectical tradition. As we analyze this crisis, we must keep in mind that Aristotelian science never held a monopoly in the ancient and medieval worlds. Rather it competed with a number of other traditions, including the atomism of Democritus and the Epicureans, and the mathematical rationalism of the Pythagoreans, a tradition continued by Eudoxus and Ptolemy, among others. When it became apparent that Aristotle's physics was unable to produce a unified theory of motion-that it could not reduce to one principle all change, whether celestial or sublunar, natural or violent-there were, fundamentally, two distinct alternatives. One could attempt to generalize the concept of teleology so that it could accommodate phenomena like thrown javelins and decaying corpses-and eventually the astronomical data produced by Copernicus, Tycho, and Kepler, or one could discard teleology entirely in favor of some other paradigm-atomism, for example, or mathematical rationalism, or some amalgam of the two.

We know which road the sciences took and we have seen the implications for philosophy. Most histories, even those which are critical in some ways of mechanistic science, emphasize the progress which was made as a result of this choice. And it is certainly true that authentic knowledge has been produced. But is mechanistic science really any better able than Aristotle was to advance a unified theory of motion? I doubt it. Consider the state of contemporary science. The numerous "theories of everything" notwithstanding, physicists are unable to unify relativity and quantum mechanics, dynamics and thermodynamics-much less to offer a convincing explanation of the emergence of such complex systems as life and intelligence (Tipler 1994, Gal-Or 1987, Prigogine 1977, 1979, 1984). There are, furthermore, good reasons to doubt that modern science really "explains" anything, as opposed to offering a very rigorous mathematical description. All attempts to reduce the mathematical formalisms of physics to necessary principles, from which everything else can be derived, end up in a discourse about an infinity of possible worlds which never even begins to explain our own.

There is a sense in which all complete explanation is ultimately teleological. As Aristotle himself demonstrated, the only principle which can explain everything else, while at the same time fully explaining itself, is one which is infinite, necessary, and perfect, and which moves all things as it draws them to itself, always and only kindling matter's desire for Being. And yet mathematical formalism excludes teleology.

Does this mean that we should abandon modern science and go "back to Aristotle?" Nothing could be less Aristotelian. The particulars of Aristotle's physics have, in many respects, been falsified, and much of modern physics clearly is "true" at least in the sense of offering a rigorous, formal description of the universe. What we need to do is to recognize the limitations of these formalisms from the standpoint of developing a complete explanation and the need to supplement them with explanatory strategies which at least allow that the universe might be ordered to a divine telos. At the same time, the concept of teleology must be expanded so that it can accommodate contradiction, chaos, and disintegration, which are all clearly part of material reality.

It is interesting to note that in recent years there has been progress in both of these areas. The discovery that many fundamentally cosmological constants are "fine tuned" in just the way necessary to make possible the development of complex organization, life, and intelligence, suggests a new openness to teleological thinking (Harris 1991, 1992), even if some of the particular manifestations of this "anthropic cosmology" have been poorly informed philosophically (Barrow and Tipler 1986, Tipler 1994). Recent work in nonlinear dynamics and thermodynamics, meanwhile, especially that of Ilya Prigogine (Prigogine 1977, 1979, 1984) and his collaborators has begun both to build a link between mathematical physics and a doctrine of emergent organization, and to demonstrate the complex interplay between order and chaos in the development of higher levels of organization. Already this work is leading to new departures in cosmology which explicitly reject the pessimism of the standard model and argue for a universe infinite and necessary, and ultimately tending towards perfection (Lerner 1991).

Much of this work may seem far removed from the ethical concerns which motivate most dialecticians, but it is of critical importance, for it represents the only way to resurrect, and indeed to successfully complete, the Socratic project to show that the universe is an organized system, ordered to a divine telos and that this teleology defines, in and of itself, an ethical imperative. We humans are called to wake up, to participate in the cosmohistorical evolutionary process, to develop our own capacities and to add something to the beauty, truth, goodness and integrity of the universe. From here the demonstration that the market fails to optimally allocate resources for this task is simple. The market "knows" only supply and demand, interests and capacities. It is unable to read our latent potential and is blind to the attractive power of the telos. Thus the need for an alternative, the development of which will itself be enriched by a deeper understanding of the way in which complex organization emerges.

And so, the journey continues. The great tradition begun by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle continues to play a critical leading role in the "education of humanity," breaking the chains of illusion and despair engendered by the market system and ordering us to a higher good.

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(1) The Hebrew ba'al comes from a root which means "to own." The term was used interchangeably for the local warlord and the principal local "deity" made in his image-as well as by women for their husbands.

(2) This is a phrase I have heard countless times from colleagues around the world, even those associated with such organizations as the International Society for Universalism and other organizations dedicated, at least in principle, to the dialectical tradition.

(3) A communitarian society is one which has mastered agriculture and has mechanisms for centralizing surplus and investing it to promote the development of human social capacities; in a tributary society a warlord class has developed which extracts surplus through rents, taxes, or forced labor and expends it on warfare and luxury consumption. See Amin 1980, Mansueto 1995.

(4) Foreseeing an unusually good crop of olives one year, he secured control of every olive press in his region, and then demanded monopoly prices for their use-though at least one story suggests that having made his theoretical point he relented and let the presses at their "fair" or "natural" price.


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