— Counter-Currents —

Notes on Philosophical Dialectic

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Part 1 of 2

The concept of philosophical dialectic is quite mysterious and intimidating. Even among professional philosophers, dialectic often has connotations of mysticism, obscurantism, and slight of hand. I wish to dispel this aura. I will lay out the elements of philosophical dialectic by looking at specific arguments in Plato’s Republic[1] and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right[2] and then employ Heidegger’s account of the hermeneutic circle Being and Time and Husserl’s account of the logic of parts and wholes in his Logical Investigations to clarify the dialectical process. 

1. Dialogue and Dialectic in Plato’s Republic, Book 1

For Plato, philosophy is the love—meaning the pursuit—of wisdom. For Plato, wisdom is not an art, but the pursuit of wisdom is an art, and the name of that art is dialectic. Philosophical dialectic is a process of articulating and defining a concept, such as piety in the Euthyphro or justice in the Republic.

Let us look at two examples of Plato’s dialectic in Republic, Book 1, where Socrates examines three defitions of justice: Cephalus says that justice is honesty in word and deed and paying what one owes (331 a-b), Polemarchus holds that justice is helping friends and harming enemies (332d), and Thrasymachus claims that justice is the advantage of the stronger (338b). I wish to focus on Socrates’s treatment of the first two definitions.

Let’s begin with Cephalus’ definition. Cephalus claims that money helps one to be just because:

The possession of money contributes a great deal to not having to cheat or lie to any man against one’s will, and, moreover, to not having to depart for that other place frightened because one owes some sacrifices to a god or money to a human being (331 a-b)

Socrates, however, doubts that this can be an adequate account of justice, saying “[A]s to justice, shall we so simply assert that it is the truth and giving back what a man has taken from another, or is to do these very things sometimes just and sometimes unjust?” (331 c).

First, there is a concept, justice, which is to be articulated in concrete terms. Second, a possible articulation is put forward by Cephalus. Third, Socrates provisionally totalizes this articulation, asking if Cephalus’ account is all there is to justice. Fourth, using his imagination, Socrates constructs a scenario in which Cephalus’ account is “clearly seen” as inadequate:

Take this case as an example of what I mean: everyone would surely say that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just, and, moreover, one should not be willing to tell someone in this state the whole truth. (331 c-d)

Here Socrates puts forward a situation in which “everyone would surely say” that justice cannot be identified with returning what one borrows or telling the truth. Granted, these are parts of justice, but they are not the whole thing.

But how do we know this? By what criterion does this counterexample gain universal assent? Clearly, the argument presupposes that we always-already know what justice is, albeit in an inarticulate way, but still in such a way that we can judge the adequacy of our articulations by reference to this inarticulate grasp.

Having assented to Socrates’s refutation, Cephalus bows out in order to pay his debts to the gods, allowing his son and heir Polemarchus to inherit the discussion.

Polemarchus too sees the inadequacy of his father’s account and seeks to supplement it by recasting it in terms that are not subject to the same counterexample. His new formulation is: justice is helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies.

Socrates responds to this formulation as follows. First, he draws out of Polemarchus the premise that each art pursues its particular good. The doctor is good at curing, the shoemaker at making shoes, the pilot at steering a ship. Each man is good at these things qua member of his profession, not just qua man. What, then, asks Socrates, is a just man good at qua just man? Polemarchus answers that the just man is good at safeguarding the wealth of his friends. Clearly, though, Socrates says, this makes justice rather trivial. And clearly it does. Polemarchus readily assents.

Socrates then goes on to argue further that, if the just man qua just man is good at guarding treasure, then his same expertise would also make him good at stealing treasure. This follows from the commonplace belief among the Greeks that any art gives one command over contraries: medical knowledge, for instance, can be used both to cure and to kill, to alleviate pain and to inflict it. But again, Socrates points out, this is clearly an inadequate account of justice, and Polemarchus assents, saying “I no longer know what I did mean. However, it is still my opinion that justice is helping friends and harming enemies” (334b).

Socrates then presses forward, introducing a distinction between true and false friends and true and false enemies.

True friends are just and true enemies unjust. False friends, however, are unjust and false enemies are just (or at least they have never done any harm). On Polemarchus’ account, though, justice as helping friends and harming enemies might lead to helping false friends who are not just and harming false enemies who have done nothing unjust. But this means that justice can consist in rewarding injustice and harming those who have done no wrong. Justice on Polemarchus’ account can, in short, involve doing injustice. But clearly this cannot be the case; clearly this cannot be the whole story. Polemarchus, therefore, revises and supplements his account to make it invulnerable to this objection. Socrates sums up Polemarchus’ supplementation of his earlier account as follows.

You order us to add something to what we said at first about the just. Then we said that it is just to do good to the friend and harm to the enemy, while now we are to say in addition that it is just to do good to the friend, if he [really] is good, and harm to the enemy, if he [really] is bad. (335a)

Socrates responds to this revised account as follows. If justice is doing harm to those who are truly bad—and if doing harm to the truly bad makes the bad worse—then justice consists in making the unjust even less just through justice. But, again, this is clearly a bad account of justice. Justice qua justice surely cannot make the unjust even more unjust. This is analogous to saying that the art of music qua music can make the unmusical even less musical, and the art of medicine qua medicine can make the sick even more sick.[3] Clearly, in these cases, we would say that the arts of music and medicine had miscarried; they went out of commission and were replaced by their opposites.[4] The same is true for justice. Justice can make the unjust more unjust not qua justice, but only qua miscarriage of justice, i.e., injustice. To claim, therefore, that justice involves harming the unjust is simply a contradiction. Polemarchus’ account, therefore, is clearly inadequate. At this point, Polemarchus gives up, Thrasymachus leaps in, and we break off.

To sum up, Platonic dialectic is the following process.

  1. We begin with an inarticulate grasp of an idea or concept. The goal of dialectic is to fully articulate this knowledge.
  2. Then we venture a provisional articulation.
  3. We then test this articulation by comparing it to our inarticulate grasp. We have the capacity to simply “see” whether an articulation is adequate or not. Any serious attempt to articulate an idea we already possess implicitly will be at least partially true. Thus the way to test it is by totalizing it, by asking whether or not the proferred definition is not just part but the whole of justice, piety, etc. The way to test such a totalized definition is to use one’s knowledge of history, literature, and common sense to generate counterexamples: instances or scenarios that perfectly exemplify the definition that we are testing, but which reveal the definition to be incomplete in light of the very inarticulate grasp that we are trying to put into words.
  4. Then, as each account is shown to be inadequate, it is then supplemented by additional distinctions or elements—finer and finer articulations.
  5. This process can be repeated, until, it is hoped, we finally approach a complete articulation of the concept at hand, at which time dialectic grinds to a halt because no problems can be generated in terms of which the final account can be shown to be inadequate. 

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770–1831

2. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Now let us compare the dialectic of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right to Plato’s. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel states that “The subject-matter of the philosophical science of right is the Idea (Idee) of right, i.e., the Concept (Begriff) of right together with the actualization of that Concept” (PR 14).[5]

Concept + Concrete Actualization = Idea.

What Hegel means by the “actualization” of the Concept of right is its concrete realization in social institutions and practices. For Hegel, therefore, an Idea is nothing abstract. Concepts are abstract, but Ideas are the concrete actualization of Concepts—the world transformed in light of Concepts. Hegel sees history as the process by which Concepts like freedom are realized concretely through human action, including the scientific and technological conquest of nature and the creation of an increasingly man-made, artificial world. The implicit logic of the process of actualizing Concepts is dialectic. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel seeks to articulate the dialectical logic by which the modern state emerged.

Hegel considers the abstract Concept of right to be empty, indeterminate, and infinite. It has no parts, or joints between parts. Hegel considers the Idea of right to be fully determinate and finite, as well as concrete. It is fully articulated into all of its parts, and the boundaries between them are clearly delimited.

The concepts of articulation, finitude, and determinacy are related, for articulation means the breaking up of something into parts along “joints.” In the same way, finitude means having bounds or limits; finitude breaks up the unlimited and unbounded—the infinite—into distinct parts, along joints. So too does determinacy, which means having defined limits, and which breaks up the unlimited and unfixed—the inarticulate, the infinite—into distinct parts, with defined limits, along joints.

The process of dialectic, therefore, is the process whereby the indeterminate, infinite, inarticulate and abstract Concept becomes progressively articulated, defined (finitized), and determined—and then concretely realized—until one reaches the Idea.

It is often claimed that Hegel’s phenomenology is not “reflective” but “speculative,” meaning that the Hegelian phenomenologist does not turn inward and reflect upon how things show up to us, or our ways of involvement with the world, but rather he simply looks outward at the Concept’s self-generation of determinations. It is also commonly claimed that Hegel’s phenomenology is presuppositionless, i.e., that it presupposes no determinate content, but simply the indeterminate Concept, which then generates determinations of its own internal “motion” without any external input on the part of the investigator.[6]

I wish, however, to argue that Hegel’s dialectic is actually much more “transcendental” than either he or his anti-foundationalist followers have claimed. Specifically, I wish to argue that a careful examination of actual dialectical arguments indicates that Hegel’s speculation is actually a form of reflection, i.e., (1) that all of the determinations of the Idea are latent in the Concept, such that Hegel’s dialectic can also be understood as explicative, as moving from the implicit to the explicit, and (2) that the implicit Concept is “possessed” by the dialectical investigator in such a way that dialectic is not the self­explication of the Concept, but rather the self-explication of the implicit knowledge of the dialectical investigator himself.

I also will argue that that Hegel’s dialectic is not presuppositionless at all, but rather represents the most advanced possible form of “dogmatism” or “positivism,” i.e., Hegel does not simply presuppose as “given” the rather innocuous determinate contents discussed by various empiricists—i.e., sense data, percepts, etc.—but rather Hegel presupposes all the contents of his philosophical system are given, but they are given implicitly in the history of Western civilization, including both commonsense knowledge and the heights of our tradittions of art, religion, philosophy, science, and jurisprudence.

I should, however, note that Hegel’s approach is indeed presuppositionless, if one narrows the meaning of the word “presupposition” to refer only to explicit presuppositions, i.e., articulated premises. If, however, one uses “presupposition” as I do, to refer to all suppositions, articulate and inarticulate, then Hegel’s method is definitely not presuppositionless. The point, of course, though, is not to get bogged down in debates about what words like “presupposition” “really” mean, but rather to stipulate a defensible usage for the word and stick to it consistently.

Consider, first, the dialectic of the will in the Introduction to the Philosophy of Right. Hegel sets his dialectic in motion by observing a seeming paradox in the free will. A will is intentional; in order to be a will, it must will something determinate. But insofar as it wills something determinate, it is in turn determined by that object. The will becomes the will-to-X. It seems, however, that the freedom of the will consists in its indeterminacy, its non-identification with any particular object, its refusal to be tied down. Hence we arrive at the paradox of the free will. In order to be, the will must will something; but in order to be free, it must not will anything in particular. The way out of this paradox is to specify determinate conditions for freedom itself. The only determinate object that a will can will and yet remain free are the determinate conditions of freedom itself. Articulating the conditions of freedom—the whole set of institutions and practices that concretely realize the Concept freedom in the world—i.e., the Idea of freedom—is the task of the Philosophy of Right.

Hegel’s question is: What is a free will? This is neither a merely conceptual question nor a merely empirical one. It does not ask simply about the Concept of the free will, thus it cannot be answered adequately by giving a simple definition or “linguistic analysis” of the words “free” and “will.” Nor does it ask simply about the concrete existence of the free will, thus it cannot be answered adequately by simply pointing to a concrete instance of a free will. Rather, the question asks after the Idea of the free will, meaning a full articulation of the elements of a free will and the concrete conditions for its actualization.

In order to answer this question, Hegel puts forth a several possible accounts of the concrete conditions for the actualization of a free will. But Hegel’s exposition is deeply frustrating. On the one hand, we know that Hegel has something called a “dialectic,” which is the logic of the transitions between the different positions of his system. But on the other hand, when we look at Hegel’s page, we see a list of different concepts, with various elucidations, asides, and additions. But the transitions between them are not very clear. But then nothing in Hegel is very clear.

Hegel’s text comes to life, however, if we, in effect, imagine how Socrates might get from one step to another. In short, we have to enter into Hegel’s text, drawing upon our pre-existing although inarticulate knowledge of freedom, and generate counter-examples based on history, literature, and common sense.

So, for instance, Hegel’s first account of freedom draws upon a real aspect of a free will: the sensuous immediacy of feeling, emotion, and appetite. This is what Hegel calls the natural will. Is the natural will an adequate account of the Idea of freedom? Does it fully articulate the moments of the Idea? Granted, it captures a part of the story, but does it capture the whole story? How do we know that it captures a part? How do we verify Hegel’s assertion? The answer: Through our own experience of being creatures who will.

In order to determine the adequacy of the natural will as an account of the free will, one cannot simply “look on” at the self-development of the Concept. Rather, one must intervene, so to speak, in Hegel’s text. One must first and provisionally take the natural will to be a complete account of the free will, and then ask whether or not this generates any problems. If we range over our past experiences and our knowledge of literature and history and then augment them with our imaginations, we can generate plausible situations in which the natural will can be seen clearly to fail to account adequately for the free will.

For instance, it is clearly possible to conceive of a situation in which a human being is enslaved through a combination of blind fear and the appetite for the basic requirements of life: food, clothing, shelter, etc. Also, it is clearly possible to conceive of situations in which one’s impulses conflict with one another, paralyzing one’s ability to act. Furthermore, it is possible to have so many different desires that one is paralyzed in their face. In such cases the natural will leads us to slavery, not to freedom; therefore, the natural will cannot be anything more than a part of an adequate account of freedom. It is not the whole story; therefore, it needs to be supplemented by other factors to yield a more adequate account. And how do we know that an account is fully adequate? When its concrete realization is stable and self-sufficient, rather than unstable and requiring supplementation from outside. The idea of freedom, therefore, is an enduring concrete social whole, a substance that stands on its own rather than needing external props. But the natural will cannot stand on its own. It cancels itself out.

Thus we move forward to Hegel’s next account: the arbitrary will. Following one’s feelings is an inadequate account of freedom, because one’s feelings can also lead one into slavery. Thus we have to do more than feel. We have to think about the consequences of our actions and choose the feelings we follow and the feelings we ignore. Thus we arrive at the idea of the arbitrary will, the will that chooses. Hegel’s notion of the arbitrary will is basically modern economic man, who uses reason (instrumental reason and the power to choose) to maximize his enjoyment of his “given preferences” (one’s feelings, one’s natural will).

But we have to ask: is economic man really free? Obviously, there are circumstances in which economic men can make deals and sign contracts by which they use their freedom. Beyond that, the answer hinges on the status of the “given preferences” one seeks to satisfy. Is one really free if one’s reason and choices are confined solely to maximizing one’s enjoyment of preferences that are just there? Our given preferences are either natural or conventional, but in both cases, if they are simply given to us by nature or society, are we really free if reason and choice are in effect slaves to preferences that we do not choose? We may choose among them. We may suppress some altogether. But that is only to better pursue other given preferences. But what if the values that are sold to us are concocted to degrade, enslave, or destroy us? What if our ideas of what is cool or fashionable or moral are produced by people who resent, despise, and wish to destroy us? Obviously, maximizing our enjoyment of such values is not freedom, but a sick form of bondage in which we take pride in pursuing our own destruction.

Thus the economic model fails to be true freedom, because on it we do not choose our preferences. They are simply given to us. To be truly free, we must choose what we value, not merely how to gain or keep given values. True freedom involves choice of ends, not merely choice of means. We need to know that our given preferences really are good. Thus we arrive at the next step of Hegel’s dialectic, which holds that true freedom is willing what is objectively good, what we ought to want, rather than what we simply think we want. Now, Plato, Rousseau, and Kant give differing accounts of basically the same viewpoint, but in Hegel’s case, the true object of the free will is the Idea of freedom, which is the social and political system set forth in the Philosophy of Right.

Now these transitions between different accounts of freedom aren’t actually in Hegel’s text, but they are suggested by it. They are also consistent with Hegel’s ideas and methods, and they actually get us to the next stage of the argument. In sum, the following elements are present in Hegel’s dialectic. There is (1) the Concept of freedom which is being articulated into (2) the Idea of freedom. There is then (3) an attempt to articulate the Concept of freedom as the natural will. This account is then tested by (4) totalizing it provisionally in order to (5) determine whether or not it can stand on its own or if it fails. Then (6) a hypothetical situation is generated using personal experience, history, and imagination in which the natural will can be clearly seen to be an incomplete account of the free will. At this point, the incomplete account is (7) supplemented by other factors to yield a new, more complete and stable account which is then put to the test as in (4).

My question is: In virtue of what can the natural will or the arbitrary will be “clearly seen” to be inadequate accounts of the free will? How do we know this? What is the criterion that is being appealed to? Why do we not instead simply say that what appears to be slavery must “really” be freedom, because acting on the dictates of the natural will or the arbitrary will just is freedom, whether one is cowering before a whip or lolling around on heroin or actively maximizing one’s ingestion of poisonous pseudo-values?

I submit that we can “clearly see” that X is an inadequate account of free will only if we always already know what a free will is. But we do not, of course, know it explicitly (or we would not be groping for a definition), but “implicitly.” By “implicit” knowledge I do not mean any sort of articulate or “conceptual” knowledge. Rather, by implicit knowledge, I mean an inarticulate, preconceptual knowledge. Things that we know but have not said. In this case, we are able to judge concepts of free will simply because human beings have free wills. The Concept of a free will does not, therefore, stand apart from the investigator. Rather, the Concept is simply Hegel’s name for the pre-reflective, inarticulate grasp of the human condition that we all have because we are human.

And, since for Hegel human being is historical being, our grasp of being human includes our tacit understanding of the cultures and traditions that are part of us. And if the Concept of the free will does not stand apart from the investigator, then the speculative investigator does not simply gaze outward at the self-articulation of the Concept. Rather, he reflectively turns inward and articulates the Concept that is part of who he is. The Concept is self-articulating only insofar as it is part of a self striving for self-understanding.

I believe that this basic structure is present throughout the Philosophy of Right: through the dialectic of the will in the Introduction, in the progression from abstract right to morality to ethical life, and in the internal articulation of ethical life into the moments of family, civil society, and state. At each step of the dialectic a partial articulation of the Concept can be tested against our tacit knowledge of it by using reflection, history, science, and imagination to generate scenarios in which the inadequacy of the account in question is demonstrated. The inadequate account is then supplemented by other elements and the resulting new account is tested again until, finally, the Concept is wholly explicated into the Idea, which is not just a system of Concepts, but a concrete social and political whole that is complete, stable, and does not need to be patched or propped up from outside.


1. Plato, Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), henceforth cited by Stephanus number(s).

2. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952).

3. But does this not follow from the commonplace belief that an art gives one mastery over contraries?

4. What Plato is pointing out here is the impossibility of reducing moral questions to technical questions. Techne gives us the mastery over contraries. Medicine gives us the power to cure and to kill. But this power does not determine whether or not we should cure or kill. This is a distinctly moral—or, better, ethical—question, a question that refers us ultimately to the possibilities of the souls in which arts inhere.

5. Throughout this essay, I shall capitalize the words Idea and Concept when they refer specifically to Hegel’s technical conceptions of Idee and Begriff.

6. For forceful statements of these positions, see any number of works by Richard Dien Winfield, such as “The Route to Foundation-Free Systematic Philosophy,” and “Hegel Versus the New Orthodoxy,’’ in his Overcoming Foundations: Studies in Systematic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) and “Hegel’s Remedy for the Impasse of Contemporary Phi1osophy,” Reason Papers 16 (1991): 115–32.