Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Art of Equivocation

In a discipline where words are everything, I am amazed by the casual way some words are tossed about. The art of equivocation, where one misguides the reader by alternating between two or more meanings of a particular word without the readers’ knowledge, is the legacy of the Sophists. When used correctly, equivocation changes the entire outcome of history. Thoughts become muddled and social control as easy as eating pie.

Yet, one should note that it is not always the author’s fault. The author’s intentions can be very clear upon writing, but when the reader interprets the words, he mistakes the meaning, confusing the issue at hand. If this confused fellow writes a paper whilst unaware of his confusion, the equivocation strengthens, and continues to the next reader.

I am worried about the word, ‘Dialectic’.

It is a multipurpose word applied with equal vigour to the methodologies of Plato, Hegel, and many other philosophers.

The Oxford English Dictionary says:
Dialectic n.
1. a. The art of critical examination into the truth of an opinion; the investigation of truth by discussion: in earlier English use, a synonym of LOGIC as applied to formal rhetorical reasoning; logical argumentation or disputation.
Originally, the art of reasoning or disputation by question and answer, ‘invented’, according to Aristotle, by Zeno of Elea, and scientifically developed by Plato, by whom the term was used in two senses, (a) the art of definition or discrimination of ‘ideas’, (b) the science which views the inter-relation of the ideas in the light of a single principle ‘the good’; corresponding broadly to logic and metaphysic. By Aristotle the term was confined to the method of probable reasoning, as opposed to the demonstrative method of science. With the Stoics, rhetoric and dialectic formed the two branches of , logic, in their application of the term; and down through the Middle Ages dialectica was the regular name of what is now called ‘logic’, in which sense accordingly dialectic and dialectics were first used in English.

2. In modern Philosophy: Specifically applied by Kant to the criticism which shows the mutually contradictory character of the principles of science, when they are employed to determine objects beyond the limits of experience (i.e. the soul, the world, God); by Hegel (who denies that such contradictions are ultimately irreconcilable) the term is applied (a) to the process of thought by which such contradictions are seen to merge themselves in a higher truth that comprehends them; and (b) to the world-process, which, being in his view but the thought-process on its objective side, develops similarly by a continuous unification of opposites.

The only solid commonality of usage when it comes to Dialectic is that Dialectic is a methodology for arriving at a conclusion. It other words, it’s just a way from getting from idea A to idea B – where B is already decided before the discussion has begun.

As usual, I am not being very charitable to the idea of Dialectic. The Principle of Charity (that is that any dubious nature of the ideas presented must be found in favour of the author presenting them – or something along those lines.) is all well and good, but if one were to apply it too liberally, then the only conclusion possible is that everyone is right and we should all gather round my house for tea and crumpets next Sunday where we can discuss how infallible we all are.

In the Plato classroom, Dialectic means the method of conversation where Plato pretends to be ignorant and through subtle manipulation of the conversation, convinces the interlocutor of how little truth is actually known on the subject at hand. In a Hegel classroom, if indeed there is such a thing, Dialectic would describe a method where two seemingly irreconcilable concepts are evaluated and developed in such a way to find a synthesis between the two. These two instantiations of Dialectic are not exactly identical. In fact, if I wanted to be cheeky, I would say that they are irreconcilable with each other

So, when a professor says that So-And-So is using Dialectic or a Dialectical methodology (because they really do talk that way in the classroom), and I ask said professor, “What do you mean by Dialectic?” They answer “By Dialectic, I mean Dialectic.” I ask again for clarification, this time specifying which kind of Dialectic – the answer is the same. The class moves on to the next topic while I sit there grumpy and confused, because I really do want to know which definition of Dialectic is being expressed in this particular context.

Perhaps the solution is to ban all ambiguous language in philosophy. Yet, that would mean the end to a great deal of philosophers and philosophies. Perhaps we should make a law requiring the specification of ambiguous words – Dialectic would no longer be used on its own, it would always be Platonic Dialectic, Hegelian Dialectic, &c. But then, because so many people were not trained in the difference, many instructors would be forced into retirement. Perhaps, we must do what we have done for the last few hundred years – leave it up to the student to figure it out. Students are smart, right? And we do, after all, have So Much free time on our hands. I’m certain we can muddle through somehow.


unenlightened said...

For me, philosophy starts with vital questions (vital- to do with life) about how to live, and what to be interested in etc -Plato's 'what is good?' It's not about words at all, and if anyone has a philosophy that is all about words it is likely to be neither use nor ornament. Which is not to say you shouldn't be careful about words, but at some point we have to assume that we can understand each other. But when you actually raise a question like that about such a slippery term as 'dialectic', then I think you deserve an answer. Have you tried a large knitting needle applied vigorously to the nether regions?

Reasoning E'Bert said...

Words are important. It is how we express ideas. Ideas left unexpressed are useless to history (and the future).

Keeping ideas to our selves may help us live the good life, but there something lost by not expressing them. We have developed as social animals - we owe what we are to others that came before us and our contemporaries who share their discoveries with us. Do we not owe something to those who will come after us?