Dialectics: Guardian of Logic
by Roger E. Bissell
March 1998, revised February 1999 

[One spin-off of the stimulating Internet discussions of Chris M. Sciabarra's thought and research has been the inspiration for this piece on the nature of the relationship between logic and dialectics. As the reader will note, that relationship is more fundamental and intimate than many might suppose. Without putting too fine a point on it, I will just add here that there is a deep parallel between Gestalt psychology in the field of perception and Aristotelian and Objectivist epistemology in the field of concept-formation. Just as it has been recognized that there is a basic, inescapable connection between "figure" and "background", so is it gradually becoming realized that there is a basic, inescapable connection between "referent" and "context." The main point of the following piece is to call attention to this connection and to argue that we forget or deny it at our peril.]

In exploring Chris Sciabarra's arguments about the nature of dialectics, most people by now are catching on to the fact that its essential characteristic is contextuality and that it requires what may be called "perspectival thinking." In other words, in order not to overlook any important facets of our object of concern, we should take care to look at it from every angle and gather all the data we can, so as to give ourselves a higher likelihood of reaching a good conclusion.

Indeed, dialectics does require perspectival thinking. But rather than acknowledging that this puts dialectics on the soundest possible philosophical footing, some people seem to think instead that this reduces dialectical thinking to triviality—or, as one person called it, "an unenlightening equivalent of good thinking." He invoked "Rand's Question", arguing that he cannot see "the fact of reality that gives rise to the need for the concept of 'dialectics'."

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to cut through this confusion is to clearly outline the deep parallel between dialectics and logic and to show their being complementary, equally necessary components of human thought.

Leonard Peikoff says that "...the same methodology--the avoidance of contradiction—is at the heart of every process of logic..." (Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 119). How is this different in any important way from the characterization of dialectics being, at root, the avoidance of context-dropping? Could we not easily (if perversely) say that the basic injunction to "avoid contradiction" is just as unenlightening as "avoid context-dropping"? Logic, the fair-haired child in the minds and hearts of all right-thinking Objectivists, is tarred by the same brush as its shady sibling, dialectics!

What is the fact of reality that gives rise to the need for logic? Just engage in "good thinking" and you can forget about logic. Oh, you can't engage in good (non-contradictory) thinking without at least implicitly using the principles of logic? Well, then, by the same token, how can you engage in good (non-context-dropping) thinking without at least implicitly using the principles of dialectics?

Seriously, as Chris has already made amply clear, the method of dialectics reflects the nature and needs of human consciousness every bit as much as logic does—and it also reflects the facts of external reality just as logic does. And just as the discipline of logic develops and employs numerous concepts to help one to avoid contradiction in specific situations, so too does the discipline of dialectics develop and employ numerous concepts to help one to avoid context-dropping. So there is a seamless connection between metaphysics, epistemology, and methodology, both for logic and dialectics.

But I'll go further: without dialectics, logic is in peril! Without the means (concepts, principles) to guide one in maintaining context—especially in complicated situations or fields of study—it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to keep one's thought process connected to reality. And as Peikoff aptly states: "If one drops context, one drops the means of distinguishing between truth and fantasy; anyone can then claim to prove anything, however absurd..." (ibid., p. 124). Without dialectics, whence logic?