What is Dialectic?

Perhaps the most enduring gift that Plato has left us is to show us through his dialogues a mean of conversing, a means of effective dialogue where two parties can work together to reach a truth that neither of them could get to on their own. This way of inquiry in Plato’s dialogues is called Dialectic or the Socratic Method.

So what is Dialectic?

Those of you who have read some of the Plato’s dialogues know – they are in the form of a conversation between two or more people. In most of the dialogues Socrates is one of the characters and tends to take the role of questioning the assumptions of the person he is speaking to. The famous saying of Socrates “The unexamined life is not work living” comes to mind. But it often difficult to examine our own assumptions – we are almost too close to them. An external friendly questioner can perhaps move this process along in a way that on our own would take much longer or not be possible.

In some of Plato’s dialogues via this questioning the interlocker comes to see the inconsistencies of their own position. It is not perhaps always a direct path to knowledge, but it is at least a first step in seeing there is a knowledge gap and trigger a motivation to pursue the inquiry. This can be an emotional challenge – Callicles eventually refuses to continue the discussion in the Gorgias!.

There is a Greek term Aporia – where the argument breaks down due to logical inconsistencies – this is uncomfortable place for us to get to – our understanding on something has been called into question – but we have not got anything to replace it with. So the process may not be entirely comfortable and we must be prepared for that.

An understanding of the dialectic process has to come from a practical engagement with it – i.e. trying it out in your day to day conversations –

Here are some suggestions to get you started -

Dialectic Maxims

  • The aim is to uncover the truth, not to win an argument. This is a joint endeavor.
  • By willing to be proved wrong if found to be in error
  • Really understand the viewpoint of another person
  • Question all assumptions about the issue rather than proceeding from those assumptions.
  • Accepts the possibility the that the other party is just as likely to be right as you are
  • In the discovery of truth good questions are more powerful than lengthy speeches.