John Rowan: Dialectical Thinking

Dialectics is a form of thought which goes back a long way. In the West, Heraclitus in Ancient Greece was aware of it, and in the East, there are a number of thinkers who practised it. The Tao-Te-Ching is a good example of dialectical writing.

The first characteristic of dialectical thinking is that it places all the emphasis on change. Instead of talking about static structures, it talks about process and movement. Hence it is in line with all those philosophies which say – “Let’s not be deceived by what it is is now as we perceive it – let’s not pretend we can fix it and label it and turn it into something stiff and immutable – let’s look instead at how it changes.” Hence it denies much of the usefulness of formal logic, which starts from the proposition that “A is A,” and is nothing but A. For dialectics the corresponding proposition is “A is not simply A.” This is even true for things, but much more obviously true for people.

But the second characteristic, which sets it apart from any philosophy which emphasises smooth continuous change or progress, is that it states that the way change takes place is through conflict and opposition. Dialectics is always looking for the contradictions within people or situations as the main guide to what is going on and what is likely to happen. There are in fact three main propositions which are put forward about opposites and contradictions.

The interdependence of opposites This is the easiest thing to see: opposites depend on one another. It wouldn’t make sense to talk about darkness if there were no such thing as light. I really start to understand my love at the moment when I permit myself up understand my hate. In practice, each member of a polar opposition seems to need the other to make it what it is.

The interpenetration of opposites Here we see that opposites can be found within each other. Just because light is relative to darkness, there is some light in every darkness, and some darkness in every light. There is some hate in every love, and some love in every hate. If we look into one thing hard enough, we can always find its opposite right there. To see this frees us from the “either-or” which can be so oppressive and so stuck.

The unity of opposites So far we have been talking about relative opposites. But dialectics goes on to say that if we take an opposite to its very ultimate extreme, and make it absolute, it actually turns into its opposite. Thus if we make darkness absolute, we are blind – we can’t see anything. And if we make light absolute, we are equally blind and unable to see. In psychology, the equivalent of this is to idealise something. So if we take love to its extreme, and idealise it, we get morbid dependence, where our whole existence depends completely on the other person. And if we take hate to its extreme, and idealise it, we get morbid counterdependence, where our whole existence again depends completely on the other person. This appreciation of paradox is one of the strengths of the dialectical approach, which makes it superior to linear logic.

A good symbol for these three processes is the Yin-Yang symbol of Taoism. The interdependence of opposites is shown in each half being defined by the contours of the other. The interpenetration of opposites is expressed by having a black spot in the innermost centre of the white area, and a white spot in the innermost centre of the black area. The unity of opposites is shown by the circle surrounding the symbol, which expresses total unity and unbroken serenity in and through all the seeming opposition. It is, after all, one symbol.

The lessons of the dialectic are hard ones. It tells us that any value we have, if held to in a one-sided way, will become an illusion. We shall try to take it as excluding its opposite, but really it will include it. And if we take it to its extreme, and idealise it, it will turn into its opposite. So peace and love, cosmic harmony, the pursuit of happiness and all the rest are doomed, if held to in this exclusive way.

The only values which will be truly stable and coherent are those which include opposition rather than excluding it. And all such values appear to be nonsense, because they must contain paradoxes. “Self-actualization” is one such value, because the concept of the self is self-contradictory, paradoxical and absurd. The self is intensely personal and completely impersonal at one and the same time. It is the lowest of the low and the highest of the high at the same time. And this is why, when we contact the self in a peak experience, our description of what happened is invariably a paradoxical one.

There is a logic of paradox, which enables the intellect to handle it without getting fazed, and its name is the dialectic. It is complex because it involves holding the spring doors of the mind open – hence it often tries to say everything at once. But it shows how we do not have to give up in the face of paradox and abandon the intellect as a hopeless case.


How does one actually use dialectical thinking in everyday life? Some say that dialectics is not for everyday life at all – it has to do with “ideas of the horizon” where we are dealing with concepts that are at the very limits of human thought. For everyday life, they say, formal logic is good enough. But I think humanistic psychology has shown us that you can use dialectical thinking even for walking, or driving, or eating, or playing tennis, or any other everyday activity.

TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED This is one of the most important principles of humanistic psychology. All the time one is questioning the fixed categories, the rigid “shoulds,” the congealed knowledge that stops one seeing the world. Our beliefs are the greatest obstacle to clear perception, and the more we can unfocus from them, the more we can let in.

SPONTANEITY Again a crucial concept, which dialectical thinking makes easy to understand and easy to do, intellectually, emotionally and intuitively. Spontaneity is obviously a paradoxical quality, which you can only aim at by letting go.

TRANSFORMATION OF QUALITY INTO QUANTITY This important idea states that by simply adding things, we can eventually arrive at something quite different. In therapy, going intensively into one side of a conflict often brings us more vividly into the other; and if we push the whole conflict hard enough and far enough, a whole new vision may appear.

BREAKING PATTERNS So the main practical application of the dialectic is in breaking fixed patterns of thought and behaviour. Every time you adopt a regular pattern of washing, dressing, eating and so on, you are avoiding reality. But if awareness of these activities increases, the amount of play involved in them is also likely to increase. Taking responsibility for our actions is choosing our life, and this usually feels good. You can be responsible and playful at the same time, and this is one of the paradoxes in which dialectics delights.

Esterson, Aaron (1972) The leaves of Spring: A study in the dialectics of madness Penguin Books, London An excellent account of how to use a dialectical approach in detailed research on a family. Very detailed and explicit, relating a dialectical approach to the dayto-day practice of dealing with the family.

Graham, Pauline (ed)(1995) Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of management Harvard Business School Press, Boston Marvellous collection of her writings, with helpful and up-to-date comments by people like Peter Drucker, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Warren Bennis and others.

Hampden-Turner, Charles (1981) Maps of the mind Mitchell Beazley, London A brilliant account of how dialectical thinking can be used to illuminate different fields of psychology. At first this looks like one of those “Meet 144 Great Thinkers” books, but as soon as you start reading, it becomes clear that it is Hampden-Turner’s own book, bouncing his ideas off other thinkers.

[See Spirituality and Revolution by John Rowan]