Dialectics Part II

{A second small review post}

Following on from my first description of the origins of this mainstay of philosophical history. I return to offer you an account of how dialectics went through a couple of transformations through scholasticism and into German Idealism. Such a journey certainly made both the history and practice of dialectics way more interesting than if this part of philosophy had just remained the thing it was in ancient Greece. It rather acquired more characteristics as the younger generations inherited it, critically examined its procedures, and came to leave their own mark on the concept. We will glimpse how medieval thinkers took inspiration from Aristotle and perhaps tried to overcome the pagan’s dialectic or reaffirm its importance. Then we will see it re-emerge at the dawn of that rightly lauded period called the Enlightenment.

“These are “the doctrines” of men and “of demons” produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called “foolishness,” and “chose the foolish things of the world” to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the Aeons, and I known not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system of Valentinus, who was of Plato’s school. From the same source came Marcion’s better god, with all his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics. Then, again, the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans; while the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the aggregate school of all the philosophers; also, when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; and when any doctrine is alleged touching a god of fire, then Heraclitus comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come? Besides the question which Valentinus has very lately proposed–Whence comes God? Which he settles with the answer: From enthymesis and ectroma. Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions–embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!”

You can see an early disagreement with philosophy from a medieval writer. Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics, in chapter 7 ‘Pagan Philosophy the Parent of Heresies: The Connection between Deflections from Christian Faith and the Old Systems of Pagan Philosophy’ demonstrates an extremely discriminatory perspective towards his elders. Maybe his attack might have made dialectics seem inherently anti-christian; if indeed the medieval populace were so urgently seeking a break from the past? Yet, history showed a different turn of events and thankfully dialectics were embraced into the beliefs of the Christian faith by way of calmer, cooler, and stronger minds. If anything Tertullian’s pagan bashing succumbed to its own accusatory register. You can see this in this authors use of the words ectroma (ἔκτρωμα) meaning ‘abortion’ and enthymesis (ἐνθύμησις) carrying the meaning of ‘emphasizing’. Apparently, those in the Medieval period had a concept of a specific kind of literature. A use of language dependent on the author’s mood, their vitality; thought to be a source of desire. You can see how Tertullian intended to use this in his polemic. But, his attack failed to be comprehensibly dismissive and so who rescued dialectics?

St. Augustine for one made short work of molding pagan reasoning to suit his church and its creed. In a detailed article on an online encyclopedia I read that Augustine’s most successful attempts to do this can be observed in his City of God (De Civitate Dei) but most of this bishops texts offer us an opportunity to see dialectics in a state of transformation. Next to the distinction between spiritual and worldly knowledge (Sapientia/Scientia) we can appreciate how revelation and heresies are to be experienced and/or overcome. Dr. Samantha. E. Thompson showed us how it was Augustine’s dependency, need, and obsession with order that ultimately led him to a clarity of reasoning. The stand of and irreconcilability between two equal causes of suffering from sinfulness: 1) ‘sin is inherently self-damaging’, and notion 2) ‘God gives suffering in response to sin’ gave Dr. Thompson the dilemma her doctorate resolved. Her conclusion states.

‘…the expression of Augustine’s conviction that universal order is unassailable; even the degradation that the natural account describes must follow rules, and since the author of all rules is God, God is at work when he is rejected. But this is not simply because God is creator and so whatever happens in the world is his will. Rather the way things unfold reflects what he is: a simple unity, of which orderliness – including even the laws governing suffering – is a changeable imitation.’

Paraphrasing this insight in the doctoral thesis’s conclusion leads one to say that Dr. Thompson showed us how medieval dialectics enacts a radically rigorous reasoning. Supporting their Christian God by way of argumentative evidence for the believer’s faith shows dialectics at work. It should be quickly noted that St. Thomas Aquinas is responsible for raising Aristotle’s teachings to be equal to Neo-Platonism at this time. Here we are focusing on Augustine but his fellow Christian Aquinas could be just as easily cited as evidence for a distinctively Christian dialectic.

Looking back at the last quotation we can infer that the Christian faith enacts a precedent by welding power to a correct form of faith. Thus a kind of legality arises whereby God’s presence in the worlds of the believer and non-believer is secured by exceedingly powerful similes: we humans are fallen, have sinful potential, and light or sight makes truths into the truth. Returning to oneness and seeking a deeply certain conclusion on the nature of God proved fruitful to others who came after these two Saints. Both Anselm of Canterbury and Blaise Pascal gave arguments defending the existence of God. Perhaps I am over-simplifying them by saying the first uses the “necessity” of being and the second the “possibility” of such believing in such a being. Let’s start with Anselm’s classical and original Ontological argument:

  1. ‘It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).’
  2. ‘God exists as an idea in the mind.’
  3. ‘A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.’
  4. ‘Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).’
  5. ‘But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)’
  6. Quod erat demonstrandum: ‘Therefore, God exists.’        

Here we can see clearly this distinctly Christian dialectic at work. Look closely at how the argument progresses from a definition towards a contradiction which affirms the initial definition. The reasoning is special because it connects God’s greatness to observable qualities of his existence; evident by preposition 3. Although impressive for many reasons there are obvious flaws with Anselm’s argument: mainly the ambiguity why God should necessarily denote this particular being which non-greater can be imagined. Other beings could be supplemented in his place? Yet, if we let the argument remain as a strong assertion on imagination’s importance to how we understand what is then it remains somewhat authoritative.

The concept of possibility is also central to the how this ontological argument functions. Blaise Pascal developed it into his thoughts on believing in God. ‘Pascal’s Wager’ is the name for the argument that suggests it is more beneficial for the believer than the non-believer because you loose nothing if it turns out God doesn’t exist your belief in God provides a greater probability of a positive outcome. The non-believer has a greater risk because if God exists one may suffer from the lack of faith. Whereas believing in God’s existence is a win win situation because you pay no price if God does not exist; this in turn connects nicely with Dr. Thompson’ insight into the universal laws St. Augustine’s thinking inferred.    

Having provided some sources and points with medieval thinkers the next step of Dialectics and it’s ongoing historical transformation was to take place in Germany at a place where theology was thriving and philosophy acquired unique and influential new perspectives. In Königsberg and a little later in Tübingen, Immanuel Kant and George W.F. Hegel made long-lasting, important, and nuanced contributions to this ongoing tradition in Philosophy. In this next post I hope that referencing such well known figures I can discover fresh paths of inquiry. In the third part of this excavation of Dialectics we will see how Immanuel Kant almost completely destroyed the ontological argument and how this gave German Idealism a special quality.


I. “scholastic quaestiones disputatae in medieval universities. In every faculty, masters were obliged to hold scholastic disputations on fixed days of the academic year. The rules of this technique were learned in the faculty of arts; the art was acquired in the same faculty through disputations de sophismatibus. In the lower faculty of arts it was important for the student to recognize false or sophistical arguments and to distinguish logical terms in proper form. The rigid form of scholastic disputations prevented the one objecting (obiiciens ) from straying afield and forced the one responding (respondens ) to answer to the point. This dialectic between student objectors and a bachelor respondent was resolved by the determination of the master who presided over the disputation.”

Also sourced from: Encyclopedia.com/ Dialectics in the Middle Ages

II. St. Augustine’s works the ‘City of God’ and the ‘Confessions’ are popular parts of the philosophical literature. It is also worth noting that he wrote on the importance of music in his ‘De Musica’. I learned this by reading David P. Goldman’s essay on ‘Beethoven and Freedom’, where he mentions how Kant’s aesthetic notions of the sublime and beauty differ from that of his Greek forebears.  

III. For those of you who seek to learn more of the maverick Blaise Pascal why not listen to a bbc podcast on the man’s life: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03b2v6m

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