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  Dialectics (Greek, ‘discussion’) was a method of philosophical reasoning first described in ancient Greece. It consisted of talking logically about abstract matters. The Socratic dialogues of Plato and Xenophon show the method as it was practised in Athens in the 5th century  BCE. There are two approaches, refutation and induction. In the first, the main speaker (in the surviving dialogues, Socrates himself) gets his interlocutors to begin with a statement, and then makes them tease out every possible consequence of it in logical sequence until they reach the point where the statement is shown to be untrue. In the second, the main speaker starts with a general statement and persuades his interlocutors to agree that it is true in a number of specific instances, and therefore (by implication) likely to be true overall. A century later, Aristotle refined the dialectical system (in his book Topics). Now discussion starts from a stated position, or thesis (‘something put forward’), for example ‘virtue is good’ or ‘water is wet’. Arguments are then produced for and against the statement, and a conclusion is reached on the balance of the evidence produced. This is a similar method to that used by debating societies and adversarial systems of law or government in later times, and its drawback is similar, that it is limited not by the objective number of proofs available, but by the knowledge, temper and disposition of those taking part. Aristotle himself recognized this problem, and drew a distinction (in Analytics) between true demonstration (what we might call logical, objective proof) and dialectic itself, which is reasoning from opinion.

In the philosophy and law of many great religions, dialectic is a main method of approach. The discussion, however, is not merely between contemporaries: it takes in the entire weight of statement and opinion of the past, and involves present thinkers considering and commenting on precedents which in some cases stretch right back to statements by the founder of the religion in person. This method gave rise to two systems of religious-based ethics in particular, those of Islam (the shari\'a) and Judaism. From Judaism the dialectical method spread to Christianity, and from there was perverted to the arid scholasticism which passed for intellectual thought in the European Middle Ages. A favourite kind of scholasticism was the ‘disputation’, a system of examination for degree or office in which the candidate reasoned for and/or against selected theses and was rewarded for rhetorical ability rather than for insight. (The prevalence of this method partly explains the hostility to Galileo of his university colleagues: he was abandoning argument by disputation in favour of argument from observation, a process of which they had no experience.)

In more modern philosophy, Hegel described dialectic not merely as a process of reasoning, but as a constant movement in history, in life, in thought, in the working of the universe, from thesis to antithesis and thence to synthesis. It is thus not a human construct but an objective phenomenon, and human reasoning is just one paradigm of a greater whole. One can easily imagine the fun Socrates might have had discussing this unprovable idea. KMcL



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