Dialectic is a technique where two or more people with opposing opinions come together to flesh out meaning by positing seemingly accurate or true statements and definitions, then dividing and picking them apart to get to the real gist of what is being discussed.

     Originating in ancient Greece and popular with Plato, dialectic is essentially reasoned argumentation whose purpose is to ultimately discover truth. Dialectical rules are intrinsically intertwined with the Socratic method, where people with oppositional viewpoints pose questions to one another to try to come to a consensus and, hopefully, arrive at truth.

     Other larger encyclopedias and dictionaries have defined dialectic in thought provoking ways. Merriam-Webster initially defines this concept as logic, moving on to more specific notions like “ discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation,” and “any systematic reasoning, exposition, or argument that juxtaposes opposed or contradictory ideas and usually seeks to resolve their conflict” [definitions 2a and 5a, respectively] (“Dialectic”).

     This method is prevalent in higher education classrooms where classmates aim to arrive at understanding and learning new, complex concepts. The process of dialectic, with its division of definitions that get to the basic units of meaning, ultimately creates a deeper understanding of difficult concepts – the best way to demonstrate clear comprehension of something is to be able to talk it through dialectically. 


Textual Examples:


     A very important example of dialectic is Plato’s Gorgias.  Interestingly, in this text, Plato introduces the notion of rhetoric to plot it against philosophy and only to dismiss it as a pseudo-art. In this dialogue, Gorgias claims to be a rhetorician and Polus is his student. However, early on in Gorgias Socrates and Gorgias agree that rhetoric is the artificer of persuasion, and it is this distinction that separates it from knowledge. For Socrates, rhetoric is oration - skillful speech that possesses no truth. The lack of truth is what keeps rhetoric from dialectic, whose aim is to make distinctions, tease them out through critical questioning, and ultimately arrive at truth. This all comes to a head when the idea of teaching is introduced. If Gorgias is teaching Polus rhetoric, but rhetoric is only a means by which a person can manipulate others through flattery and, in the end, possesses no knowledge, what is he teaching Polus? According to Plato, this method will not teach students to think – only through the Socratic method – dialectic- can a student be taught to think. Instead of making speeches, Socrates would insist on asking questions about how to properly configure the relationship between persuasion and knowledge. When a person asks questions, he builds knowledge and gets closer to the truth. If he comes to a contradiction, he can learn from it, and then grow further because of the change in topic that comes after contradiction in dialectic.

[To read entire dialectic, go to http://classics.mit.edu//Plato/gorgias.html]




     To participate in dialectic effectively, there is a clear set of rules that need to be followed. Fundamentals of dialectic are having one person ask questions, while the other person answers them, questioning all statements without making assumptions about anything, and if the participants arrive at a contradiction, the conversation ends or changes course. Other important rules of dialectic would include defining words before using them to ensure each party knows what is meant by that word, which also applies to changing subjects – each party needs to be clear and have come to a consensus about the current subject before the dialectic can take on a new one. This is the only way the dialectic can continue to move forward toward a conclusion.

     It is important to use only simple questions formed with simple language, favoring brevity for the sake of being clear instead of using complex questions. Also, the questioner cannot “lead” the conversation or other participant. Dialectic, if the aim is to discover truth or the closest thing to truth, needs to unfold organically and should not be guided down a specific path. The use of analogies and distinctions are essential because they can uncover similarities and differences between concepts, which would help in defining the concepts.

     Once a conclusion is apparent, both parties need to accept it, even if it is not ideally what they expected or believed would be the conclusion.


Characteristics of someone wishing to participate in dialectic:


     Plato asserts that a dialectician should possess certain traits and characteristics. He also posits that if a person is a dialectician, then he should possess the knowledge of what is right and wrong, and once he knows that he cannot do anything but what is right and he should have congruent goals for himself. Dialecticians should possess certain qualities: be knowledgeable, be good-willed, outspoken, holy, just, and brave. A dialectician should also be calm, open-minded, prepared, and selfless.  These characteristics within a person would enable him to work to achieve what Plato calls a proper existence. For him, good living is the combination of health, strength through gymnastics, justice, and temperance for the sake of the good. 

     Plato offers two good examples of what a dialectician should not be or characteristics a good dialectician should not have in Gorgias. Polus, whose name means “colt,” considers himself a student of rhetoric and claims that he can articulate the aspects of his studies, yet he cannot conform to the rules that Socrates outlines for the dialectic. Polus, as his name might suggest, is impatient, impulsive, and cannot be reigned in. These qualities are not found in a effective dialectician.

     Another examples of a poor dialectician in Gorgias is Gorgias. In the piece, he claims to be a teacher of rhetoric, and Polus is his student. However, just like Polus, he cannot convey the elements of the subject he teaches, and he eventually finds himself contradicting himself.




"Dialectic." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster. Web. 09 Nov. 2011.      <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dialectic>.


"Gorgias." SparkNotes: Today's Most Popular Study Guides. SparkNotes, 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/gorgias>.


Pullman, George. "Dialectic." Rhetoric and Composition @ Georgia State University. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2011.      <http://www.rhetcomp.gsu.edu/~gpullman/8170/template.php?lectures>.


"The Internet Classics Archive | Gorgias by Plato." The Internet Classics Archive: 441 Searchable Works of Classical Literature. Trans. Benjamin Jowett.      MIT. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <http://classics.mit.edu//Plato/gorgias.html>