Dialectical thinking

The notion of dialectical thinking has a long history both in the Eastern and Western cultural traditions (and perhaps in other cultures as well) and in philosophy (Spencer-Rodgers & Peng, 2018). However, there is no one definition of what exactly it is. Although as a philosophical term of art, “dialectical” goes back to Plato (trans. 1997) and Aristotle (trans. 1984)10, the first person to use the term “dialectical thinking” as a form of adult cognitive development in psychology was Riegel (1973, 1976). His view was a counter-reaction to Piaget’s (1976) theory and based on observing limitations to describing cognitive progress in adulthood with a twovalued logical system. Riegel maintains that there are certain dialectical tendencies in Piaget’s theory, referring to the role of contradictions and internal play of assimilation and accommodation in knowledge formation (Piaget, 1976). However, Piaget’s theory is, according to Riegel, metaphorically a Homo ex Machina -type theory.11

According to Riegel, “everything is itself and, at the same time, many other things” (Riegel, 1973, p. 6). He continues that while an object is identified as something, it is also something else, something contradictory to it from other viewpoints.12 Only the totality of these separate, multiple views can yield at least an approximately coherent view of the phenomenon. Riegel assumes that a thing can only be understood in relation to its opposite, as in the famous Laozi’s Dao De Jing’s claim “Low is understood low only as there is highness”. Two valued philosophical logic recognises these kinds of opposites, and in philosophical analysis such opposites are contrary, not contradictory. Contrary opposites are such that they can both be false (something can be in the middle in which case it is false that it is high and false that it is low).

This is important since Piaget (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958) seems to conflate such opposites with contradictory opposites (e.g., high and not high) that cannot be true or false at the same time. The problem in Piaget’s theory of two-valued thinking is that it requires one to choose between two dichotomous alternatives that do not exhaust the logical domain. Often the problem is precisely that contrary opposites are taken to be contradictory, i.e., that it is assumed that binary thinking operates with contrasts like good and bad and forces one to choose between them, although it is possible that something is neutral (i.e., neither good nor bad). Philosophically speaking, terms like “high” and “low” can be understood in terms of relatives.13 This means that they refer to something that is defined and can be so only in relation to something else. Therefore, to say that something is high means that it is high in relation to something else (e.g., a branch of a tree is located high in relation to a worm on the ground) but low in relation to something else (e.g., the same branch of a tree is low in relation to the top of a skyscraper next door).

Piaget uses well-defined tasks to determine the cognitive stage of a subject. In well-defined tasks the proper action to solve them is to use what can be called “binary propositional logic” following the law of excluded middle (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). In well-defined problems, the problem-solver is given choices and it is clear from the beginning what factors must be taken into account to solve the problem, while ill-defined problems are unclear in this respect. From a philosophical point of view, the difference between the tasks thus is whether there is sufficient information and clear instructions for solving the problem. The proponents of a dialectical theory stress that human development as a socially-bound phenomenon naturally includes ill-defined, wicked problems and situations, i.e. problems without clear-cut answers. So the claim that mature thinking is dialectical is based on the impossibility to use what in cognitive psychology is called “fonnal binary propositional logic” (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958), to solve problems for which there are no clear-cut solutions. In dialectical operations, an individual is able to tolerate contradiction and conflict and understand them as a necessary part for development. Change is thus the core term in dialectical thinking, as a human being is tied in social interaction to constant change (Riegel, 1973, 1976). A limitation in Piaget’s theory is that it takes into account only interaction between human beings and physical objects (like in the Pendulum task, Chapter 3), not social life.

It is important to stress that Piaget’s binary logic is not the same as twovalued logic in philosophy. While Piaget’s binary logic has features of formalism, it is also a model for human problem-solving. Philosophical logic, by contrast, is a theory of valid inference, where inferences are not thought processes. There are of course many different approaches to logic in philosophy today. However, their approach is different from psychological studies of human thinking precisely because they operate on the notion of logical validity constituted by what logically follows from other propositions.15

Beside its focus on ill-defined problems, there is certain “systemic-theory” tendency or analogy in the dialectical theory (see Chapter 12): “A dialectical theory of human development focuses on the simultaneous movements along at least the following four dimensions: (1) inner-biological, (2) individual-psychological, (3) cultural-sociological, and (4) outer-physical” (Riegel, 1976, p. 693). In describing human development the dialectal theory takes into consideration these different dimensions, which act like a synchronisation of separate but interdependent systems. These systems are more or less coordinated, and a state of disorganisation leads to conflicts and disruptions, either within a system or between systems. However, in an optimal case such conflicts can fuel further progress and development. Thus, a second argument for the dialectical theory of human development is that the same pattern of binary “logic” cannot be applied to different domains of thinking (mechanical vs. social), as a human being is situated in an intersection of various systems that are not reducible to each other.

A third argument for the dialectical theory of human development comes from the fact that the natural scientific view behind Piaget’s theory is outdated. In an article from the early 1970s, Riegel (1973) refers to quantum physics and its claims of the contradictory nature of reality: light can be understood both as waves and particles, and the subject is always tied to the process of observation, i.e. object is influenced by subject (p. 347). This claim has been later used again by Sinnott in her “postformal theory” (see Chapter 12). According to Riegel, Piaget’s theory with well-defined problems is based on classical, “old” theory of mechanics and may not express the current state of scientific world-view.

Basseches (1984, 2005), another main scholar of dialectical thinking in psychology, states clearly that he has derived his model from a dialectical philosophical background. He sees that, ontologically and epistemologically, dialectical thinking models share similar features: emphasis on change, on wholeness (as contrasted to atomism and variable-centred approach in classical mechanics), and on relations between objects: nothing exists for itself. Epistemologically, the first point refers to constant construction of knowledge, secondly, knowing is knowing only within some system as concepts and ideas which are tied to each other in the system. Also, concepts are in relationship to the knowers and users of them, and their meaning is related to knowers, and are not stable (Basseches, 2005, p. 50).16

Basseches separates formal and dialectical analyses of thinking. Formal analysis is based on closed system thought, and dialectical thinking is based on open system thinking. A closed formal system cannot take into account any other perspective than its own: thus it is powerless to understand different ways of understanding. Analyses of dialectical open-system thinking, by contrast, take into account the limits, contexts and boundaries of thinking and thus offer a more powerful method for development than formal analysis. Formal analysis is not able to take into account multiple, different frames of references, i.e., justifiable coherent ways of interpreting the same facts based on different assumptions: it does not take into account different processes of interpretation and meaning (Basseches, 2005).

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