Saturday, 12 July 2014

The nature of dialectic - the necessity of the viva voce in evaluating real understanding


Following from

The method of enquiry depicted in Plato's dialogues is the dialectic - which bears some relationship to a procedure of question and answer - and this was taken up much later as a key term by Hegel then Marx; but I have never been able to understand what dialectic meant.

I read definitions, but they mean nothing to me - and in particular I could not understand why this method (and not another) was supposed to have a special kind of validity.

But it now strikes me that what is going on in Platonic dialogues should be considered in the light of what Socrates reported of his own motivation to do philosophy - in other words, the 'dialectic method' is simply the way of testing the knowledge of another person; to see whether he really understands the matter in hand.


In the Apology, Socrates describes his motivation as trying to find a man wiser than himself - to try and refute the Oracle at Delphi who stated there was nobody wiser than Socrates. So Socrates met and conversed-with various candidates for greater wisdom.

But how do you discover whether somebody is really wise, when they may be faking it, or they may believe that they understand - but really do not?


The only answer is that you need to 'apprentice' yourself to them - try to learn understanding from them to the extent that you can do it yourself.

Memorizing facts and relationships is not understanding. What is needed is to try and learn from the inside - so that having genuine understanding, new knowledge can be generated from that understanding.

It is a matter of understanding generating the answers; rather than a set of answers masquerading as understanding,


To know if an actual person himself understands, involves engaging him in a face-to-face, real time engagement - in a situation when whatever you get from that man comes from his mind (and not from a book).

The dialogue must be an open field, in which any topic can be addressed and probed to any depth.

This means that the would-be Master cannot simply prepare a set of answers in advance, but must respond to whatever subject at whatever length the questioner deems necessary; and must do this here and now.

Only if the Master knows the subject from the inside can he do this.


I take it that Euthyphro represents a (more or less) 'transcription' of the kind of thing Socrates did (since that seems to be the way this dialogue is presented, and indeed is its only justification since the dialogue doesn't really go anywhere).

And Euthyphro seems to correspond closely to what I have described above.


So, the essence of the dialectic is a real-time, interactive conversation between actual people (the dialectic cannot be done via books, or by one person). Its objective is to test knowledge. Its 'method' is that there is no constraint on the topic being discussed. Any theme may be introduced and any line of enquiry may be followed-up.

Dialectic supposes knowledge to be as located in a generative understanding and ramifying out through innumerable specific topics like branches and twigs from the trunk of a tree. Dialectic questioning moves between these specific topics at the twig ends, and follows back each answer through the larger branches and toward the central trunk (or real understanding, which itself cannot be directly observed).


Thus the dialectic represents a very ancient form of discourse, in which wisdom was understood only to be communicable and testable via direct, here-and-now, one-to-one (or one to just a few) human communication; and in which we can only know that someone else knows via real time and unstructured communication.

This is how the Master knows that his apprentice really understands the subject - and how a potential apprentice such as Socrates might evaluate a putative Master - and this is why all early university tests were simply discussions: 'oral', viva - or more fully viva voce = 'living voice' exams.

The dialectic 'method' is simply a thematic but unstructured conversation. That is why it is difficult for moderns to grasp the nature of dialectic; since moderns typically deny the necessity of the unstructured individual relationship in real education, testing and evaluation of understanding.



  1. Right.

    The only time one gets an unstructured, relatively open-ended, one-to-few human communication of a testing kind in modern North American education is typically when defending a thesis or dissertation, as far as I can tell.

  2. Since you reference the Euthyphro, I'd be interested to know your own answer to one of the central questions of that dialogue. Does God command the right because it is the right, or is the right the right because God commands it?

  3. @ajb - The British system of graduate education is now pretty much the typical bureaucratic tickbox nonsense you find everywhere else in life.

    @WM - For a (theoretical) Mormon (such as myself) this is straightforward: God commands the right because it is the right.

    God is within the universe, and the universe contains pre-existent matter/ stuff; and also is 'structured' (somehow) by the eternal 'laws' of truth, beauty, virtue etc.

  4. Prof. Brandon Watson has been covering the major, minor and spurious Platonic Dialogues at his weblog, Siris, for the last few months.

    Each entry is done at an introductory level with a brief outline and exegesis, without too much hand-holding or academic clutter.

    That's not to say they are unscholarly - the full dialogues are linked and supplementary items are often posted on important, recurring or vivid characters or background settings and events, and due respect is given to textual and interpretive questions. But this is all done unobtrusively.

    Highly recommended. I have moved several as-yet-unread dialogues up my reading list. I am kicking myself particularly for putting off Critias - a mark of a good introduction.

  5. @Anon - Thank you. I don't generally publish Anonymous comments - so in future please could you sign them - with a pseudonym if you prefer.

  6. @WM re God and the right,

    I wonder why this really matters, though.

    Is there such a thing as right action?

    If so, can God guide us in figuring out what it is?

    It seems to me those are the important questions - the question of whether Justice is in some sense constitutive of God's being (however we might understand that) seems not really directly applicable to everyday action.

  7. @ajb - It can matter a lot. For example the other major monotheism firmly decided that whatever God does is good -

  8. @ajb - The general idea is that the implication of a unitary monotheistic God who created everything from nothing and is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and all the rest of it - is that everything which happens is God; therefore there is no sense in which 'good' is separable from God.

    From this perspective, once we know (by revelation) what God commands, our job is simply to submit to this. The ultimate blasphemy is for us to evaluate God - and for us to become concerned by our own evaluation (what we, personally, feel about things) is also blasphemous.

    We live inside God, and are merely parts of his universe, somewhat like the cells of a body. We have a job to do.

    This system 'works' in the sense of being self-sustaining - but as with any monistic trend, the question nags as to why such a God allows the persistence of apparent opposition, or evil - why indeed there is apparent change - when it would make more sense for things just to *be* eternally.

    But such questions are an assertion of puny, partial human reasoning presuming to analyse and question divine purpose, and so may be considered blasphemous.

    The point of this is that if we assume that good is whatever God does, then there is an obvious, visible tendency for good to be 'swallowed up' into God's will - morality disappears into obedience.

    This near-total replacement of morality by submission to revelation (as described by legitimate authority) can also be seen at certain times and places in the history of Christianity - and even in modern debates - in situations as different as certain conceptions of authority in the Roman Catholic Church, and in some Calvinistic strands of Protestantism.

  9. @Bruce - If Mormon theology is that God advanced to being God by simply obeying the existing eternal rules/laws of goodness, what then is different from the "other great monotheistic religion?" - could one, in theory, surpass even God simply by obeying?

    I understand in practice Mormons don't work this way (unless the the callings are really just about obedience?), but theoretically it seems a possible problem with Mormon theology.

  10. @GG - I *think* the answer is that no Son of God can surpass God the Father, due to the fact of relationship, which is permanent. That seems right to me. But it also seems right, as William Arkle remarks, that this is not because God would not want it - and any loving parents would hope their children may surpass themselves.

    And this discussion emphasizes that the universe is a place of learning and growth - even for God.