Plato saw dialectic as a way of refining opinions to reveal truth. Aristotle saw dialectic as remaining in the world of ‘opinion,’ (with logic being the way to reveal truth). In the ‘Topics’ Aristotle talks of dialectic as probable ideas being discussed in a spirit of enquiry, with the result likely to be opinion rather than certainty. To Aristotle dialectic is a series of interruptions, questions and answers, objections and counter objections. Dialectic has a long and varied history as an idea and as a pedagogical and philosophical technique. Rhetoric seeks to persuade, dialectic, maybe, seeks to explore.
Nowadays we are, arguably, brought closer to conflicting world views in our everyday lives than ever before. It can be problematic to arrive at ‘the truth’ as it sometimes means we end up decrying another’s opinions as a lie, a falsehood or, indeed, evil. This means that relativism rears its ugly head, challenging us to believe that anything might be true and this truth is resident in the opinion of the individual. This belief has a long pedigree, we can go back at least as far as the fifth century BCE and to the sophists.
Protagoras, is thought by many to represent the epitome and the origin of a sophist world view, known for the aphorism: Man is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not… This is often explained in the following way: two people are sitting in a room, one finds it cold and the other finds it warm which to the Greeks was an interesting philosophical debate. Nowadays we’d solve the argument with a thermometer though the ‘result’ that this would show would still be unsatisfactory to the person ‘proved’ wrong as they would, no doubt, still feel cold or warm.
I find the idea that all is relative to be fascinating and, ultimately, unsatisfactory. Some things are better than other things. However, in order to explore what these things might be we need to surrender ourselves to the possibility of doubt, uncertainty and the risk of being proved wrong, and realise that not all things that we personally value are better than other things.
The Aristotelian view of dialectic can open up the power of argument or conversation without the need for a conclusion. In its own terms this is a useful technique for looking at questions which have no easy answers. An excellent technique for doing this is dissoi logoi (double arguments) a pedagogical technique associated with the sophists and thought to be close to the original methods employed by Protagoras. Unlike in court where a jury weighs the opinions of both sides of the argument with the outcome resulting in an opinion which we then hold as ‘true’ as this system allows it to be, or in a Socratic dialogue where, in Plato’s writings, Socrates was generally the interlocutor with people who were ultimately ‘wrong’ in one way or another, a proper two sided argument cannot arrive at a single truth.
I think the dissoi logo is an excellent technique to use within the confines of separate ‘arts’ (disciplines, subjects etc.) to explore areas of thought which present grey areas to us. It can also be a method to look at cross-disciplinary ideas where there could be conflict: For example in asking ‘how did the world begin?’ one could look for arguments from both science and religion. A dissoi logoi sees beyond a single truth or subservience to a tradition in that it opens up the possibility of other, competing, truths and traditions and gives them equal weight. The crucial thing being that this equal weight is not a debate in the traditional sense where two or more people from opposing sides argue with each other, the vital part of a dissoi logoi is that one person argues both sides, gives them equal credence and does not reach a conclusion.
Dialectic in the classroom:
The teacher needs to approach dialectic with care. In early days in a class it might be common practice to ask a student what they think of something. Don’t. Their opinions can be sounded off in many places, the playground, the corridor or even online. We don’t need to hear them in the classroom… Yet… One of the jobs of a teacher should be to educate the pupil to be able to think about things, because they know things, especially in areas where opinion counts. We need to move beyond immediate thoughts that might be an emotional reaction to, say a sonnet, as being ‘rubbish’ to a more sophisticated view that can critique said sonnet from a variety of viewpoints some supportive, others less so. Every subject has its areas of debate, these are fruitful areas to explore in a dialectical classroom, where knowledge of why something might be right or wrong enriches the debate and helps form sophisticated opinions through which the student can become more academically self assured by seeing why certain problems are far more interesting than their immediate response might have conveyed. I would go as far as to say that the immediate response of a student can destroy further study. A dialectical classroom is, therefore, not one of crude, violent, opposition, it is one where a great deal of empathy for differing views can grow. However as views will sometimes be difficult to explore it will be a challenging classroom and will need to be handled sensitively by the teacher.
Although some place dissoi logoi in the realm of rhetoric, I believe it belongs more to opinion than persuasion, and works well through challenge and response rather than through the unfolding narrative of great rhetoric. In order to use it well in the classroom the teacher begins the focus of a dissoi logoi through the means of a question. The question is then explored by looking at ‘answers’ to the question from different viewpoints. By studying two or more texts alongside one another a student might want to agree with one more than the other. Don’t let them. The dissoi logoi is a dialogue that presents both sides as carrying equal weight and therefore being equally true. It opens up debate rather than closes it down. It is ‘inductive’ rather than ‘deductive’.
The student is then asked to construct a narrative, either written, spoken or both by which they show how both sides (or more) of an argument have equal validity. This possibility can be pursued in order to increase knowledge and understanding before we begin to approach the vexed nature of mere opinion. This narrative can be represented as a debate between two people each refuting the other and making their points or it can be presented as one narrative by which the student explores the issues showing how fascinated they are in the argument rather than in the need for conclusion.
Dissoi logoi is a great way to ensure students aren’t concerned with their own prejudices and being proved right, as a result they become better scholars, and are readier to learn than refute.