What the Heck is Dialectics?

Dialectics is a tool to understand the way things are and the way things change. Understanding dialectics is as easy as 1 - 2 - 3.

One--Every thing (every object and every process) is made of opposing forces/opposing sides.

Two--Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one opposite overcomes the other.

Three--Change moves in spirals, not circles.

These are the three laws of dialectics according to Frederick Engels, a revolutionary thinker and partner of Karl Marx, writing in the 1870s in his book Dialectics of Nature. Engels believed that dialectics was "A very simple process which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand". This web site is dedicated to proving his point. In fact, if you understand the first seven pages of this site, you already understand the basics of dialectics. (If you landed here without visiting these pages first, please go to the Dialectics for Kids Home Page now).

Here's how it works -

1) Everything is made of opposites.

No object could hold together without an opposing force to keep it from flying apart. The earth tries to fly away from the sun, but gravity holds it in orbit. Electrons try to fly away from the nucleus of an atom, but electromagnetism holds the atom together. Ligaments and tendons provide the ties that hold bones together and muscles to bones.

Like material objects, the process of change needs opposing forces. Change needs a driving force to push it ahead, otherwise everything stays put. A billiard ball only moves when hit with a pool cue or another ball. We eat when our hunger tells us to. A car won't move if it's engine won't start. To win in fair elections candidates need more votes than their opponents.

Engels, drawing from the philosopher, Hegel, called this law the "interpenetration of opposites"; Hegel often referred to the "unity of opposites." This may sound contradictory, but it is easy to understand. It's like the saying, "It takes two to tango." There is no game if one side quits. There is no atom if the electrons fly away. The whole needs all of its parts to be a whole.

Here's a challenge--Can you think of anything that isn't made of opposites? Send your suggestions to dialectics4kids@igc.org   To read some challenges and responses click here.

2) Gradual changes lead to turning points.

The ABC's of Change give 26 examples of this, one for each letter of the alphabet. What happens is that the two opposing forces in a process of change push against each other. As long as one side is stronger than the other side, change is gradual. But when the other side becomes stronger, there is a turning point--an avalanche, a birth, a collapse, a discovery, . . .

Physicist Michio Kaku gives a detailed example of this process in his book Hyperspace. He follows the turning points or stages in the heating of an ice cube. Click here to see how he describes it: The Dialectics of Water

Engels called this the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. Quantitative change is the gradual build-up of one opposing force. Qualitative change takes place when that opposite becomes dominant.

This law is powerful in describing the stages of development of anything. A person's life follows these quantitative/qualitative changes. Likewise human history, or the history of a particular place, has gone through many stages. The tool of dialectics is so powerful that Michio Kaku describes the history of the universe for its first 10 billion years by a series of dialectical stages, using only 250 words. Click here for Kaku's stages in the evolution of the universe:   The Dialectics of the Universe

Using the same approach it is possible to trace the history of the universe right up to the present by identifying the key turning points. Try it by clicking on The Top Ten Stories of All Time

3) Change moves in spirals, not circles.

Many changes are cyclical--first one side dominates, then the other--as in day/night, breathing in/breathing out, one opposite then another. Dialectics argues that these cycles do not come back exactly to where they started; they don't make a perfect circle. Instead, change is evolutionary, moving in a spiral.

Maybe the changes are tiny, so we think nothing is really different--it's true that we hardly change in a measurable way with every breath. But we can see that many cycles do come around to a different place --children are not the same as their parents, even if they are a lot alike. People go to school and learn; when they return home, they are no longer the same. And, like it or not, you are a bit older with every breath. For more examples, see Spirals A - Z or Popcorn, Earthquakes, and Other Changes.

Engels, again following Hegel, called this law "negation of negation". This sounds complicated, but, as Engels said, it is going on all the time. What happens is that first one side overcomes its opposite--this is the first negation. This marks a turning point as in Engels' 2nd law. Next, the new side is once again overcome by the first side. This is negation of negation.

Here are a couple more examples, one cosmic and two common:

The earliest stars were made of hydrogen and helium that were produced in the big bang. Those first generation stars fused these elements into heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen, and iron. When those stars died,(i.e.were negated) they pushed those elements into space. If the first generation star died in a supernova, even heavier elements such as silver and gold were hurled into space. When second or third generation stars form, like our sun, they have these heavier elements, thereby allowing planets and life to form. This evolution is negation of negation.

A normal conversation requires negation of negation to move ahead. First one person talks, then the other; the second negates the first. Pretty soon, however, the first person begins talking again. The conversation makes no sense if the first person simply repeats what they said the first time. Instead, the first person now has listened to the second person talk, so the negation of negation returns to a different place (hopefully one of more understanding.)

Unfortunately spirals can go down as well as up. For example, if a person is feeling depressed, they may take drugs or alcohol to feel better. This may negate their bad feelings for a while, but when the drug wears off, the person often feels worse than when they started.

Of course we want our spirals to go upward. When they do, we live healthier and happier lives, full of learning, growing, and reaching our full potential.


So that's the three laws of dialectics--not too difficult, don't you agree?

Of course, there's more to understanding change than these three laws. If you'd like to learn more, here are some more essays about dialectics:

And there will be more essays to come, such as:
What are some opposing views? - Everything has its opposite!

So keep in touch with this site for more changes, and email your thoughts to: dialectics4kids@igc.org



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