Book Review by Ali Parsa
Naghdi va daramadi bar tazaad-e dialectiki [A Critique and a Prologue to Dialectical Contradiction]
Published in the Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis, Vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 141-148, April 2004.
Abdul Karim Soroush, Naghdi va daramadi bar tazaad-e dialectiki [A Critique and a Prologue to Dialectical Contradiction], Serat cultural Institute Publishing, Tehran, 1994.
Soroush harshly assaults the traditional dialectic methodology, and he argues that its use can be a deliberate deception to motivate especially emotional youths into political activism (pp.197, 248). Soroush's argument is based on abstract Aristotelian Medieval, linear methodology, which does not allow for any change or social transformation. However, the dialectical approach inherently emphasizes the phenomenology of change and how it plays out. According to the dialectical methodology, revolutionary change or transformation is the direct result of an internal contradiction within any phenomenon. In his book, Soroush struggles to show that this dialectical contradiction does not even exist in reality, and he argues that the accepted concept seems to be the end result of widespread confusion about the term "contradiction"
Abstract terms like evolution, revolution and political change are ubiquitous in methodologies that facilitate analyses and comprehension of human societies; therefore, some key terms like these necessitate a close review. Let us first discuss the term "dialectic." Hegel, a 19th century German philosopher, put forth the modern version of this analytical methodology. Here is a summary of its essential principles:
1. An internal contradiction gradually develops in any phenomenon.
2. At a certain point in the process, it becomes impossible for the phenomenon to hold this contradiction.
3. At that point, this internal, quantitative change results in a qualitative transformation.
Hegel used dialectic in explaining his philosophy of the universal development of the "spirit" in time. Marx used the same methodology as the basis for his totally different philosophy, later called Marxism. Mojahedin used this epistemological approach in a fundamentally different system from Hegel's idealism and Marx's materialism. Now comes Soroush, whose basic argument is that there can be no internal contradiction within one thing–there may be a contradiction between two things, but the internal contradiction that dialecticians talk about is a meaningless construct, Soroush asserts (p. 23). He further explains that there are three fundamental types of opposition (taghabul): logical opposition (taghabul-e manteghi), contradictory opposition (taghabul-e tazaad), and relative opposition (taghabul-e tazaayof). He argues that dialectical contradiction does not fall into any of these categories. It is, he insists, the result of confusing and misunderstanding these categories. Here is a synopsis of his views:
A. When discussing logical opposition, he asserts that this situation exists when two features (sefat) do not—actually cannot—exist in one thing at the same time, but neither one is necessary to exist in that thing. He uses the example of blackness and whiteness. One thing could be either black or white, but it cannot be both at the same time (p. 21). As an example, let us consider a black and white ball (striped or dotted, for example). Soroush would argue that there are really two parts of the ball, or the ball contains two parts and, therefore, there is no contradiction in one thing but rather in two separate things that constitute the ball. Soroush concludes from this that there is no internal contradiction, as dialecticians would claim.
B. Contradictory opposition applies to a situation in which two features could not exist simultaneously in one thing, but one of the two must exist. His examples are "light and darkness" and "knowledge and ignorance". A person can have knowledge about one thing and be ignorant about another, but he cannot be both knowledgeable and ignorant about the same one thing at the same time. For example, one either knows that "James went to a movie” or one does not.
C. Relative opposition occurs when one thing seems to contain opposite features, but this opposition is in a relationship with two different things. Soroush uses the example of the relationship between a father and his son—one person can be both a father and a son at the same time: father of his son, and son of his father. Soroush explains that there can be no internal contradiction here because he is not both son and father in relation to the same person; there are two separate relationships to two different individuals (pp. 24-26). So, Soroush concludes, when dialecticians talk about internal contradiction, they confuse it with relative opposition.
There are several significant problems with Soroush's analysis. Reinventing Mulla Sadra's argument, his analysis of contradiction fails on two grounds. First, he fails to distinguish between the terms "thing" and "phenomenon." Second, his understanding of the concept of "one" is absolute and rigid. His consistent and undoubtedly intentional use of the term "thing" (shei') as opposed to "phenomenon" (padideh) makes it impossible for him to think outside his Aristotelian linear logic. In Soroush's approach to reality, the whole existence is divided into a collection of individual things. A phenomenon, on the other hand, is a much broader term that allows for concepts that do not necessarily have to be things. A phenomenon could be non-physical, such as a concept. For example, concepts like social development, positive, negative, progress, decline, freedom, suppression, and justice all are phenomena. They could be defined in terms of tangible things, but they are not necessarily things.
Second, the concept of one, as an indivisible entity, only exists in abstraction and in mathematics, but not in the real world, where any one thing is composed of parts. Even an atom, which in pre-modern times was considered the smallest indivisible unit of matter, is now understood as having many parts. Furthermore, when Soroush presents the argument that one thing could be either black or white but not both, he ignores the feature of the dialectical methodology that is about phenomena, not abstract numbers. Therefore, his analogy of black and white has no basis in reality. It is logically possible to think that the black part of the hypothetical ball would increase to a point that causes chemical reactions that change the color of the ball to a completely new color.
Soroush's fundamental philosophical problem stems from his misunderstanding of the notion of "oneness" or "unity" and confuses it with "uniformity." Even though he appears to support social pluralism—when his own freedom is in danger—this misunderstanding could lead to basic errors in understanding the concept of social unity. "Unity" in both the physical and the conceptual worlds does not mean uniformity. Likewise, unity in phenomena, such as society, does not mean "conformity" and lack of diversity—or even opposition (contradiction) within the whole. It is not clear if this misconception is the cause or the result of Soroush's political stand. In short, there is no logical impossibility to consider a phenomenon or even a thing that contains contradictions.
There are problems with Soroush's category of contradictory opposition as well. In response to his example of knowledge and lack of knowledge about the same subject that he claims would be impossible, one can argue that, in the real world, it is impossible to talk about absolute knowledge, or the lack of it, even about the simplest notion. For example, the phrase "Either I know that James went to a movie, or I do not" in fact contains more than just a single object of knowledge. It requires at least the knowledge of what the term "movie" means and who James is. This is why modern philosophers, from Wittgenstein to Chomsky, have been so concerned with the philosophy of language and its complexity. So, contradictions about our more complex form of knowledge could easily appear, even though they might appear as one knowledge. For example, a person might believe in God, and he might think he knows that God exists. Through experiences, he might learn about ideas that contradict his previous knowledge; at some point, he might even completely abandon his previous ideas or beliefs (knowledge).
Soroush's argument about relative opposition is irrelevant to the whole concept of dialectical contradiction. Returning to a previous example, a man could be a father to someone and a son to someone else. Undoubtedly, most dialecticians would never argue that there is a contradiction in that person. However, a man could display characteristics of fatherhood and childhood at the same time but in different degrees. As psychologists might suggest, characteristics of a father and of a child in a man are in conflict, or his behavior contains contradictory qualities. Of course, this statement is a rationally acceptable proposition.
Soroush's argument against the dialectical method fails on another level. He neglects to distinguish methodology from philosophy. By his discrediting and dehumanizing revolutionary philosophies, which are based on the dialectical methodology, he errs in not distinguishing method from content—and even in not providing a proper analysis. He could have presented a more coherent argument if he had remained with the issue of dialectic as a methodology as the title of his book suggests, rather than continually shifting from logic to philosophy. At one point in his book, he seems to be arguing against the philosophy of historical determinism and deterministic social theory. However, he ultimately disappoints:
One of the errors throughout human intellectual history has been confusing the meanings of 'law'…. There is a difference between the natural law and the social law. Natural laws such as those applied to gravitation, optics, etc. are independent of human will...whereas social laws, such as one shall not steal...depend on human will and are created by him (p. 19).
Here he is discussing "laws" in the contexts of moral and legal laws, which are intended to control the behavior of individuals in society, rather than in social-science theories. Furthermore, throughout his long criticism of the dialectical method, there is no serious discussion of the philosophical basis of the social-science theories; he makes it seem that there is no relevance to what he is attacking. Social theories are constantly scrutinized and revised, but this is not what Soroush is doing.
Also, Soroush pays little attention to Hegel. The section of his book that is devoted to Hegel, the originator of the modern version of dialectic upon which Marxism is based, comes at the very end of his book and contains little clear explanation nor serious criticism of dialectical methodology.
The role of the dialectical methodology in history is quite significant. Its essence goes back to Plato, who believed that the gradual process of gaining the truth goes through discussion and the resolution of contradictory ideas toward gaining a higher truth. At the height of Medieval scholasticism around the 12th century, when Western Europe showed a renewed interest in classical philosophy, Aristotle—not Plato—became the focus of the so-called scholastic philosophy. This Aristotelian rigid, linear logic as the ultimate basis for the truth was abandoned with the rise of Renaissance humanism in the 15th and 16th centuries. This historical division in approach has a parallel in Islamic intellectual history, in which both the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches developed side-by-side. The essence of the dialectical approach relative to reality has been present in the thoughts of Muslim thinkers, such as Rumi who attempted to see the universe and human life in its beauty and complexity. To Rumi, contradiction was the source of knowledge, insight, and growth. In his beautiful poetic philosophy, he explained how attaining knowledge and wisdom is only possible through the recognition of contradictions and the resolution of them for the sake of gaining higher wisdom.
Some contemporary Muslim thinkers even argue that the presence of seemingly contradictory—and usually sequential—verses in the Qur’an are essentially revealing the truth about the value of elevating one's understanding beyond and above contradictions. Examples are the verses emphasizing the omnipotence of God that are followed by the verses emphasizing an individual's freedom of choice.
In conclusion, Soroush's views are neither new in methodology nor progressive in content. They also show little sensitivity to social justice, which is the essence of Islam. Unfortunately, they lack any element that could be useful in perusing and understanding any socio-political change in Iran.