Philosophy 77 - 5.1.1 Dialectics and Philosophical Argumentation

Philosophers love to argue. But this love does not mean that philosophy lectures are loud, contentious events. Most people think of an argument as a verbal disagreement, and the term evokes images of raised voices, heightened emotions, and possibly bad behavior. However, in philosophy, this word does not have a negative connotation. An argument in philosophy is a reasoned position—to argue is simply to offer a set of reasons in support of some conclusion. The goal of an individual argument is to support a conclusion. However, the long-term goal of argumentation between philosophers is to get closer to the truth. In contemporary academic philosophy, philosophers are engaged in dialogue with each other where they offer arguments in the publication of articles. Philosophers also engage in argument at conferences and in paper presentations and lectures. In this way, contemporary academic philosophers are engaged in a dialectic of sorts.

A traditional dialectic is a debate or discussion between at least two people who hold differing views. But unlike debate, participants in the discussion do not have the goal of “winning,” or proving that the other view is wrong. Rather, the goal is to get closer to the truth. Thus, dialectics make use of logic and reason, while debates often use rhetorical ploys or appeal to the emotions. Because of the tendency of participants to appeal to emotion and prejudice in many modern popular debates, philosophers often qualify their words and refer to reasoned debate when discussing proper public discourse between people. But even reasoned debates can become adversarial, while dialectics are mostly collaborative. The participants in a dialectic, whom philosophers refer to as “interlocutors,” enter into discourse with the aim of trading their poor or false beliefs for knowledge.

Dialectics usually start with a question. An interlocutor offers an answer to the question, which is then scrutinized by all participants. Reasons against the answer are given, and someone may offer a counterexample to the answer—that is, a case that illustrates that the answer is wrong. The interlocutors will then analyze why the answer is wrong and try to locate its weakness. The interlocutors may also examine what made the answer plausible in the first place. Next, someone offers another answer to the question—possibly a refined version of the previous answer that has been adjusted in light of the weaknesses and strengths identified in the analysis. This process is repeated over and over, with each iteration theoretically bringing participants closer to the truth.

While dialectics aims at the truth, the creation of knowledge is not its sole function. For example, a long, deep conversation with a friend about the meaning of life should not be viewed as a failure if you do not come up with a satisfactory answer to life’s purpose. In this instance, the process has as much value as the aim (getting closer to the truth). Contemporary academic philosophers view their practice in the same way.

Indian Dialectics and Debate

Dialectics played an important role in early Indian philosophy. The earliest known philosophical writings originate in India as sections of the Vedas, which have been dated as far back as 1500 BCE (Mark 2020). The Vedas are often considered religious texts, but it is more accurate to think of them as religious and philosophical texts since they explore what it means to be a human being, discuss the purpose and function of the mind, and attempt to identify the goal of life. The Upanishads, which are the most philosophical of the Vedic texts, often take the form of dialogues. These dialogues generally occur between two participants—one who knows a truth and the other who seeks to know and understand the truth. The Vedic dialectics explore fundamental concepts such as Brahman (the One without a second, which includes the universe as its manifestation), dharma (an individual’s purpose and duty), and atman (an individual’s higher self). As in many dialectics, questioning, reasoning, and realizations that arise through the dialogue are the aim of these texts.

Buddhist philosophical texts that were part of early Indian philosophy also contain narrative dialogues (Gillon 2021). Logical argumentation is evident in these, and as time progressed, texts became more focused on argument, particularly those relying on analogical reasoning, or the use of analogies. Analogies use an object that is known to draw inferences about other similar objects. Over time, the analogical arguments used in Buddhist texts took on structure. When arguments have structure, they rely on a form that captures a specific manner of reasoning, such that the reasoning can be schematized. The structure of arguments in classical Indian texts appears slightly different than in classical Western texts of logic. Below is an example of the canonical form of an argument about the nature of the soul from the Caraka-samhita (CS 3.8.31) (Gillon 2021). First, the canonical form identifies components to the argument:

Claim: The soul is eternal.
Reason: because it is unproduced.
Example: Space is unproduced and it is eternal.
Application: Just as space is unproduced, so is the soul.
Conclusion: Therefore, the soul is eternal.

Here, the text makes an analogy between space and the soul, where space exemplifies a necessary relationship between being unproduced and being eternal. We may imagine the argument in a slightly different form:

  1. The soul is unproduced.
  2. As in the case of space, whatever is unproduced is also eternal.
  3. Therefore, the soul is eternal.

This argument form gives us a scheme that could be applied to many different cases:

  1. X has property P.
  2. Y is a paradigmatic example of something that has property P. Y also has property S, where P is the cause of S.
  3. Therefore, X has property S because it has property P.

As you will see later in the section on deductive argumentation, relying on argumentative structure is a feature of logical reasoning.

Classical Indian philosophical texts also refer to the occurrence of reasoned public debates. Public debate was a further method of rational inquiry and likely the main mode of rational inquiry that most people had access to. One mode of debate took the form of assemblies in which experts considered specific topics, including those in politics and law (Gillon 2021). Arguments are the public expression of private inferences, and only by exposing one’s private thoughts through argument can they be tested. Public arguments are a method to improve one’s reasoning when it is scrutinized by others.

Greek Dialectics and Debate

Ancient Greek philosophy is also known for its use of dialectic and debate. Socrates, perhaps the most famous ancient Greek philosopher, claimed that knowledge is true opinion backed by argument (Plato, Meno). “Opinion” here means unjustified belief: your beliefs could be true, but they cannot count as knowledge unless you have reasons for them and can offer justifications for your beliefs when questioned by others. Furthermore, Socrates’s method of gaining knowledge was to engage in dialectics with others. All of what we know about Socrates is through the writings of others—particularly the writings of Plato. Quite appropriately, Plato uses dialogues in all his works, in which Socrates is almost always a participant.

Socrates never wrote anything down. In the Phaedrus, one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates criticizes written works as being a dead discourse of sorts. Books cannot respond to you when you ask questions. He states, “You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just the very same thing forever” (Phaedrus, 275e). Clearly, dialectics was central to Socrates’s philosophical method.


Learn more about Socrates in the introduction to philosophy chapter.

Plato’s dialogues are a testament to the importance of public discourse as a form of rational inquiry in ancient Greece. Based on Greek philosophical writings, we can assume reasoned public debate took place and that Socrates preferred it as a method of teaching and learning. In Plato’s dialogues, many questions are asked, and Socrates’s interlocutors offer answers to which Socrates asks further clarifying questions. Through the process of questioning, false beliefs and inadequate understanding are exposed. Socrates’s goal was not simply to offer people truth. Rather, through questioning, Socrates guides people to discover the truth on their own, provided they are willing to keep an open mind and admit, when necessary, that they are in the wrong. In Plato’s dialogues, participants don’t always land on a determinate answer, but they as well as readers are always left with a clearer understanding of the correct way to reason.

If any ancient Greek philosopher most embodies the tie between dialectic and logic, it is Aristotle (c. 384–322 BCE), who was a student of Plato. Aristotle wrote books on the art of dialectic (Smith 2020). And he probably participated in gymnastic dialectic—a structured dialectic contest practiced in the Academy (the school founded by Plato, which Aristotle attended). But more importantly, Aristotle created a complex system of logic upon which skill in the art of dialectic relied. Aristotle’s logic is the earliest formal systematized account of inference we know of and was considered the most accurate and complete system until the late 19th century (Smith 2020). Aristotle’s system is taught in logic classes to this day.

A marble bust of bearded face with stringy hair and a pronounced nose, displayed on a pedestal.
Figure 5.2 Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle. (credit: “Vienna 014” by Jeremy Thompson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax