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The importance of dialogue and dialectic in Philosophy

Ashok Vohra *



Philosophy is concerned with finding solutions to problems of life as well as of 'being and becoming'. It is primarily concerned with issues relating to the origin and nature of matter, mind, goodness, truth, and ultimate reality.

Philosophy is the outcome of our sense of wonder, what Vedanta calls jigyasa, curiosity; what the Gita calls pariprashna, the questioning spirit. Methodologies adopted by Greek, western and Indian systems of philosophy differ. Western philosophy is a disinterested quest for knowledge, to know for the sake of knowing, knowledge being an end in itself.

In Indian philosophy pursuit of knowledge has utilitarian ends. While Greek and western philosophers limit their investigation to the external world of senses, Indian philosophers go beyond the sensory world. In pursuit of truth, both use technique of dialogue and dialectic. Ordinarily, 'dialogue' means 'conversation', 'discussion', 'exchange or interchange of ideas'. For Plato "dialogue is the dialectic, a skillfully directed technique of questioning". So he described the dialectician as "midwife tending us in the act, in the 'labour' of knowing".

The dictionary defines dialectic as a specialised "way of discovering what is true by considering opposite theories; a formal method of argument, in which new positions are reached by testing opposing views against one another" — to designate "the method of investigating the nature of truth by critical analysis of concepts and hypotheses".

In the west, the earliest use of the dialectical method is found in Plato. In his 'Dialogues', Plato arrives at truth through discussion in the form of questions and answers. Greek philosopher Aristotle thought of dialectic as the search for the philosophic basis of science, and he frequently used the term as synonym for the "science of logic".

Plato calls the written discourse as "dead discourse". First, because the written words, "seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever".

The second reason for denouncing writing is that there is always a danger of the written word falling in the hands of undeserving persons. It does not know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong.

On the other hand, the "living speech," dialogue, resides in 'the soul of the learner; (it) can defend itself, and knows to whom should it speak and to whom it should say nothing'. Hence Plato prefers "living speech" –active dialogue over passive written composition or treatise, however reasoned it may be.

The presuppositions of a successful dialogue are first, there has to be at least one rival – contradictory or contrary – claim to knowledge as well as theory of knowledge being supported or opposed. Second, participants have to believe in the supremacy of reason and be ready without prejudice to go where it takes them. All participants are equal; there is no place for authority.

In authentic dialogue there is no place for an aapta vaakya – the absolute unassailable statement. There is also no place for an aapta purusha – an all-knowing person. Testimony and rigid mindset have no role in a dialogue. The underlying principle of the method of arriving at knowledge, or truth, through the method of dialogue and dialectic is the axiom that reason, the logos, guides us in our quest.


* Ashok Vohra wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The author is former professor of philosophy, Delhi University
This article was posted on May 14, 2017.


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