The Dialectician’s Ethos

Dialectic is an inter-personal experience: a rigorous dialogical process where parties to an argument exchange views in pursuit of the common objective of approximating the truth. Socrates used the dialectical method in this exact way: a certain kind of targeted conversation.

To effectively and consistently partake in dialectic, one must have developed several virtues.

They must be honest. To stand by their arguments, recognise any possible mistake of theirs, not misrepresent the other side’s positions, not employ rhetorical tricks, not assume malevolence in the opposing side’s propositions or act in bad faith, and the like.

Honesty ultimately results in a style of communication that is plain and unambiguous, or at least tries to be as straightforward as possible, given the sometimes difficult or nuanced concepts of philosophy. This can be presented outright or upon the request of the other party to the dialogue, in the sense of answering questions along the lines of “what do you mean by X?”. One does not try to use tenuous metaphors, rely on paradoxical claims, make exaggerations, seek to impress, assign peculiar significations to words without sufficiently explaining them, etc. And one must be cooperative and willing to clarify any statement of theirs.

Honesty and plain-spoken-ness contribute to a special type of courage. One where the person is not afraid to maintain their presence in front of the other side to the dialogue and/or whatever audience. The Greek word for this is parrhesia. Parrhesia is revealed when one proceeds to formulate their position because they think it better approximates the truth and does so no matter the social-political benefits or costs.

What happens if we cannot arrive at a satisfactory conclusion through our dialogue, no matter how hard we try? Do we just claim that whatever findings of ours are the best approximation of the truth that can ever be attained? That would be dishonest, for we would be rationalising our shortcomings as extra-personal constants. Instead, we ought to acknowledge that more work needs to be done. Furthermore, once we do have a satisfactory outcome, do we purport to know what the truth is and be unequivocal in our commitment to it? Is our evaluation of what counts as “satisfactory” or “done” an ultimate value judgement? The answer is negative. Parrhesia requires us to be bold in how honest we are towards others and ourselves. In this case, it underpins an aporetic (dubitative) disposition. One is prepared to recognise the constraints they find themselves in, to admit that “I do not know”, “I may be wrong”, “the factors that informed my judgement may have been inadequate, my data incomplete, and/or my capacities limited”, “the outcome is a function of inputs that may be refined upon further investigation”, and so on.

To be aporetic is not about dogmatically claiming that knowledge of some ideal form is unattainable, for that is the opposite of doubt. Nor does it expect one to dismiss every kind of proximate certitude because it is not “good enough”, as that too would be presumptuous: it would attempt to render void the actual while holding it against a potentially speculative ideal, without being in a position to suggest an improved alternative. This is a matter of pragmatism, where something is better than nothing, so long as it does not create impediments to further research, such as entertaining a working hypothesis while being prepared to abandon it in favour of a more comprehensive theory.

Aporeticism is, quite simply, the attitude of not taking oneself too seriously, not committing to a given position with unflinching faith, and not settling with whatever established or conventional wisdom may find currency. One does accept intermediate forms of certainty that yield practical benefits, that offer some degree of knowledge or facilitate the advancement of a given research programme, though always remains open to the possibility of reviewing their stance once the parameters or specifics of the case undergo change.

Aporeticism conditions one to be prepared for a kind of zig-zag movement in their progress towards approximating the truth. To go back and forth is perfectly fine, provided you do not lose sight of the objective. This is what we normally mean when we wish to “keep an open mind” about a given issue. We hint at our adaptability to evolving states of affairs. Doing so requires another attitude: that of being zetetic (inquisitive). The whole point of doubting is to provide an impetus for further research. To press on with the task of approximating the truth, to ask more questions and to seek answers, and to do so again and again.

To have parrhesia, to be aporetic and zetetic, are part of the same mode of conduct. These virtues are inseparable when studied in vivo. What we outline here are mere analytical constructs: they are made separate in our mind.

As noted above, dialectic is an inter-personal affair. The virtues of character documented herein must be present in all parties to the dialogue. Without reciprocity there can be no dialectic. When one seeks to “win the argument”, they are not doing philosophy. They are picking up a verbal fight, a battle of wits, if you will. They are being eristic (combative) and, by extension, egotistic and antagonistic. Their ulterior motive compels them to deviate from the path that leads to the truth in pursuit of some ephemeral gain.

The dialecticians are not preoccupied with bonus points on some meaningless chart that tracks scores, more commonly conceived as social status, economic standing, popularity… They care about working together to seek the truth. To the dialectician’s mind there is no such concern as the quest for glory, in the sense of staunchly defending their position despite cogent counter-arguments. Besides, that would fail the test of honesty.

Perhaps the most common case where the dialectician wins and benefits from dialectic is when they discover a proposition, theory, method, that approximates the truth in a manner that is superior to what was possible prior to such a discovery. To “lose the argument” by admitting one’s position to be untenable is, in fact, a blessing, a win of the highest order: one is emancipated from a falsehood that kept them away from the truth and is inspired to renew their zetetic spirit.

Dialectic is all about humility. You learn to be humble by exposing the emptiness of your once-cherished beliefs, for that is how your knowledge evolves. You collaborate with other parties to partake in the pleasure of finding out that you were all wrong and some other thesis is required to help you approximate the truth. And when you are faced with uncertainty, you recognise it for what it is and accept its potentially unfathomable consequences. Such is the bliss of not taking oneself too seriously and having the parrhesia to do so in the presence of others.

This ethos is not a set of technical guidelines that we follow only while engaging in dialectic. It is a highly demanding lifestyle, not the pastime activity of some idle scholar who blithely teaches one thing in the laboratory while lacking the integrity of character to generalise it as part of their quotidian behaviour. The dialectician cannot tolerate such dissonance in their life. One embodies those virtues and lives in accordance with them in a consistent fashion, for they apply everywhere.

To live with uncertainty, to know one’s limits, one’s very humanity as a mere factor in the system of systems we conceptualise as “the cosmos” (or the oikos/ecos, from whence we derive terms such as ecosystem, ecology, etc.), is to develop a sense of tranquility, a peace of mind where you are no longer disturbed by the unknown but are instead eager to expose yourself to it, contrary to your most basic instincts and intuitions as the animal you are.

The dialectical lifestyle, which is in the sense here considered equivalent to the sceptical stance on living, is one that leads to ataraxia (non-disturbance, tranquility of mind). You overcome the most fundamental fear of your ego: that of not knowing. Emancipated from its grip you ascend with the help of others to a higher vantage point, so to speak, from where everything is clearer but also from where you can immediately recognise that your eyes continue to see up to a certain point on the horizon.

Fear of the unknown does not cloud your judgement, nor does it motivate you to be dishonest as a means of rationalising your perceived position of weakness. Confronting your instinctive impulses allows you to better understand your tranquil nature and through it to gain a newfound appreciation of the cosmos in its totality, to the extent you can fathom it, and of its particularities as experienced in every moment. This suggests another way of interpreting parrhesia: courage, fearlessness, and eagerness to face whatever challenges may arise from the task of approximating the truth.

Hence comes agnosticism: the admission of not knowing and the implicit preparedness to live with the consequences. One cannot be dialectical and gnostic at the same time, for the latter contradicts the disposition of dubitativeness and inquisitiveness. To claim to know, without sufficient proof that could be objectively verified by other dialecticians who are not indoctrinated into whatever theory of yours, is a form of dishonesty; dishonesty that may be latent and, thus, not readily recognisable, or one that stems from the natural fear of the unknown that has yet to be addressed.

Agnosticism is another way to describe a modus vivendi that is aporetic and zetetic, and where the person is equipped with parrhesia to conduct themselves accordingly. Here “courage” has an added meaning: the readiness to venture into the unknown and proceed without end in sight. It is a matter of mental endurance, to participate in a kind of life-long marathon run in the vast expanses of the world.

What we gather from those notes is that dialectic presupposes and/or engenders certain connatural virtues. The dialectical process starts from a position of ethics. Ethos is one’s shared moral character, where morality is, in essence, the abstract structure of rules that frame, inform, influence, or otherwise determine the conduct of situational agents and patients to a given action, elucidated and rendered concrete as a discourse and set of narratives, or codified commands that are politically sanctioned and enforced. It is “shared” because it cannot materialise unilaterally. Just as dialectic is an inter-personal affair, so is morality inter-subjective in nature. There is no strictly private ‘dialogue’ as there can be no communication between a sender and a recipient in the sole presence of an absolute one. And there can be no ethics in the narrow confines of a decontextualised individual, where the distinction between an agent and a patient to a given action no longer holds.

The dialectician is, just like Diogenis of Sinope (aka “the Cynic”), a citizen of the cosmos (“cosmou polites” gives us “cosmopolite” and its derivatives) in the sense that their point of reference and source of guidance is nature, the approximation of the truth, the world as-is or as best we can interpret it, though not as human convention or whimsy wants it to be. While “citizen” is a metaphor that seeks to capture the qualities of a literal city-dweller: that they recognise the rules of the place and live in accordance with them. So does the dialectician who studies the cosmic being and lives by whatever rules they may have identified or partially comprehended as part of their life-long commitment to the task.

Yet the dialectician’s cosmopolitanism (which probably has nothing in common with today’s use of the term) does not keep them aloof from the fray of everyday life. To study nature is to also recognise the human species as a social animal; an animal that institutes its collective life by setting rules. The dialectician does not seek the truth by trying to escape from their humanity, for that would run contrary to the very notion of examining the world as-is. They remain rooted in their actuality which also encompasses their particular social milieu. So, as with Socrates, the dialectician does not abandon their city, opting instead to operate in their community to, inter alia, remind their fellow citizens that those who claim to have found the absolute truth are delusional and dishonest.

The dialectician is tasked to at once live in the cosmos and in the city, the space and the place, the general and the particular, and, equipped with their uncompromising ethos, contribute back to humanity’s stock of knowledge. As Plato would suggest, the dialectician must not abandon their comrades back in the cave. They must instead descend yet again and try to help them escape from the shadow play that presents their ignorance as knowledge, their hubris as boldness, their pretences to intellectuality as wisdom.

This reveals a mindset of sharing know-how that we could describe as the “Promethean ideal”, in reference to the myth of Prometheus who taught humanity the technology of wielding fire, without fearing the inevitable punishment. The dialectician is guided by this paradigm to make their findings accessible to as many of their peers as they can. Again, like Socrates, one remains approachable and close to their neighbours. This links back to honesty and plain-spoken-ness.

The dialectician is your friendly, albeit demanding and strict, neighbour who remains part of your community, though not as a sycophant, a cheerleader of the establishment, but as a benevolent, tenacious critic that helps by either sharing knowledge or by exposing falsehoods for what they are.