Liberal Art #2—Dialectic

I really like what Clark and Jain have to say about dialectic in The Liberal Arts Tradition.  I really hope you’ll read this book for yourself and read it all.  Dialectic encompasses the formalities of logic and reasoning, but it is much more than that.

“Dialectic” shares an obvious root with the word “dialogue.” That is a hint that dialectic involves some kind of back-and-forth, a conversation of some sort, which involves more than one person or more than one point of view. Plato’s Socratic dialogues are the first example of dialectic in the classical tradition, and the authors distill the idea into this:

Reading Plato’s dialogues we find that the key to success in reasoning is the ability to ask the right questions.

And there, I think lies the crux of this art. I think dialectic is the art of asking good questions, which makes it incomplete by itself, of course. Asking a good question is vital, but one hopes that good questions will lead to good answers. I never think about dialectic without being reminded of something Charlotte Mason shared.

Long ago, I was in the habit of hearing this axiom quoted by a philosophical old friend: “The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself.” I have failed to trace the saying to its source, but a conviction of its importance has been growing upon me during the last forty years. It tacitly prohibits questioning from without; (this does not, of course, affect the Socratic use of questioning for purposes of moral conviction); and it is necessary to intellectual certainty, to the act of knowing. (Philosophy of Education, p. 16-17)

Learning to ask yourself the right kind of questions becomes a kind of internal dialectic, but the key point remains the same. You have to ask the right kind of questions, good questions, and as I have shared elsewhere, narration is a great method for building that skill gradually and effectively.

In the early stages of education, Clark and Jain tell us, students are absorbing a great deal of material—they use the word “voluminous”—and when they have a store of knowledge they are ready to do something with it, intellectually.

Having received, and hopefully, imbibed the deposit of the [classical] tradition, students then must learn to weigh, to sort out, and to synthesize the nuanced, paradoxical, and at times contradictory ideas and arguments contained in that tradition.

And I’m reminded again that, whether they know it or not, these authors are walking the paths that Charlotte Mason walked before them.

It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in. It produces a certain sanity of judgment, and therefore a certain capacity for affairs, an ability for the examination of questions, which are rather the distinguishing marks of the public schoolman. (Formation of Character, p. 381, emphasis added).

(What Miss Mason means by a “public schoolman” is a man who was educated at classical school like Eton or Harrow.)

This liberal art of dialectic is probably most valuable to us if we view it as learning to ask the right questions instead of a formal process, although examining the formal process might well help us to do that. One might view the whole classical tradition of education as a long conversation that is ongoing, and perhaps went astray when we began to ask the wrong questions. One of the marks of a good question, I think, is that it provokes further questions rather than shutting down discussion. What do you think?

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