Dialectics is the formal study of change, of how everything changes over time. Dialecticians attempt to understand change by using universal and theo­retical principles to analyze transformations over extended periods of time. With a comprehensive set of guidelines, the dialectical method can be used in the study of and in physical, biological, or social sciences.

Hegel and the Dialectical Method

The dialectical method, as used by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), is employed to under­stand the history of rational thought or philoso­phy. Rational ideas are the creators of history. Using this method, we begin with an original idea. This is the thesis. The thesis has a limited life span because of its innate contradictions. Born out of this conflict is a new contrasting proposition, or the antithesis. The antithesis also contains contra­dictions. The solution between these rival influ­ences fashions a resolution with a new thesis of the two opposing philosophies. This new philoso­phy contains its own intrinsic contradictions, and thus the process renews itself. By examining the basic contradictions of the new philosophy, we discover the inherited contradictions that begin the process of birth and death all over again. This is the way Hegel understood history. History has a pattern and not a hodgepodge of unconnected particulars.

Working with the concept of “essence of being,” something is negated in the process of creating something new, which leads to what Hegel calls the “sum of essence.” The new essence is only a manifestation of being, thus temporary and fleeting. This development is completely conditional; that only perceptible estimate of “being.” The resulting contradiction is the negation-of-the-negation of the essence of being, leading to the “actuality” of a more advanced harmony. This brings together essence or “real meaning” with “existence.” At each stage in this process, Philosophy is moving closer to the “absolute.”


states that everything in the universe can be understood in terms of mate­rial substance, which occupies space and is in motion. The universe, nature, and human com­munities are natural and thus a part of a tangible process continually unfolding in a never-ending course of transformation.

Beginning with Karl Marx (1818-1883), the changes its orientation. The dialectic now becomes a materialist perspective that assumes matter in motion and change over time as the basis for all other understanding. The entire universe is interconnected and made up of interrelated parts. Matter neither vanishes nor is it formed anew. The physical field of material formations consists of interacting and interconnected particles transmit­ting movement from one body to another. This is the substantive reality of existence. Motion, space, and time are the basic expressions of matter.

According to Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), all of nature is continuously coming into existence and ceasing to exist at each moment in time. These changes are continuous. Trivial and hardly noticeable quantitative changes lead to a final break, followed by rapid and basic qualitative changes. Everything we can study is made up of opposing internal contradictions that break down the old while the new is being formed.

To summarize, there are three general laws of nature that constitute dialectics. First, the process begins with the law of unity and the conflict of opposites. Second, the slow accumulation of quan­titative changes appears over time, until there is a final breakdown; this breakdown is followed by rapid qualitative change and the birth of some­thing new. Finally, the law of the negation-of-the- negation occurs, which is based upon the Hegelian triad of thesis-antithesis-new thesis.

In the view of dialectical materialism, history begins with the material expression of actual peo­ple living their everyday lives. History moves for­ward with people living in association with nature. Through these relationships with nature, humans produce their own means of subsistence. Nature includes not only material nature but also the social nature of human communities. Each genera­tion takes over from the past and provides for a new beginning with regard to their means of subsistence and then transforms it to fit their modified needs. “Human nature” of the individual is shaped by the specific historical and cultural set­ting of a particular group. Production determines how people are organized and how they interact.

Nature and Labor

Nature and labor are two critical aspects of the human condition. We are human because we labor. We take what we need from nature, and through our actions we change nature to fit our needs. This in turn changes us. Humans and human society are always a part of, and never separate from, nature. Our social world is merely an expression of the natural world. Human beings are seen in context as being fully integrated into nature, a part of nature. Humans are active, proactive, and interac­tive within our environment in a way that guaran­tees transmutation of humanity. This evolution of the human condition is continuous as we humans change and adapt to our environment.

The human condition, then, is set in the animal and social circumstances of people. This existential fact of our dual nature is found at the very begin­ning of hominid evolution and is a central concern of all human beings ever since. The human condi­tion, which is universal and historically specific, includes biological necessity, social necessity, and the broad abstractions of psychological necessity.

We become human in a social setting. This set­ting is founded upon coming together to interact with nature. We call this interaction labor. Labor is our connection with nature, and through labor we create ourselves physically, socially, and emo­tionally. Through labor we become social beings, that is, beings that are culturally defined with indi­vidual personalities. It is through social activity that human life is possible. Labor is both social and material. Labor also symbolically and cultur­ally manifests notions of self-expression. The human animal rationally develops into a culturally defined social being.

Labor, as seen in the perspective of dialectical materialism, is both symbolic and natural. Labor is born by combining symbols of creation with real human needs or wants. By working together in an existing environment, to take from nature and alter it in ways to meet our needs, we bring forth new needs by this action. This in turn changes our interaction with nature and each other. It is through this process of being human that society and cultures are created, and only in society are we fully human. In affinity with others, we can decid­edly attain our power of creativity and of expres­sion and fully maximize our humanity.

Modes of Production, Social Classes, and Culture

Human unity with nature exists through industry. Social science must reflect this if it is to elucidate the deeper underlying connections between spe­cific social actions and global trends. In industry, commerce, production, and exchange establish systems of distribution, which in turn give birth to ideological possibilities. Along these lines, socio­economic classes are determined by the mode of production. The needs of every class-society create its own ideological support. For example, with the evolution of bourgeois society, science developed to meet the needs of its mode of production. This was possible because the ruling ideas of any class­society are that of the ruling class. Those who control the material forces of society also rule the ideas of that society. Workers are subject to those ideas. The dominant ideology reflects the domi­nant material relations.

Manifestations of the human condition can be defined in specific social and cultural terms. These manifestations are continuously and historically in a state of metamorphosis, based upon the historical alternatives within the dynamic of an environment that is itself historically created. The appearance of the human condition is defined in specific social and cultural terms. Agency is the motor of this change. Agency is the instrument of the transmog­rification of the social and cultural environment. Agency is defined as choice, which presupposes a limited free will, in a predetermined environment, with the options also predetermined.

Force of production is the natural environment combined with technology and the demands of population pressure. The relations of production are the sum of our social organizations, including work organizations, authority organization of work, property relations, and methods of product distribution. Political culture is reflective of this interaction, as is the ideological superstructure.

The forces of production set the limits of what is possible for the relations of production and in turn the relations of production offer continual feed­back to the forces of production, thereby changing the nature of the forces of production. The rela­tions of production generate the necessity of the specifics of a historically defined political culture. The political culture offers direction for the rela­tions of production. The political culture creates, guides, and controls the ideological superstructure. The ideological superstructure provides the neces­sary knowledge for the operation of everything else, including the forces of production.

Culture is defined by the methods with which humans adapt to their environment and change that environment, thereby demanding and allowing humans to readapt to the changes in the environ­ment. This dynamic operates within human commu­nities as an interactive part of a larger world nature.

Thus we can say that because of the existence of humans as a part of the world and nature, humans and all other species in the greater ecosystem coevolved. Within this dynamic, the human condi­tion specifically and historically defined the social, cultural, and biological, in order for the individual to survive and the community to meet its members’ needs. These needs are met with specifics of the sociocultural setting that interact with nature and with other societies. This is carried out within the social setting of continual historical change and creates the individual, born within an historical setting that limits the options possible. Within this dynamic, the critical element is circumscribed free will, an assertion of choice.

Unfettered, unimpeded, lustfully creative, and aesthetically imaginative labor is fundamental to our human identity and a universal basic need of all people. Through labor, we become social beings, and through social activity, life is possible. Labor is thus both social and material. Labor also symbolically and culturally manifests notions of self-expression. The human animal rationally develops into a culturally defined social being. Truly free labor is a function of artistic creativity and aesthetic enjoyment.

The foregoing analysis blends the determinism of historical sociology with an element of inescap­able freedom, made popular by the existentialists. When labor is introduced into this synthesis, labor becomes the unity of freedom and determinism.

This is the beginning of historical anthropology. Humans in fact create themselves and their society through their productive action, which we call labor, in the material world of nature. Productive powers are resources, including the ability to labor, which people use in that process. It is through the action of people using symbols, ideas, and objects to change nature that the historical core of the very production of society and its culture is created. We produce, alter, create, and ultimately bring forth ourselves through labor. Thought and action through labor produce new thought and action continuously. Culture, through communication and collective expressive validity, creates meaning. That meaning becomes basic to cultural explana­tions. Socially knowledgeable people in turn produce themselves by creating culture.

Productive powers are anything that can be used in production. Through production, people inter­act with nature. These forces and powers are used by people in such a way that material production occurs, because material production is organized to meet people’s needs. This contribution to produc­tion is, in fact, planned. There must be an objective knowledge of how to use the tools of production, the process of production, and the needs that this activity satisfies. This interpretive composition of comprehension is within a culturally defined set of meanings, surrounded by a context that is relative to the conscious needs of a people. The processes of production are related to an interactive complex of meaning for the actors involved. This is central to the interpretation of symbols needed to carry out production. Productive powers include raw materi­als and technology, along with the skills and knowledge about the use of technology within that environment. All human social relations and their functions have an incontestable influence upon material production, and material production directly influences these relations.

Societies, to a certain degree, are internally con­sistent. There is a fundamental interactive relation­ship between economy, politics, and religion in a mutually reciprocal way that enables these institu­tions to be intellectually defined within a larger social whole. These “social totalities” have some­what consistent arrangements of institutions that define the type of character a society has, in spite of the variation within the whole of that society. In any social and historical setting, there are limited options placed upon choices people make and the degree of social change possible by the formation of these structures. The types of societies form epochs. The epochs are shorthand for the basic themes of production of human social life in an entire historical era.

Humans need to realize themselves through labor. Through labor, people develop power and skills in an ongoing dialectic with nature. Productive knowledge is central to this actualization. Differing productive powers (forces of production) express themselves in different societies. Different relations of production give internal groups different inter­ests in technological changes in these different societies. Most social revolutions would appear to preserve the level of productive powers achieved. Yet this tendency of expanding powers can best be seen at the world level, because local relations of production can prevent technical development beyond a certain point. The population size and average productivity of labor lies resolutely in the conditions of mass productive powers.

It is power that decides differing social groups’ access to control over the means of production and the division of the fruits of labor of that society. Relations of production lead to productive inequal­ities. These relations of production are expressed through the affinity between groups within a soci­ety where some groups dominate and others remain subordinate in production and distribution.

Social beings determine social consciousness. This way of describing the material social life of people’s productive activity, including the means of subsistence, lays the foundation for the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual life of a society. People, and only living people, make culture. Humans, as bio­logical animals, create their own social life. Forces of production (including environment, technology, and population pressure) and exchange of material goods with other societies create the possibilities of what the relations of production or social organiza­tion will look like. This in turn limits the possibili­ties for the cultural world of a people.

Economics is the science of how people provide for their material and social needs and desires. This is historically determined within a specific environment, modified through trade with other societies. Each society is constantly changing as the environment changes. Each society has its own culture. The culture is formed through adaptation to an environment. By the use of culture, people adapt to an environment; through adaptation, they change that environment. The society and its cul­ture become maladaptive to that environment and must alter culture to readapt to a new environ­ment. In addition, all natural environments are changing naturally. Thus, the model used is both materialist and dialectical.

People are the authors of their social life within their societies. From the perspective of dialectical materialists, people create humanity and not God. Within communities, people make conscious choices. These in turn have real but unintended consequences. This establishes social phenomena beyond people’s command. Social laws, like natu­ral laws, exist outside people’s control. Laws are intellectual constructs to explain these natural patterns. People collectively work as a unit to survive, and this creates the starting point for a social reality. Through collective labor, people interact with the natural environment and make human life possible. Thus, humans are not only social animals now but were always an interactive part of nature. People’s changing relationship with nature is the foundation of a changing social reality they live with as a group. As there are changes in the natural environment and changes in the technology used to work with that environ­ment, there are also changes in the social organi­zation of that society. These changes then define the relations of production, which are the most basic part of a society. This is never a simple cause and effect relationship but a continual feedback system in which the cause is also the effect and vice versa.

Law, being heuristic, provides guiding principles that serve to indicate ways of allowing humans to make informed decisions. The laws of social real­ity, like the laws of nature, are knowable through careful observation and study. Through these stud­ies, people learn about the multifaceted basics of social episodes. People can learn what is possible and what is not and thus make better choices instead of reacting blindly to those forces beyond people’s control. Historical necessity provides the raw materials people work with in creating the choices they make. This, in turn, creates another historical necessity with new possibilities. With better information individuals can make better decisions, and the unforeseen consequences become less absolute. It is through the knowledge of objective necessity that people gain factual data. This deterministic model can elucidate the possible alternatives. True freedom within society, like within nature, is possible only if a deterministic model is used to explain the objective reality of society and the real options existing at any one time for people. Subjective free will is an illusion masking blind reactions to unknown outside forces that limit any real hope of freedom.

Until now, these changes operated as if they were blind forces of nature. Cultural and political structure reinforce the existing relations of produc­tion and become overpowering forces that indi­viduals can never hope to change without precise information about what, in fact, exists. This is affected by understanding how society changes and by understanding the relationship between actions taken by a society and the social reality affecting those decisions.

Michael Joseph Francisconi

See also Becoming and Being; Causality; Economics; Engels, Friedrich; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Law; Lenin, Vladimir Ilich; Marx, Karl; Materialism

Further Readings

Afanasiev, V. G. (1987). Dialectical materialism. New York: International Publishers.

Cameron, K. N. (1995). Dialectical materialism and modern science. New York: International Publishers.

Engels, F. (1935). Ludwig Feuerbach and the outcome of classical German philosophy. New York: International Publishers.

Engels, F. (1977). Dialectics of nature (C. Dutt, Trans.). New York: International Publishers.

Engels, F. (1978). Anti-Dühring. New York: International Publishers.

Feuerbach, L. (1989). The essence of Christianity. New York: Prometheus.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1990). The philosophy of history. New York: Prometheus.

Lenin, V. I. (1970). Materialism and empiriocriticism. Peking: Foreign Language Press.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1970). The German ideology. New York: International Publishers.

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Educational Bureau. (1974). The fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers.

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