Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | June 9, 2008

How to Study: Notes on Dialectical Thinking

Culled from: Basseches, M. 1984.  Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development.

[I highly recommend reading Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development; it’s a wonderful book. I hope Michael Basseches will consider writing a book geared toward helping college freshmen transition to a dialectical style of thinking.]

If learning is as Yeats claimed, a “lighting of a fire”, then the process of thinking or cognition is the equivalent of striking the match that lights the fire.  Improving your study skills will require you to first increase your understanding of cognition.  You can do that by beginning to ‘think about thinking’.  In this post, learn about some different styles of thought (a later post will be about the quality of thought—critical thinking).  These notes from Michael Basseches’ book will start you thinking…


 (from p. 9-12)

Dialectical thinking represents a third alternative to two powerful styles of thought: universalistic formal thinking and relativistic thinking.

Universalistic Formal Thinking (UFT).  UFT assumes there are fixed universal truths and that there is a universal order to things.  The task of science and philosophy is to describe that order.  The Universalists’ sentiments tend to include positive feelings toward powerful abstract systems of ordering which capture the commonality or relationships among apparently different things.  Chomsky’s (1957) work in linguistics is an example of this kind of system.  The same individuals tend to have negative sentiments toward relativistic reasoning; such reasoning strikes the Universalists as accepting too much sloppiness or disorder in the workings of the universe.

Relativistic Thinking (RT).  RT assumes there is not one universal order to things, but rather that there are many orders.  Relativists assume different individuals, groups or cultures order reality in different and incompatible ways.  Thus, order in the universe is entirely relative to the people doing the ordering.  The task of science and philosophy is to appreciate—to describe, and even to create—as wide a range of different orderings as may exist and be interesting and useful.

Relativists’ sentiments include positive attitudes toward diversity.  They appreciate work that shows how things can be looked at differently, such as anthropologists’ ethnographies of distant cultures.  Relativists’ negative sentiments tend to be directed to what they perceive as acts of intellectual imperialism.  When Universalists claim that one way of ordering things is the right way, equally applicable to phenomena experienced by all persons, groups and cultures, Relativists see this as imposing an egocentric or ethnocentric order on the experience of others.

Dialectical Thinking (DT).  DT charts a middle course; the evolution of order in the universe is viewed as an ongoing process.  The process of finding and creating order in the universe is viewed as fundamental to human life and inquiry.  Dialectical thinkers regard positively that which contributes to these processes and negatively that which obstructs them.  This process of creating order is seen as occurring through efforts to discover what is left out of existing ways of ordering the universe, and then to create new orderings that embrace what was previously excluded.

Dialectical thinkers can therefore be expected to share with UFT the negative reaction to RT when the latter seems simply to acknowledge difference and disorder and retreat from efforts to find and create more powerful orderings.  Dialectical thinkers share with RT the reaction it is dangerous to believe that an all-inclusive ordering is possible.

Dialectical thought appreciates work in the UFT tradition insofar as it has created more powerful orderings.  The contributions of the RT tradition is appreciated insofar as it has directed attention to differences among alternative orderings, phenomena and possibilities which lie outside of existing orderings.  For in doing so, relativistic work actually creates opportunities to build more powerful orderings.


(from p. 77-78 )

Thesis-antithesis-synthesis (T-A-S).  One aspect of DT is the T-A-S movement in thought.  The first phase of T-A-S involves movement from reflection upon a thought—the thesis—to a new thought—the antithesis.  A thesis is any idea or element of thought.  An antithesis is not necessarily the opposite of the thesis; it is any idea or element that is excluded from, outside of, apart from, or contrary to the thesis.

The second phase involves movement from reflection upon both thesis and antithesis to a third thought—the synthesis—in which the thesis and the antithesis (or some aspect of each) are related to each other.  The synthesis usually has a more complex form than either the thesis or antithesis, since it includes aspects of thesis and antithesis within itself and binds those aspects together (i.e., it is more differentiated and integrated).


(from p. 1, 2)

Two Scenarios.  Consider the following scenarios in terms of UFT, RT and DT:

1.  Mary, Helen, and Judy are all mothers of daughters.  Each mother has held a set of values, which have guided her efforts to raise her daughter.  Now, the daughters have grown up and each of them is rejecting many of her mother’s values.

Mary is very troubled.  She sees only two possible interpretations.  If her values are right, she has failed as a parent in not having successfully transmitted those values to her daughter.  On the other hand, if her daughter’s values are right, the foundation of the way Mary has lived her life is wrong, and Mary neither deserves nor is likely to receive her daughter’s respect.

Helen is shrugging the matter off.  She reasons that values are totally arbitrary and irrational anyway.  All people have their own values and live their lives by them, and who’s to say which ones are right and which ones are wrong?  Helen respects her daughter in spite of their differences.

Judy places the change of values in historical perspective.  She reasons human values change over the course of history as old values interact with changing circumstances.  People need values in order to decide how to act, but in acting according to their values they change the world.  The changed world in turn leads to the development of new values.  Judy understands her daughter’s values result from the interaction of the values Judy tried to share with her and the experiences of the world, which her daughter has had that Judy herself never had.  Judy says to herself. “Instead of assuming either that I or my daughter is wrong, I can try to see what I can learn for my future life from her values borne of her experience.  I can also see how she has learned from my values and transformed them to keep up with the times.”

2.  Mark, Howard, and George are college juniors.  They are feeling very frustrated about three years of the routine of tests, paper assignments, and grades.  They worry that going through this process has taken its toll, undermining their love of learning.

Mark is confused.  Based on his own experience, it seems to him that students would learn much more if they were given more freedom to pursue their own intellectual interests rather than being required to take standardized tests and complete standardized assignments.  On the other hand, he assumes that the college is run by experienced educators who must have determined that the use of tests and assigned papers to measure, and grades to motivate, is the soundest educational method.

Howard is angry.  He locates the cause of his own demoralization and that of his fellow students in teachers’ illegitimate presumption that they can pass judgment on students’ ideas.  He believes much of grading is subjective and that teachers use their power to impose their own personal tastes on what students think and how students write.  Although Howard doesn’t accept it as educationally legitimate for teachers to dictate what students should learn and then evaluate them by subjective standards, he does accept that’s the way the system works.  He has decided he wants to make it through the system, and has cynically dedicated himself to cultivating the art of giving teachers what they want.

George begins to analyze the problem by locating the college within the larger society of which it is part.  The college is expected to perform a certification function for society by providing transcripts, which other social institutions can use in their selection processes.  But, the college is also expected to provide students with a good education.  The problem that he, Howard and Mark are experiencing reflects a contradiction between the ‘certificational’ and educational functions of the college.  The need to provide certification (grades) to the outside leads the college and its faculty to employ practices that may not be educationally optimal (i.e., standardized assignments).  Similarly, the concern with providing a good education leads to practices that may not be certificationally optimal (i.e., grading students on subject matter where completely objective evaluation is impossible).  George reasons that this contradiction will only be resolved when the basic relationship of the colleges and universities to society is transformed.  He decides that he will devote his time at college to trying to learn all he can that might help him contribute to that kind of transformation of educational institutions.  He accepts that in the meantime he will be given standardized assignments and grades and will have to make compromises between what is educationally and certificationally optimal, just as his teachers do.  But, he is resolved not to lose sight of his own educational objectives.

For more information on dialectical thinking see:,%202005.pdf .


  1. […] previous ‘How to Study’ post (June 9, 2008) described dialectical thinking as one style of thinking among several (just as […]

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