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Saturday, 15 January 2011

Functionalism and Structural Functionalism

Table of content__________________________________

Introduction. 2

Roots and basic premises. 2

Mentors: 2

Auguste Comte: 2

Herbert Spencer: 2

Emile Durkheim: 3

Two major versions: 3

Functionalism/ biocultural/ psychological functionalism: 3

Contributors: 3

Bronislaw Malinowski: 3

Approach towards functionalism.. 3

Malinowskian explanation: 4

Malinowski’s works: 5

Structural functionalism: 6

Contributors: 6

Talcott persons: 6

The systems(structure) point of view: 6

The functions [AGIL scheme]: 7

Robert K. Merton: 7

Functional explanation: the net balance. 7

Manifest and latent functions: 8

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore: 8

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown: 9

Approach towards structural functionalism: 9

Criticisms: 9

Further reading: 10


Functionalism is –

1. An ethnographic methodology distinctive of cultural anthropology.

2. A historical school of anthropology (also known as British school).

3. A school of sociology, which attempted to integrate sociology, psychology, and anthropology.

4. A philosophy of social sciences in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition.

Roots and basic premises

Underlying functionalist theory is the fundamental metaphor of the living organism, its several parts and organs, grouped and organized into a system, the function of the various parts and organs being to sustain the organism, to keep its essential processes going and enable it to reproduce.


Auguste Comte:

In trying to legitimate the new discipline of sociology, Auguste Comte (1830–1842, 1851–1854) revived analogies made by the Greeks and, closer to his time, by Hobbes and Rousseau that society is a kind of organism. In so doing, Comte effectively linked sociology with the prestige of biological science. For functional theory, then, society is like a biological organism that grows, and as a consequence, its parts can be examined with respect to how they operate (or function) to maintain the viability of the body social as it grows and develops. Functionalist analyses therefore, examine the social significance of phenomena, that is, the purpose they serve a particular society in maintaining the whole (Jarvie 1973). As Comte emphasized (1851–1854, p. 239), there is a ‘‘true correspondence between Statistical Analysis of the Social Organism in Sociology, and that of the Individual Organism in Biology’’ (1851–1854, p. 239). Moreover, Comte went so far as to ‘‘decompose structure anatomically into elements, tissues, and organs’’ (1851– 1854, p. 240) and to ‘‘treat the Social Organism as definitely composed of the Families which are the true elements or cells, next the Classes or Castes which are its proper tissues, and lastly, of the cities and Communes which are its real organs’’ (pp. 211–212). Yet, since these analogies were not systematically pursued by Comte, his main contribution was to give sociology its name and to reintroduce organismic reasoning into the new science of society.

Herbert Spencer:

Spencer used the organismic analogy to create an explicit form of functional analysis. Drawing upon materials from his monumental The Principles of Biology (1864–1867), Spencer’s The Principles of Sociology (1874–1896) is filled with analogies between organisms and society as well as between ecological processes (variation, competition, and selection) and societal evolution (which he saw as driven by war). Spencer did not see society as an actual organism; rather, he conceptualized ‘‘superorganic systems’’ (organization of organisms) as revealing certain similarities in their ‘‘principles of arrangement’’ to biological organisms (1874–1896, part 2, pp. 451–462). In so doing, he introduced the notion of ‘‘functional requisites’’ or ‘‘needs,’’ thereby creating functionalism. For Spencer, there were three basic requisites of superorganic systems: (1) the need to secure and circulate resources, (2) the need to produce usable substances, and (3) the need to regulate, control, and administer system activities (1874–1896, part 2, p. 477). Thus, any pattern of social organization reveals these three classes of functional requisites, and the goal of sociological analysis is to see how these needs are met in empirical social systems.

Emile Durkheim:

Later functionalists produced somewhat different lists of requisites. Émile Durkheim argued that sociological explanations ‘‘must seek separately the efficient cause [of a phenomenon]—and the function it fulfills’’ (1895, p. 96), but, in contrast to Spencer, he posited only one functional requisite: the need for social integration. For Durkheim, then, sociological analysis would involve assessment of the causes of phenomena and their consequences or functions for meeting the needs of social structures for integration.

Two major versions:

The initial split between functionalists and structural functionalists began with two pioneering sociologist philosophers, viz. Herbert Spencer who adopted what is later termed as functionalism, and a second version by Emile Durkheim, later termed as structural functionalism. Two versions of functionalism developed between 1910 and 1930: biocultural (or psychological) functionalism, the approach advocated by Malinowski, and structural- functionalism, the approach advanced by Radcliffe-Brown. With Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski pushed for a paradigm shift in British anthropology, a change from the speculative, historical to the ahistorical study of social institutions. This theoretical shift gave rise to functionalism and established fieldwork as the constitutive experience of social anthropology (Kuper 1973, Young 1991).


Functionalism/ biocultural/ psychological functionalism:

A functional explanation accounts for the existence of a phenomena or carrying out of an action in terms of its consequences – its contribution to maintaining a stable social whole.


Bronislaw Malinowski:

Polish, intellectual, aristocratic family#Doctorate in math & physics 1908, age 24#Inspired by Frazer's Golden Bough#1910 London School of Economics#Ph.D. with C.G. Seligman (Torres Straits expedition)#1913, The Family Among Australian Aborigines#Age 30, 2 doctorates, a book--no fieldwork#1915 - 1918 Trobriand Islands.

Approach towards functionalism

Malinowski suggested that individuals have physiological needs and that social institutions develop to meet these needs. There are also culturally derived needs and four basic "instrumental needs" (economics, social control, education, and political organization), that require institutional devices. Each institution has personnel, a charter, a set of norms or rules, activities, material apparatus (technology), and a function. Malinowski believed that uniform psychological responses are correlates of physiological needs. He argued that satisfaction of these needs transformed the cultural instrumental activity into an acquired drive through psychological reinforcement (Goldschmidt 1996:510; Voget 1996:573).

Malinowskian explanation:

Malinowski's functionalism is best discussed in relation to the Trobriand ethnography with the aid of which it was developed. One theme here was the distinction between magic, religion, and science, which Malinowski broadly took over from Frazer (1890). In this view, science was empirical, rational knowledge, while magic was reasoning from false premises, though both had instrumental purpose. Malinowski detected both in Trobriand society, a derogation from Frazer's placing of them at opposite ends of a simple evolutionary sequence that linked but did not unify different societal types. This is connected with Malinowski's further observation that while some rituals, such as healing, were means to an end, others, such as the festival of Milamala (when ancestral spirits return briefly from Tuma, the next world), were not. Further, the Trobrianders could give a clear reason for the former, but could only refer the latter to "custom." This also appears to be the distinction between magic and religion for Malinowski, though he also grouped them together as being miraculous, mythological, and linked with emotional stress. However, this was no picture of the Trobrianders being sunk in fear and awe for most of their lives. On the contrary, Malinowski regarded them as essentially practical and rational: it was only when reason, the empirical and scientific, could no longer provide an explanation that magic and religion was resorted to. Thus a Trobriander knew how to build a canoe technologically, but to cope with the emotional stress of going on a sea voyage into the unknown he needed magic and ritual. Similarly, inshore fishing was a purely technical matter of no great consequence, but open-sea fishing required magic. Religion, on the other hand, was essentially a response to the fear of annihilation through death (cf. Milamala above), while myth was important in providing a charter for present social norms and action, especially as regards the points of tension in society (e.g., the fact that the matrilineal rule of descent in Trobriand society meant that a man had to support his sister's children as much as his own).

Malinowski produced a similar psychological theory of needs in his treatment of kinship. Following Edward Westermarck (1891), one of his teachers at the LSE, he postulated the universal existence and primacy of the monogamous nuclear family, seeing it as the location of the satisfaction of human needs, such as food, shelter, and companionship. Further, he distinguished it from wider groupings, such as the clan, which he thought was never a domestic institution, a separation later articulated especially strongly by Meyer Fortes. The link between the two was provided by his theory of the "extension of sentiments," namely, that sentiments generated within the family were extended to more distant relationships within the clan. This theory reappears in respect of how terms for relatives are learned in infancy: the child learns to identify his relatives by starting from the nearest and proceeding to more remotely related ones, by an analogous process of extension from the nuclear family outwards here, of knowledge as much as sentiment. Generally, however, Malinowski was derisive of what he called "kinship algebra"; this was part of his reaction to Rivers's approach to kinship, which he felt was unduly reliant on the analysis of kinship terminologies as well as of clan systems. Instead, he postulated that kinship extensions were essentially metaphors, the real meaning being the primary one. The extensionist view was to bear fruit in the later American school of semantic analysis, led by Harold Scheffler and Floyd Lounsbury (1971).


Basic Needs (Individual)

Direct Responses (Organized, i.e., Collective)

Instrumental Needs

Responses to Instrumental Needs

Symbolic and Integrative Needs

Systems of Thought and Faith

Nutrition (metabolism)


Renewal of cultural apparatus


Transmission of experience by means of precise, consistent principles



Marriage and family

Bodily comforts

Domicile and dress

Characters of behavior and their sanctions

Social control


Protection and defense

Means of intellectual, emotional, and pragmatic control of destiny and chance



Systems of play and repose

Renewal of personnel



Set activities and systems of communication


Training and Apprenticeship

Organization of force and compulsion

Political organization

Communal rhythm of recreation, exercise and rest


(SOURCE: Malinowski’s Basic Human Needs as presented in Langness 1987:80)

Malinowski’s works:

Malinowski's main work consists of his Trobriand ethnography, published piecemeal as a series of separate studies, each treating a different theme. The first, Argonauts of the western Pacific (1922), dealt with exchange through the Kula cycle and considerably influenced Marcel MAUSS (1954) (see SOCIAL EXCHANGE). The sexual life of savages (1929) contains his views on the family, kinship, and marriage (see also Malinowski 1930), and Coral gardens and their magic (1935) treats of the relationship between technique and ritual in Trobriand gardening. Also important is the self-explanatory collection Magic, science and religion (1948). The early The family among the Australian Aborigines (1913) is an application of Westermarck's theories of the FAMILY to published sources on Australia, whereas the posthumously published collection A scientific theory of culture (1944) is more explicitly theoretical. Mention should also be made of Malinowski's personal diaries (1967) from the years he was in the field, which were published posthumously by his second wife without his authority. They give considerable insight into his state of mind in this period and are frequently shocking because of his unsympathetic attitude toward the people with whom he was living, which is quite at variance with his published writings.

Structural functionalism:

Structural functionalism is one type of consensus theory it posits that society is based on mutual agreements. It sees the creation and maintenance of shared values and norms as crucial to society, and views social change as a slow, orderly process. Examples of prominent consensus theorists include Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton. These theories stand in contrast to conflict theories, such as those of Karl Marx, that view the world as based on a system of oppressive hierarchies, social order at the whim of dominant groups, and social change as rapid and disorderly resulting from struggles between groups.


Talcott persons:

Although he had published The Structure of Social Action in 1937, it was not until The Social System (1951) and Towards a General Theory of Action (1951) were completed that Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) emerged as the most influential contributor to structural functionalism. There are important differences in Parsons’s major writings, but constant throughout his career was the ambition to formulate a systematic general theory that he described as “… a conceptual scheme for the analysis of social systems in terms of the action frame of reference” (Parsons 1951: 3). For Parsons, the fundamental starting point for constructing any scientifi c theory is to establish an abstract frame of reference. In the scientifi c study of social action, the empirical basis for the frame of reference is a group of interacting individuals (social actors). Social actors have particular goals that they wish to achieve, and to realize those goals they must take advantage of opportunities (means) that are available under a particular set of conditions (situations). Parsons was clear that none of these elements can be reduced to the others, and he sought to formulate an action frame of reference for the study of social action that was capable of accounting for the individual and situational factors motivating people to act in the ways that they do.

The systems(structure) point of view:

He answered this question from the viewpoint of structural functionalism and outlined what he believed are its major tenets:

(1) Systems are ordered and their parts are all interdependent.

(2) systems tend toward a goal of equilibrium or self-maintenance;

(3) systems may be either inert or change in an ordered manner;

(4) each part of the system has an effect on the forms the other parts can take;

(5) systems create and maintain boundaries separating them from their environments;

(6) allocation and integration are necessary for a system to reach a certain state of equilibrium; and

(7) systems will tend toward self-maintenance by maintaining their boundaries, the interdependent relationship among parts, and the relationship between parts and the whole; by controlling variations in the environment; and by controlling tendencies of the system to change from within.

The functions [AGIL scheme]:

In addition to structures, Parsons was also concerned with functions. Parsons saw functions as those activities that had the goal of fulfilling a need of the system. He believed that there were four necessary functional imperatives of all systems: [A] adaptation (how a system copes with its outside environment by both adapting to it and by adapting the environment to meet the needs of the system), [G] goal attainment (the definition and achievement of the primary goals of the system), [I] integration (how the system regulates the relationship of its various parts as well as the relationship among the other three functional imperatives), and [L] latency, or pattern maintenance (how the system provides, maintains, and rejuvenates the motivation of individuals and the cultural patterns that stimulate and maintain that motivation). These functional imperatives are known as Parsons’s AGIL scheme.

Functions become integrated with systems in Parsons’s theory as each component of the AGIL scheme is handled by a different system. Most generally, adaptation is handled by the behavioral organism that adjusts to and transforms the outside world. Goal attainment is handled by the personality system that defines the goals of the system and mobilizes he necessary resources to reach outlined goals. Integration is done by the social system that controls the various components of the system. Latency is performed by the cultural system that provides individuals with norms and values to motivate them to action.

Robert K. Merton:

Merton (1910–2003) became one of Parsons’s most influential collaborators in the structural functionalist orientation, but he also emerged as one of Parsons’s most important critics. Merton believes that Parsons’s emphasis on developing comprehensive theoretical systems did not facilitate the process of actually doing sociological research. In contrast to the abstraction and deduction that Parsons promotes, Merton argues that sociologists should work on testable and researchable hypotheses in specific situations. He also argues that sociologists should gradually develop theories from empirical evidence. What is lacking in functional analysis, insists Merton, is an integration of theory and research, a problem confounded by the failure in sociological discourse to distinguish progressively between “the history of theory” and “the systematics of theory.”

Functional explanation: the net balance

Merton defined functions as those consequences that lead to the adjustment or adaptation of a system. In addition, he argued that not all functions had positive consequences and that some, in fact, were better described as dysfunctions. In addition, nonfunctions are those consequences that have no effect at all on the system. The development of dysfunctions and nonfunctions to complement the existing theory of functions led Merton to develop the idea of a net balance. A net balance is an understanding of the relative weight of functions and dysfunctions in a given system. It is more of a theoretical orientation then an empirical tool because the magnitude and evaluation of what constitutes functions and dysfunctions are highly subjective. The issue of how to study a net balance led Merton to the idea of levels of functional analysis. He argued that society did not have to be studied as a whole but those organizations, groups, and other subcomponents of society were also valid as research topics. Merton, in fact, was a proponent of “middle-range” theories. Thus, what is the net balance of those functions, and dysfunctions, at one level may well be different at another level.

Manifest and latent functions:

Another valuable contribution of Merton to the field of structural functionalism was the idea of manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are those that are intended, whereas latent functions are those that are unintended yet still functional for the system. Closely related to the idea of latent functions is that of unanticipated consequences, although this term encompasses not only those unintended consequences that are functional for the system but also those that are dysfunctional and nonfunctional as well. In sum Latent functions are those objective consequences of a cultural item which are neither intended nor recognized by the members of a society. Manifest functions are those objective consequences contributing to the adjustment or adaptation of the system which are intended and recognized by participants in the system (Kaplan and Manners 1972:58).

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore:

In1945, they wrote what is perhaps the best-known piece of structural functional literature on the topic of social stratification. They argued that a system of stratification is not only functional but also necessary for societies to persist and remain healthy. This idea led them to argue that a classless society had never existed because the need for a system of stratification had always created such a system. They did not, however, believe that the creation of such a stratified system was always a conscious undertaking on the part of society but, rather, that it could be, and often was, an “unconsciously evolved device.”

Following their structural functional orientation, Davis and Moore saw stratification in society not in terms of people but in terms of positions. This meant that they were primarily interested in how certain positions came to be ranked higher or lower than other positions, not in how certain individuals came to fill those ranked positions. They did believe, however, that one of the biggest problems faced by society was how to get the right people to fill the right positions and then, more important, how to keep them there. Their argument was that some positions in society are more pleasant to occupy, some are more crucial for the health and continuity of the society as a whole, and different types of positions require different types of knowledge and skills. Those positions that are generally attributed with a higher social ranking (e.g., politicians, bankers, lawyers) are not as pleasant to occupy, are more important to the overall health of society, and require the highest level of skill and education. Consequently, it is these positions that must also carry the highest level of social prestige, monetary compensation, and available leisure time.

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown:

Born 1881 # Educated at Cambridge #Fieldwork 1906 - 1908, Andaman Islands#Influenced by Durkheim--rewrote his thesis#Published The Andaman Islanders in 1922#1910 - 1912 Western Australia#1916 - 1919 Tonga, then South Africa and Australia#University of Chicago, 1931.

Approach towards structural functionalism:

Radcliffe-Brown focused attention on social structure. He suggested that a society is a system of relationships maintaining itself through cybernetic feedback, while institutions are orderly sets of relationships whose function is to maintain the society as a system. Radcliffe-Brown, following Auguste Comte, believed that the social constituted a separate "level" of reality distinct from those of biological forms and inorganic matter. Furthermore, he believed that explanations of social phenomena had to be constructed within the social level. He believed that individuals were replaceable, transient occupants of social roles. Unlike Malinowski's emphasis on individuals, Radcliffe-Brown considered individuals irrelevant (Goldschmidt 1996:510).

Drawing influence from Durkheim sets his goal of investigation as Compare social structure cross-culturally. He investigated what principles account for different structures which in turn Leads to function which is to investigate How do structures maintain society? For him Function is the role of structure in social continuity. He stated that Social system (society) has a functional unity: All parts work together well enough to maintain society. As the traditional societies studied by early anthropologists were generally without a written history, anthropologists were confronted with the problem of explaining the existence of activities and structures in these societies. The explanatory problem became particularly acute in the post–World War I period with the demise of evolutionism and diffusionism as deciphering tools (Turner and Maryanski 1979). Functional analysis provided a novel alternative: Analyze structures such as kinship or activities such as rituals in terms of their functions for maintaining the society. It was A. R. Radcliffe-Brown ([1914] 1922, 1924, 1935, 1952) who sustained the Durkheimian tradition by emphasizing the importance of integrative needs and then analyzing how structures—most notably kinship systems—operate to meet such integrative requisites.


structural functionalism has also been critiqued by many in the field. A number of the more noteworthy critiques include (1) that it is ahistorical (it did in fact develop in reaction to the historical evolutionary approach of many anthropologists at that time); (2) it is unable to deal with contemporary processes of social change; (3) it cannot adequately deal with conflict (it is generally viewed as a consensus theory and hence in contradiction to conflict theory); (4) it has a conservative bias that maintains the status quo and the dominating power of the elite class; (5) it is generally too abstract, vague, and ambiguous to bear much relationship to the real world; (6) the theories are too grand and ambitious when more historically and situation relevant theories might be more appropriate; (7) there are inadequate methods to research the questions of interest; and (8) comparative analysis is virtually impossible.

Turner and Maryanski (1979) also saw the problems of teleology and tautology plaguing structural functionalism. More specifically, they saw illegitimate teleology as a problem. It is legitimate to assume that society has certain goals and that it brings certain structures and functions into creation to achieve these goals. What many structural functionalists do, however, that is illegitimate is to assume that the current structures and functions in society are the only ones that could have been created to achieve these goals. In addition, tautology is a problem because both the whole and its parts are defined in terms of the other. The whole is defined in terms of its parts and the various parts are then defined in terms of the whole. Hence, neither is truly defined at all.

Further reading:

Related articles in this blog:
Functionalism - the basic anthhropological idea - click here
Basic theories - click here

ü Alexander, Jeffrey C., ed. 1985. Neofunctionalism. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

ü Bourgatta, E.F. and Montgomery, R.J.V. (Eds.) (2000). Encyclopedia of sociology. (Vol – 2) New York: McMillion

ü Camic, Charles. 1992. “Reputation and Predecessor Selection: Parsons and the Institutionalists.” American Journal of Sociology 57: 421–445.

ü Davis, Kingsley. 1959. “The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in Sociology and Anthropology.” American Sociological Review 24: 757–772.

ü Kroeber, Alfred L., and Talcoo Parsons. 1958. “The Concept of Culture and of Social System.” American Sociological Review 23: 582–583.

ü Ritzer, G. (Ed.). Encyclopaedia of social theory, vol – 2. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

ü http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/functionalism/#WhaFun (Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy)

ü http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/cultures/cultures.php?culture=Functionalism (Murphy’s collection of anthropological materials)

ü www.soci.canterbury.ac.nz/resources/biograph/parsons.shtml (Talcott persons biography)

ü www.2fmg.uva.nl/sociosite/topics/sociologists.html (Famous sociologists)

ü www.faculty.rsu.edu~felwell/Theorists/Merton (Merton’s functional analaysis)

ü www.bolender.com/Sociological%20Theory/Parsons,%20Talcoo/parsons,_talcoo.htm (all about parsons)

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Hegelian dialectic

Hegelian dialectic


Hegel’s primary object in his dialectic is to establish the existence of a logical connection between the various categories which are involved in the constitution of experience. He teaches that this connection is of such a kind that any category, if scrutinised with sufficient care and attention, is found to lead on to another, and to involve it, in such a manner that an attempt to use the first of any subject while we refuse to use the second of the same subject results in a contradiction. The category thus reached leads on in a similar way to a third, and the process continues until at last we reach the goal of the dialectic in a category which betrays no instability (McTaggart and McTaggart, 1999) – the ultimate synthesis.

Hegel-Kant debate:

Hegel’s absolute idealism, his organicism, his concept of spirit and notion of God, are metaphysics[1] on the grandest scale. Through pure thinking alone Hegel attempts to give us knowledge of reality in itself, the absolute or the universe as a whole. It was in just this sense, however, that Kant had attacked the possibility of metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason. Hegel had no choice, therefore, but to face the Kantian challenge. Hegel affirms what Kant denies: that it is possible to have knowledge through pure reason of the absolute or the unconditioned. He agreed entirely with Kant that one of the chief failures of past metaphysics was its dogmatism[2], i.e. its failure to investigate the powers and limits of reason. Hence Hegel fully endorsed the demands of Kantian criticism, insisting that ‘any future metaphysics that comes forward as a science alone’ would first have to pass the test of criticism. The old metaphysics was naive, because it simply assumed that we could know truth through thinking alone without having first investigated this possibility. There were two respects, Hegel further explained, in which the old metaphysics was uncritical: first, it did not examine the meaning of the concepts that it applied to the unconditioned; and, second, it did not investigate the limitations of the traditional forms of judgment in knowing the truth. He insisted that Kant had not gone far enough. In the Encyclopaedia he argued that Kant’s critique of metaphysics had been deficient on several counts. First, Kant did not investigate the inherent logic of concepts themselves, determining their precise meaning and powers. Rather, he just classified concepts as either subjective or objective according to his presupposed epistemological principles. Second, Kant insisted that we should have a criterion of knowledge before we make claims to knowledge; but this demand created an infinite regress, for the criterion of knowledge too amounts to a claim to knowledge, so that we need another higher criterion to test it. Third, Kant failed to see that we cannot criticize the forms of thinking without first using them. Hegel likened his attempt to know the logic of our concepts before using them to the efforts of the wise Scholasticus to learn to swim before jumping in the water. All these points came together in Hegel’s complaint that the method of Kantian criticism is external, presupposing the truth of some standard of criticism that does not derive from the concepts themselves. Against Kant, Hegel insisted that the criticism of knowledge must be internal, so that the subject matter is evaluated according to its own inherent standards and goals. It is for this reason that the method of the Phenomenology would be the self-examination or self-criticism of consciousness. The principle of self-thought of the critical philosophy – a principle that Hegel explicitly reaffirmed – demands that we accept only those beliefs that agree with the critical exercise of our own reason.

Dialectics: what is not? What is?

The very term ‘dialectic’ is redolent. No aspect of Hegel’s philosophy has been more interpreted, more misunderstood, and more controversial. Before we examine its precise structure, it is necessary to correct some misunderstandings and to sort through a few controversies.

Not a method:

It is important first to remove the most common misconception that considers dialectic a method. In the usual sense of the word, a ‘method’ consists in certain rules, standards and guidelines that one justifies a priori and that one applies to investigate a subject matter (Wood, 1990). But, in this sense, Hegel utterly opposed having a methodology, and he was critical of philosophers who claimed to have one. Hence he objected to Kant’s epistemology because it applied an a priori standard of knowledge to evaluate all claims to knowledge; and he attacked Schelling’s Naturphilosophie because it mechanically applied a priori schemata to phenomena. Against all such a priori methods, Hegel insisted that the philosopher should bracket his standards, rules and guidelines and simply examine the subject matter for its own sake. The standards, rules and guidelines appropriate to a subject matter should be the result, not the starting point, of the investigation. So, if Hegel has any methodology at all, it appears to be an anti-methodology, a method to suspend all methods. Hegel argues, and it is for this reason that he demands suspending all preconceptions. If the philosopher simply applies his a priori ideas to the subject matter, he has no guarantee that he grasps its inner form or the object as it is in itself; for all he knows, he sees the object only as it is for him.

Not simple thesis-antithesis-synthesis:

Although it is possible to talk about a dialectic, it is advisable to avoid the most popular way of explaining it: in terms of the schema ‘thesis–antithesis–synthesis’. Hegel himself never used this terminology, and he criticized the use of all schemata (Muller, 1958).

Then What?

In its most general form in the Science of Logic the dialectic is a metaphysics whose main task is to determine the general structure of being. In his conception of metaphysics, he criticises traditional logic. Hegel rejects the claim that that we can completely determine substance, reality in itself, through one predicate alone because he thinks that reality in itself is the universe as a whole, which has to be described as both F and -F. Since, however, he holds that F and -F are true of distinct parts of the whole, there is no violation of the law of contradiction. Indeed, the point of the dialectic will be to remove contradictions by showing how contradictory predicates that seem true of the same thing are really only true of different parts or aspects of the same thing. What Hegel is criticizing, then, is not the law of identity as such but the confusion of this law with the metaphysical claim that reality in itself must have one property and not another. We naturally but fallaciously move from ‘No single thing is both F and -F at the same time’ to ‘Reality as a whole cannot be both F and -F at the same time’. Because it is true of each single thing that it cannot be both F and -F, we conclude that reality as a whole cannot be both F and -F. The problem is that we treat reality as a whole as if it were just another entity, another part of the whole.

The structure of dialectics:

Kant and Jacobi put metaphysics in three principles. First, understanding proceeds according to the principles of sufficient reason that is an attempt to find causes for all reasons. Second, understanding is an analytical power that takes a whole and divides it into several parts. Hence in the process of understanding, one has to divide the indivisible. Third, all concepts are finite or limited because they have their determinate meaning only through negation. Hegel finds a fundamental contradiction between the understanding and the subject matter of metaphysics, a contradiction made apparent to him through Kant’s and Jacobi’s critique of reason. The subject matter of metaphysics is the absolute, which is infinite, unconditioned and indivisible; but, since its concepts are finite, conditioned and divisive, the understanding destroys such an object in the very act of conceiving it.

The dialectic was Hegel’s response to these arguments. The basic strategy and idea behind the dialectic is simple, even if its application in specific cases is often very complex. The dialectic arises from an inevitable contradiction in the procedures of the understanding. The understanding contradicts itself because it both separates things, as if they were completely independent of one another, and connects them, as if neither could exist apart from the other. It separates things when it analyzes them into their parts, each of which is given a self-sufficient status; and it connects them according to the principle of sufficient reason, showing how each event has a cause, or how each part inheres in a still smaller part, and so on ad infinitum. Hence the understanding ascribes both independence and dependence to things. The only way to resolve the contradiction, it turns out, is to reinterpret the independent or self-sufficient term as the whole of which all connected or dependent terms are only parts. The chief result of the dialectic is that reason is not only a form of mechanical explanation, which shows how one finite thing depends upon another, but also a form of holistic explanation, which shows how all finite things are parts of a wider whole.

Explaining dialectics:

Hegel finds entire experience of the being form necessary parts of a single indivisible whole. It is necessary to show the noumenal[3] is within the phenomenal, the unconditioned within the conditioned. In his Encyclopaedia Hegel states that there are three stages to the dialectic: the moment of abstraction or the understanding, the dialectical or negatively rational moment and speculative or positively rational moment.

The moment of abstraction

The understanding postulates something unconditioned or something absolute, which it attempts to conceive in itself, as if it were independent and self-sufficient. This is the moment of the understanding whose specific virtue is to make sharp and fast distinctions between things, each of which it regards as self-sufficient and independent. But, in insisting upon its hard and fast distinctions, the understanding is in fact making a metaphysical claim: it holds that something exists in itself, that it can exist on its own without other things.

The dialectical or negatively rational movement

This moment is the correlate of the Kantian antithesis. When the understanding examines one of its terms it finds that it is not self-sufficient after all, but that it is only comprehensible through its relations to other things. It finds that it has to seek the reason for its apparently self-sufficient terms, because it is artificial to stop at any given point.

This stage is dialectical because the understanding is caught in a contradiction: it asserts that the unit is self-sufficient or comprehensible only in itself, because it is the final term of analysis; and that the unit is comprehensible only through its relations or connections to other things, because we can always find some further reason outside itself. The contradiction is that we must affirm both thesis and antithesis: the unit of analysis is both unconditioned and conditioned, both independent and dependent.

The speculative or positively rational movement

This final stage is characteristically Hegelian, whereas the former stages had analogues in Kant. The understanding now finds that the only way to resolve the contradiction is to say that what is absolute or independent is not one thing alone, but the whole of that thing and all others upon which it depends. If we make this move then we can still save the central claim of the thesis – that there is something self-sufficient or unconditioned – and we can also admit the basic thrust of the antithesis – that any particular thing is dependent or conditioned We avoid the contradiction if we ascend a higher level, to the standpoint of the whole, of which the unit and that on which it depends are only parts. While any part of this whole is conditioned and dependent, the whole itself is unconditioned or independent with respect to them.

Of course, the dialectic must continue. The same contradiction arises for the whole, of which the unconditioned and conditioned are only parts. It claims to be unconditioned; but there is something else, on the same level, upon which it depends, so that it too is conditioned. The same thesis and antithesis work on the new level. The dialectic will go on until we reach the absolute whole, that which includes everything within itself, and so cannot possibly depend upon anything outside itself. When this happens the system will be complete, and we will have achieved knowledge of the absolute.

Further reading:

Baiser, F. (2005). Hegel. New York: Routledge.

Houlgate, S. (Ed.).(1998). Hegel Reader. Malden, USA: Blackwell.

Longueness, B. (2007). Hegel’s critique of metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McTaggart, J and McTaggart, E. (1999). Studies in the Hegelian dialectics. Canada: Batoche.

Muler, G. (1958). The Hegel Legend of “Thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, Journal of History of Ideas, XIX: 411 – 414.

Wood, A. (1990). Hegel’s ethical thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms: "What is there?" and "What is it like?" The metaphysician attempts to clarify the fundamental notions by which people understand the world, including existence, the definition of Object (philosophy), Property (philosophy), space, time, causality, and possibility.

[2] Dogmatism: The tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.

[3] The noumenon (from Greek νοούμενoν, present participle of νοέω "I think, I mean"; plural: νοούμενα - noumena) is a posited object or event as it is in itself, independent of the senses. It classically refers to an object of human inquiry, understanding or cognition. Pertaining to the noumenon or the realm of things as they are in themselves