Frames in Interaction

Frames in Interaction

Key Terms

  • Interaction
  • Frames
  • Frames in Interaction
  • Cognitive Frames
  • Media Frames
  • Audience Frame
  • Multiple Frames
  • Ambiguity
  • Uncertainty
  • Unpredictability
  • Incomplete Knowledge
  • Frame Production
  • Frame Alignment
  • Dialectics
  • Dialogical Interaction
  • Learning
  • Individual Learning
  • Social Learning
  • Agenda Setting
  • Priming

Interacting Frames

  • Frames in Interaction
    • Interaction as a cause of frame production, reflection, learning and frame alignment.
  • Competing Frames
    • Differing perspectives on a current issue. Contesting and competing.
  • Frames of Possibilities
    • Farmes of possible future due to uncertainty. Scenarios of future states.
  • Media Frames and Audience frames
    • Dielectics between media frames and audience frames

Frames – Sociological and Psychological

Source: CONCEPTUAL ISSUES IN FRAMING THEORY: A Systematic Examination of a Decade’s Literature

Conceptually, framing can be said to have two broad foundations—sociological (Entman, 1991; Gamson & Modigliani, 1987; Gitlin, 1980; Goffman, 1974) and psychological (Domke, Shah, & Wackman, 1998; Iyengar, 1991; Kahneman & Tversky, 1984). Framing research that grew from sociological foundations refers to the ‘‘frames in communication’’ (Chong & Druckman, 2007b, p. 106). In general, this research tends to focus on the ‘‘words, images, phrases, and presentation styles’’ (Druckman, 2001, p. 227) that are used to construct news stories and the processes that shape this construction.

Goffman (1974) was one of the first scholars to have developed the general concept of framing. As such, frames help people organize what they see in everyday life. Goffman calls frames the ‘‘schemata of interpretation,’’ a framework that helps in making an otherwise meaningless succession of events into something meaningful (p. 21). Gitlin (1980) defines frames as devices that facilitate how journalists organize enormous amounts of information and package them effectively for their audiences. He sees frames as ‘‘persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion,’’ organizing the information for both the journalists and their audiences (p. 7). According to Entman (1993), framing involves selection and salience—‘‘to frame is to select some aspects of perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described’’ (p. 52). Framing could have significant connotations as frames highlight some aspects of reality while excluding other elements, which might lead individuals to interpret issues differently.

Besides examining media frames, researchers have most enthusiastically studied the processes involved in the formation of the audience frame. There is much research that demonstrates how news framing influences information processing and the subsequent decision-making processes. Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984) were the first to demonstrate how different presentations of essentially the same information can have an impact on people’s choices. They found that individuals were inclined to take risks when ‘‘losses’’ are highlighted. But when the same information is presented in terms of ‘‘gains,’’ individuals shy away from risks. This approach, called ‘‘equivalency’’ (Druckman, 2001, p. 228), examines the influence of different but logically equivalent messages. In this approach, all factual and stylistic elements are comparable so that the pure influence of the frame can be observed. The ‘‘equivalency’’ perspective draws extensively on the experiments of risk-gain research (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979, 1984).

The ‘‘emphasis’’ (Druckman, 2001, p. 230) approach to framing demonstrates that accentuating certain considerations in a message can influence individuals to focus on those particular considerations. Scholars (Domke et al., 1998; Iyengar, 1991; McLeod & Detenber, 1999; Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997; Valkenburg, Semetko, & de Vreese, 1999) aligned to this interpretation of framing maintain that it is not always possible to manipulate a frame without changing some of the facts. Druckman (2004) aptly points out that in many cases, especially with political issues, there is not always a way to present a situation in different but equivalent ways. Instead, emphasis framing effects refer to situations when, by ‘‘emphasizing a subset of potentially relevant considerations,’’ individuals are led to focus on these considerations in the decision-making process (Druckman, 2004, p. 672). Thus, for political issues the concept of framing usually refers to ‘‘characterizations’’ of a course of action where a central idea provides meaning to the event (Sniderman & Theriault, 2004, p. 136). It is within ‘‘emphasis’’ framing that scholars have again differentiated frames—episodic versus thematic (Iyengar, 1991); strategy versus issue (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997); in terms of values (Brewer & Gross, 2005; Shah et al., 1996) to name a few.

The dual nature of framing research—frames in the news versus frames in the individuals’ minds—is evident. Scholars have examined both areas of literature in the past decades.

Frame competition

Source: CONCEPTUAL ISSUES IN FRAMING THEORY: A Systematic Examination of a Decade’s Literature

Moreover, in previous experimental research, scholars have focused largely on how different frames can affect the audiences’ attitudes, their learning, or political behavior. These studies have mainly focused on the difference of framing effects in single frame conditions, for instance, strategic versus value framing, loss versus gain, or episodic versus thematic (Iyengar, 1987, 1991; Nelson, Clawson, et al., 1997; Shah et al., 1996). However, there has been little research on the effects of multiple frame conditions, where the same subjects get alternative frames of an issue (Shah, Kwak, Schmierbach, & Zubric, 2004; Sniderman & Theriault, 2004). In general ‘‘the role of multiple competing frames has gone largely unexplored’’ (Chong & Druckman, 2007a, p. 101).

To be able to capture what actually happens in politics, ‘‘it is necessary to have an additional condition in framing experiments, in which opposing frames are presented together’’ (Sniderman & Theriault, 2004, p. 146). The authors consider ‘‘ambivalence’’ as key for framing effects (p. 137). They argue that the very nature of politics requires choices to be made between competing values. So value conflict is critical to the link between issue framing and political judgment. As such, the present study examined the published literature for the presence of studies exploring mixed frames.

Frames, Frame Effects, and Multiple Frames in Interaction

Sources: Toward a Relational Concept of Uncertainty: about Knowing Too Little, Knowing Too Differently, and Accepting Not to Know

Framing research has important roots in the work on cognitive biases and decision heuristics (Tversky and Kahneman 1981, De Martino et al. 2006). From this perspective, frames are representations of the external world, but these heuristic representations are biased when compared with accurate, decision theoretical representations (cf. Tversky and Kahneman 1981). This view has been adopted in classical decision-making theory, and served as a basis to study inconsistencies underlying judgment and choice (e.g., Kahneman and Tversky’s (1996) work on judgmental heuristics and limitations of intuitive choice). In this context, “framing effects” represent a violation of the standard economic account of human rationality. Having different formulations of what decision theory considers to be the same problem (in terms of expected utility) elicits different preferences: risk aversion can be encouraged by framing the situation in terms of gains, whereas risk seeking is encouraged by framing the situation in terms of losses (Tversky and Kahneman 1981). Although we do not share the assumption of the decision-heuristic approach that there is always a unique and correct decision theoretical formulation of a decision problem, this research does demonstrate that formulating a problem in a different way may elicit distinct decision preferences (Tversky and Kahneman 1981), affecting the meaning of and the importance attributed to uncertain information, and pointing toward different actions.

We understand frames as sense-making devices (Weick 1995) that mediate the interpretation of reality by adding meaning to a situation. The same situation can thus be framed in multiple, equally valid ways. For example, a situation of water shortage can be framed as a problem of “insufficient water supply” by one actor and, one of “excessive water consumption” by another. When a problem is framed as insufficient water supply, the most relevant uncertainties will be those associated with the amount of water available, and technical solutions that help avoiding water shortage can be favored (e.g., adopt a more efficient irrigation technology, Koundouri et al. 2006). However, when the problem is framed as an excessive water consumption issue, other solutions can be considered, such as changing the way in which water is used and consumed (e.g., diversification of crops). In this case, uncertainties associated with how society will react to a change in land use, or policies that stimulate the change (e.g., Common Agricultural Policy) will be the most important. In this way, frames significantly affect how meaning is inferred and how a situation is understood, serving to define a problem relative to core values and assumptions and to determine how to respond to it (Nisbet and Mooney 2007).

There have been two main approaches to framing research, namely, a cognitive approach where frames are defined as “cognitive representations,” and an interactional approach where frames are defined as “interactional co-constructions” (an in-depth comparison of both approaches can be found in Dewulf et al. (2008)). The cognitive approach has focused on frames as knowledge structures. It is based on the idea that frames are memory structures that help us organize and interpret incoming perceptual information by fitting it into pre-existing categories about reality (Minsky 1975). In contrast, the interactional approach focuses on how parties negotiate frame alignments in interactions. It considers frames as communicative devices, that is interactional alignments or co-constructions that are negotiated and produced in the ongoing interaction through “metacommunication” that indicates how a situation should be understood. From this perspective, frames are co-constructions of the meaning of the external world. This view has been adopted in multiparty collaborations and is exemplified in Dewulf et al. (2004) and Putnam and Holmer (1992).

Here, we adopt an interactional approach, where framing is defined as the process through which the meaning of a situation is negotiated among different actors (Putnam and Holmer 1992, Gray 2003a, Dewulf et al. 2004). Thus, framing is thought to be an interactive process where actors are engaged in developing an understanding of problems and alternative solutions. It is through the joint activities of framing, and reframing, that the actors can arrive at a joint problem definition. From this social experience, a common language and a new sense of community can emerge, opening up possibilities for further creativity and developments, and fostering learning and change (Bouwen 2001).

In our definition of uncertainty, we incorporate the concept of multiple frames, in order to capture the difference among multiple forms of knowledge. We consider each frame to represent a potentially valid view of a situation, reflecting the viewpoint of a particular community of practice (Bouwen 2001). Under the rationale of an interactional approach to framing research, we acknowledge the social processing of uncertain information and capture the interactions among actors during deliberative processes of framing and reframing. However, during these processes, encountering multiple frames that are incompatible is unavoidable, and results in ambiguity about the meaning and importance attributed to uncertain information.

Next, we discuss and describe some of the implications of ambiguity in the conceptualization of uncertainty.

Source: Towards a relational concept of uncertainty: Incorporating the human dimension

Source: Towards a relational concept of uncertainty: Incorporating the human dimension

Source: More is not always better: Coping with ambiguity in natural resources management

Strategies for dealing with Multiple Knowledge Frames

Source: Towards a relational concept of uncertainty: Incorporating the human dimension

Multiple or conflicting views about how to understand the system often represent different kinds of knowledge that are difficult to reconcile or integrate. The incompatibility in frames may result from different scientific backgrounds, from differences between context-specific experiential knowledge and general expert knowledge, from different societal positions of ideological backgrounds, and so forth.

In relational terms, actor A has a certain knowledge relation to phenomenon X, and actor B has a different knowledge relation to the same phenomenon X. In these kind of situations, relevant strategies address the relation between A and B and have something to do with dealing with differences.

We draw on a Table (Table 2) from Bouwen, Dewulf & Craps (2006) to give an overview of relevant strategies to deal with multiple knowledge frames.

Action PrincipleAccept. ofInterde- pendenceProcessCharac- teristicsPossible OutcomesContextContingen- cies
Persuasive Communic ationApproachPersuasionModerateExposure to persuasionAdoption or imitationUnequal involvement or competence
Dialogical LearningApproachMutual Interactive LearningHighJoint discovery and exchangeMutual understandi ng and synergyShared involvement
Negotiation ApproachTit for that, deal makingHigh/ moderateNegotiation tactical phasesFair deal, settlementCalculative involvement
Opposition al Modes ofActioncold or hot conflictLow or negationKeeping distance or escalationFreeze or dominanceMutual negation or fight

Table 2. Strategies to deal with multiple frames

The first strategy can be called the persuasive communication approach. This consists of trying to convince others of your own frame of reference, not by imposing it but by presenting it as attractive and worthwhile. This strategy is successful if others can be convinced to adopt your own frame of reference.

The second strategy is the dialogical learning approach, where the aim is to understand each other’s frames better through open dialogue and encourage learning on all sides. The literature on participation, organizational learning and consensual group decision making documents extensively this approach (Argyris and Schön, 1978; Wenger, 1998). The emphasis is on the interactive nature and reciprocal quality of the communication. Actors engage with each other as equally valuable partners and inclusion of all actors is the overall goal.

The negotiation approach aims at reaching a mutually beneficial and integrative agreement which makes sense from multiple perspectives or frames. Theories of conflict in organizations deal extensively with these negotiation strategies. Actors engage in a mutual calculative information sharing and positioning strategy. They develop alternative packages for giving and taking to come to a balanced sharing of positives and negatives. The negotiation can have a dominantly ‘integrating’ quality when both actors develop in common some synergetic win-win outcomes. The negotiation can rather be ‘distributive’ when the actors take a win-loose position and they distribute equally profits and gains in an antagonistic way.

The fourth strategy is the oppositional mode. When parties have a history of rivalry for resources or they don’t have any history of collaboration, taking or holding distance is likely. In conflict theory the distinction is made between cold and hot conflict. Cold conflict means that there is no recognition of mutual interdependence and distancing from each other is a dominant mode of operating. Hot conflict refers to heated opposition as a result of an adversarial experience of the mutual interdependency. Parties try by force a strategy to change the power difference in the relationship. When it comes to some form of collaboration, parties will move their strategy in the direction of a negotiation approach.

My Related Posts

Frames, Framing and Reframing

Frames, Communication, and Public Policymaking

What are Problem Structuring Methods?

Phenomenology and Symbolic Interactionism

Networks, Narratives, and Interaction

Erving Goffman: Dramaturgy of Social Life

Narrative, Rhetoric and Possible Worlds

Key Sources of Research

Framing mechanisms: the interpretive policy entrepreneur’s toolbox,

Ewert Aukes, Kris Lulofs & Hans Bressers (2017):

Critical Policy Studies, DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2017.1314219

“From Interactions to Institutions: Microprocesses of Framing and Mechanisms for the Structuring of Institutional Fields”

Gray, Barbara; Purdy, Jill M.; and Ansari, Shahzad (Shaz),

(2015). Business Publications. 79.

Contrasting frames in policy debates on climate change adaptation

Art Dewulf∗

Issue Framing in Conversations for Change: Discursive Interaction Strategies for “Doing Differences”

Art Dewulf1 and René Bouwen2

The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science XX(X) 1–26 2012

Deliberating Our Frames: How Members of Multi‑Stakeholder Initiatives Use Shared Frames to Tackle Within‑Frame Conflicts Over Sustainability Issues

Angelika Zimmermann1 · Nora Albers2 · Jasper O. Kenter3

Received: 11 December 2019 / Accepted: 5 March 2021

Journal of Business Ethics

Disentangling approaches to framing in conflict and negotiation research:

A meta-paradigmatic perspective

Art Dewulf, Barbara Gray, Linda Putnam, Roy Lewicki,

Noelle Aarts, Rene Bouwen and Cees van Woerkum

Human Relations

DOI: 10.1177/0018726708100356

Volume 62(2): 155–193 Copyright © 2009

Toward a Relational Concept of Uncertainty: about Knowing Too Little, Knowing Too Differently, and Accepting Not to Know

Marcela Brugnach 1Art Dewulf 2Claudia Pahl-Wostl and Tharsi Taillieu 3

1Institute for Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrück, 2Public Administration and Policy Group, Wageningen University, 3Center for Work, Organizational and Personnel Psychology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Ambiguity: the challenge of knowing and deciding together

M. Brugnach a,*, H. Ingram b,c

a Faculty of Engineering Technology, University of Twente, The Netherlands b Southwest Center, University of Arizona, United States
c School of Social Ecology, University of California Irvine, United States

environmental science & policy 15 (2012) 60–71

Agenda-Setting, Priming, and Framing Revisited: Another Look at Cognitive Effects of Political Communication

Dietram A. Scheufele 

Pages 297-316 | Published online: 17 Nov 2009

Mass Communication and Society 

Volume 3, 2000 – Issue 2-3

Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models

Dietram A. Scheufele1 & David Tewksbury2

1 Department of Life Sciences Communication and School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI 53706
2 Department of Speech Communication and Department of Political Science, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801

Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916

Framing as a Theory of Media Effects

by Dietram A. Scheufele

The End of Framing as we Know it . . . and the Future of Media Effects

Michael A. Cacciatore

Department of Advertising and Public Relations University of Georgia

Dietram A. Scheufele

Department of Life Sciences Communication University of Wisconsin and Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania

Shanto Iyengar

Department of Communication and Department of Political Science Stanford University

Mass Communication and Society, 19:7–23, 2016

The State of Framing Research: A Call for New Directions

Dietram A. Scheufele and Shanto Iyengar
The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication

Edited by Kate Kenski and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Subject: Political Science, Political Methodology, Political Behavior
Online Publication Date: Oct 2014 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199793471.013.47

News Framing Theory and Research

David Tewksbury and Dietram A. Scheufele

Social Movements

An Insider’s Critique of the Social Movement Framing Perspective”

Robert D. Benford, University of Nebrasku- Lincoln

Framing Social Interaction. Continuities and Cracks in Goffman’s Frame Analysis

  • August 2018


  • ISBN: 9781315582931


Anders Persson


Juliane Reinecke

King’s Business School,

King’s College London, Bush House, 30 Aldwych London, WC2B 4BG United Kingdom
Phone: +44 20 7848 8753 Email:

Shahzad (Shaz) Ansari

Judge Business School University of Cambridge Cambridge, CB2 1AG United Kingdom Phone: +44 1223 768 128 Email:

Forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal, Published Online: 1 Apr 2020

Are Logics Enough? Framing as an Alternative Tool for Understanding Institutional Meaning Making

Jill Purdy

Milgard School of Business University of Washington Tacoma

Shaz Ansari

Cambridge Judge Business School University of Cambridge

Barbara Gray

Smeal College of Business The Pennsylvania State University;jsessionid=67B97F57301F833C96876E1CD4078A5C?sequence=3

Priming and Framing

Chapter 13 in Book

The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociology

edited by Wayne H. Brekhus, Gabe Ignatow

Thoughts on Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming

David H. Weaver

School of Journalism, University of Indiana, Bloomington, IN 47405

Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916

Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power

Robert M. Entman

School of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052

Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916

Click to access Media%20and%20framing%20bias.pdf

A Failure to Communicate: Agenda Setting in Media and Policy Studies,

Michelle Wolfe , Bryan D. Jones & Frank R. Baumgartner (2013)

Political Communication, 30:2, 175-192, DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2012.737419

Media Effects Theory


Washington State University, USA

The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, First Edition. Edited by Gianpietro Mazzoleni. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

DOI: 10.1002/9781118541555.wbiepc156

Attribute agenda setting, priming and the media’s influence on how to think about a controversial issue

Sei-Hill Kim

University of South Carolina, USA

Miejeong Han

Hanyang University, South Korea

Doo-Hun Choi

University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

Jeong-Nam Kim

Purdue University, USA

the International Communication Gazette 74(1) 43–59 a  2012

DOI: 10.1177/1748048511426991

A Theory of Framing and Opinion Formation in Competitive Elite Environments

Dennis Chong & James N. Druckman

Department of Political Science, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208

Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916


Douglas M. McLeod University of Wisconsin-Madison

Gerald M. Kosicki The Ohio State University

Jack M. McLeod University of Wisconsin-Madison

Chapter in Book MEDIA EFFECTS Advances in Theory and Research Third Edition


Dennis Chong and James N. Druckman

Department of Political Science, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208; email:;

Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2007. 10:103–26

doi: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.10.072805.103054

Conceptual Issues in Framing Theory:

A Systematic Examination of a Decade’s Literature

Porismita Borah

School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53726, USA

Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916

Click to access Conceptual-Issues-in-Framing-Theory-A-Systematic-Examination-of-a-Decades-Literature.pdf

Disentangling approaches to framing in conflict and negotiation research:

A meta-paradigmatic perspective

Art Dewulf, Barbara Gray, Linda Putnam, Roy Lewicki,

Noelle Aarts, Rene Bouwen and Cees van Woerkum

Human Relations 2009

DOI: 10.1177/0018726708100356

Volume 62(2): 155–193

Towards a relational concept of uncertainty: Incorporating the human dimension

Brugnach, M.1; A. Dewulf 2; C. Pahl-Wostl 1 and T. Taillieu 3

1. Universität Osnabrück, Germany
2. Wageningen University, The Netherlands
3. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
Contact author: Marcela Brugnach,

Social Learning and Water Resources Management

Author(s): Claudia Pahl-Wostl, Marc Craps, Art Dewulf, Erik Mostert, David Tabara and Tharsi Taillieu

Source: Ecology and Society , Dec 2007, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Dec 2007) Published by: Resilience Alliance Inc.

Stable URL:


A Comprehensive Approach to Today’s Complex Planetary Issues

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens Michael E. Zimmerman

The Variety of Integral Ecologies
Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era

Sam Mickey – Editor
Sean Kelly – Editor
Adam Robbert – Editor
Mary Evelyn Tucker – Foreword by

SUNY series in Integral Theory
Release Date: June 2017
ISBN13: 978-1-4384-6527-2

Integrated management of natural resources: dealing with ambiguous issues, multiple actors and diverging frames

A. Dewulf*, M. Craps*, R. Bouwen*, T. Taillieu* and C. Pahl-Wostl**

*Center for Organizational and Personnel Psychology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, 3000 Leuven, Belgium (E-mail:,,,
**Institute of Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabru ̈ck, Albrechtstrasse 28, Osnabru ̈ck, Germany (E-mail:

Integral Ecology


Foreword by Marc Bekoff

Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Ken Wilber

March 25, 2009

Governance Capabilities for Dealing Wisely With Wicked Problems

Catrien J. A. M. Termeer1, Art Dewulf1, Gerard Breeman1, and Sabina J. Stiller1

Administration & Society XX(X) 1–31 © 2012

DOI: 10.1177/0095399712469195

More is not always better: Coping with ambiguity in natural resources management

M. Brugnach a, b, *, A. Dewulf c, H.J. Henriksen d, P. van der Keur d

a Faculty of Engineering Technology, University of Twente, The Netherlands
b Institute for Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrück, Germany c Public Administration and Policy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands d Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Denmark

Journal of Environmental Management xxx (2010) 1e7

Issue Framing in Conversations for Change: Discursive Interaction Strategies for “Doing Differences”

Art Dewulf1 and René Bouwen2

The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science XX(X) 1–26 2012

DOI: 10.1177/0021886312438858

Contrasting frames in policy debates on climate change adaptation

Art Dewulf∗

Defining Uncertainty A Conceptual Basis for Uncertainty Management in Model-Based Decision Support



Integrated Assessment 1389-5176/03/0000-000


The Constructionist Approach to Framing: Bringing Culture Back In

Baldwin Van Gorp

Department of Communication Science, Radboud University Nijmegen, 6500 HC Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916

Dialogs and Dialectics

Dialogs and Dialectics

Hegel once described dialectics as “the grasping of opposites in their unity”.[1] Oppositions, it can be argued, provide the comparisons that make our experiences intelligible. Our understanding of the world is predicated on differentiation and comparison. We must compare this to that to know the identity of either or to assign relative value to both. This or that, and the excluded middle between… but what of the unbounded space beyond as well; beyond the binary oppositions, beyond the laws of non-contradiction, beyond the affordances and constraints of this or that?

“Scenarios are not seen as quasi-forecasts but as perception devices.” “Scenarios are used as a means of thinking through strategy against a number of structurally quite different, but plausible future models of the world”.
Kees van der Heijden

Definition of Dialectics

Source: Introduction/Dialectics for the New Century

Is a brief definition of ‘dialectics’ possible? In the history of Western thought the term has meant quite different things in different contexts. Dialectics in the Western tradition is customarily said to begin with Heraclitus. He insisted that the cosmos was in endless flux, in contrast to those for whom ‘true’ reality was immutable. For Socrates, dialectic had less to do with the dynamism of the cosmos than with the dynamism of intellectual discussion when pushed forward by challenges to the underlying assumptions of interlocutors. Aristotle then systematized Socratic dialectic, treating it as a form of argument that fell some- where between rhetoric and logic. While dialectical speech, like rhetoric, aimed at persuasion, Aristotle believed its efforts to overcome disagreements through rational discussion made it more like logic. Unlike logical argumentation, however, dialectical speech does not derive necessary consequences from universally accepted premises. Instead, by revealing the contradictions in particular arguments, it forces their modification or even abandonment, and moves the contending parties closer to a rational consensus. This notion of dialectics continued to hold sway in Western philosophy throughout the medieval and early modern periods.

A major shift occurred with Kant. For him, ‘dialectics’ does not refer to a process by which discussions can advance toward rational agreement, but to the frustrating and inclusive results that arise whenever reason transgresses its proper limits by attempting to investigate the ultimate nature of things. In Kant’s philosophy, dialectics becomes an endless series of debates in which each side reveals the contradictions of the other without being able to resolve its own. Following Kant, Hegel concedes that as long as contending positions are taken as complete and independent in themselves, the opposition between them is irresolvable. But why, Hegel asks, must we take the opposed positions as complete and independent? Why choose, for example, between ‘freedom’ and ‘necessity’? Another, far better option is available: to recognize that the apparently opposed positions only offer one-sided accounts of a complex reality. ‘Truth is the whole,’ he famously claims, and to be adequately comprehended we must find a place in our thinking for all these partial and one-sided truths. The key to Hegel’s notion of dialectic is the movement to a positive result in which previously antagonistic positions are reconciled within a higher-order framework (Pinkard, 1987). His Science of Logic is an unprecedented and unrepeatable attempt to show that all the fundamental categories of Western philosophy can be fit together in one coherent whole – once, that is, the contradictions which arise when they are taken as independent standpoints are rigorously confronted and resolved. In The Philosophy of Right Hegel attempted to show that neither a one-sided emphasis on the autonomous subjectivity of individual agents, nor a one-sided emphasis on the priority of the community over the individual, can adequately comprehend the reconciliation of both ‘principles’ found in the social and political institutions of modern society.

Key Terms

  • Plato’s Dialogues
  • Dialectic
  • Relational Dialectic
  • Hegel’s Dialectics
  • Marx’s Dialectics
  • Vygotskian Dialectics
  • Bakhtinian Dialogics
  • Contradictions
  • Relational process philosophy
  • Strategy
  • Development
  • Transformation
  • Constitutive relationships
  • Interaction
  • Multiple systems
  • Open systems
  • Metasystematic
  • Epistemic adequacy
  • Dialectical thinking
  • Dialectical philosophical perspective
  • Dialectical analysis
  • Psychotherapy
  • Higher education
  • AQAL Model of Ken Wilber
  • Quadrants in Scenario Planning
  • Possibilities
  • Uncertainty
  • Weak Signals
  • Constitutive and Interactive relationships
  • Dialectic Behavior Therapy DBT
  • Contradictions
  • Point of Views
  • Multiple Perspectives
  • Worldviews
  • Paradoxes
  • Complexity
  • Parts and Whole
  • Piaget
  • Oppositions
  • Informal Logic
  • Dialogue and Dialectics
  • Relational Dialectic
  • L S Vygotsky
  • Mikhail Bakhtin
  • Monologue
  • Discourse
  • Drama
  • Ensemble Theory

What is dialogue?

Source: Relating dialogue and dialectics: a philosophical perspective

Dialogue in different forms (political, philosophical, and dramatic) historically emerged in Ancient Greece in the context of the polis as a community of actively participating citizens (Dafermos, 2013a). Plato’s dialogues, the first written dialogical accounts in human history were formed in the context of ancient polis.

After a long eclipse in the history of human thought dialogue was reborn in the twentieth century in the writings of Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. He developed a multifaceted theory of dialogism based on a set of concepts such as dialogue, monologue, polyphony, heteroglossia, utterance, voice, speech genres and chronotope. Bakhtin’s writings inspired many scholars and practitioners to elaborate and apply various dialogical approaches in pedagogy (Matusov, 2009; Matusov, & Miyazaki, 2014), psychology (Shotter, 1995; Hermans, & Kempen, 1993), psychotherapy (Seikkula, 2011; Hermans, & Dimaggio, 2004) and cultural studies (Wertsch, 1993; Thornton, 1994).

One of the reasons for the apparent confusion in the emerging interdisciplinary field of dialogical studies is connected with the polysemy of the notion of dialogue and the multiple meanings of its use in different contexts. I will attempt to define several meanings of the term ‘dialogue’. In accordance with a first definition, dialogue is a live conversation between two or more people. In other words, dialogue can be identified with oral communication between two or more interlocutors. Being with other people and responding to their voices is an essential feature of a conversation. However, a difficult question at once arises whether dialogue is every form of conversation or a specific type of deep communication between different subjectivities. Nikulin (2010) defined four components that turn a conversation into a dialogue: a. the existence of personal other, b. voice, c. unfinalizability, d. allosensus (constant disagreement with other).

The second meaning of the term ‘dialogue’ refers to dialogue as a genre or literary device. Plato’s dialogues are one of the most famous forms of using a dialogical form as a genre. Plato’s written dialogues historically appeared as an imitation of oral communication in times of heated debates about the transition from oral to written communication. Dialogue as a genre has been used by many thinkers to formulate their ideas in various ways. However, the dialogical genre might be used as an external form for monological content. For exampledialogue might be used as a teaching method of catechesisIt refers to an instrumental approach to dialogue that tends to be considered as an “an effective means for non- dialogic ends, which are understood outside of the notion of dialogue, within a monological framework” (Matusov, & Miyazaki, 2014, p.2). However, if there is a perfect, final and absolute truth as in catechesis, there is no place and need for genuine dialogue.

In accordance with a third meaning, “…dialogue is the universal condition of using language at all” (Womack, 2011, p.48). From this perspective both oral and written speech, moreover, language itself has a dialogical character. Language can be considered mainly as an intersubjective communicative engagement, rather than a simple, formal, symbolic system.

Bakhtin offered a classic formulation of the dialogic nature of consciousness that can be regarded as the fourth meaning of the dialogue which goes beyond purely linguistic or literary phenomena: “I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another. The most important acts constituting self-consciousness are determined by a relationship toward another consciousness (toward a thou) … The very being of man (both external and internal) is the deepest communion. To be means to communicate … To be means to be for another, and through the other for oneself” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.287).

Dialogue is an essential characteristic of consciousness. The word ‘consciousness’ originates from the Latin ‘conscius’ (con- ‘together’ + scientia- ‘to know’). ‘Conscious’ means sharing knowledge. Toulmin (1982) offers a brilliant interpretation of the etymology of the term ‘consciousness:

“Etymologically, of course, the term ‘consciousness’ is a knowledge word. This is evidenced by the Latin form, –sci-, in the middle of the word. But what are we to make of the prefix con– that precedes it? Look at the usage in Roman Law, and the answer will be easy enough. Two or more agents who act jointly—having formed a common intention, framed a shared plan, and concerted their actions—are as a result conscientes. They act as they do knowing one another’s plans: they are jointly knowing” (Toulmin, 1982, p. 64).

In Latin “to be conscious of something was to share knowledge of it, with someone else, or with oneself” (Zeman, 2001, p.1265). “When two or more men know of one and the same fact, they are said to be conscious of it one to another” (Hobbes, 1660, Leviathan, chapt. VII). However, the predominant use of the term ‘consciousness’ is connected with John Locke’s definition: “Consciousness is the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind” (Locke, 1690, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, i, 19). It refers to ‘inner perceptions’ that are conceived by an individual. The understanding of consciousness as a private, internal awareness became dominant in contemporary scientific literature.

However, it is interesting to note that the term ‘consciousness’ has similar etymology in different languages: In Russian ‘Сознание’ (Со-знание), in Greek ‘συνείδηση’ (συν- ειδέναι), in English ‘Con- scientia,’ in French ‘Conscience’ (Con-science), in Italian ‘Coscienza’ (Co-scienza). The prefix ‘co’ refers to joint action, reciprocal interaction between people. The concept of ‘consciousness’ includes knowledge as its essential moment. However, consciousness is not reducible to simple knowledge but it refers to co- producing knowledge in the process of communication between different subjects. It refers to joining knowledge with another or shared knowledge. From this perspective, consciousness has dialogic structure and orientation.

The understanding of the dialogic nature of consciousness enables the demonstration of the mirrors of cognitivism and scientism. One of the most powerful objections to cognitivism has been formulated by Michael Bakhtin: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 110).

Dialogue has been defined by Bakhtin as opposed to monologism. Individual consciousness cannot grasp the complexity and variety of the human world. In contrast to the single, isolated, monological consciousness, a dialogical coexistence of different irreducible consciousnesses develops. Bakhtin argued that the idea is not developed in isolated individual consciousness but in dialogic communication between several consciousnesses. “…the idea is inter-individual and inter-subjective – the realm of its existence is not individual consciousness but dialogic communion between consciousnesses. The idea is a live event, played out at the point of dialogic meeting between two or several consciousnesses” (Bakhtin, 2003, p.98). The meeting spaces and dramatic processes of making meaning between different and not reducible consciousnesses constitute the ontological foundation of dialogue. The “ontological dialogue” (Sidorkin, 1999; Matusov, & Miyazaki, 2014) between consciousnesses penetrates the deeper and most important aspects of human existence.

Although dialogue has been defined as being contrary to monologue, the consideration of dialogue as a positive and monologue as a negative term leads inevitably to oversimplification of dialectic relationships between them. I totally agree with Matusov’s position that “Bakhtin’s notions of dialogue and monologue is complementary” (Matusov, 2009, p.112). Matusov argues that the concepts of dialogicity and monologicity mutually constitute each other. “Monologicity makes clear who is speaking (i.e., authorship and responsibility) and what is said (i.e., the message). In other words, monologicity objectivizes others and the themes of communication… Monologicity reflects centripetal forces of language, communication, and community oriented on centralization, unification, unity with action, seriousness, cohesiveness and integrity of voice (and position), articulateness, globalization, decontextualization, exactness and correctness of meaning (finalizing the meaning)” (Matusov, 2009, p. 131).

However, many Bakhtinian scholars tend to interpret the concepts ‘dialogue-monologue’ in terms of Western post-modernism such as ‘the death of author’ (more generally, the ‘death of subject’), ‘deconstruction,’ ‘decentration,’ ‘intertextuality’ (Bell, & Gardiner, 1998; Holquist, 2002). From the perspective of post-modernism, monologue is defined as a ‘grand narrative’ that should be ‘killed’ and ‘destroyed’. With the total ‘death of monologue’ any claims for ‘seriousness,’ ‘cohesiveness,’ ‘integrity of voice (and position),’ ‘articulateness’ and ‘correctness of meaning’ might disappear. The celebration of post-modern, deconstructionist discourse tends to lead to the deconstruction not only of ‘old’ metaphysics and ‘grand’ monologic narratives, but also of scientific thinking and knowledge itself. “…the deconstruction of metaphysics is the deconstruction of the scientificity of science. The deconstructive strategy aims at the very source of science itself, at the kind of question that gives rise to scientific investigation” (Evans, 1999, p.156).

It could be argued that the destruction of reason itself may give rise to a new form of irrationalism. Based on the analysis of post-Hegelian philosophical tradition, Lukács (1954) demonstrated that the destruction of reason and the advent of irrationalism prepared the ground for fascist ideas.

What is dialectics?

Source: Relating dialogue and dialectics: a philosophical perspective

The concept ‘dialectics’ has acquired different forms and meanings in various historical contexts. In ancient Greece dialectics emerged as an art of dialogue and a problem solving method through argumentation. The term ‘dialectics’ has a similar origin of the term ‘dialogue’. It refers to the art of conversation or debate that is connected with seeking truth through reasoning. “… someone tries, by means of dialectical discussion and without the aid of any sense-perceptions, to arrive through reason at the being of each thing itself” (Plato, 2004, Republic, 532a). By the power of discussions, dialectics provides genuine knowledge. Dialectics as a method originates from the Socratic elenchus, a method of hypothesis elimination that takes the form of a question-answer dialogue and brings out the contradictions in the interlocutor’s arguments.

Dialectics constitutes a way of thinking based on the understanding of the contradictory nature of both reason and being. Naive, spontaneous dialectics had been developed by ancient thinkers as an attempt to offer a living, sensory concrete perception of the world in the process of its change and becoming. “Tao-Te-Ching” in Ancient China as well as Heraclitus’ philosophy in Ancient Greece were forms of ancient spontaneous dialectics that were expressed in the idea that “everything is in a state of flux” (Skirbekk, & Gilje, 2001, p.13). Although Heraclitus didn’t use the term ‘dialectic,’ he developed a dialectical understanding that everything is becoming. However, a conceptual, categorical system for the representation of things as processes did not yet exist in the ancient world. Becoming is expressed through metaphors, images of an aesthetic equivalent such as the image of a river: “you cannot step into the same river twice” (Plato, 1997, Cratylus, 402a).

The meaning of the concept ‘dialectics’ was transformed by Aristotle. For Aristotle dialectic wasn’t a form of being but rather a method of logical argumentation. Moreover, dialectic broke down its interconnection with dialogue and became mainly a method of building knowledge. In the Middle Ages dialectic was constructed as a method of argumentation on the basis of a set of logical rules (Nikulin, 2010).

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries an analytic method of knowledge production dominated in concrete sciences and a metaphysical mode of thinking in the field of philosophy (Pavlidis, 2010). The metaphysical mode of thinking is based on the consideration of reality as a sum of separated, unconnected independent entities. A metaphysical outlook considers things as self-subsistent, isolated and abstracted from their context (Sayers, 1976). It denies fundamentally both the internal relatedness of all things and their development.

The concept of ‘dialectic’ was reborn and acquired new meanings and connotations in the context of German classical philosophy from Kant to Hegel and later in Marxism. Kant proposed “transcendental dialectic” as the logic of errors and illusions that arise when reason goes beyond its proper role in attempting to grasp the actual objects themselves (the thing-in-itself) (Williams, 2014). Kant demonstrated the structural necessity and inevitability of illusions. According to Kant, thinking confronts antinomies and falls into conflict with itself. Challenging Kant’s concept of dialectic as a logic of illusions, Hegel developed a “positive” dialectic based on the examination of a universal as a concrete unity of multiple determinations (Hegel, 2010). Dialectics was developed by Hegel as a method of thought that included the process of expounding contradictions and their resolution in the corpus of a rational understanding of an object (Ilyenkov, 1977). Materialistic dialectics developed by K. Marx as an attempt of the theoretical reconstruction of a concrete organic whole (the capitalist mode of production) through the creation of a system of interconnected concepts.

The conscious (or systematic) dialectics stood against the metaphysical method of thinking. Dialectics and metaphysics constitute two different ways of thinking about thinking. In contrast to the metaphysical method based on one-dimensional, abstract analysis of an object and its elements as unchanging and immutable, dialectical thinking examines an object in the process of its change. The dialectical method focuses on the examination of things in their mutual connections, movement and development. Dialectics as a way of thinking grasps and represents the developmental process of a concrete object in its interconnections with other objects (Pavlidis, 2010).

In the late 19th century and early 20th century the tendency of the rejection of dialectic and the acceptance of other trends such as Kantianism, philosophy of life and positivism became dominant in Western academy. The bulk of research for a long period in the Western academy was primarily associated with the assumptions of positivism and reductionism. In contrast to widespread reductionism in concrete disciplines which focuses on analysis of isolated elements of reality, the dialectic approach is oriented to grasp full complexity of interrelationships of reality and the contradictions that embody them (Bidell, 1988). The famous formula ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ represents a very schematic and over simplistic description of the dialectical understanding of development. Such kind of caricatured representation of dialectics can give rise to the negative stance (or total rejection) of dialectical thinking. Laske (2009) argues that the dialectical mode of thinking “remains a closed book for the majority of adults in the Western world, while in Asian cultures nurtured by Buddhism it more easily assumes a common sense form” (Laske, 2009). Although the explanation of the negative stance toward a dialectical mode of thinking is out of scope of the present paper, I would like only to note that the increasing individualization, fragmentation and commercialization of social life in North America and Western Europe is not unconnected to a lack of understanding of dialectic at the level of everyday life.

The multiple crises (economic, political, ecological and scientific) as a result of the increasing social contradictions and asymmetries in a rapidly changing world may provoke interest in dialectics as a way of the conceptualization of contradictions. However, dialectics is not a given system of postulates that can be immediately applied as an external guiding system for investigating problems. The application of dialectics to the concrete fields presupposes its essential development. The question of how to further develop dialectics in a rapidly changing world remains open for future investigation.

Interconnection between consciousness and knowledge

Source: Relating dialogue and dialectics: a philosophical perspective

Dialectics and dialogue constitute two distinct traditions and each of them has its own logic of development in the history of human thought. Nevertheless, there was not an absolute gap between these traditions and it is possible to find complex relationships between them.

Traditionally, dialectics has been conceived as a mode of thinking connected with a concrete form of knowledge production. “…modern dialectic still tends to become the organon of thinking…” (Nikulin, 2010, p.71). Dialogue, on the other hand, has been traditionally conceptualized as a particular type of communication that creates shared meanings between different subjects. The concept of dialogue is more connected with the communication between consciousnesses rather than with knowledge production. However, there is not a gap between consciousness and knowledge. Dialectic connections develop in the interspace between consciousness and knowledge. On one side, consciousness includes knowledge as one of its moments. On the other side, reflective thinking has been involved in the dialogic communication between different subjects. Thus, thinking is not a solitary activity of a purely autonomous subject but a dialogical act, unfolding between different subjects. The knowledge representation of an object is socially mediated and the path to knowledge passes through relationships between subjects. Knowing with the other evidences the dialogical quality of consciousness (Shotter, 2006).

The investigation of developing interrelations between thinking and speech was examined by Vygotsky (1987) as the key to understanding the nature of human consciousness. The analysis of the internal relations between thinking and speaking as sides of human consciousness constitutes one of the most important foundations for linking dialectics and dialogue. Vygotsky (1987) addressed this crucial issue from a psychological perspective, but it remains under-investigatedHowever, it is worth emphasizing that dialectical thinking is a specific type of thinking that develops at a concrete stage of the process of historical development of human consciousness. Dialectical thinking offers the opportunity to overcome widespread positivism and reductionism in science (Ilyenkov, 1982a, 1982b; Dafermos, 2014).

In contrast to monologism, the dominant ‘paradigm’ in social and human sciences, Bakhtin revealed not only the dialogic nature of consciousness but also the perspective of conceptualization of thinking as a dialogue. “This mode of thinking makes available those sides of a human being, and above all the thinking human consciousness and the dialogic sphere of its existence, which are not subject to artistic assimilation from monologic positions” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.270). Dialogue was portrayed by Bakhtin as a unique meeting between several consciousnesses in a concrete moment of a historical and cultural chronotope.

Bringing together dialectics and dialogue, Feuerbach pointed out that “The true dialectic is not a monologue of the solitary thinker with himself. It is a dialogue between “I” and “You” (Feuerbach, 1843). Criticizing Hegelian philosophy, Feuerbach demonstrated the shortcomings of a pure speculation, which a single thinker carries on by or with himself, and subsequently, he focused on dialogue between “I” and “You” as sensuous and concrete human beings. It is worth mentioning that Feuerbach’s ideas on dialogue inspired Vygotsky to develop his theory of social education in the field of defectology: “Only social education can lead severely retarded children through the process of becoming human by eliminating the solitude of idiocy and severe retardation. L. Feuerbach’s wonderful phrase, might be taken as the motto to the study of development in abnormal children: ‘That which is impossible for one, is possible for two.’ Let us add: That which is impossible on the level of individual development becomes possible on the level of social development” (Vygotsky, 1993, pp. 218-219).


Source: Relating dialogue and dialectics: a philosophical perspective

Contrary to the view about an absolute gap between a dialogical approach and a dialectical concept of development, it is possible to find in Bakhtin’s writings some ideas that seem unpredictably closer to dialectical understanding than to postmodernist celebration of the fragmentation of culture. “The study of culture (or some area of it) at the level of system and at the higher level of organic unity: open, becoming, unresolved and unpredetermined, capable of death and renewal, transcending itself, that is, exceeding its own boundaries” (Bakhtin, 1986a, p.135). Bakhtin’s idea of an open, developing organic unity is a truly dialectical insight in the theorizing of human sciences. The contradictory coexistence of ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ constitutes a moment of a dialectical understanding of culture. I don’t claim that Bakhtin was a dialectical theorist, but only that it is possible to find influences of dialectics in his writings. In other words, there is no absolute gap or a rupture between dialogic and dialectic traditions but paradoxically, a dramatic relation between them might be detected.

From a developmental perspective, dialogue cannot be reduced to a simple communicative interaction or a conversation. Not every communicative interaction or conversation promotes human development. Dialogue is such a conversation that does promote human development. Dramatic tensions and collisions in a dialogue might become a source of personal growth for their participants. In other words, dialogue opens up the perspective of personal growth for subjects engaged in it (Apatow, 1998). “…the discursive dynamics has as its central question the ways to critically negotiate/collaborate meanings, highlighting the contradiction as a driving force for the development between participants with different social, historical, cultural and political constitutions” (Magalhães, Ninin, & Lessa, 2014, p.142).

Explaining the deep meaning of the general genetic law of cultural development as it was formulated by Vygotsky, Veresov notes: “Dramatic character development, development through contradictory events (acts of development), category (dramatic collision) — this was Vygotsky’s formulation and emphasis” (Veresov, 2010, p.88). The dramatic collision, conflicts and contradictory relations that emerge in a dialogue as they are experienced by its participants may promote their self reflection and personal growth.

The dialectic of change constitutes an essential dimension of a dialogue. “…neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent development of the dialogue” (Bakhtin, 1986a, p.170).

Dialectics encountered: the origins of great strategies

Source: Strategy and dialectics: Rejuvenating a long-standing relationship

A group of strategy scholars recently joined to explore the origins of great strategies—a question infused with theoretical and practical significance (Gavetti and Porac, 2018). While not claiming to capture the field’s diversity in its entirety, the set of papers compiled represents a wide range of perspectives on strategy. As they traced the evolution of firms, capabilities, strategies, and industries in contemporary business environments, authors have built on diverse literatures such as complexity theory, evolutionary theory, attention-based view, Weberian sociology, practice theory, institutional logics, relational contracts, social movements, behavioral strategy, and social networks, to name but a few. Curiously, none of the papers explicitly used the word “dialectics” or referred to dialectics as a guiding perspective.

For the more initiated, however, dialectics is highly present in this collection of readings. Dialectics ideas underlie several of the featured theories, particularly complexity theory, practice theory, institutional logics, social movements, and behavioral strategy. The different papers also employ several time-honored dialectics concepts. For instance, the notion of “creative destruction” (Podolny, 2018) has been inspired by Marx; the dialectics of “presence” and “absence” (Powell, 2018) features in Hegel’s writings. Key means for generating creative strategies— combination, contrast, constraint, and intersecting contexts (Brandenburger, 2017)—resonate with dialectics’ notions of synthesis, negation, contradiction, and overlap. Dialectics stress on conflict and opposition is echoed too: it features in the emergence of powerful strategies such as Apple’s, reflecting broader clash between the oppositional movements and cultures of personal and corporate computing (Rao and Datta, 2018); it is illustrated in the concept of Judo strategies in which firms turn their opponents’ strengths against them (Brandenburger, 2017). Finally, in line with dialectics stress on asynchrony as a stimulus for movement and development, effective strategies, such as used in the drone industry, successively built on disequilibria and bottlenecks (Eisenhardt and Bingham, 2017).

Process, conflict, contradiction, disequilibria, disruption, oppositions, and synthesis are dialectics’ stock in trade. These, and other dialectics’ notions, also bear on several of strategy’s core research streams: they inform the literature on innovation and technological change (Bodrožić and Adler, 2017; Schumpeter, 1942; Tushman and Nelson, 1990), the resource-based view of firm’s growth (Penrose, 1959; Vidal and Mitchel, 2018), and strategy-as-practice research (Jarzabkowski, 2003; Nicolini, 2012); they have also been incorporated into managerial tools such as scenario analysis, system dynamics, and red teams.

I submit that dialectics is more present in strategy that many realize and holds a great potential to become even more central to the field. Dialectics’ distinctive view on social processes and relations is particularly relevant for comprehending and navigating a world in flux, a welcome counterpart to more simplistic, reductionist, and binary models, and an alternative to views on strategy stressing equilibrium, linearity, and coherence. Dialectics holistic stance can serve to counteract the field’s notorious fragmentation (e.g. Durand et al., 2017; Hambrick, 2004). Moreover, dialectics’ philosophical foundations and its stress on critique and reconstruction makes it particularly attractive means for challenging established models, questioning existing ideologies and reconsidering alternatives.

To reassert dialectics in new, promising areas such as competitive advantage and shaping strategies (the “where”), strategy researchers first need to become more familiar with dialectics ideas (the “what”) and with potential ways they can be used (the “how”).

Dialectical Thinking

Source: John Rowan: Dialectical Thinking

Dialectics is a form of thought which goes back a long way. In the West, Heraclitus in Ancient Greece was aware of it, and in the East, there are a number of thinkers who practised it. The Tao-Te-Ching is a good example of dialectical writing.


The first characteristic of dialectical thinking is that it places all the emphasis on change. Instead of talking about static structures, it talks about process and movement. Hence it is in line with all those philosophies which say – “Let’s not be deceived by what it is is now as we perceive it – let’s not pretend we can fix it and label it and turn it into something stiff and immutable – let’s look instead at how it changes.” Hence it denies much of the usefulness of formal logic, which starts from the proposition that “A is A,” and is nothing but A. For dialectics the corresponding proposition is “A is not simply A.” This is even true for things, but much more obviously true for people.

Conflict and Opposition

But the second characteristic, which sets it apart from any philosophy which emphasises smooth continuous change or progress, is that it states that the way change takes place is through conflict and opposition. Dialectics is always looking for the contradictions within people or situations as the main guide to what is going on and what is likely to happen. There are in fact three main propositions which are put forward about opposites and contradictions.

The interdependence of opposites

This is the easiest thing to see: opposites depend on one another. It wouldn’t make sense to talk about darkness if there were no such thing as light. I really start to understand my love at the moment when I permit myself up understand my hate. In practice, each member of a polar opposition seems to need the other to make it what it is.

The interpenetration of opposites

Here we see that opposites can be found within each other. Just because light is relative to darkness, there is some light in every darkness, and some darkness in every light. There is some hate in every love, and some love in every hate. If we look into one thing hard enough, we can always find its opposite right there. To see this frees us from the “either-or” which can be so oppressive and so stuck.

The unity of opposites

So far we have been talking about relative opposites. But dialectics goes on to say that if we take an opposite to its very ultimate extreme, and make it absolute, it actually turns into its opposite. Thus if we make darkness absolute, we are blind – we can’t see anything. And if we make light absolute, we are equally blind and unable to see. In psychology, the equivalent of this is to idealise something. So if we take love to its extreme, and idealise it, we get morbid dependence, where our whole existence depends completely on the other person. And if we take hate to its extreme, and idealise it, we get morbid counterdependence, where our whole existence again depends completely on the other person. This appreciation of paradox is one of the strengths of the dialectical approach, which makes it superior to linear logic.

A good symbol for these three processes is the Yin-Yang symbol of Taoism. The interdependence of opposites is shown in each half being defined by the contours of the other. The interpenetration of opposites is expressed by having a black spot in the innermost centre of the white area, and a white spot in the innermost centre of the black area. The unity of opposites is shown by the circle surrounding the symbol, which expresses total unity and unbroken serenity in and through all the seeming opposition. It is, after all, one symbol.

The lessons of the dialectic are hard ones. It tells us that any value we have, if held to in a one-sided way, will become an illusion. We shall try to take it as excluding its opposite, but really it will include it. And if we take it to its extreme, and idealise it, it will turn into its opposite. So peace and love, cosmic harmony, the pursuit of happiness and all the rest are doomed, if held to in this exclusive way.

The only values which will be truly stable and coherent are those which include opposition rather than excluding it. And all such values appear to be nonsense, because they must contain paradoxes. “Self-actualization” is one such value, because the concept of the self is self-contradictory, paradoxical and absurd. The self is intensely personal and completely impersonal at one and the same time. It is the lowest of the low and the highest of the high at the same time. And this is why, when we contact the self in a peak experience, our description of what happened is invariably a paradoxical one.

There is a logic of paradox, which enables the intellect to handle it without getting fazed, and its name is the dialectic. It is complex because it involves holding the spring doors of the mind open – hence it often tries to say everything at once. But it shows how we do not have to give up in the face of paradox and abandon the intellect as a hopeless case.

Hegel’s Dialectics


First published Fri Jun 3, 2016; substantive revision Fri Oct 2, 2020

“Dialectics” is a term used to describe a method of philosophical argument that involves some sort of contradictory process between opposing sides. In what is perhaps the most classic version of “dialectics”, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato (see entry on Plato), for instance, presented his philosophical argument as a back-and-forth dialogue or debate, generally between the character of Socrates, on one side, and some person or group of people to whom Socrates was talking (his interlocutors), on the other. In the course of the dialogues, Socrates’ interlocutors propose definitions of philosophical concepts or express views that Socrates challenges or opposes. The back-and-forth debate between opposing sides produces a kind of linear progression or evolution in philosophical views or positions: as the dialogues go along, Socrates’ interlocutors change or refine their views in response to Socrates’ challenges and come to adopt more sophisticated views. The back-and-forth dialectic between Socrates and his interlocutors thus becomes Plato’s way of arguing against the earlier, less sophisticated views or positions and for the more sophisticated ones later.

“Hegel’s dialectics” refers to the particular dialectical method of argument employed by the 19th Century German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel (see entry on Hegel), which, like other “dialectical” methods, relies on a contradictory process between opposing sides. Whereas Plato’s “opposing sides” were people (Socrates and his interlocutors), however, what the “opposing sides” are in Hegel’s work depends on the subject matter he discusses. In his work on logic, for instance, the “opposing sides” are different definitions of logical concepts that are opposed to one another. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, which presents Hegel’s epistemology or philosophy of knowledge, the “opposing sides” are different definitions of consciousness and of the object that consciousness is aware of or claims to know. As in Plato’s dialogues, a contradictory process between “opposing sides” in Hegel’s dialectics leads to a linear evolution or development from less sophisticated definitions or views to more sophisticated ones later. The dialectical process thus constitutes Hegel’s method for arguing against the earlier, less sophisticated definitions or views and for the more sophisticated ones later. Hegel regarded this dialectical method or “speculative mode of cognition” (PR §10) as the hallmark of his philosophy and used the same method in the Phenomenology of Spirit [PhG], as well as in all of the mature works he published later—the entire Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences (including, as its first part, the “Lesser Logic” or the Encyclopaedia Logic [EL]), the Science of Logic [SL], and the Philosophy of Right[PR].

Note that, although Hegel acknowledged that his dialectical method was part of a philosophical tradition stretching back to Plato, he criticized Plato’s version of dialectics. He argued that Plato’s dialectics deals only with limited philosophical claims and is unable to get beyond skepticism or nothingness (SL-M 55–6; SL-dG 34–5; PR, Remark to §31). According to the logic of a traditional reductio ad absurdum argument, if the premises of an argument lead to a contradiction, we must conclude that the premises are false—which leaves us with no premises or with nothing. We must then wait around for new premises to spring up arbitrarily from somewhere else, and then see whether those new premises put us back into nothingness or emptiness once again, if they, too, lead to a contradiction. Because Hegel believed that reason necessarily generates contradictions, as we will see, he thought new premises will indeed produce further contradictions. As he puts the argument, then, 

the scepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss. (PhG-M §79) 

Hegel argues that, because Plato’s dialectics cannot get beyond arbitrariness and skepticism, it generates only approximate truths, and falls short of being a genuine science (SL-M 55–6; SL-dG 34–5; PR, Remark to §31; cf. EL Remark to §81). The following sections examine Hegel’s dialectics as well as these issues in more detail.

1. Hegel’s description of his dialectical method

Hegel provides the most extensive, general account of his dialectical method in Part I of his Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences, which is often called the Encyclopaedia Logic [EL]. The form or presentation of logic, he says, has three sides or moments (EL §79). These sides are not parts of logic, but, rather, moments of “every concept”, as well as “of everything true in general” (EL Remark to §79; we will see why Hegel thought dialectics is in everything in section 3). The first moment—the moment of the understanding—is the moment of fixity, in which concepts or forms have a seemingly stable definition or determination (EL §80).

The second moment—the “dialectical” (EL §§79, 81) or “negatively rational” (EL §79) moment—is the moment of instability. In this moment, a one-sidedness or restrictedness (EL Remark to §81) in the determination from the moment of understanding comes to the fore, and the determination that was fixed in the first moment passes into its opposite (EL §81). Hegel describes this process as a process of “self-sublation” (EL §81). The English verb “to sublate” translates Hegel’s technical use of the German verb aufheben, which is a crucial concept in his dialectical method. Hegel says that aufheben has a doubled meaning: it means both to cancel (or negate) and to preserve at the same time (PhG §113; SL-M 107; SL-dG 81–2; cf. EL the Addition to §95). The moment of understanding sublates itself because its own character or nature—its one-sidedness or restrictedness—destabilizes its definition and leads it to pass into its opposite. The dialectical moment thus involves a process of self-sublation, or a process in which the determination from the moment of understanding sublates itself, or both cancels and preserves itself, as it pushes on to or passes into its opposite.

The third moment—the “speculative” or “positively rational” (EL §§79, 82) moment—grasps the unity of the opposition between the first two determinations, or is the positive result of the dissolution or transition of those determinations (EL §82 and Remark to §82). Here, Hegel rejects the traditional, reductio ad absurdum argument, which says that when the premises of an argument lead to a contradiction, then the premises must be discarded altogether, leaving nothing. As Hegel suggests in the Phenomenology, such an argument 

is just the skepticism which only ever sees pure nothingness in its result and abstracts from the fact that this nothingness is specifically the nothingness of that from which it results. (PhG-M §79) 

Although the speculative moment negates the contradiction, it is a determinate or defined nothingness because it is the result of a specific process. There is something particular about the determination in the moment of understanding—a specific weakness, or some specific aspect that was ignored in its one-sidedness or restrictedness—that leads it to fall apart in the dialectical moment. The speculative moment has a definition, determination or content because it grows out of and unifies the particular character of those earlier determinations, or is “a unity of distinct determinations” (EL Remark to §82). The speculative moment is thus “truly not empty, abstract nothing, but the negation of certain determinations” (EL-GSH §82). When the result “is taken as the result of that from which it emerges”, Hegel says, then it is “in fact, the true result; in that case it is itself a determinate nothingness, one which has a content” (PhG-M §79). As he also puts it, “the result is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation [bestimmteNegation]; a new form has thereby immediately arisen” (PhG-M §79). Or, as he says, “[b]ecause the result, the negation, is a determinate negation [bestimmte Negation], it has a content” (SL-dG 33; cf. SL-M 54). Hegel’s claim in both the Phenomenology and the Science of Logic that his philosophy relies on a process of “determinate negation [bestimmte Negation]” has sometimes led scholars to describe his dialectics as a method or doctrine of “determinate negation” (see entry on Hegel, section on Science of Logic; cf. Rosen 1982: 30; Stewart 1996, 2000: 41–3; Winfield 1990: 56).

There are several features of this account that Hegel thinks raise his dialectical method above the arbitrariness of Plato’s dialectics to the level of a genuine science. First, because the determinations in the moment of understanding sublate themselves, Hegel’s dialectics does not require some new idea to show up arbitrarily. Instead, the movement to new determinations is driven by the nature of the earlier determinations and so “comes about on its own accord” (PhG-P §79). Indeed, for Hegel, the movement is driven by necessity (see, e.g., EL Remarks to §§12, 42, 81, 87, 88; PhG §79). The natures of the determinations themselves drive or force them to pass into their opposites. This sense of necessity—the idea that the method involves being forced from earlier moments to later ones—leads Hegel to regard his dialectics as a kind of logic. As he says in the Phenomenology, the method’s “proper exposition belongs to logic” (PhG-M §48). Necessity—the sense of being driven or forced to conclusions—is the hallmark of “logic” in Western philosophy.

Second, because the form or determination that arises is the result of the self-sublation of the determination from the moment of understanding, there is no need for some new idea to show up from the outside. Instead, the transition to the new determination or form is necessitated by earlier moments and hence grows out of the process itself. Unlike in Plato’s arbitrary dialectics, then—which must wait around until some other idea comes in from the outside—in Hegel’s dialectics “nothing extraneous is introduced”, as he says (SL-M 54; cf. SL-dG 33). His dialectics is driven by the nature, immanence or “inwardness” of its own content (SL-M 54; cf. SL-dG 33; cf. PR §31). As he puts it, dialectics is “the principle through which alone immanent coherence and necessity enter into the content of science” (EL-GSH Remark to §81).

Third, because later determinations “sublate” earlier determinations, the earlier determinations are not completely cancelled or negated. On the contrary, the earlier determinations are preservedin the sense that they remain in effect within the later determinations. When Being-for-itself, for instance, is introduced in the logic as the first concept of ideality or universality and is defined by embracing a set of “something-others”, Being-for-itself replaces the something-others as the new concept, but those something-others remain active within the definition of the concept of Being-for-itself. The something-others must continue to do the work of picking out individual somethings before the concept of Being-for-itself can have its own definition as the concept that gathers them up. Being-for-itself replaces the something-others, but it also preserves them, because its definition still requires them to do their work of picking out individual somethings (EL §§95–6).

The concept of “apple”, for example, as a Being-for-itself, would be defined by gathering up individual “somethings” that are the same as one another (as apples). Each individual apple can be what it is (as an apple) only in relation to an “other” that is the same “something” that it is (i.e., an apple). That is the one-sidedness or restrictedness that leads each “something” to pass into its “other” or opposite. The “somethings” are thus both “something-others”. Moreover, their defining processes lead to an endless process of passing back and forth into one another: one “something” can be what it is (as an apple) only in relation to another “something” that is the same as it is, which, in turn, can be what it is (an apple) only in relation to the other “something” that is the same as it is, and so on, back and forth, endlessly (cf. EL §95). The concept of “apple”, as a Being-for-itself, stops that endless, passing-over process by embracing or including the individual something-others (the apples) in its content. It grasps or captures their character or quality as apples. But the “something-others” must do their work of picking out and separating those individual items (the apples) before the concept of “apple”—as the Being-for-itself—can gather them up for its own definition. We can picture the concept of Being-for-itself like this:an oval enclosing two circles, left and right; an arrow goes from the interior of each circle to the interior of the other. The oval has the statement 'Being-for-itself embraces the something-others in its content'. The circles have the statement 'the something-others'. The arrows have the statement 'the process of passing back-and-forth between the something-others'.

Figure 1

Later concepts thus replace, but also preserve, earlier concepts.

Fourth, later concepts both determine and also surpass the limits or finitude of earlier concepts. Earlier determinations sublate themselves—they pass into their others because of some weakness, one-sidedness or restrictedness in their own definitions. There are thus limitations in each of the determinations that lead them to pass into their opposites. As Hegel says, “that is what everything finite is: its own sublation” (EL-GSH Remark to §81). Later determinations define the finiteness of the earlier determinations. From the point of view of the concept of Being-for-itself, for instance, the concept of a “something-other” is limited or finite: although the something-others are supposed to be the same as one another, the character of their sameness (e.g., as apples) is captured only from above, by the higher-level, more universal concept of Being-for-itself. Being-for-itself reveals the limitations of the concept of a “something-other”. It also rises above those limitations, since it can do something that the concept of a something-other cannot do. Dialectics thus allows us to get beyond the finite to the universal. As Hegel puts it, “all genuine, nonexternal elevation above the finite is to be found in this principle [of dialectics]” (EL-GSH Remark to §81).

Fifth, because the determination in the speculative moment grasps the unity of the first two moments, Hegel’s dialectical method leads to concepts or forms that are increasingly comprehensive and universal. As Hegel puts it, the result of the dialectical process

is a new concept but one higher and richer than the preceding—richer because it negates or opposes the preceding and therefore contains it, and it contains even more than that, for it is the unity of itself and its opposite. (SL-dG 33; cf. SL-M 54) 

Like Being-for-itself, later concepts are more universal because they unify or are built out ofearlier determinations, and include those earlier determinations as part of their definitions. Indeed, many other concepts or determinations can also be depicted as literally surrounding earlier ones (cf. Maybee 2009: 73, 100, 112, 156, 193, 214, 221, 235, 458).

Finally, because the dialectical process leads to increasing comprehensiveness and universality, it ultimately produces a complete series, or drives “to completion” (SL-dG 33; cf. SL-M 54; PhG §79). Dialectics drives to the “Absolute”, to use Hegel’s term, which is the last, final, and completely all-encompassing or unconditioned concept or form in the relevant subject matter under discussion (logic, phenomenology, ethics/politics and so on). The “Absolute” concept or form is unconditioned because its definition or determination contains all the other concepts or forms that were developed earlier in the dialectical process for that subject matter. Moreover, because the process develops necessarily and comprehensively through each concept, form or determination, there are no determinations that are left out of the process. There are therefore no left-over concepts or forms—concepts or forms outside of the “Absolute”—that might “condition” or define it. The “Absolute” is thus unconditioned because it contains all of the conditions in its content, and is not conditioned by anything else outside of it. This Absolute is the highest concept or form of universality for that subject matter. It is the thought or concept of the whole conceptual system for the relevant subject matter. We can picture the Absolute Idea (EL §236), for instance—which is the “Absolute” for logic—as an oval that is filled up with and surrounds numerous, embedded rings of smaller ovals and circles, which represent all of the earlier and less universal determinations from the logical development (cf. Maybee 2009: 30, 600):Five concentric ovals; the outermost one is labeled 'The Absolute Idea'.

Figure 2

Since the “Absolute” concepts for each subject matter lead into one another, when they are taken together, they constitute Hegel’s entire philosophical system, which, as Hegel says, “presents itself therefore as a circle of circles” (EL-GSH §15). We can picture the entire system like this (cf. Maybee 2009: 29):A circle enclosing enclosing 10 ovals. One oval is labeled 'Phenomenology', another 'Logic', and two others 'Other philosophical subject matters'. The enclosing circle is labeled: the whole philosophical system as a 'circle of circles'

Figure 3

Together, Hegel believes, these characteristics make his dialectical method genuinely scientific. As he says, “the dialectical constitutes the moving soul of scientific progression” (EL-GSH Remark to §81). He acknowledges that a description of the method can be more or less complete and detailed, but because the method or progression is driven only by the subject matter itself, this dialectical method is the “only true method” (SL-M 54; SL-dG 33).

2. Applying Hegel’s dialectical method to his arguments

So far, we have seen how Hegel describes his dialectical method, but we have yet to see how we might read this method into the arguments he offers in his works. Scholars often use the first three stages of the logic as the “textbook example” (Forster 1993: 133) to illustrate how Hegel’s dialectical method should be applied to his arguments. The logic begins with the simple and immediate concept of pure Being, which is said to illustrate the moment of the understanding. We can think of Being here as a concept of pure presence. It is not mediated by any other concept—or is not defined in relation to any other concept—and so is undetermined or has no further determination (EL §86; SL-M 82; SL-dG 59). It asserts bare presence, but what that presence is like has no further determination. Because the thought of pure Being is undetermined and so is a pure abstraction, however, it is really no different from the assertion of pure negation or the absolutely negative (EL §87). It is therefore equally a Nothing (SL-M 82; SL-dG 59). Being’s lack of determination thus leads it to sublate itself and pass into the concept of Nothing (EL §87; SL-M 82; SL-dG 59), which illustrates the dialectical moment.

But if we focus for a moment on the definitions of Being and Nothing themselves, their definitions have the same content. Indeed, both are undetermined, so they have the same kind of undefined content. The only difference between them is “something merely meant” (EL-GSH Remark to §87), namely, that Being is an undefined content, taken as or meant to be presence, while Nothing is an undefined content, taken as or meant to be absence. The third concept of the logic—which is used to illustrate the speculative moment—unifies the first two moments by capturing the positive result of—or the conclusion that we can draw from—the opposition between the first two moments. The concept of Becoming is the thought of an undefined content, taken as presence (Being) and then taken as absence (Nothing), or taken as absence (Nothing) and then taken as presence (Being). To Become is to go from Being to Nothing or from Nothing to Being, or is, as Hegel puts it, “the immediate vanishing of the one in the other” (SL-M 83; cf. SL-dG 60). The contradiction between Being and Nothing thus is not a reductio ad absurdum, or does not lead to the rejection of both concepts and hence to nothingness—as Hegel had said Plato’s dialectics does (SL-M 55–6; SL-dG 34–5)—but leads to a positive result, namely, to the introduction of a new concept—the synthesis—which unifies the two, earlier, opposed concepts.

We can also use the textbook Being-Nothing-Becoming example to illustrate Hegel’s concept of aufheben (to sublate), which, as we saw, means to cancel (or negate) and to preserve at the same time. Hegel says that the concept of Becoming sublates the concepts of Being and Nothing (SL-M 105; SL-dG 80). Becoming cancels or negates Being and Nothing because it is a new concept that replaces the earlier concepts; but it also preserves Being and Nothing because it relies on those earlier concepts for its own definition. Indeed, it is the first concrete concept in the logic. Unlike Being and Nothing, which had no definition or determination as concepts themselves and so were merely abstract (SL-M 82–3; SL-dG 59–60; cf. EL Addition to §88), Becoming is a “determinate unity in which there is both Being and Nothing” (SL-M 105; cf. SL-dG 80). Becoming succeeds in having a definition or determination because it is defined by, or piggy-backs on, the concepts of Being and Nothing.

This “textbook” Being-Nothing-Becoming example is closely connected to the traditional idea that Hegel’s dialectics follows a thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern, which, when applied to the logic, means that one concept is introduced as a “thesis” or positive concept, which then develops into a second concept that negates or is opposed to the first or is its “antithesis”, which in turn leads to a third concept, the “synthesis”, that unifies the first two (see, e.g., McTaggert 1964 [1910]: 3–4; Mure 1950: 302; Stace, 1955 [1924]: 90–3, 125–6; Kosek 1972: 243; E. Harris 1983: 93–7; Singer 1983: 77–79). Versions of this interpretation of Hegel’s dialectics continue to have currency (e.g., Forster 1993: 131; Stewart 2000: 39, 55; Fritzman 2014: 3–5). On this reading, Being is the positive moment or thesis, Nothing is the negative moment or antithesis, and Becoming is the moment of aufheben or synthesis—the concept that cancels and preserves, or unifies and combines, Being and Nothing.

We must be careful, however, not to apply this textbook example too dogmatically to the rest of Hegel’s logic or to his dialectical method more generally (for a classic criticism of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis reading of Hegel’s dialectics, see Mueller 1958). There are other places where this general pattern might describe some of the transitions from stage to stage, but there are many more places where the development does not seem to fit this pattern very well. One place where the pattern seems to hold, for instance, is where the Measure (EL §107)—as the combination of Quality and Quantity—transitions into the Measureless (EL §107), which is opposed to it, which then in turn transitions into Essence, which is the unity or combination of the two earlier sides (EL §111). This series of transitions could be said to follow the general pattern captured by the “textbook example”: Measure would be the moment of the understanding or thesis, the Measureless would be the dialectical moment or antithesis, and Essence would be the speculative moment or synthesis that unifies the two earlier moments. However, before the transition to Essence takes place, the Measureless itself is redefined as a Measure (EL §109)—undercutting a precise parallel with the textbook Being-Nothing-Becoming example, since the transition from Measure to Essence would not follow a Measure-Measureless-Essence pattern, but rather a Measure-(Measureless?)-Measure-Essence pattern.

Other sections of Hegel’s philosophy do not fit the triadic, textbook example of Being-Nothing-Becoming at all, as even interpreters who have supported the traditional reading of Hegel’s dialectics have noted. After using the Being-Nothing-Becoming example to argue that Hegel’s dialectical method consists of “triads” whose members “are called the thesis, antithesis, synthesis” (Stace 1955 [1924]: 93), W.T. Stace, for instance, goes on to warn us that Hegel does not succeed in applying this pattern throughout the philosophical system. It is hard to see, Stace says, how the middle term of some of Hegel’s triads are the opposites or antitheses of the first term, “and there are even ‘triads’ which contain four terms!” (Stace 1955 [1924]: 97). As a matter of fact, one section of Hegel’s logic—the section on Cognition—violates the thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern because it has only two sub-divisions, rather than three. “The triad is incomplete”, Stace complains. “There is no third. Hegel here abandons the triadic method. Nor is any explanation of his having done so forthcoming” (Stace 1955 [1924]: 286; cf. McTaggart 1964 [1910]: 292).

Interpreters have offered various solutions to the complaint that Hegel’s dialectics sometimes seems to violate the triadic form. Some scholars apply the triadic form fairly loosely across several stages (e.g. Burbidge 1981: 43–5; Taylor 1975: 229–30). Others have applied Hegel’s triadic method to whole sections of his philosophy, rather than to individual stages. For G.R.G. Mure, for instance, the section on Cognition fits neatly into a triadic, thesis-antithesis-synthesis account of dialectics because the whole section is itself the antithesis of the previous section of Hegel’s logic, the section on Life (Mure 1950: 270). Mure argues that Hegel’s triadic form is easier to discern the more broadly we apply it. “The triadic form appears on many scales”, he says, “and the larger the scale we consider the more obvious it is” (Mure 1950: 302).

Scholars who interpret Hegel’s description of dialectics on a smaller scale—as an account of how to get from stage to stage—have also tried to explain why some sections seem to violate the triadic form. J.N. Findlay, for instance—who, like Stace, associates dialectics “with the triad, or with triplicity”—argues that stages can fit into that form in “more than one sense” (Findlay 1962: 66). The first sense of triplicity echoes the textbook, Being-Nothing-Becoming example. In a second sense, however, Findlay says, the dialectical moment or “contradictory breakdown” is not itself a separate stage, or “does not count as one of the stages”, but is a transition between opposed, “but complementary”, abstract stages that “are developed more or less concurrently” (Findlay 1962: 66). This second sort of triplicity could involve any number of stages: it “could readily have been expanded into a quadruplicity, a quintuplicity and so forth” (Findlay 1962: 66). Still, like Stace, he goes on to complain that many of the transitions in Hegel’s philosophy do not seem to fit the triadic pattern very well. In some triads, the second term is “the direct and obvious contrary of the first”—as in the case of Being and Nothing. In other cases, however, the opposition is, as Findlay puts it, “of a much less extreme character” (Findlay 1962: 69). In some triads, the third term obviously mediates between the first two terms. In other cases, however, he says, the third term is just one possible mediator or unity among other possible ones; and, in yet other cases, “the reconciling functions of the third member are not at all obvious” (Findlay 1962: 70).

Let us look more closely at one place where the “textbook example” of Being-Nothing-Becoming does not seem to describe the dialectical development of Hegel’s logic very well. In a later stage of the logic, the concept of Purpose goes through several iterations, from Abstract Purpose (EL §204), to Finite or Immediate Purpose (EL §205), and then through several stages of a syllogism (EL §206) to Realized Purpose (EL §210). Abstract Purpose is the thought of any kind of purposiveness, where the purpose has not been further determined or defined. It includes not just the kinds of purposes that occur in consciousness, such as needs or drives, but also the “internal purposiveness” or teleological view proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (see entry on Aristotle; EL Remark to §204), according to which things in the world have essences and aim to achieve (or have the purpose of living up to) their essences. Finite Purpose is the moment in which an Abstract Purpose begins to have a determination by fixing on some particular material or content through which it will be realized (EL §205). The Finite Purpose then goes through a process in which it, as the Universality, comes to realize itself as the Purpose over the particular material or content (and hence becomes Realized Purpose) by pushing out into Particularity, then into Singularity (the syllogism U-P-S), and ultimately into ‘out-thereness,’ or into individual objects out there in the world (EL §210; cf. Maybee 2009: 466–493).

Hegel’s description of the development of Purpose does not seem to fit the textbook Being-Nothing-Becoming example or the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model. According to the example and model, Abstract Purpose would be the moment of understanding or thesis, Finite Purpose would be the dialectical moment or antithesis, and Realized Purpose would be the speculative moment or synthesis. Although Finite Purpose has a different determination from Abstract Purpose (it refines the definition of Abstract Purpose), it is hard to see how it would qualify as strictly “opposed” to or as the “antithesis” of Abstract Purpose in the way that Nothing is opposed to or is the antithesis of Being.

There is an answer, however, to the criticism that many of the determinations are not “opposites” in a strict sense. The German term that is translated as “opposite” in Hegel’s description of the moments of dialectics (EL §§81, 82)—entgegensetzen—has three root words: setzen (“to posit or set”), gegen, (“against”), and the prefix ent-, which indicates that something has entered into a new state. The verb entgegensetzen can therefore literally be translated as “to set over against”. The “engegengesetzte” into which determinations pass, then, do not need to be the strict “opposites” of the first, but can be determinations that are merely “set against” or are different from the first ones. And the prefix ent-, which suggests that the first determinations are put into a new state, can be explained by Hegel’s claim that the finite determinations from the moment of understanding sublate (cancel but also preserve) themselves (EL §81): later determinations put earlier determinations into a new state by preserving them.

At the same time, there is a technical sense in which a later determination would still be the “opposite” of the earlier determination. Since the second determination is different from the first one, it is the logical negation of the first one, or is not-the-first-determination. If the first determination is “e”, for instance, because the new determination is different from that one, the new one is “not-e” (Kosek 1972: 240). Since Finite Purpose, for instance, has a definition or determination that is different from the definition that Abstract Purpose has, it is not-Abstract-Purpose, or is the negation or opposite of Abstract Purpose in that sense. There is therefore a technical, logical sense in which the second concept or form is the “opposite” or negation of—or is “not”—the first one—though, again, it need not be the “opposite” of the first one in a strict sense.

Other problems remain, however. Because the concept of Realized Purpose is defined through a syllogistic process, it is itself the product of several stages of development (at least four, by my count, if Realized Purpose counts as a separate determination), which would seem to violate a triadic model. Moreover, the concept of Realized Purpose does not, strictly speaking, seem to be the unity or combination of Abstract Purpose and Finite Purpose. Realized Purpose is the result of (and so unifies) the syllogistic process of Finite Purpose, through which Finite Purpose focuses on and is realized in a particular material or content. Realized Purpose thus seems to be a development of Finite Purpose, rather than a unity or combination of Abstract Purpose and Finite Purpose, in the way that Becoming can be said to be the unity or combination of Being and Nothing.

These sorts of considerations have led some scholars to interpret Hegel’s dialectics in a way that is implied by a more literal reading of his claim, in the Encyclopaedia Logic, that the three “sides” of the form of logic—namely, the moment of understanding, the dialectical moment, and the speculative moment—“are moments of each [or every; jedeslogically-real, that is each [or every; jedes] concept” (EL Remark to §79; this is an alternative translation). The quotation suggests that each concept goes through all three moments of the dialectical process—a suggestion reinforced by Hegel’s claim, in the Phenomenology, that the result of the process of determinate negation is that “a new form has thereby immediately arisen” (PhG-M §79). According to this interpretation, the three “sides” are not three different concepts or forms that are related to one another in a triad—as the textbook Being-Nothing-Becoming example suggests—but rather different momentary sides or “determinations” in the life, so to speak, of eachconcept or form as it transitions to the next one. The three moments thus involve only two concepts or forms: the one that comes first, and the one that comes next (examples of philosophers who interpret Hegel’s dialectics in this second way include Maybee 2009; Priest 1989: 402; Rosen 2014: 122, 132; and Winfield 1990: 56).

For the concept of Being, for example, its moment of understanding is its moment of stability, in which it is asserted to be pure presence. This determination is one-sided or restricted however, because, as we saw, it ignores another aspect of Being’s definition, namely, that Being has no content or determination, which is how Being is defined in its dialectical moment. Being thus sublates itself because the one-sidedness of its moment of understanding undermines that determination and leads to the definition it has in the dialectical moment. The speculative moment draws out the implications of these moments: it asserts that Being (as pure presence) implies nothing. It is also the “unity of the determinations in their comparison [Entgegensetzung]” (EL §82; alternative translation): since it captures a process from one to the other, it includes Being’s moment of understanding (as pure presence) and dialectical moment (as nothing or undetermined), but also compares those two determinations, or sets (-setzen) them up against (-gegen) each other. It even puts Being into a new state (as the prefix ent– suggests) because the next concept, Nothing, will sublate (cancel and preserve) Being.

The concept of Nothing also has all three moments. When it is asserted to be the speculative result of the concept of Being, it has its moment of understanding or stability: it is Nothing, defined as pure absence, as the absence of determination. But Nothing’s moment of understanding is also one-sided or restricted: like Being, Nothing is also an undefined content, which is its determination in its dialectical moment. Nothing thus sublates itself: since it is an undefined content, it is not pure absence after all, but has the same presence that Being did. It is present as an undefined content. Nothing thus sublates Being: it replaces (cancels) Being, but also preserves Being insofar as it has the same definition (as an undefined content) and presence that Being had. We can picture Being and Nothing like this (the circles have dashed outlines to indicate that, as concepts, they are each undefined; cf. Maybee 2009: 51):two circles with dashed outlines, one labeled 'Being' and one 'Nothing'.

Figure 4

In its speculative moment, then, Nothing implies presence or Being, which is the “unity of the determinations in their comparison [Entgegensetzung]” (EL §82; alternative translation), since it both includes but—as a process from one to the other—also compares the two earlier determinations of Nothing, first, as pure absence and, second, as just as much presence.

The dialectical process is driven to the next concept or form—Becoming—not by a triadic, thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern, but by the one-sidedness of Nothing—which leads Nothing to sublate itself—and by the implications of the process so far. Since Being and Nothing have each been exhaustively analyzed as separate concepts, and since they are the only concepts in play, there is only one way for the dialectical process to move forward: whatever concept comes next will have to take account of both Being and Nothing at the same time. Moreover, the process revealed that an undefined content taken to be presence (i.e., Being) implies Nothing (or absence), and that an undefined content taken to be absence (i.e., Nothing) implies presence (i.e., Being). The next concept, then, takes Being and Nothing together and draws out those implications—namely, that Being implies Nothing, and that Nothing implies Being. It is therefore Becoming, defined as two separate processes: one in which Being becomes Nothing, and one in which Nothing becomes Being. We can picture Becoming this way (cf. Maybee 2009: 53):Same as the previous figure except arched arrows from the Nothing circle to the Being circle and vice versa. The arrows are labeled 'Becoming'.

Figure 5

In a similar way, a one-sidedness or restrictedness in the determination of Finite Purpose together with the implications of earlier stages leads to Realized Purpose. In its moment of understanding, Finite Purpose particularizes into (or presents) its content as “something-presupposed” or as a pre-given object (EL §205). I go to a restaurant for the purpose of having dinner, for instance, and order a salad. My purpose of having dinner particularizes as a pre-given object—the salad. But this object or particularity—e.g. the salad—is “inwardly reflected” (EL §205): it has its own content—developed in earlier stages—which the definition of Finite Purpose ignores. We can picture Finite Purpose this way:4 concentric ovals with the innermost one enclosing an oval and a circle; an arrow points inward from the outermost oval and is labeled 'Presents into or particularizes as'. The outermost oval is labeled 'Finite Purpose (the universality; e.g. 'dinner')'. The next most oval is labeled 'A pre-given object (e.g., 'salad')'. The next oval and the circle and oval in the center are labeled 'The content of the object, developed in earlier stages, that Finite Purpose is ignoring'.

Figure 6

In the dialectical moment, Finite Purpose is determined by the previously ignored content, or by that other content. The one-sidedness of Finite Purpose requires the dialectical process to continue through a series of syllogisms that determines Finite Purpose in relation to the ignored content. The first syllogism links the Finite Purpose to the first layer of content in the object: the Purpose or universality (e.g., dinner) goes through the particularity (e.g., the salad) to its content, the singularity (e.g., lettuce as a type of thing)—the syllogism U-P-S (EL §206). But the particularity (e.g., the salad) is itself a universality or purpose, “which at the same time is a syllogism within itself [in sich]” (EL Remark to §208; alternative translation), in relation to its own content. The salad is a universality/purpose that particularizes as lettuce (as a type of thing) and has its singularity in this lettuce here—a second syllogism, U-P-S. Thus, the first singularity (e.g., “lettuce” as a type of thing)—which, in this second syllogism, is the particularity or P—“judges” (EL §207) or asserts that “U is S”: it says that “lettuce” as a universality (U) or type of thing is a singularity (S), or is “this lettuce here”, for instance. This new singularity (e.g. “this lettuce here”) is itself a combination of subjectivity and objectivity (EL §207): it is an Inner or identifying concept (“lettuce”) that is in a mutually-defining relationship (the circular arrow) with an Outer or out-thereness (“this here”) as its content. In the speculative moment, Finite Purpose is determined by the whole process of development from the moment of understanding—when it is defined by particularizing into a pre-given object with a content that it ignores—to its dialectical moment—when it is also defined by the previously ignored content. We can picture the speculative moment of Finite Purpose this way:4 concentric ovals with the innermost one enclosing an oval and a circle; arrows point inward from the outermost 3 ovals to the next one in. The outermost oval is labeled 'Finite Purpose (the universality; e.g. 'dinner')'. The nextmost oval is labeled both 'The Particularity or object (e.g., 'salad')' and 'The object (e.g., 'salad') is also a Purpose or universality with its own syllogism'. The next oval is labeled both 'The Singularity (e.g., 'lettuce' as a type)' and 'The Particularity (e.g., 'lettuce' as type)'. And the 4th oval is labeled both 'Inner' and 'The Singularity (e.g., 'this lettuce is here')'. The circle in the middle is labeled 'Outer' and the oval in the middle 'Mutually-defining relationship'. The 3 interior ovals (not including the innermost) are also labeled 'The second syllogism U-P-S'. The 3 outer ovals are also labeled 'The first syllogism U-P-S'.

Figure 7

Finite Purpose’s speculative moment leads to Realized Purpose. As soon as Finite Purpose presents all the content, there is a return process (a series of return arrows) that establishes each layer and redefines Finite Purpose as Realized Purpose. The presence of “this lettuce here” establishes the actuality of “lettuce” as a type of thing (an Actuality is a concept that captures a mutually-defining relationship between an Inner and an Outer [EL §142]), which establishes the “salad”, which establishes “dinner” as the Realized Purpose over the whole process. We can picture Realized Purpose this way:4 concentric ovals with the innermost one enclosing an oval and a circle; arrows point inward from the outermost 3 ovals to the next one in and arrows also point in the reverse direction. The outermost oval is labeled 'Realized Purpose: the Purpose (e.g., 'dinner') is established as the Purpose or universality over the whole content'. The outward pointing arrows are labeled 'The return process established the Purpose (e.g., 'dinner') as the Purpose or universality over the whole content'. The nextmost oval is labeled 'The object and second Purpose (e.g., 'salad')'. The one next in is labeled 'The Singularity/Particularity (e.g., 'lettuce' as a type)'. The 3rd inward oval is labeled 'The second Singularity (e.g., 'this lettuce is here')'.

Figure 8

If Hegel’s account of dialectics is a general description of the life of each concept or form, then any section can include as many or as few stages as the development requires. Instead of trying to squeeze the stages into a triadic form (cf. Solomon 1983: 22)—a technique Hegel himself rejects (PhG §50; cf. section 3)—we can see the process as driven by each determination on its own account: what it succeeds in grasping (which allows it to be stable, for a moment of understanding), what it fails to grasp or capture (in its dialectical moment), and how it leads (in its speculative moment) to a new concept or form that tries to correct for the one-sidedness of the moment of understanding. This sort of process might reveal a kind of argument that, as Hegel had promised, might produce a comprehensive and exhaustive exploration of every concept, form or determination in each subject matter, as well as raise dialectics above a haphazard analysis of various philosophical views to the level of a genuine science.

3. Why does Hegel use dialectics?

We can begin to see why Hegel was motivated to use a dialectical method by examining the project he set for himself, particularly in relation to the work of David Hume and Immanuel Kant (see entries on Hume and Kant). Hume had argued against what we can think of as the naïve view of how we come to have scientific knowledge. According to the naïve view, we gain knowledge of the world by using our senses to pull the world into our heads, so to speak. Although we may have to use careful observations and do experiments, our knowledge of the world is basically a mirror or copy of what the world is like. Hume argued, however, that naïve science’s claim that our knowledge corresponds to or copies what the world is like does not work. Take the scientific concept of cause, for instance. According to that concept of cause, to say that one event causes another is to say that there is a necessary connection between the first event (the cause) and the second event (the effect), such that, when the first event happens, the second event must also happen. According to naïve science, when we claim (or know) that some event causes some other event, our claim mirrors or copies what the world is like. It follows that the necessary, causal connection between the two events must itself be out there in the world. However, Hume argued, we never observe any such necessary causal connection in our experience of the world, nor can we infer that one exists based on our reasoning (see Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part III, Section II; Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VII, Part I). There is nothing in the world itself that our idea of cause mirrors or copies.

Kant thought Hume’s argument led to an unacceptable, skeptical conclusion, and he rejected Hume’s own solution to the skepticism (see Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, B5, B19–20). Hume suggested that our idea of causal necessity is grounded merely in custom or habit, since it is generated by our own imaginations after repeated observations of one sort of event following another sort of event (see Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Section VI; Hegel also rejected Hume’s solution, see EL §39). For Kant, science and knowledge should be grounded in reason, and he proposed a solution that aimed to reestablish the connection between reason and knowledge that was broken by Hume’s skeptical argument. Kant’s solution involved proposing a Copernican revolution in philosophy (Critique of Pure Reason, Bxvi). Nicholas Copernicus was the Polish astronomer who said that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Kant proposed a similar solution to Hume’s skepticism. Naïve science assumes that our knowledge revolves around what the world is like, but, Hume’s criticism argued, this view entails that we cannot then have knowledge of scientific causes through reason. We can reestablish a connection between reason and knowledge, however, Kant suggested, if we say—not that knowledge revolves around what the world is like—but that knowledge revolves around what we are like. For the purposes of our knowledge, Kant said, we do not revolve around the world—the world revolves around us. Because we are rational creatures, we share a cognitive structure with one another that regularizes our experiences of the world. This intersubjectively shared structure of rationality—and not the world itself—grounds our knowledge.

However, Kant’s solution to Hume’s skepticism led to a skeptical conclusion of its own that Hegel rejected. While the intersubjectively shared structure of our reason might allow us to have knowledge of the world from our perspective, so to speak, we cannot get outside of our mental, rational structures to see what the world might be like in itself. As Kant had to admit, according to his theory, there is still a world in itself or “Thing-in-itself” (Ding an sich) about which we can know nothing (see, e.g., Critique of Pure Reason, Bxxv–xxvi). Hegel rejected Kant’s skeptical conclusion that we can know nothing about the world- or Thing-in-itself, and he intended his own philosophy to be a response to this view (see, e.g., EL §44 and the Remark to §44).

How did Hegel respond to Kant’s skepticism—especially since Hegel accepted Kant’s Copernican revolution, or Kant’s claim that we have knowledge of the world because of what we are like, because of our reason? How, for Hegel, can we get out of our heads to see the world as it is in itself? Hegel’s answer is very close to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s response to Plato. Plato argued that we have knowledge of the world only through the Forms. The Forms are perfectly universal, rational concepts or ideas. Because the world is imperfect, however, Plato exiled the Forms to their own realm. Although things in the world get their definitions by participating in the Forms, those things are, at best, imperfect copies of the universal Forms (see, e.g., Parmenides 131–135a). The Forms are therefore not in this world, but in a separate realm of their own. Aristotle argued, however, that the world is knowable not because things in the world are imperfect copies of the Forms, but because the Forms are in things themselves as the defining essences of those things (see, e.g., De Anima [On the Soul], Book I, Chapter 1 [403a26–403b18]; Metaphysics, Book VII, Chapter 6 [1031b6–1032a5] and Chapter 8 [1033b20–1034a8]).

In a similar way, Hegel’s answer to Kant is that we can get out of our heads to see what the world is like in itself—and hence can have knowledge of the world in itself—because the very same rationality or reason that is in our heads is in the world itself. As Hegel apparently put it in a lecture, the opposition or antithesis between the subjective and objective disappears by saying, as the Ancients did, 

that nous governs the world, or by our own saying that there is reason in the world, by which we mean that reason is the soul of the world, inhabits it, and is immanent in it, as it own, innermost nature, its universal. (EL-GSH Addition 1 to §24) 

Hegel used an example familiar from Aristotle’s work to illustrate this view: 

“to be an animal”, the kind considered as the universal, pertains to the determinate animal and constitutes its determinate essentiality. If we were to deprive a dog of its animality we could not say what it is. (EL-GSH Addition 1 to §24; cf. SL-dG 16–17, SL-M 36-37)

Kant’s mistake, then, was that he regarded reason or rationality as only in our heads, Hegel suggests (EL §§43–44), rather than in both us and the world itself (see also below in this section and section 4). We can use our reason to have knowledge of the world because the very same reason that is in us, is in the world itself as it own defining principle. The rationality or reason in the world makes reality understandable, and that is why we can have knowledge of, or can understand, reality with our rationality. Dialectics—which is Hegel’s account of reason—characterizes not only logic, but also “everything true in general” (EL Remark to §79).

But why does Hegel come to define reason in terms of dialectics, and hence adopt a dialectical method? We can begin to see what drove Hegel to adopt a dialectical method by returning once again to Plato’s philosophy. Plato argued that we can have knowledge of the world only by grasping the Forms, which are perfectly universal, rational concepts or ideas. Because things in the world are so imperfect, however, Plato concluded that the Forms are not in this world, but in a realm of their own. After all, if a human being were perfectly beautiful, for instance, then he or she would never become not-beautiful. But human beings change, get old, and die, and so can be, at best, imperfect copies of the Form of beauty—though they get whatever beauty they have by participating in that Form. Moreover, for Plato, things in the world are such imperfect copies that we cannot gain knowledge of the Forms by studying things in the world, but only through reason, that is, only by using our rationality to access the separate realm of the Forms (as Plato argued in the well-known parable of the cave; Republic, Book 7, 514–516b).

Notice, however, that Plato’s conclusion that the Forms cannot be in this world and so must be exiled to a separate realm rests on two claims. First, it rests on the claim that the world is an imperfect and messy place—a claim that is hard to deny. But it also rests on the assumption that the Forms—the universal, rational concepts or ideas of reason itself—are static and fixed, and so cannot grasp the messiness within the imperfect world. Hegel is able to link reason back to our messy world by changing the definition of reason. Instead of saying that reason consists of static universals, concepts or ideas, Hegel says that the universal concepts or forms are themselves messy. Against Plato, Hegel’s dialectical method allows him to argue that universal concepts can “overgrasp” (from the German verb übergreifen) the messy, dialectical nature of the world because they, themselves, are dialectical. Moreover, because later concepts build on or sublate (cancel, but also preserve) earlier concepts, the later, more universal concepts grasp the dialectical processes of earlier concepts. As a result, higher-level concepts can grasp not only the dialectical nature of earlier concepts or forms, but also the dialectical processes that make the world itself a messy place. The highest definition of the concept of beauty, for instance, would not take beauty to be fixed and static, but would include within it the dialectical nature or finiteness of beauty, the idea that beauty becomes, on its own account, not-beauty. This dialectical understanding of the concept of beauty can then overgrasp the dialectical and finite nature of beauty in the world, and hence the truth that, in the world, beautiful things themselves become not-beautiful, or might be beautiful in one respect and not another. Similarly, the highest determination of the concept of “tree” will include within its definition the dialectical process of development and change from seed to sapling to tree. As Hegel says, dialectics is “the principle of all natural and spiritual life” (SL-M 56; SL-dG 35), or “the moving soul of scientific progression” (EL §81). Dialectics is what drives the development of both reason as well as of things in the world. A dialectical reason can overgrasp a dialectical world.

Two further journeys into the history of philosophy will help to show why Hegel chose dialectics as his method of argument. As we saw, Hegel argues against Kant’s skepticism by suggesting that reason is not only in our heads, but in the world itself. To show that reason is in the world itself, however, Hegel has to show that reason can be what it is without us human beings to help it. He has to show that reason can develop on its own, and does not need us to do the developing for it (at least for those things in the world that are not human-created). As we saw (cf. section 1), central to Hegel’s dialectics is the idea that concepts or forms develop on their own because they “self-sublate”, or sublate (cancel and preserve) themselves, and so pass into subsequent concepts or forms on their own accounts, because of their own, dialectical natures. Thus reason, as it were, drives itself, and hence does not need our heads to develop it. Hegel needs an account of self-driving reason to get beyond Kant’s skepticism.

Ironically, Hegel derives the basic outlines of his account of self-driving reason from Kant. Kant divided human rationality into two faculties: the faculty of the understanding and the faculty of reason. The understanding uses concepts to organize and regularize our experiences of the world. Reason’s job is to coordinate the concepts and categories of the understanding by developing a completely unified, conceptual system, and it does this work, Kant thought, on its own, independently of how those concepts might apply to the world. Reason coordinates the concepts of the understanding by following out necessary chains of syllogisms to produce concepts that achieve higher and higher levels of conceptual unity. Indeed, this process will lead reason to produce its own transcendental ideas, or concepts that go beyond the world of experience. Kant calls this necessary, concept-creating reason “speculative” reason (cf. Critique of Pure Reason, Bxx–xxi, A327/B384). Reason creates its own concepts or ideas—it “speculates”—by generating new and increasingly comprehensive concepts of its own, independently of the understanding. In the end, Kant thought, reason will follow out such chains of syllogisms until it develops completely comprehensive or unconditioned universals—universals that contain all of the conditions or all of the less-comprehensive concepts that help to define them. As we saw (cf.section 1), Hegel’s dialectics adopts Kant’s notion of a self-driving and concept-creating “speculative” reason, as well as Kant’s idea that reason aims toward unconditioned universality or absolute concepts.

Ultimately, Kant thought, reasons’ necessary, self-driving activity will lead it to produce contradictions—what he called the “antinomies”, which consist of a thesis and antithesis. Once reason has generated the unconditioned concept of the whole world, for instance, Kant argued, it can look at the world in two, contradictory ways. In the first antinomy, reason can see the world (1) as the whole totality or as the unconditioned, or (2) as the series of syllogisms that led up to that totality. If reason sees the world as the unconditioned or as a complete whole that is not conditioned by anything else, then it will see the world as having a beginning and end in terms of space and time, and so will conclude (the thesis) that the world has a beginning and end or limit. But if reason sees the world as the series, in which each member of the series is conditioned by the previous member, then the world will appear to be without a beginning and infinite, and reason will conclude (the antithesis) that the world does not have a limit in terms of space and time (cf. Critique of Pure Reason, A417–18/B445–6). Reason thus leads to a contradiction: it holds both that the world has a limit and that it does not have a limit at the same time. Because reason’s own process of self-development will lead it to develop contradictions or to be dialectical in this way, Kant thought that reason must be kept in check by the understanding. Any conclusions that reason draws that do not fall within the purview of the understanding cannot be applied to the world of experience, Kant said, and so cannot be considered genuine knowledge (Critique of Pure Reason, A506/B534).

Hegel adopts Kant’s dialectical conception of reason, but he liberates reason for knowledge from the tyranny of the understanding. Kant was right that reason speculatively generates concepts on its own, and that this speculative process is driven by necessity and leads to concepts of increasing universality or comprehensiveness. Kant was even right to suggest—as he had shown in the discussion of the antinomies—that reason is dialectical, or necessarily produces contradictions on its own. Again, Kant’s mistake was that he fell short of saying that these contradictions are in the world itself. He failed to apply the insights of his discussion of the antinomies to “things in themselves” (SL-M 56; SL-dG 35; see also section 4). Indeed, Kant’s own argument proves that the dialectical nature of reason can be applied to things themselves. The fact that reason develops those contradictions on its own, without our heads to help it, shows that those contradictions are not just in our heads, but are objective, or in the world itself. Kant, however, failed to draw this conclusion, and continued to regard reason’s conclusions as illusions. Still, Kant’s philosophy vindicated the general idea that the contradictions he took to be illusions are both objective—or out there in the world—and necessary. As Hegel puts it, Kant vindicates the general idea of “the objectivity of the illusion and the necessity of the contradictionwhich belongs to the nature of thought determinations” (SL-M 56; cf. SL-dG 35), or to the nature of concepts themselves.

The work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (see entry on Fichte) showed Hegel how dialectics can get beyond Kant—beyond the contradictions that, as Kant had shown, reason (necessarily) develops on its own, beyond the reductio ad absurdum argument (which, as we saw above, holds that a contradiction leads to nothingness), and beyond Kant’s skepticism, or Kant’s claim that reason’s contradictions must be reined in by the understanding and cannot count as knowledge. Fichte argued that the task of discovering the foundation of all human knowledge leads to a contradiction or opposition between the self and the not-self (it is not important, for our purposes, why Fichte held this view). The kind of reasoning that leads to this contradiction, Fichte said, is the analytical or antithetical method of reasoning, which involves drawing out an opposition between elements (in this case, the self and not-self) that are being compared to, or equated with, one another. While the traditional reductio ad absurdum argument would lead us to reject both sides of the contradiction and start from scratch, Fichte argued that the contradiction or opposition between the self and not-self can be resolved. In particular, the contradiction is resolved by positing a third concept—the concept of divisibility—which unites the two sides (The Science of Knowledge, I: 110–11; Fichte 1982: 108–110). The concept of divisibility is produced by a synthetic procedure of reasoning, which involves “discovering in opposites the respect in which they are alike” (The Science of Knowledge, I: 112–13; Fichte 1982: 111). Indeed, Fichte argued, not only is the move to resolve contradictions with synthetic concepts or judgments possible, it is necessary. As he says of the move from the contradiction between self and not-self to the synthetic concept of divisibility, 

there can be no further question as to the possibility of this [synthesis], nor can any ground for it be given; it is absolutely possible, and we are entitled to it without further grounds of any kind. (The Science of Knowledge, I: 114; Fichte 1982: 112)

Since the analytical method leads to oppositions or contradictions, he argued, if we use only analytic judgments, “we not only do not get very far, as Kant says; we do not get anywhere at all” (The Science of Knowledge, I: 113; Fichte 1982: 112). Without the synthetic concepts or judgments, we are left, as the classic reductio ad absurdum argument suggests, with nothing at all. The synthetic concepts or judgments are thus necessary to get beyond contradiction without leaving us with nothing.

Fichte’s account of the synthetic method provides Hegel with the key to moving beyond Kant. Fichte suggested that a synthetic concept that unifies the results of a dialectically-generated contradiction does not completely cancel the contradictory sides, but only limits them. As he said, in general, “[t]o limit something is to abolish its reality, not wholly, but in part only” (The Science of Knowledge, I: 108; Fichte 1982: 108). Instead of concluding, as a reductio ad absurdum requires, that the two sides of a contradiction must be dismissed altogether, the synthetic concept or judgment retroactively justifies the opposing sides by demonstrating their limit, by showing which part of reality they attach to and which they do not (The Science of Knowledge, I: 108–10; Fichte 1982: 108–9), or by determining in what respect and to what degree they are each true. For Hegel, as we saw (cf. section 1), later concepts and forms sublate—both cancel and preserve—earlier concepts and forms in the sense that they include earlier concepts and forms in their own definitions. From the point of view of the later concepts or forms, the earlier ones still have some validity, that is, they have a limited validity or truth defined by the higher-level concept or form.

Dialectically generated contradictions are therefore not a defect to be reigned in by the understanding, as Kant had said, but invitations for reason to “speculate”, that is, for reason to generate precisely the sort of increasingly comprehensive and universal concepts and forms that Kant had said reason aims to develop. Ultimately, Hegel thought, as we saw (cf. section 1), the dialectical process leads to a completely unconditioned concept or form for each subject matter—the Absolute Idea (logic), Absolute Spirit (phenomenology), Absolute Idea of right and law (Philosophy of Right), and so on—which, taken together, form the “circle of circles” (EL §15) that constitutes the whole philosophical system or “Idea” (EL §15) that both overgrasps the world and makes it understandable (for us). 

Note that, while Hegel was clearly influenced by Fichte’s work, he never adopted Fichte’s triadic “thesis—antithesis—synthesis” language in his descriptions of his own philosophy (Mueller 1958: 411–2; Solomon 1983: 23), though he did apparently use it in his lectures to describe Kant’s philosophy (LHP III: 477). Indeed, Hegel criticized formalistic uses of the method of “triplicity [Triplizität]” (PhG-P §50) inspired by Kant—a criticism that could well have been aimed at Fichte. Hegel argued that Kantian-inspired uses of triadic form had been reduced to “a lifeless schema” and “an actual semblance [eigentlichen Scheinen]” (PhG §50; alternative translation) that, like a formula in mathematics, was simply imposed on top of subject matters. Instead, a properly scientific use of Kant’s “triplicity” should flow—as he said his own dialectical method did (see section 1)—out of “the inner life and self-movement” (PhG §51) of the content. 

4. Is Hegel’s dialectical method logical?

Scholars have often questioned whether Hegel’s dialectical method is logical. Some of their skepticism grows out of the role that contradiction plays in his thought and argument. While many of the oppositions embedded in the dialectical development and the definitions of concepts or forms are not contradictions in the strict sense, as we saw (section 2, above), scholars such as Graham Priest have suggested that some of them arguably are (Priest 1989: 391). Hegel even holds, against Kant (cf. section 3 above), that there are contradictions, not only in thought, but also in the world. Motion, for instance, Hegel says, is an “existent contradiction”. As he describes it:

Something moves, not because now it is here and there at another now, but because in one and the same now it is here and not here, because in this here, it is and is not at the same time. (SL-dG 382; cf. SL-M 440) 

Kant’s sorts of antinomies (cf. section 3 above) or contradictions more generally are therefore, as Hegel puts it in one place, “in all objects of all kinds, in all representations, concepts and ideas” (EL-GSH Remark to §48). Hegel thus seems to reject, as he himself explicitly claims (SL-M 439–40; SL-dG 381–82), the law of non-contradiction, which is a fundamental principle of formal logic—the classical, Aristotelian logic (see entries on Aristotle’s Logic andContradiction) that dominated during Hegel’s lifetime as well as the dominant systems of symbolic logic today (cf. Priest 1989: 391; Düsing 2010: 97–103). According to the law of non-contradiction, something cannot be both true and false at the same time or, put another way, “x” and “not-x” cannot both be true at the same time.

Hegel’s apparent rejection of the law of non-contradiction has led some interpreters to regard his dialectics as illogical, even “absurd” (Popper 1940: 420; 1962: 330; 2002: 443). Karl R. Popper, for instance, argued that accepting Hegel’s and other dialecticians’ rejection of the law of non-contradiction as part of both a logical theory and a general theory of the world “would mean a complete breakdown of science” (Popper 1940: 408; 1962: 317; 2002: 426). Since, according to today’s systems of symbolic logic, he suggested, the truth of a contradiction leads logically to any claim (any claim can logically be inferred from two contradictory claims), if we allow contradictory claims to be valid or true together, then we would have no reason to rule out any claim whatsoever (Popper 1940: 408–410; 1962: 317–319; 2002: 426–429).

Popper was notoriously hostile toward Hegel’s work (cf. Popper 2013: 242–289; for a scathing criticism of Popper’s analysis see Kaufmann 1976 [1972]), but, as Priest has noted (Priest 1989: 389–91), even some sympathetic interpreters have been inspired by today’s dominant systems of symbolic logic to hold that the kind of contradiction that is embedded in Hegel’s dialectics cannot be genuine contradiction in the strict sense. While Dieter Wandschneider, for instance, grants that his sympathetic theory of dialectic “is not presented as a faithful interpretation of the Hegelian text” (Wandschneider 2010: 32), he uses the same logical argument that Popper offered in defense of the claim that “dialectical contradiction is not a ‘normal’ contradiction, but one that is actually only an apparent contradiction” (Wandschneider 2010: 37). The suggestion (by the traditional, triadic account of Hegel’s dialectics, cf. section 2, above) that Being and Nothing (or non-being) is a contradiction, for instance, he says, rests on an ambiguity. Being is an undefined content, taken to mean being or presence, while Nothing is an undefined content, taken to mean nothing or absence (section 2, above; cf. Wandschneider 2010: 34–35). Being is Nothing (or non-being) with respect to the property they have as concepts, namely, that they both have an undefined content. But Being is not Nothing (or non-being) with respect to their meaning(Wandschneider 2010: 34–38). The supposed contradiction between them, then, Wandschneider suggests, takes place “in different respects”. It is therefore only an apparent contradiction. “Rightly understood”, he concludes, “there can be no talk of contradiction” (Wandschneider 2010: 38).

Inoue Kazumi also argues that dialectical contradiction in the Hegelian sense does not violate the law of non-contradiction (Inoue 2014: 121–123), and he rejects Popper’s claim that Hegel’s dialectical method is incompatible with good science. A dialectical contradiction, Inoue says, is a contradiction that arises when the same topic is considered from different vantage points, but each vantage point by itself does not violate the law of non-contradiction (Inoue 2014: 120). The understanding leads to contradictions, as Hegel said (cf. section 3 above), because it examines a topic from a fixed point of view; reason embraces contradictions because it examines a topic from multiple points of view (Inoue 2014: 121). The geocentric theory that the sun revolves around the Earth and the heliocentric theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, for instance, Inoue suggests, are both correct from certain points of view. We live our everyday lives from a vantage point in which the sun makes a periodic rotation around the Earth roughly every 24 hours. Astronomers make their observations from a geocentric point of view and then translate those observations into a heliocentric one. From these points of view, the geocentric account is not incorrect. But physics, particularly in its concepts of mass and force, requires the heliocentric account. For science—which takes all these points of view into consideration—both theories are valid: they are dialectically contradictory, though neither theory, by itself, violates the law of non-contradiction (Inoue 2014: 126–127). To insist that the Earth really revolves around the sun is merely an irrational, reductive prejudice, theoretically and practically (Inoue 2014: 126). Dialectical contradictions, Inoue says, are, as Hegel said, constructive: they lead to concepts or points of view that grasp the world from ever wider and more encompassing perspectives, culminating ultimately in the “Absolute” (Inoue 2014: 121; cf. section 1, above). Hegel’s claim that motion violates the law of non-contradiction, Inoue suggests, is an expression of the idea that contradictory claims can be true when motion is described from more than one point of view (Inoue 2014: 123). (For a similar reading of Hegel’s conception of dialectical contradiction, which influenced Inoue’s account [Inoue 2014: 121], see Düsing 2010: 102–103.)

Other interpreters, however, have been inspired by Hegel’s dialectics to develop alternative systems of logic that do not subscribe to the law of non-contradiction. Priest, for instance, has defended Hegel’s rejection of the law of non-contradiction (cf. Priest 1989; 1997 [2006: 4]). The acceptance of some contradictions, he has suggested, does not require the acceptance of allcontradictions (Priest 1989: 392). Popper’s logical argument is also unconvincing. Contradictions lead logically to any claim whatsoever, as Popper said, only if we presuppose that nothing can be both true and false at the same time (i.e. only if we presuppose that the law of non-contradiction is correct), which is just what Hegel denies. Popper’s logical argument thus assumes what it is supposed to prove or begs the question (Priest 1989: 392; 1997 [2006: 5–6]), and so is not convincing. Moreover, consistency (not allowing contradictions), Priest suggests, is actually “a very weak constraint” (Priest 1997 [2006: 104]) on what counts as a rational inference. Other principles or criteria—such as being strongly disproved (or supported) by the data—are more important for determining whether a claim or inference is rational (Priest 1997 [2006: 105]). And, as Hegel pointed out, Priest says, the data—namely, “the world as it appears” (as Hegel puts it in EL) or “ordinary experience itself” (as Hegel puts it in SL)—suggest that there are indeed contradictions (EL Remark to §48; SL-dG 382; cf. SL-M 440; Priest 1989: 389, 399–400). Hegel is right, for instance, Priest argues, that change, and motion in particular, are examples of real or existing contradictions (Priest 1985; 1989: 396–97; 1997 [2006: 172–181, 213–15]). What distinguishes motion, as a process, from a situation in which something is simply here at one time and then some other place at some other time is the embodiment of contradiction: that, in a process of motion, there is one (span of) time in which something is both here and not here at the same time (in that span of time) (Priest 1985: 340–341; 1997 [2006: 172–175, 213–214]). A system of logic, Priest suggests, is always just a theory about what good reasoning should be like (Priest 1989: 392). A dialectical logic that admits that there are “dialetheia” or true contradictions (Priest 1989: 388), he says, is a broader theory or version of logic than traditional, formal logics that subscribe to the law of non-contradiction. Those traditional logics apply only to topics or domains that are consistent, primarily domains that are “static and changeless” (Priest 1989: 391; cf. 395); dialectical/dialetheic logic handles consistent domains, but also applies to domains in which there are dialetheia. Thus Priest, extending Hegel’s own concept of aufheben (“to sublate”; cf. section 1, above), suggests that traditional “formal logic is perfectly valid in its domain, but dialectical (dialetheic) logic is more general” (Priest 1989: 395). (For an earlier example of a logical system that allows contradiction and was inspired in part by Hegel [and Marx], see Jaśkowski 1999: 36 [1969: 143] [cf. Inoue 2014: 128–129]. For more on dialetheic logic generally, see the entry on Dialetheism.)

Worries that Hegel’s arguments fail to fit his account of dialectics (see section 2, above) have led some interpreters to conclude that his method is arbitrary or that his works have no single dialectical method at all (Findlay 1962: 93; Solomon 1983: 21). These interpreters reject the idea that there is any logical necessity to the moves from stage to stage. “[T]he important point to make here, and again and again”, Robert C. Solomon writes, for instance, 

is that the transition from the first form to the second, or the transition from the first form of the Phenomenology all the way to the last, is not in any way a deductive necessity. The connections are anything but entailments, and the Phenomenology could always take another route and other starting points. (Solomon 1983: 230) 

In a footnote to this passage, Solomon adds “that a formalization of Hegel’s logic, however ingenious, is impossible” (Solomon 1983: 230).

Some scholars have argued that Hegel’s necessity is not intended to be logical necessity. Walter Kaufmann suggested, for instance, that the necessity at work in Hegel’s dialectic is a kind of organic necessity. The moves in the Phenomenology, he said, follow one another “in the way in which, to use a Hegelian image from the preface, bud, blossom and fruit succeed each other” (Kaufmann 1965: 148; 1966: 132). Findlay argued that later stages provide what he called a “higher-order comment” on earlier stages, even if later stages do not follow from earlier ones in a trivial way (Findlay 1966: 367). Solomon suggested that the necessity that Hegel wants is not “‘necessity’ in the modern sense of ‘logical necessity,’” (Solomon 1983: 209), but a kind of progression (Solomon 1983: 207), or a “necessity within a context for some purpose” (Solomon 1983: 209). John Burbidge defines Hegel’s necessity in terms of three senses of the relationship between actuality and possibility, only the last of which is logical necessity (Burbidge 1981: 195–6).

Other scholars have defined the necessity of Hegel’s dialectics in terms of a transcendental argument. A transcendental argument begins with uncontroversial facts of experience and tries to show that other conditions must be present—or are necessary—for those facts to be possible. Jon Stewart argues, for instance, that “Hegel’s dialectic in the Phenomenology is a transcendental account” in this sense, and thus has the necessity of that form of argument (Stewart 2000: 23; cf. Taylor 1975: 97, 226–7; for a critique of this view, see Pinkard 1988: 7, 15).

Some scholars have avoided these debates by interpreting Hegel’s dialectics in a literary way. In his examination of the epistemological theory of the Phenomenology, for instance, Kenneth R. Westphal offers “a literary model” of Hegel’s dialectics based on the story of Sophocles’ playAntigone (Westphal 2003: 14, 16). Ermanno Bencivenga offers an interpretation that combines a narrative approach with a concept of necessity. For him, the necessity of Hegel’s dialectical logic can be captured by the notion of telling a good story—where “good” implies that the story is both creative and correct at the same time (Bencivenga 2000: 43–65).

Debate over whether Hegel’s dialectical logic is logical may also be fueled in part by discomfort with his particular brand of logic. Unlike today’s symbolic logics, Hegel’s logic is not only syntactic, but also semantic (cf. Berto 2007; Maybee 2009: xx–xxv; Margolis 2010: 193–94). Hegel’s interest in semantics appears, for instance, in the very first stages of his logic, where the difference between Being and Nothing is “something merely meant” (EL-GSH Remark to §87; cf. section 2 above). While some of the moves from stage to stage are driven by syntactic necessity, other moves are driven by the meanings of the concepts in play. Indeed, Hegel rejected what he regarded as the overly formalistic logics that dominated the field during his day (EL Remark to §162; SL-M 43–44; SL-dG 24). A logic that deals only with the forms of logical arguments and not the meanings of the concepts used in those argument forms will do no better in terms of preserving truth than the old joke about computer programs suggests: garbage in, garbage out. In those logics, if we (using today’s versions of formal, symbolic logic) plug in something for the P or Q (in the proposition “if P then Q” or “P → Q”, for instance) or for the “F”, “G”, or “x” (in the proposition “if F is x, then G is x” or “Fx → Gx”, for instance) that means something true, then the syntax of formal logics will preserve that truth. But if we plug in something for those terms that is untrue or meaningless (garbage in), then the syntax of formal logic will lead to an untrue or meaningless conclusion (garbage out). Today’s versions of prepositional logic also assume that we know what the meaning of “is” is. Against these sorts of logics, Hegel wanted to develop a logic that not only preserved truth, but also determined how to construct truthful claims in the first place. A logic that defines concepts (semantics) as well as their relationships with one another (syntax) will show, Hegel thought, how concepts can be combined into meaningful forms. Because interpreters are familiar with modern logics focused on syntax, however, they may regard Hegel’s syntactic and semantic logic as not really logical (cf. Maybee 2009: xvii–xxv).

In Hegel’s other works, the moves from stage to stage are often driven, not only by syntax and semantics—that is, by logic (given his account of logic)—but also by considerations that grow out of the relevant subject matter. In the Phenomenology, for instance, the moves are driven by syntax, semantics, and by phenomenological factors. Sometimes a move from one stage to the next is driven by a syntactic need—the need to stop an endless, back-and-forth process, for instance, or to take a new path after all the current options have been exhausted (cf. section 5). Sometimes, a move is driven by the meaning of a concept, such as the concept of a “This” or “Thing”. And sometimes a move is driven by a phenomenological need or necessity—by requirements of consciousness, or by the fact that the Phenomenology is about a consciousnessthat claims to be aware of (or to know) something. The logic of the Phenomenology is thus a phenomeno-logic, or a logic driven by logic—syntax and semantics—and by phenomenological considerations. Still, interpreters such as Quentin Lauer have suggested that, for Hegel, 

phenomeno-logy is a logic of appearing, a logic of implication, like any other logic, even though not of the formal entailment with which logicians and mathematicians are familiar. (Lauer 1976: 3) 

Lauer warns us against dismissing the idea that there is any implication or necessity in Hegel’s method at all (Lauer 1976: 3). (Other scholars who also believe there is a logical necessity to the dialectics of the Phenomenology include Hyppolite 1974: 78–9 and H.S. Harris 1997: xii.)

We should also be careful not to exaggerate the “necessity” of formal, symbolic logics. Even in these logics, there can often be more than one path from some premises to the same conclusion, logical operators can be dealt with in different orders, and different sets of operations can be used to reach the same conclusions. There is therefore often no strict, necessary “entailment” from one step to the next, even though the conclusion might be entailed by the whole series of steps, taken together. As in today’s logics, then, whether Hegel’s dialectics counts as logical depends on the degree to which he shows that we are forced—necessarily—from earlier stages or series of stages to later stages (see also section 5).

5. Syntactic patterns and special terminology in Hegel’s dialectics

Although Hegel’s dialectics is driven by syntax, semantics and considerations specific to the different subject matters (section 4 above), several important syntactic patterns appear repeatedly throughout his works. In many places, the dialectical process is driven by a syntactic necessity that is really a kind of exhaustion: when the current strategy has been exhausted, the process is forced, necessarily, to employ a new strategy. As we saw (section 2), once the strategy of treating Being and Nothing as separate concepts is exhausted, the dialectical process must, necessarily, adopt a different strategy, namely, one that takes the two concepts together. The concept of Becoming captures the first way in which Being and Nothing are taken together. In the stages of Quantum through Number, the concepts of One and Many take turns defining the whole quantity as well as the quantitative bits inside that make it up: first, the One is the whole, while the Many are the bits; then the whole and the bits are all Ones; then the Many is the whole, while the bits are each a One; and finally the whole and the bits are all a Many. We can picture the development like this (cf. Maybee 2009, xviii–xix):4 figures each contains a rounded corner rectangle bisected by a vertical rod. In #1 the rectangle boundary is labeled 'One' and each half is labeled 'Many'; the caption reads:'Quantum: 'one' refers to the outer boundary, 'many' within. #2 has the boundary also labeled 'One' but the halves labeled 'ones'; the caption reads: Number: 'one' on all sides. #3 has the boundary labeled 'Many' and the halves labeled 'Each a one'; the caption reads: Extensive and Intensive Magnitude: 'many' on the outer boundary, 'one' within'. #4 the rounded rectangle is enclosed by a box; the two halves are labeled 'Many (within)' and the space between the rectangle and the box is labeled 'Many (without)'; the caption reads: Degree: 'many' on all sides.

Figure 9

Since One and Many have been exhausted, the next stage, Ratio, must, necessarily, employ a different strategy to grasp the elements in play. Just as Being-for-itself is a concept of universality for Quality and captures the character of a set of something-others in its content (seesection 1), so Ratio (the whole rectangle with rounded corners) is a concept of universality for Quantity and captures the character of a set of quantities in its content (EL §105–6; cf. Maybee 2009, xviii–xix, 95–7). In another version of syntactic necessity driven by exhaustion, the dialectical development will take account of every aspect or layer, so to speak, of a concept or form—as we saw in the stages of Purpose outlined above, for instance (section 2). Once all the aspects or layers of a concept or form have been taken account of and so exhausted, the dialectical development must also, necessarily, employ a different strategy in the next stage to grasp the elements in play.

In a second, common syntactic pattern, the dialectical development leads to an endless, back-and-forth process—a “bad” (EL-BD §94) or “spurious” (EL-GSH §94) infinity—between two concepts or forms. Hegel’s dialectics cannot rest with spurious infinities. So long as the dialectical process is passing endlessly back and forth between two elements, it is never finished, and the concept or form in play cannot be determined. Spurious infinities must therefore be resolved or stopped, and they are always resolved by a higher-level, more universal concept. In some cases, a new, higher-level concept is introduced that stops the spurious infinity by grasping the whole, back-and-forth process. Being-for-itself (cf. section 1), for instance, is introduced as a new, more universal concept that embraces—and hence stops—the whole, back-and-forth process between “something-others”. However, if the back-and-forth process takes place between a concept and its own content—in which case the concept already embraces the content—then that embracing concept is redefined in a new way that grasps the whole, back-and-forth process. The new definition raises the embracing concept to a higher level of universality—as a totality (an “all”) or as a complete and completed concept. Examples from logic include the redefinition of Appearance as the whole World of Appearance (EL §132; cf. SL-M 505–7, SL-dG 443–4), the move in which the endless, back-and-forth process of Real Possibility redefines the Condition as a totality (EL §147; cf. SL-M 547, SL-dG 483), and the move in which a back-and-forth process created by finite Cognition and finite Willing redefines the Subjective Idea as Absolute Idea (EL §§234–5; cf. SL-M 822–3, SL-dG 733–4).

Some of the most famous terms in Hegel’s works—“in itself [an sich]”, “for itself [für sich]” and “in and for itself [an und für sich]”—capture other, common, syntactic patterns. A concept or form is “in itself” when it has a determination that it gets by being defined against its “other” (cf. Being-in-itself, EL §91). A concept or form is “for itself” when it is defined only in relation to its own content, so that, while it is technically defined in relation to an “other”, the “other” is not really an “other” for it. As a result, it is really defined only in relation to itself. Unlike an “in itself” concept or form, then, a “for itself” concept or form seems to have its definition on its own, or does not need a genuine “other” to be defined (like other concepts or forms, however, “for itself” concepts or forms turn out to be dialectical too, and hence push on to new concepts or forms). In the logic, Being-for-itself (cf. section 1), which is defined by embracing the “something others” in its content, is the first, “for itself” concept or form.

A concept or form is “in and for itself” when it is doubly “for itself”, or “for itself” not only in terms of content—insofar as it embraces its content—but also in terms of form or presentation, insofar as it also has the activity of presenting its content. It is “for itself” (embraces its content) for itself (through its own activity), or not only embraces its content (the “for itself” of content) but also presents its content through its own activity (the “for itself” of form). The second “for itself” of form provides the concept with a logical activity (i.e., presenting its content) and hence a definition that goes beyond—and so is separate from—the definition that its content has. Since it has a definition of its own that is separate from the definition of its content, it comes to be defined—in the “in itself” sense—against its content, which has become its “other”. Because this “other” is still its own content, however, the concept or form is both “in itself” but also still “for itself” at the same time, or is “in and for itself” (EL §§148–9; cf. Maybee 2009: 244–6). The “in and for itself” relationship is the hallmark of a genuine Concept (EL §160), and captures the idea that a genuine concept is defined not only from the bottom up by its content, but also from the top down through its own activity of presenting its content. The genuine concept of animal, for instance, is not only defined by embracing its content (namely, all animals) from the bottom up, but also has a definition of its own, separate from that content, that leads it to determine (and so present), from the top down, what counts as an animal.

Other technical, syntactic terms include aufheben (“to sublate”), which we already saw (section 1), and “abstract”. To say that a concept or form is “abstract” is to say that it is only a partial definition. Hegel describes the moment of understanding, for instance, as abstract (EL §§79, 80) because it is a one-sided or restricted definition or determination (section 1). Conversely, a concept or form is “concrete” in the most basic sense when it has a content or definition that it gets from being built out of other concepts or forms. As we saw (section 2), Hegel regarded Becoming as the first concrete concept in the logic.

Although Hegel’s writing and his use of technical terms can make his philosophy notoriously difficult, his work can also be very rewarding. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the difficulty, there are a surprising number of fresh ideas in his work that have not yet been fully explored in philosophy. 

English Translations of Key Texts by Hegel
  • [EL], The Encyclopedia Logic [Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften I]. Because the translations of EL listed below use the same section numbers as well as sub-paragraphs (“Remarks”) and sub-sub-paragraphs (“Additions”), citations simply to “EL” refer to either translation. If the phrasing in English is unique to a specific translation, the translators’ initials are added.
  • [EL-BD], Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline Part I: Science of Logic [Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften I], translated by Klaus Brinkmann and Daniel O. Dahlstrom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • [EL-GSH], The Encyclopedia Logic: Part 1 of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences [Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften I], translated by T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991.
  • [LHP], Lectures on the History of Philosophy [Geschichte der Philosophie], in three volumes, translated by E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1974.
  • [PhG], Phenomenology of Spirit [Phänomenologie des Geistes]. Because the translations of PhG listed below use the same section numbers, citations simply to “PhG” refer to either translation. If the phrasing in English is unique to a specific translation, the translator’s initial is added.
  • [PhG-M], Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit [Phänomenologie des Geistes], translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • [PhG-P], Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit [Phänomenologie des Geistes], translated and edited by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • [PR], Elements of the Philosophy of Right [Philosophie des Rechts], edited by Allen W. Wood and translated by H.B. Nisbet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • [SL-dG], Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Science of Logic [Wissenschaft der Logik], translated by George di Giovanni, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • [SL-M], Hegel’s Science of Logic [Wissenschaft der Logik], translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
English Translations of Other Primary Sources
  • Aristotle, 1954, The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation (in two volumes), edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Citations to Aristotle’s text use the Bekker numbers, which appear in the margins of many translations of Aristotle’s works.)
  • Fichte, J.G., 1982 [1794/95], The Science of Knowledge, translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Citations to Fichte’s work include references to the volume and page number in the German edition of Fichte’s collected works edited by I.H Fichte, which are used in the margins of many translations of Fichte’s works.)
  • Kant, Immanuel, 1999 [1781], Critique of Pure Reason, translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Citations to Kant’s text use the “Ak.” numbers, which appear in the margins of many translations of Kant’s works.)
  • Plato, 1961, The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Citations to Plato’s text use the Stephanus numbers, which appear in the margins of many translations of Plato’s works.)
Secondary Literature
  • Bencivenga, Ermanno, 2000, Hegel’s Dialectical Logic, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Berto, Francesco, 2007, “Hegel’s Dialectics as a Semantic Theory: An Analytic Reading”, European Journal of Philosophy, 15(1): 19–39.
  • Burbidge, John, 1981, On Hegel’s Logic: Fragments of a Commentary, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
  • Düsing, Klaus, 2010, “Ontology and Dialectic in Hegel’s Thought”, translated by Andrés Colapinto, in The Dimensions of Hegel’s Dialectic, Nectarios G. Limmnatis (ed.), London: Continuum, pp. 97–122.
  • Findlay, J.N., 1962, Hegel: A Re-Examination, New York: Collier Books.
  • –––, 1966, Review of Hegel: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary, by Walter Kaufmann.The Philosophical Quarterly, 16(65): 366–68.
  • Forster, Michael, 1993, “Hegel’s Dialectical Method”, in The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, Frederick C. Beiser (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 130–170.
  • Fritzman, J.M., 2014, Hegel, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Harris, Errol E., 1983, An Interpretation of the Logic of Hegel, Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Harris, H.S. (Henry Silton), 1997, Hegel’s Ladder (in two volumes: vol. I, The Pilgrimage of Reason, and vol. II, The Odyssey of Spirit), Indianapolis, IN: Hackett).
  • Hyppolite, Jean, 1974, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  • Inoue, Kazumi, 2014, “Dialectical Contradictions and Classical Formal Logic”, International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 28(2), 113–132.
  • Jaśkowski, Stanislaw, 1999 [1969], “A Propositional Calculus for Inconsistent Deductive Systems”, translated by Olgierd Wojtasiewicz and A. Pietruszczak, Logic and Logical Philosophy (7)7: 35–56. (This article is a republication, with some changes, of a 1969 translation by Wojtasiewicz entitled “Propositional Calculus for Contradictory Deductive Systems (Communicated at the Meeting of March 19, 1948)”, published in Studia Logica, 24, 143–160.)
  • Kaufmann, Walter Arnold, 1965, Hegel: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary, Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company Inc.
  • –––, 1966, A Reinterpretation, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. (This is a republication of the first part of Hegel: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary.)
  • –––, 1976 [1972], “The Hegel Myth and its Method”, in Hegel: A Collection of Critical Essays, Alasdair MacIntyre (ed.), Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press: 21–60. (This is a republication of the 1972 Anchor Books/Doubleday edition.)
  • Kosok, Michael, 1972, “The Formalization of Hegel’s Dialectical Logic: Its Formal Structure, Logical Interpretation and Intuitive Foundation”, in Hegel: A Collection of Critical Essays, Alisdair MacIntyre (ed.), Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press: 237–87.
  • Lauer, Quentin, 1976, A Reading of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”, New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Margolis, Joseph, 2010, “The Greening of Hegel’s Dialectical Logic”, in The Dimensions of Hegel’s Dialectic, Nectarios G. Limmnatis (ed.), London: Continuum, pp. 193–215.
  • Maybee, Julie E., 2009, Picturing Hegel: An Illustrated Guide to Hegel’s “Encyclopaedia Logic”, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  • McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis, 1964 [1910], A Commentary of Hegel’s Logic, New York: Russell and Russell Inc. (This edition is a reissue of McTaggart’s book, which was first published in 1910.)
  • Mueller, Gustav, 1958, “The Hegel Legend of ‘Synthesis-Antithesis-Thesis’”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 19(3): 411–14.
  • Mure, G.R.G., 1950, A Study of Hegel’s Logic, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pinkard, Terry, 1988, Hegel’s Dialectic: The Explanation of a Possibility, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Priest, Graham, 1985, “Inconsistencies in Motion”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 22(4): 339–346.
  • –––, 1989, “Dialectic and Dialetheic”, Science and Society, 53(4): 388–415.
  • –––, 1997 [2006], In Contradiction: A Study of the Transconsistent, expanded edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press; first edition, Martinus Nijhoff, 1997.
  • Popper, Karl R., 1940, “What is Dialectic?”, Mind, 49(196): 403–426. (This article was reprinted, with some changes, in two different editions of Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, listed below.)
  • –––, 1962, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, New York: Basic Books.
  • –––, 2002, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, second edition, London: Routledge Classics.
  • –––, 2013, The Open Society and its Enemies, Princeton: Princeton University Press. (This is a one-volume republication of the original, two-volume edition first published by Princeton University Press in 1945.)
  • Rosen, Michael, 1982, Hegel’s Dialectic and its Criticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rosen, Stanley, 2014, The Idea of Hegel’s “Science of Logic”, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Singer, Peter, 1983, Hegel, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Solomon, Robert C., 1983, In the Spirit of Hegel: A Study of G.W.F. Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Stace, W.T., 1955 [1924], The Philosophy of Hegel: A Systematic Exposition, New York: Dover Publications. (This edition is a reprint of the first edition, published in 1924.)
  • Stewart, Jon, 1996, “Hegel’s Doctrine of Determinate Negation: An Example from ‘Sense-certainty’ and ‘Perception’”, Idealistic Studies, 26(1): 57–78.
  • –––, 2000, The Unity of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”: A Systematic Interpretation, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  • Taylor, Charles, 1975, Hegel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wandschneider, Dieter, 2010, “Dialectic as the ‘Self-Fulfillment’ of Logic”, translated by Anthony Jensen, in The Dimensions of Hegel’s Dialectic, Nectarios G. Limmnatis (ed.), London: Continuum, pp. 31–54.
  • Westphal, Kenneth R., 2003, Hegel’s Epistemology: A Philosophical Introduction to the “Phenomenology of Spirit”, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
  • Winfield, Richard Dien, 1990, “The Method of Hegel’s Science of Logic”, in Essays on Hegel’s Logic, George di Giovanni (ed.), Albany, NY: State University of New York, pp. 45–57.

My Related Posts

Networks, Narratives, and Interaction

Phenomenology and Symbolic Interactionism

Narrative, Rhetoric and Possible Worlds

Kenneth Burke and Dramatism

Erving Goffman: Dramaturgy of Social Life

Phenomenological Sociology

Drama Therapy: Self in Performance

Drama Theory: Choices, Conflicts and Dilemmas

Drama Theory: Acting Strategically

Global Trends, Scenarios, and Futures: For Foresight and Strategic Management

Shell Oil’s Scenarios: Strategic Foresight and Scenario Planning for the Future

Strategy | Strategic Management | Strategic Planning | Strategic Thinking

Third and Higher Order Cybernetics

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann

Key Sources of Research


Hegel’s Dialectic

A Study of Hegelian Dialectical Embodiment in “Nostromo” written by Joseph Conrad

Asieh Beiranvand , Shahram Afrougheh , Elham Ahmadi

“Organizational Research Methods: Storytelling In Action”

Boje, David M. (2018)

URL = <;

Using Dialectical Thinking to Manage Emotions



Ian Gonsher

Dialectics for the New Century

Edited by
Bertell Ollman and Tony Smith

Strategies in Dialectic and Rhetoric

Erik C W Krabbe Groningen University

on ‘The Dialectics of Outside and Inside’ and ‘Intimate Immensity’

The Dialectic of the Nature-Society-System

  • Christian Fuchs
  • ICT&S Center – Advanced Studies and Research in Information and Communication Technologies & Society, University of Salzburg


Dialectics and Systems Theory 

Richard Levins

Chapter 3 in Book Dialectics for the New Century

Edited by Bertell Ollman and Tony Smith

Contradictions, Dialectics and Paradoxes

  • January 2016
  • Publisher: Sage
  • Editors: Ann Langley, Haridimos Tsoukas

Moshe Farjoun

Strategy and dialectics: Rejuvenating a long-standing relationship

Moshe Farjoun

York University, Canada

Strategic Organization 2019, Vol. 17(1) 133–144

Contradictions, Dialectics, and Paradoxes in Organizations: A Constitutive Approach

Linda L. Putnam, Gail T. Fairhurst and Scott Banghart

Published Online:1 Jan 2016

The Development of Dialectical Thinking As An Approach to Integration

  • June 2005

Michael Basseches

  • Suffolk University


Kaiping Peng
University of California at Berkeley

Richard E. Nisbett University of Michigan

Relating dialogue and dialectics: a philosophical perspective

Manolis Dafermos

University of Crete, Greece

Dialogic Pedagogy: An International Online Journal |

DOI: 10.5195/dpj.2018.189 | Vol. 6 (2018)

Towards a Social-Relational Dialectic for World Politics

Brincat, Shannon


European Journal of International Relations;jsessionid=F573AC5F1A7F3EBB5E6A5F325C8886C5?sequence=1

How to Actualize the Whole Possibility: The Necessity-Contingency Dialectic in Hegel’s Science of Logic

by Nahum Brown

Guelph, Ontario, Canada © Nahum Brown, 2014

John Rowan: Dialectical Thinking

The current state of scenario development: an overview of techniques

Peter Bishop, Andy Hines and Terry Collins

foresight. VOL. 9 NO. 1 2007

Ensemble Theory: Arguing Across and Within Scenarios

Peter McBurney

Department of Computer Science University of Liverpool Liverpool L69 7ZF UK Tel: + 44 151 794 6760

Simon Parsons
Sloan School of Management Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge MA USA

In Conference Probing the Future: Developing Organizational Foresight in the Knowledge Economy

11-13th July 2002

The art of disputation: dialogue, dialectic and debate around 800

Irene van Renswoude

First published: 06 January 2017

Dialogic and Dialectic: clarifying an important distinction


Rupert Wegerif

Shaping the Next One Hundred Years

New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis

Robert J. Lempert Steven W. Popper Steven C. Bankes

Published 2003 by RAND
1700 Main Street, P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, CA 90407-2138

1200 South Hayes Street, Arlington, VA 22202-5050
201 North Craig Street, Suite 202, Pittsburgh, PA 15213-1516



Revised version of an article published as “Dialectic: East and West,” Indian Philosophical Quarterly 10 (January, 1983), pp. 207-218.


Yu Wu1, Patrick C. Shih1, John M. Carroll1

College of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State University

Political Event and Scenario Analysis Using GDSS: An Application to the Business Future of Hong Kong

Robert Blanning

Vanderbilt University

Bruce Reinig

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Rhetoric and dialectic in the twenty-first century 

Michael Leff

(1999). OSSA Conference Archive. 3.

Dialogical and Dialectical Thinking

Culture, Dialectics, and Reasoning About Contradiction

Kaiping Peng

Richard E. Nisbett

September 1999 • American Psychologist

structural dialectical approach in psychology: problems and research results

Nikolay E. Veraksa*, Anastasiya K. Belolutskaya**,
Irina I. Vorobyeva*, Eugene E. Krasheninnikov*,
Elena V. Rachkova***, Igor B. Shiyan**, Olga A. Shiyan

Psychology in Russia: State of the Art
Russian Psychological Volume 6, Issue 2, 2013

Click to access veraksa_pr_2013_2_65-77.Pdf

Integrating Dialectical and Paradox Perspectives on Managing Contradictions in Organizations

Timothy J Hargrave

Central Washington University, USA

Andrew H Van de Ven

University of Minnesota, USA

Organization Studies 2017, Vol. 38(3-4) 319–339


Stewart Clegg

Grasping the dynamics within paradox
– comparing exogenous and endogenous approaches to paradox using social systems theory

Harald Tuckermann, Simone Gutzan, Camille Leutenegger, Johannes Rüegg-Stürm, Institute of Systemic Management and Public Governance, University of St. Gallen, Dufourstrasse 40a, 9008 St. Gallen, Switzerland, Email:

Phenomenological Sociology

Phenomenological Sociology

Key Terms

  • Interaction
  • Networks
  • Culture
  • Acts of Meaning
  • Grammar of Motives
  • Intention
  • Context
  • Frames
  • Meaning
  • Symantic
  • Symbolic
  • Self, Mind, Society
  • Self, Culture, Nature
  • Contextually dependent form of Meaning
  • Pragmatic
  • Phenomenological Sociology (Alfred Schutz)
  • Cultural Sociology
  • Phenomenology
  • Sociology
  • Mind
  • Phenomenological Hermenutics
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Transcendental Phenomenology (Edmund Husserl)
  • Transcendental Subjectivity
  • Interpretive Sociology (Max Weber)
  • Mundane Phenomenology ( Alfred Schutz)
  • Life World
  • Embeddedness in Society
  • Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
  • Ethnomethodology introduced by Harold Garfinkel in the early 1960s
  • Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger
  • The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932/1972), Collected Papers I-III (1962-1966), and The Structures of the Life-World, co-authored by Thomas Luckmann and published in 1973 (Alfred Schutz)
  • George Psathas

Source: Phenomenological Sociology – The Subjectivity of Everyday Life

The Phenomenological Sociology of Everyday Life

Among the key figures in phenomenological sociology are Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), author of the works The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932/1972), Collected Papers I-III (1962-1966), and The Structures of the Life-World, co-authored by Thomas Luckmann and published in 1973; Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, authors of the book The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966/1991); and finally Harold Garfinkel, whose most important publication in this context is Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967). These will be dealt with below.

Alfred Schutz

Alfred Schutz is often referred to as the founder of phenomenological sociology. Schutz originally studied law and obtained his PhD from Vienna in 1921. Subsequently, he worked in a bank, however, and it was not until 1943, after his emigration to the USA, that Schutz obtained a part-time position at a university, namely New School for Social Research in New York. In 1952 he became professor at the same institution.

Schutz was initially inspired by Max Weber’s interpretive sociology. However, although Weber regarded meaningful action as the central topic of the social sciences, and although he emphasized the importance of an explicit thematization of the meaning that the individual actor attributes to her own action, he did not examine the constitution of social meaning as such, and was generally uninterested in fundamental questions in epistemology and the theory of meaning. It is precisely this gap that Schutz attempts to fill by combining Weber’s sociology with Husserl’s phenomenological methodology (Schutz 1932/1972:13).

Schutz claims that we experience the world as containing various relatively distinct and independent provinces of meaning (Schutz 1962:230). Dreams, for example, have their own unique temporal and spatial ‘logic’. The same goes for children’s play, stage performances, religious experience, and so on. According to Schutz, science and research, too, take place within a distinct province of meaning. One region has a special status, however, and that is the life-world. This is not only because it is the region in which we spend most of our lives. Equally important is the fact that each of the other regions, or limited ‘realities’, is a modification of the life-world. The ‘realities’ of science and of dreams, for example, are regions that one enters by ‘bracketing’ or ‘switching off’ in some way the quotidian life-world; and to that extent they both fundamentally presuppose the reality of the life-world (Schutz 1962:231-233; see Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:39-40). Following Husserl, Schutz employs the term epoché for such ‘switching off’. When we dream, for example, we perform an epoché on the rules that in everyday reality govern the identities of persons and places. Most of us are thus familiar with dreams in which an event that takes place in one country switches to another location, without this being perceived as particularly odd within the universe of the dream.

Since it is the life-world rather than the mathematicized world of science that constitutes the frame and stage of social relations and actions, the sociologist, Schutz argues, should take her point of departure in the former. What is needed is a systematic examination of everyday life, and this requires a new type of sociological theory. Schutz’s concrete contribution here is twofold. First, he aims to describe and analyze the essential structures of the life-world. Second, he offers an account of the way in which subjectivity is involved in the construction of social meaning, social actions and situations – indeed social ‘worlds’. Relying on Husserl’s analyses of intentionality and the life-world, Schutz accordingly claims that the social world reveals and manifests itself in various intentional experiences. Its meaningfulness is constituted by subjects, and in order to understand and scientifically address the social world it is therefore necessary to examine the social agents for whom it exists as such.

It is partly for this reason that Schutz claims that the subject matter of the social sciences is more complex than that of the natural sciences. As he puts it, the social sciences must employ ‘constructs of the second degree’ (Schutz 1962:6), because the ‘objects’ of these sciences – social agents – themselves employ ‘first-order constructs’ of the reality around them. Of course, the social sciences must satisfy the same sorts of requirements as other empirical sciences: scientific results must be controllable and reproducible by other scientists working in the field, and scientific theories must be precise, consistent, and so on (Schutz 1962:49-52). Schutz also stresses that social scientists and natural scientists alike are motivated by other, more theoretical interests than the everyday person is guided by. The everyday person is an agent rather than a theoretical observer; she has practical interests and is normally guided by common-sense knowledge and understanding. The social scientist, by contrast, is not an agent in the social relations she studies. A scientific researcher, regardless of whether she studies social hierarchies in Scottish factories or electrons and amino acids, is an observer, not a participant. Schutz thus insists that the social scientist must maintain a distance to the phenomena she studies. However, the social sciences examine human beings in manifold social relations, and human agents have interests, motives, self-interpretation and an understanding of the world they live in – all of which must be taken into account if we want to understand social reality in its full concretion (Schutz 1962:6; Gurwitsch 1974:129). This radically distinguishes social science from natural science: the latter obviously has no need to take into account the self-understanding and self-interpretation of the objects studied (electrons and amino acids have no self-understanding). Schutz thus emphatically rejects reductionist programs, such as behaviourism and positivism, which attempt to reduce human action to observable behaviour and stimulus-response mechanisms. The social scientist must construct credible models of everyday agents – models that include such things as consciousness, motives and understanding. The task is to make explicit the meaning and significance these structures and relations have for the observed agents themselves (see Schutz 1964:7).

For Schutz, the investigation of intersubjectivity – in particular, of how one subject has experiential access to another subject, and how a community of ‘we’ is constituted – has a central place in sociological theory (see Schutz 1932/1972:97-99). A further task is to give an account of how a multitude of experiences can constitute the structures of meaning that make up social reality. As Schutz writes, every science of social meaning refers back to our meaning-constituting life in the social world: to our everyday experience of other persons, to our understanding of pre-given meanings, and to our initiation of new meaningful behaviour (Schutz 1932/1972:9). Schutz’s phenomenological perspective thus emphasizes that the primary object of sociology is not institutions, market conjunctures, social classes or structures of power, but human beings, that is, acting and experiencing individuals, considered in their myriad relations to others, but also with an eye to their own, meaning-constituting subjective lives. Schutz’s point, of course, is not that sociology should have no interest whatsoever in institutions, power structures, and the like. Rather, he merely insists that a concept such as ‘power structure’ must be regarded as a sort of ‘intellectual shorthand’, which can be useful for certain purposes, but must never lead us to forget that, in the end, power structures presuppose experiencing, interpreting and acting individuals (Schutz 1962:34-35; 1964:6-7). Along with Husserl and other phenomenologists, Schutz thus understands sociality as inter- subjectivity – that is, as something that is ultimately anchored in individual subjects.

According to Schutz, each of us experiences his or her social environment as structured in ‘strata’ or ‘layers’ around himself or herself. Temporally as well as spatially, these layers are, for each individual, structured with that individual as the centre. With regard to the temporal structure, Schutz distinguishes between three layers or spheres:

In the dimension of time there are with reference to me in my actual biographical moment ‘contemporaries’, with whom a mutual interplay of action and reaction can be established; ‘predecessors’, upon whom I cannot act, but whose past actions and their outcome are open to my interpretation and may influence my own actions; and ‘successors’, of whom no experience is possible but toward whom I may orient my actions in a more or less empty anticipation. All these relations show the most manifold forms of intimacy and anonymity, of familiarity and strangeness, of intensity and extensity (Schutz 1962:15-16; see Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:46-49).

With regard to my contemporaries, there are various layers of ‘spatial’ proximity and distance, familiarity and strangeness. Some people are part of my immediate environment. Schutz says that I have a ‘face-to-face’ relationship with those people, but this expression is intended to refer to ‘a purely formal aspect of social relationship equally applicable to an intimate talk between friends and the co-presence of strangers in a railroad car’ (Schutz 1962:16; see Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:43-46). Obviously, even in the course of a whole lifetime, I have this sort of spatial proximity with only a very small percentage of the population of the world. This does not mean, however, that the rest of humanity is not part of my environing world at all. There is some mutual contact and influence, however vague, indirect and insignificant, between most of my contemporaries and me.

According to Schutz, the experience of the life-world is a process of typification. We employ a repertoire of maxims and recipes – a type of practical ‘know-how’ – for understanding and dealing with the world and other people. Objects in the life-world are not simply unique, individual entities, but ‘mountains’, ‘trees’, ‘houses’, ‘animals’, and ‘persons’. No matter what we encounter, it is something whose more or less general ‘type’ we are familiar with. A person who has only very limited knowledge of trees can perhaps not tell whether the tree she passes in the woods is an elm or a beech, but she sees it immediately as ‘a tree’. In other words, we have a kind of immediate knowledge about how to understand our environment. The primary source of this knowledge is previous experience – both experiences we have had ourselves, and experience transmitted to us by others.

Obviously, typifications also play an important role in our social life. We immediately experience others in a typified manner. Not only people with whom we are personally acquainted or bump into on the train, or with whom we communicate via the internet, but also people with whom we never have any direct contact; indeed, we even typify in various ways our predecessors and possible successors. In fact, we do not only experience objects and living creatures as typified, but also actions, situations, motives, personalities, and so forth. Schutz writes:

Putting a letter in the mailbox, I expect that unknown people, called postmen, will act in a typical way, not quite intelligible to me, with the result that my letter will reach the addressee within typically reasonable time. Without ever having met a Frenchman or a German, I understand ‘Why France fears the rearmament of Germany’. Complying with a rule of English grammar, I follow a socially approved behaviour pattern of contemporary English-speaking fellow-men to which I have to adjust my own behaviour in order to make myself understandable. And, finally, any artefact or utensil refers to the anonymous fellow-man who produced it to be used by other anonymous fellow-men for attaining typical goals by typical means (Schutz 1962:17; see Schutz 1932/1972:185).

An action such as putting a letter in the mailbox involves a typification of other people and their motives in time and space. I implicitly assume that certain typical other people have certain typical motives (for example, that they want to do their job well) and therefore will perform certain typical actions in such a way that my letter will arrive at its destination. According to Schutz, another element in this pattern of typification is an assumption that others have ‘systems of relevancies’ that are similar to my own (Schutz 1962:12); in other words, that others will by and large consider those things important that I myself regard as important. Of course, Schutz does not claim that we implicitly assume that others’ interests, projects and tastes are exactly like our own. Rather, he is trying to direct attention to something much more fundamental. If I send a letter to China, for example, I assume that Chinese postal workers will consider the address written on the envelope more important than, say, the size or colour of the envelope, when determining to which part of China the letter should be sent. According to Schutz, this idea about the ‘congruence of the systems of relevancies’ is part of a larger complex of implicit assumptions, which he calls the thesis of ‘the reciprocity of perspectives’ (Schutz 1962:11, 147). We do not merely assume that our systems of relevancies are in tune, but also that we should view things in the same way if we could view them from other people’s perspectives. This point applies not only to spatial perspectives, but also to culturally, historically and biographically conditioned ‘perspectives’.

As an agent in the life-world, however, I not only typify others. For example, my very imperfect understanding of the motives and actions of postal workers will lead me to typify some of my own actions when posting a letter. I try to write in such a way that a typical postal worker will be able to decipher my handwriting; I write the address in a typical place on the envelope, etc. Briefly put, I try to make myself the typical ‘sender of a letter’ (see Schutz 1962:25-26).

In connection with his analyses of the typifying assumptions that are implicit in any life- worldly action, Schutz also offers a close analysis of the motives for actions. He argues that we need to distinguish between two types of motives: ‘in-order-to’ motives and ‘because’ motives. An agent’s in-order-to motive is what she wants to achieve with the action – her aim or purpose. From the perspective of the agent, the in-order-to motive is thus directed at the future, that is, at the state of affairs that the action is supposed to realize. The because motive, in contrast, has to do with the agent’s past and the circumstances that made her seriously consider the course of action she adopts. Schutz’s favourite example involves a person who commits murder in order to obtain the victim’s money. The in-order-to motive is straightforward: the purpose is to obtain money. The because motive is rather more complex, in that it includes all the factors that contributed to putting the agent in a situation where she could project and carry out this action. Her problematic childhood and her drug addiction may, for example, be part of the because motive. In ordinary language, both types of motive can be expressed by ‘because’ utterances, while only in-order-to motives can be expressed by ‘in-order- to’ utterances. It makes sense to say both ‘I hit him because I wanted his money’ and ‘I hit him because I was abused as a child’, but only the former sentence can be turned into an ‘in- order-to’ sentence. ‘I hit him in order to get his money’ makes perfect sense; ‘I hit him in order to have been abused as a child’ does not (Schutz 1962:69-72).

My aims and interests decide how I experience things and people around me. As already suggested, these interests are mainly practical rather than theoretical (Schutz 1962:208). Thus, although I have many levels of typification at my disposal, my interest usually picks out one such level as salient. With regard to some people and objects, I am only interested in certain typical features or aspects, whereas other things may not interest me in their typicality, but only in their uniqueness. My interest in the postal worker usually does not go beyond her typical motives and actions qua postal worker: her blood type and hobbies, for example, are of no interest to me. In fact, it would not matter much if pigeons or robots rather than human beings delivered my letters, as long as something ‘performed’ certain typical actions in such a way that my letters would reach their addressees. If I encounter a large, growling animal in the woods on a dark night, this creature does not strike me as an example of a spatially extended thing, but as a dangerous animal. The book a good friend gave me as a birthday present ten years ago, on the other hand, is not for me a typical ‘book’, nor is it, more specifically, ‘a copy of The Brothers Karamazov’ that could simply be replaced by another, identical copy. Rather, for me this object is unique. The same obviously goes for my friends and family. I do not regard them as ‘mammals’, specimens of homo sapiens or ‘postal workers’, which could in principle be replaced by other specimens of the type (Schutz 1962:8-10).

These ways of understanding my environment are generally so natural and familiar to me that I never pause to reflect on them. As Schutz often puts it, I take them for granted, without questioning their validity, and without subjecting them to scrutiny (Schutz 1962:74). Like Husserl, Schutz calls this unquestioning and uncritical attitude to one’s environment the ‘natural attitude’ (see Husserl 1982:§27). When I am naturally attuned, the entire system of practical knowledge or ‘know-how’, to which my typifications belong, remains in the background, as it were. This is obviously connected with the practical focus of the everyday subject: we have letters to send, groceries to buy, children to take to school, and so on. These activities and the various projects of which they form part guide our interests and priorities. Our practical knowledge, including the various typifications, are tools that we employ immediately and take for granted in order to navigate in the life-world and accomplish our aims.

Our background knowledge, however, is not immune to revision. As long as my typifications help me achieve my aims and objectives, they will remain in force; but if they are repeatedly defeated, I will typically revise them. As Schutz puts it, our background knowledge is taken for granted, but only ‘until further notice’ (Schutz 1962:74; Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:58). If, for example, I repeatedly experience that the addressees do not receive my letters, I will revise some of my assumptions concerning typical postal workers and their typical motives. On the other hand, I can only deal with such a situation by relying on other assumptions and typifications. I may file a complaint with The Royal Mail, for example, thereby tacitly assuming that certain officials will react in certain typical ways (read my complaint, rather than simply ignore it). Alternatively, I may decide that from now on I will use electronic mail only, thereby assuming typical courses of action on the part of my internet service provider, and so on. Thus, even if individual typifications are only taken for granted ‘until further notice’, it would be practically impossible to abandon them unless other typifications and assumptions at the same time remained in operation. Schutz accordingly concludes that it is within the context of a world taken for granted that I can question and doubt individual cases. The life-world itself is the undoubted ‘foundation of any possible doubt’ (Schutz 1962:74).

We perceive, experience and understand in accordance with normal and typical structures, models and patterns, which previous experiences have inscribed in our subjective lives (Schutz 1962:7-10). These structures and models prescribe what we should do in a particular situation, and they give us a sense that we can count on social reality, that it is reliable and can be comprehended, and that others experience it as we do. Obviously, intersubjectivity plays an important role in this. The stock of typical assumptions, expectations and prescriptions, which I make use of with complete naturalness, is for the most part socially derived and socially accepted.

Normality is also conventionality, which essentially transcends the individual person. My relations with others go as far back as I can remember, and my understanding is structured in accordance with the intersubjectively handed-down ways of understanding, which I have acquired through my upbringing and through learning a language (Schutz 1962:13-14; see Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:150-153). The same goes for a wide range of my opinions and actions. As already Husserl pointed out, beside the influences of concrete individual others, there are the more indeterminate, general commands that custom and tradition issue: ‘one’ thinks this about that; ‘one’ holds a fork like this, and so on (Husserl 1989:281-282; Heidegger 1927/1962:149-168). In sum, it is from others that I learn what is normal – in particular those others that are closest to me, those who raise me and those I grow up together with and live with. I am thereby part of a common tradition that, through a chain of generations, stretches back into a distant past.

My background knowledge, implicit assumptions, expectations, and so on, are hence not primarily mine, understood as my own personal and unique constructions. On the contrary, they are social constructions. In connection with this general point, Schutz subjects knowledge to a close analysis. He focuses on three aspects of the socialization of human knowledge: its structural socialization, its genetic socialization and its social distribution (Schutz 1962:11). As for the structural aspect, Schutz emphasizes that the knowledge we have is knowledge that others could have as well, if they had access to the same facts as we have access to. Conversely, I could know what others know, if only I could view things from their perspective, with their background knowledge, etc. This is, of course, connected with the already mentioned point about the ‘reciprocity of perspectives’. Knowledge, however, also has a social genesis, in that, as mentioned, most of our knowledge has been transmitted to us through others (parents, friends and teachers, who were themselves taught by teachers, and so on). Finally, Schutz emphasizes that knowledge is socially distributed. This claim includes the obvious point that most of us know something about certain things, but very little about other things. A person can be an expert in Slavic languages and have no idea what to do if he cannot start his car. Fortunately, others (mechanics) do know how to deal with this sort of thing. And most of us have sufficient knowledge, even outside our fields of expertise, to get by in everyday life. We know how to fill up the tank and check the oil; and besides, we have some rough knowledge of how to find someone who can fill the gaps in our own stock of knowledge (Schutz 1962:14-15).

The Successors of Schutz

With Schutz’s immigration to the U.S.A. shortly before the Second World War, American social scientists were introduced to phenomenological sociology. Nevertheless, it took considerable time for Schutz’s perspective to achieve any real impact on American sociology. There are several reasons for this. First, Schutz only became a full-time professor after more than ten years in the U.S.A. Second, he was attached to the New School for Social Research in New York, which at that time was not regarded as a prestigious institution. Third, Schutz’s publications were not very successful. The English translation of his early book The Phenomenology of the Social World was only published posthumously; while he had begun a similarly comprehensive and systematic account of his ideas after immigrating to America, he was unable to complete it; and his papers were primarily published in philosophical rather than sociological journals. Finally, due primarily to misunderstandings, Schutz fell out with the influential Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons. Despite all of this, Schutz managed, albeit with some delay, to influence the American sociological scene, and it was thus in the U.S.A. that two new phenomenological sociologies were first introduced: the sociology of knowledge and ethnomethodology.

Schutz repeatedly points out that the social distribution of knowledge is a topic that has been insufficiently studied – a topic that would deserve the title ‘sociology of knowledge’ (Schutz 1962:15, 149; 1964:121). Originally, the sociology of knowledge was a discipline that primarily addressed epistemological issues, such as how true knowledge is acquired, by which methods, etc. Its focus was on theoretical ideas and the knowledge of the ‘elite’ – i.e., the established sciences, the cultural elite, and so on. Schutz, however, emphasizes that also the mechanic and the supermarket check-out assistant have their ‘knowledge’ and that such knowledge is just as legitimate an object for a genuine sociology of knowledge as is the knowledge of the scientific and cultural elite. Besides, it is not the task of sociology as an empirical science to address general epistemological questions. Rather, in Schutz’s view, sociology should focus on the life-world as it is experienced by everyday subjects (Schutz 1962:144-145).

These ideas were taken up by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. This influential book attempts to combine Schutz’s phenomenological outlook with the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead. But Berger and Luckmann also draw upon German anthropology and figures such as Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen, as well as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. Berger and Luckmann were born in Austria and Slovenia, respectively, but both immigrated to the United States, and studied with Schutz at the New School for Social Research.

Berger and Luckmann seek to apply the theoretical perspective of phenomenology to crucial notions such as identity, socialization, social roles, language, normality/abnormality, and so on. They claim that it is the task of the sociology of knowledge to analyze the societal conditions for the formation and maintenance of various types of knowledge, scientific as well as quotidian. Berger and Luckmann thus widen the focus of the sociology of knowledge beyond the question of the social distribution of knowledge that Schutz had singled out as the central problem (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:28). But they share Schutz’s basic intuitions. The sociology of knowledge is, briefly put, interested in how knowledge is produced, distributed, and internalized; it examines how the validity of any form of knowledge (that of the Tibetan monk no less than that of the American businesswoman or the criminologist) becomes socially established (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:15). But as they also stress, the sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people ‘know’ as ‘reality’ in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives. In other words, common-sense ‘knowledge’ rather than ‘ideas’ must be the central focus for the sociology of knowledge. It is precisely this ‘knowledge’ that constitutes the fabric of meanings without which no society could exist (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:27).

This project involves a challenge to any objectivist and positivist social theory. Berger and Luckmann reject any attempt to view social reality as an objective entity, as a non-human or supra-human thing (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:106). As they write, the social order is a product of human activity; it is neither biologically determined, nor in any other way determined by facts of nature: ‘Social order is not part of the “nature of things”, and it cannot be derived from the “laws of nature”. Social order exists only as a product of human activity’ (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:70). The task of social theory is to provide an account of how human beings, through manifold forms of interaction, create and shape social structures and institutions, which may first have the character of a common, intersubjective reality, but eventually become ‘externalized’ and achieve objective reality. As also Schutz would say, this happens largely through institutionalized typifications (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:85- 96). Through institutionalization, human activity is subjected to social control. The constructed social structures define what is normal, and sanctions are introduced to maintain the social order and avoid digression. With time, institutions come to appear inevitable and objective. Yet:

It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity … The institutional world is objectivated human activity, and so is every single institution … The paradox that man is capable of producing a world that he then experiences as something other than a human product will concern us later on. At the moment, it is important to emphasize that the relationship between man, the producer, and the social world, his product, is and remains a dialectical one. That is, man (not, of course, in isolation but in his collectivities) and his social world interact with each other. The product acts back upon the producer (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:78).

Social reality is thus not only an externalized and objectified human product; it acts back upon human beings. Not only in the sense that we may feel it as an oppressive external force that we cannot resist, but also in the sense that social reality is something individual human beings ‘internalize’. We are not raised outside society, but grow up in it. And as we grow up and mature, we take over from others (and make our own) a language, roles, attitudes and norms (see Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:149-157). Human society, Berger and Luckmann emphasize, must therefore be ‘understood in terms of an ongoing dialectic of the three moments of externalization, objectivation and internalization’ (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:149).

The Social Construction of Reality became very popular in the late 1960s and in the 1970s, and was the book that made Schutz’s ideas accessible to a wider audience. Another brand of American sociology that received crucial impulses from Schutz was the ethnomethodology introduced by Harold Garfinkel in the early 1960s. Garfinkel was influenced by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, but his main inspiration came from Schutz, Aaron Gurwitsch and Talcott Parsons. Unlike Berger and Luckmann, Garfinkel was never a student of Schutz; but Garfinkel’s approach to sociology nevertheless betrays an important Schutzean inspiration. While Schutz remained a social theorist, however, Garfinkel applied phenomenological ideas in carrying out actual empirical research.

Briefly put, the task of ethnomethodology is to examine how social agents structure their social environment in a meaningful way. Like Schutz, the ethnomethodologist seeks to view things from participants’ perspectives and attempts to understand how their life-form can be viewed as a result of their interaction with each other. The point is not to establish whether a given life-form is ‘true’ or ‘false’, but rather to determine how agents have formed the interpretations and opinions that they hold. Ethnomethodology regards social structures (roles, institutions and systems of cultural meaning and value) as products of social interaction, rather than as pre-existing and determining factors. Social reality is thus conceived of as a fragile and vulnerable construction. It is a construction that is actively maintained by the participants.

According to Garfinkel, we are all busy constructing a world in which we feel at home. As also emphasized by Schutz, this happens in part via a process of typification. We make use of various routines and maxims in coping with social reality. These routines and maxims are gradually internalized and thereby recede from our view. In this way, the preconditions for our production of social meaning and order become inaccessible to us. Our understanding can never be made completely explicit and will always involve a horizon of background assumptions. But ethnomethodology has developed special techniques to reveal the practices that people engage in when establishing a social order. One such technique involves creating situations in which our normal background assumptions are undermined and thereby made explicit. In one experiment, Garfinkel thus asked his students to act like guests in their own homes and record the reactions of their family members. These reactions varied from confusion to anger, and thus, according to Garfinkel, illustrated the fragility of the social order: an order that we ourselves help to produce, but which we nevertheless tend to take for granted (Garfinkel 1967:42-43).

A famous empirical study informed by phenomenological ideas is Aaron V. Cicourel’s study of the treatment of juvenile delinquents in two Californian cities. According to Cicourel, the process of classifying a young person as a delinquent crucially involves certain background assumptions on the part of police officers, probation officers, court officials, and others. The police may, for example, have a tendency to pick out likely candidates on the basis of an implicit picture of the ‘typical delinquent’. The picture includes such factors as family background, school performance and ethnicity. By applying such ‘typifications’, police officers and others involved make sense of the cases they are faced with (Cicourel 1976). A similar approach is adopted in J. Maxwell Atkinson’s work on suicide statistics (Atkinson 1978). Atkinson found that coroners often rely on ‘common-sense theories’ about suicide and its causes when determining whether a particular death should be classified as a suicide or an accidental death – theories that to a remarkable extent converge with the typical picture of suicide propagated by news media. For coroners as well as for other agents, Atkinson suggests, such theorizing ‘provid[es] for the social organization of sudden deaths by rendering otherwise disordered and potentially senseless events ordered and sensible’ (Atkinson 1978:173).

Phenomenology and ethnomethodology have often criticized sociologies that attempt to analyze social reality in terms of various pre-defined categories, such as gender, class struggles, and the like. The claim is that such a procedure theorizes about the world instead of describing it. This critique suggests the phenomenological point that sociology must return to ‘the things themselves’, to the ‘phenomena’. Rather than moulding the social world to fit various predefined theoretical categories, we ought to examine how people themselves experience their social reality. For ethnomethodology, the main sociological task is thus to understand how social agents themselves cope with the task of describing and explaining the order of the reality in which they live.

Criticism of Phenomenological Sociology

Let us briefly consider some of the criticisms that phenomenological sociology has been met with. Nick Crossley (1996:95-98) lists a number of allegedly problematic features of Schutz’ work, one of which merits consideration here. According to Crossley, ‘Schutz tends to stick to the sorts of relationship which an individual takes to other individuals or groups at the expense of a consideration of relationships, practices and processes viewed from the trans- individual position of the systems which they form’ (Crossley 1996:98). In other words, Schutz seems to adopt an ‘individualist’ perspective and thereby loses sight of the way ‘the community itself functions as a system, perpetuating itself through space and time’ (Crossley 1996:98).

A phenomenological reply to this criticism consists of two parts. First, one should not think that Schutz’s shortcomings are necessarily the shortcomings of the phenomenological perspective as such. Thus, even if it is correct that Schutz failed to consider the community as a system that perpetuates itself through space and time, this need not be because of his commitment to phenomenology. In fact, Berger and Luckmann, in part two of The Social Construction of Reality, give detailed consideration to how society perpetuates itself as an impersonal, ‘trans-individual’ system.

That said, however, Crossley does have a point. As readers of the present chapter may have noticed, some sort of emphasis on the individual person or subject is found in all the phenomenological thinkers we have considered – from Husserl, through Schutz, to Berger and Luckmann and Garfinkel. The phenomenologists, however, would insist that this is ultimately no ground for criticism. A society cannot be reduced to the sum of its individual members; but on the other hand, the phenomenologists maintain that there is no society without individual subjects. To speak of a ‘social system’ in the absence of a robust notion of individual subjects makes little sense; for in what sense would the system in question be social? What could make it social except the fact that it involves (which is not the same as: ‘can be reduced to’) individual subjects standing in various relations to each other? A community of no one is hardly a community. An impersonal ‘system’ will never yield a society. For that, we need the interpersonal – and without the personal, there is no interpersonal (see Overgaard 2007, esp. chapter 5).

As another general criticism of phenomenology, one might maintain that its strengths could easily become its weaknesses. The phenomenological rehabilitation of the life-world, and the insistence on the importance of the everyday human being and its ‘common-sense’ knowledge, may seem to verge on celebrating the ordinary or mediocre. For example, the idea that common-sense knowledge is as legitimate a sociological theme as is scientific knowledge may seem to imply that these two kinds of knowledge are equally valuable. But, if so, the phenomenological perspective would implicitly legitimize intellectual laziness. Other critics have claimed that phenomenological sociology is conservative, that it implies a defence of the status quo – even when status quo is an unjust social order. Finally, the phenomenological emphasis on subjectivity as active and creative must not lead to blindness regarding the manifold ways in which individuals can be subjected to, and controlled by, institutions or other individuals.

However, phenomenology has largely pre-empted these criticisms. The notion that the phenomenological sociologist must primarily examine the everyday person, and that she must take seriously this person’s ‘knowledge’ and perspective, is fully compatible with maintaining a critical distance. Schutz himself stresses that the sociologist must be an observer of, rather than a participant in, the social phenomena she examines. And he emphasizes the fact that our common-sense knowledge is limited and incomplete. A phenomenologist such as Heidegger couples an examination of the everyday human being and its ‘average’ understanding with a rather critical perspective on this everyday understanding (allegedly superficial and with a tendency to rely on hearsay) (Heidegger 1927/1962:210-219). Indeed, he emphasizes that the everyday subject may be blinded by habit and convention (Heidegger 1927/1962:149-168). Thus, a phenomenological examination of the everyday subject need not glorify or idealize it. Similarly, a descriptive analysis of social reality as it is need not legitimize it. On the contrary, a sober description is an important element in any rational deliberation on what, precisely, ought to be changed about the status quo.

Ultimately, however, the phenomenologists would insist that it is not an option to devaluate entirely – let alone reject – our ordinary everyday knowledge. For even scientists and political revolutionaries must rely on this knowledge in the greater part of their lives. Moreover, in spite of its many imperfections and limitations, this knowledge is usually adequate enough for practical purposes. Nor, as already mentioned, is it an option to ignore completely the individual subject or to insist that it is nothing but a plaything in the hands of society. As individual subjects we are not merely subjected to the social reality in which we live; we also take part in its creation and maintenance. And for that very reason it is possible for us to change it. As Berger and Luckmann write: ‘However objectivated, the social world was made by men – and, therefore, can be remade by them’ (Berger & Luckmann 1966/1991:106).


Let us briefly recapitulate some of the crucial features of phenomenological everyday life sociology. First, all phenomenologists share an insistence on description and a resistance toward theoretical speculation. A second important feature of phenomenological sociology is its emphasis on the need to take everyday life seriously. The ‘naturally attuned’, practically oriented common-sense person and her experienced life-world is the primary object of sociology. Thirdly, phenomenology maintains that an examination of sociality and social reality has to take subjectivity into account. Human subjectivity is not merely moulded and determined by social forces. In interaction with others, subjectivity also shapes social reality.

Phenomenological sociologists have consistently issued warnings against the tendency to substantialize and reify social matters and they have offered a corrective to traditional positivistic research methodologies. Societal reality, including institutions, organizations, ethnic groupings, classes, and so on, must be regarded as a product of human activity. The sociological task is to understand the workings of this productive or constitutive process. No account of everyday social life can be complete if it does not take into account the contribution of individual subjectivities. This is the fundamental message of phenomenological sociology.

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Boundaries and Relational Sociology

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Phenomenology and Symbolic Interactionism

Networks, Narratives, and Interaction

Semiotics, Bio-Semiotics and Cyber Semiotics

Socio-Cybernetics and Constructivist Approaches

Third and Higher Order Cybernetics

Key Sources of Research

Manifesto for a Relational Sociology

Mustafa Emirbayer

New School for Social Research

The Sociology of the Self

Author(s): Peter L. Callero
Source: Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 29 (2003), pp. 115-133

Phenomenology (sociology)


Interpretivism, social constructionism and phenomenology

The Meaning of Meaning in Sociology. The Achievements and Shortcomings of Alfred Schutz’s Phenomenological Sociology


First published: 04 March 2011

Volume41, Issue3 September 2011 Pages 231-246

Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 41:3 0021-8308

Theories of Meaning

Beyond Husserl and Schütz. Hermann Schmitz and Neophenomenological Sociology

Robert Gugutzer

DOI: 10.1111/jtsb.12240

“Meaning” as a sociological concept:
A review of the modeling, mapping, and simulation of the communication of knowledge and meaning

Loet Leydesdorff
Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam Kloveniersburgwal 48, 1012 CX Amsterdam, The Netherlands;;

Click to access meaning.pdf

Chapter 3

Phenomenological Sociology – The Subjectivity of Everyday Life

Søren Overgaard & Dan Zahavi

Beyond Empathy Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity

Dan Zahavi

The Concept of Meaning in Sociology

  • February 2016


Norbert Wiley

What is sociology?

  • August 2014


  • Conference: Induction for sociology beginners
  • At: Lagos, Nigeria

Flourish Itulua-Abumere

Alfred Schutz

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Phenomenological Life-World Analysis and Ethnomethodology’s Program

Thomas S. Eberle

Hum Stud (2012) 35:279–304 DOI 10.1007/s10746-012-9219-z

Click to access 10746_2012_Article_9219.pdf

Phenomenological Sociology Reconsidered 

On The New Orleans Sniper

Thomas S. Eberle

Hum Stud (2013) 36:121–132 DOI 10.1007/s10746-013-9261-5

Phenomenology and the Social Sciences: a story with no beginning

Carlos Belvedere􏰀

Sociedad (B. Aires) vol.2 Buenos Aires 2007

Click to access scs_a01.pdf

The phenomenology of Alfred Schutz

Maurice Natanson Pages 147-155 | Published online: 29 Aug 2008

An Interdisciplinary Journal of PhilosophyVolume 9, 1966 – Issue 1-4



Thomas S. Eberle

in Book Interactions in Everyday Life

What is Phenomenological Sociology Again?


Greg Bird

Sociology and Phenomenology


Jochen Dreher

Hermílio Santos

George Psathas

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

George Psathas

Third and Higher Order Cybernetics

Third and Higher Order Cybernetics



The logic of the formation of third-order cybernetics is based on the transition from first-order cybernetics – “observable systems”, to second-order – “observing systems”, to third-order cybernetics – “self-developing poly-subject (reflexive-active) environments”. And also on the ascent from the paradigm “subject – object” to the paradigm “subject – subject” and then, in third-order cybernetics, to the paradigm of “subject – metasubject (self-developing poly-subject environment)”. Third-order cybernetics has its own specifics and also defines a paradigm (framework construction) that includes first and second order cybernetic paradigms, similar to post-non-classical scientific rationality.


What is required in third order cybernetics? Narrative arts such as Drama, Films, Literature, Stories, Novels as means of social reflexivity for providing ethical and moral grounds for social action & justice.


Key Terms

  • Cybernetics
  • Second Order Cybernetics
  • Third Order Cybernetics
  • Fourth Order Cybernetics
  • Reflexivity
  • Socio Cybernetics
  • Autopoiesis
  • Autocatalysis
  • Feedback
  • Interaction
  • Self Awareness
  • Observable Systems
  • Observing systems
  • Reflexive – Active system
  • Subject Object
  • Subject Subject
  • Subject Meta-Subject
  • Story Telling
  • Narratives
  • Mirroring of Experience
  • Social Reflexivity
  • Social Action
  • Social Justice
  • Coherence Narrative
  • Problem Structuring
  • Social Responsibility
  • Ethics in Society

World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics
18th Congress-WOSC2020
Moscow, 16th to 18th September 2020

1.5 Cybernetics of self-developing poly-subject (reflexive-active) environments:  third-order cybernetics

In recent years, much attention has been paid to the development of socially-oriented types of cybernetics, the development of second-order cybernetics (S. Umpleby, V. Lepskiy, R. Vallée, S. Bozicnik & M. Mulej, T. Ivanuša and others). An urgent problem is the analysis of the foundations and models of different types of socially-oriented cybernetics. The focus of this section is third-order cybernetics developed in Russia.

Third-order cybernetics (V. Lepskiy, 1998) is formed on the basis of post-non-classical scientific rationality. The logic of the formation of third-order cybernetics is based on the transition from first-order cybernetics – “observable systems”, to second-order – “observing systems”, to third-order cybernetics – “self-developing poly-subject (reflexive-active) environments”. And also on the ascent from the paradigm “subject – object” to the paradigm “subject – subject” and then, in third-order cybernetics, to the paradigm of “subject – metasubject (self-developing poly-subject environment)”. Third-order cybernetics has its own specifics and also defines a paradigm (framework construction) that includes first and second order cybernetic paradigms, similar to post-non-classical scientific rationality.

On the basis of post-non-classical scientific rationality it became possible to integrate ideas and concepts of humanitarian studies: ideas about the noosphere (V. Vernadsky), the concept of society as a social system (N. Luhman), activity and subject-activity approaches (A. Leontiev, L. Vygotsky, S. Rubinshtein, et al.), contributions of Russian methodologists (G. Shchedrovitsky, et al.), interdisciplinary ideas of the formation of social cybernetics (S. Umpleby), sociohumanitarian analysis of the experience of developing automated systems (V. Lepskiy), and others.

Discussion points
  • Foundations and models of socially-oriented types of cybernetics (S. Umpleby, V. Lepskiy, R. Vallée, S. Bozicnik & M. Mulej, T. Ivanuša and others).

  • Civilization aspects of self-developing poly-subject environments (third-order cybernetics).

  • Philosophical and methodological aspects of third-order cybernetics.

  • Third-order cybernetics is an ontological integrator of first and second order cybernetics.

  • The problem of complexity is third-order cybernetics.

  • Reflexive processes in third-order cybernetics.

  • Ethical aspects of third-order cybernetics.

  • Social Responsibility in Third Order Cybernetics.

  • Public participation in self-developing poly-subject environments

  • Organization of hybrid (subject, digital, physical) environments in third-order cybernetics.

  • Socio-humanitarian ergonomics of self-developing poly-subject environments.

New Horizons for Second-Order Cybernetics

Pages: 404


    • Karl H Müller (International Academy for Systems and Cybernetic Sciences, Austria)


In almost 60 articles this book reviews the current state of second-order cybernetics and investigates which new research methods second-order cybernetics can offer to tackle wicked problems in science and in society. The contributions explore its application to both scientific fields (such as mathematics, psychology and consciousness research) and non-scientific ones (such as design theory and theater science). The book uses a pluralistic, multifaceted approach to discuss these applications: Each main article is accompanied by several commentaries and author responses, which together allow the reader to discover further perspectives than in the original article alone. This procedure shows that second-order cybernetics is already on its way to becoming an idea shared by many researchers in a variety of disciplines.

Sample Chapter(s)

A Brief History of (Second-Order) Cybernetics


  • Prologue:
    • A Brief History of (Second-Order) Cybernetics (Louis H Kauffman & Stuart A Umpleb)
    • Mapping the Varieties of Second-Order Cybernetics (Karl H Müller & Alexander Riegle)
  • Part I: Exploring Second-Order Cybernetics and Its Fivefold Agenda:
    • Second-Order Cybernetics as a Fundamental Revolution in Science (Stuart A Umpleby)
    • Obstacles and Opportunities in the Future of Second-Order Cybernetics and Other Compatible Methods (Allenna Leonard)
    • Connecting Second-Order Cybernetics’ Revolution with Genetic Epistemology (Gastón Becerra)
    • Shed the Name to Find Second-Order Success: Renaming Second-Order Cybernetics to Rescue its Essence (Michael R Lissack)
    • Beware False Dichotomies (Peter A Cariani)
    • Second-Order Cybernetics Needs a Unifying Methodology (Thomas R Flanagan)
    • Viva the Fundamental Revolution! Confessions of a Case Writer (T Grandon Gill)
    • Author’s Response: Struggling to Define an Identity for Second-Order Cybernetics (Stuart A Umpleby)
    • Cybernetics, Reflexivity and Second-Order Science (Louis H Kauffman)
    • Remarks From a Continental Philosophy Point of View (Tatjana Schönwälder-Kuntze)
    • Finally Understanding Eigenforms (Michael R Lissack)
    • Eigenforms, Coherence, and the Imaginal (Arthur M Collings)
    • Conserving the Disposition for Wonder (Kathleen Forsythe)
    • Author’s Response: Distinction, Eigenform and the Epistemology of the Imagination (Louis H Kauffman)
    • Cybernetic Foundations for Psychology (Bernard Scott)
    • Wielding the Cybernetic Scythe in the Blunting Undergrowth of Psychological Confusion (Vincent Kenny)
    • To What Extent Can Second-Order Cybernetics Be a Foundation for Psychology? (Marcelo Arnold-Cathalifaud & Daniela Thumala-Dockendorff)
    • The Importance — and the Difficulty — of Moving Beyond Linear Causality (Robert J Martin)
    • Obstacles to Cybernetics Becoming a Conceptual Framework and Metanarrative in the Psychologies (Philip Baron)
    • The Social and the Psychological: Conceptual Cybernetic Unification vs Disciplinary Analysis? (Eva Buchinger)
    • Second Thoughts on Cybernetic Unifications (Tilia Stingl de Vasconcelos Guedes)
    • Cybernetics and Synergetics as Foundations for Complex Approach Towards Complexities of Life (Lea Šugman Bohinc)
    • Author’s Response: On Becoming and Being a Cybernetician (Bernard Scott)
    • Consciousness as Self-Description in Differences (Diana Gasparyan)
    • On the Too Often Overlooked Complexity of the Tension between Subject and Object (Yochai Ataria)
    • Where Is Consciousness? (Urban Kordeš)
    • Theorizing Agents: Their Games, Hermeneutical Tools and Epistemic Resources (Konstantin Pavlov-Pinus)
    • How Can Meaning be Grounded within a Closed Self-Referential System? (Bryony Pierce)
    • Self-Description Alone Will not Account for Qualia (John Pickering)
    • Consciousness as Self-Description and the Inescapability of Reduction (Sergei Levin)
    • The Non-Relationality of Consciousness (Adriana Schetz)
    • Author’s Response: Phenomenology of the System: Intentionality, Differences, Understanding, and the Unity of Consciousness (Diana Gasparyan)
    • Design Research as a Variety of Second-Order Cybernetic Practice (Ben Sweeting)
    • Design Cycles: Conversing with Lawrence Halprin (Tom Scholte)
    • Understanding Design from a Second-Order Cybernetics Perspective: Is There a Place for Material Agency? (David Griffiths)
    • What Can Cybernetics Learn from Design? (Christiane M Herr)
    • Rigor in Research, Honesty and Values (Michael Hohl)
    • Digital Design Research and Second-Order Cybernetics (Mateus de Sousa van Stralen)
    • Cybernetics Is the Answer, but What Was the Conversation About? (Jose dos Santos Cabral Filho)
    • (Architectural) Design Research in the Age of Neuroscience: The Value of the Second-Order Cybernetic Practice Perspective (Andrea Jelić)
    • Author’s Response: Beyond Application (Ben Sweeting)
    • “Black Box” Theatre: Second-Order Cybernetics and Naturalism in Rehearsal and Performance (Tom Scholte)
    • Audience and Autopoiesis (Bruce Clarke & Dorothy Chansky)
    • “Truthful” Acting Emerges Through Forward Model Development (Bernd Porr)
    • Naturalism in Improvisation and Embodiment (Edgar Landgraf)
    • Opening the Black Box of Minds: Theatre as a Laboratory of System Unknowns (Lowell F Christy Jr)
    • Does Second-Order Cybernetics Provide a Framework for Theatre Studies? (Albert Müller)
    • A Theatre for Exploring the Cybernetic (Ben Sweeting)
    • The Many Varieties of Experimentation in Second-Order Cybernetics: Art, Science, Craft (Laurence D Richards)
    • Author’s Response: “Playing With Dynamics”: Procedures and Possibilities for a Theatre of Cybernetics (Tom Scholte)
  • Part II: Reflecting on the Perspectives for a Fivefold Agenda of Second-Order Cybernetics:
    • Remarks of a Philosopher of Mathematics and Science (Michèle Friend)
    • The Past and the Future of Second-Order Cybernetics (Ronald R Kline)
    • Embracing Realists Without Embracing Realism: The Future of Second-Order Cybernetics (Robert J Martin)
    • Some Implications of Second-Order Cybernetics (Anthony Hodgson)
    • New Directions in Second-Order Cybernetics (Larry Richards)
  • Epilogue:
    • Possible Futures for Cybernetics (Karl H Müller, Stuart A Umpleby & Alexander Riegler)

Third Order Cybernetics

See First Order Cybernetics
See Second Order Cybernetics
See Fourth Order Cybernetics

When a whole system acknowledges its surroundings

  • First Order Cybernetics emerged from engineering, therefore tended to see systems as objects.
  • Second Order Cybernetics started explored the internal dynamics of the system.
  • Third Order Cybernetics regards a system more as an active-interactive element in a circuit.
  • It acknowledged the way that a whole system may redirect itself in order to adapt to its context.
  • Therefore, the observer and the system co-evolve together.
  • This mean that the observer can see himself as part of the system under examination.
  • Each player in a musical ensemble, for example, listens to each other player, and to his, or her, own instrument.
  • The whole ensemble may then play as a unified, emergent sound, as though all the instruments play as one.
  • This is a kind of System Transformation.
  • Wittgenstein’s language games (external link) may help to explain the complexity of this.
  • It will be evident that in this case the System itself is regarded from the perspective of a Loop in First Order Cybernetics.





Emergence of third order cybernetics

Much to the surprise and delight of the co-editors, this special issue of Emergence: Complexity & Organization on complexity and storytelling appears to mark more a beginning than an ending. For, while the publication of any journal is the end of a discrete project, what we are learning from it suggests the opening moves in a game of exploration pursuing a fascinating question: Are the studies of storytelling, in its widest sense, and of complex human systems largely the same thing? At first, that seemed an obvious overstatement. Yet, in the process of developing this special issue, both of us have concluded that it is a question that is, at least, worth exploring. In this way, we offer you this special issue as an introduction to the possibility that the dynamics that arise as people tell stories, to themselves as well as to others, and then enact those stories, create the dynamic human systems – families and neighborhoods; workgroups, organizations, and economies – that Ralph Stacey’s (2001) conception of complex responsive processes seems to deny.

Some readers may say that this exploration is hardly new. In fact, nearly 30 years ago, Louis R. Pondy’s essay “Beyond open system models of organization,” included as a classic complexity article in this issue (see pp. 119-137), lays out the challenge to launch into just such an exploration as the co-editors believe this issue represents. Basing his argument on Boulding’s nine levels of system complexity, Pondy insists that organizational theorists are locked into analysis based on the lower levels of complexity. Given the then-current understanding of organizations, analysts should think of them less as ‘input-output’ machines and more as ‘language-using, sensemaking cultures’. What is needed, as a result, is “radical methodological departures [such as] ethnographic techniques more suitable for studying meaning and belief systems.” The theme articles in this issue play with a variety of such departures.

Moreover, mostly over the last five years, a significant amount of work has been compiled applying complexity and storytelling to organizations, answering Pondy’s challenge after only a quarter century. Already, three practitioners – Carl Weick (1995), Dave Snowden (see Kurtz & Snowden, 2003), and David Boje (2001) – have developed sophisticated approaches to this study. What makes this issue of E:CO new and exciting is an explosion of interest in this developing area of study. Previously, the intersection of complexity and storytelling studies had been applied largely to organizations. However, among the more than 40 proposals we received were abstracts whose subject ranged from economics and law to disaster control, healthcare, and oriental literature. As a result, we began to suspect that this evolving hybrid field could suggest a powerful approach to the application of complexity thinking to all human systems. Nor are we the first to suggest this. One contributor to this issue, anthropologist Michael Agar, has observed elsewhere (Agar, 2005), that the most effective methodology to complexity-based social studies is ethnography.

In some ways, it seems odd that the intersection between complexity and storytelling has been so little examined. For one thing, the two studies have grown on remarkably parallel tracks for the last 15 years or so. During this time, both studies have been adapted from their origins – complexity in the natural sciences and narrative/storytelling in literature – and applied increasingly to organizations, but in a somewhat limited way. Complexity studies of organizations have been largely limited to considering organizations as (narratively) coherent entities in market ecosystems, ignoring what complexity thinking suggests about the dynamics of organizations as ecosystems for the people working in them. Some work on organizations as ecosystems has begun to appear in, for example, the work of Brenda Dervin, et al. (2003) or Ken Baskin (2005b). Similarly, the vast majority of the work on narrative in organizations has explored its function on the level of the organization and in its function for managers. It’s only in recent years, as writers such as Weick, Snowden and Boje have applied the double lens of complexity and storytelling, that attention has begun to focus also on how people within organizations use narrative and storytelling quite differently. Here, a thaw of sorts is occurring, as those studying the field move from narrative, with its implications as a complete linear-construction (with beginning, middle and end), to storytelling, with its suggestion that some stories are emergent attempts to formulate and negotiate the understandings held as finished in narrative study.

In addition to these historical similarities, the two studies (story-emergence and complexity) seem an almost ideal fit for each other. On one hand, some writers on storytelling are beginning to recognize it as an emergent phenomenon, sensitive to initial states, that groups negotiate in their interactions. On the other, some writers about complex human systems are beginning to recognize that storytelling drives the human equivalent of attractors at several levels – personality, group dynamics, and culture. As a result, the principles of complexity and storytelling come together as a series of strands that, like a rope, when woven together, form a more powerful tool than either alone.

Given all that, it seems only fitting that the co-editors of this issue approach this intersection of studies from opposite directions. David Boje (2001) came to it through his study of storytelling organizations. In his studies, he has focused on the difference between ‘antenarrative’, the preliminary stories people tell as they begin to understand what might be happening around them, and the more fixed (whole, linear) narratives, which are explanations of what people believe actually happened. Along with this view of storytelling, Boje (1995) had developed the idea of the organization as ‘Tamara’, a house with many rooms in which people in different rooms simultaneously tell different stories about the same events, experienced from their differing points of view, networking with one another to make sense of the divergent storylines. Much of the dynamics of any organization, he suggests, arises in the negotiation that occur as people enact these different stories about common events in distributed locations.

On the other hand, Ken Baskin approached this intersection from his work in applying complexity thinking to organizations. His 2001 research study on workgroup cultures in three American hospitals, funded by ISCE, brought him to the conclusion that the stories people tell, to themselves as well as others, create the human equivalent of attractors – personality in the individual, group dynamics, and culture in organizations and other larger entities (2005a). His most recent work (2005b) suggests that, in addition to being coherent units existing in market ecosystems, organizations can be examined as ecosystems of storytelling groups, a concept with much in common with Boje’s Tamara.

When we first issued the call for abstracts on complexity and storytelling, we had no idea that so many people had begun thinking about the function of storytelling and complexity in the various fields in which they worked. We quickly discovered that interweaving the principles of these areas of study was proving absolutely as illuminating as we had suspected from our own work. The nine topical articles published in this issue will give the reader an idea of the variety and excitement of thought among those combining the insights of complexity thinking and storytelling:

  • Theodore Taptiklis’s “After managerialism,” for instance, contrasts managerialism’s tendency to reduce complexity with the approach supported by this journal, among others, to confront the complexity of contemporary markets. He examines his work with organizations to record and share the narrative experience of professionals in order to foster emergence and creativity.

  • In “Narrative processes in organizational discourse,” John Luhman discusses organizational discourse as a complex system that includes three processes – storying coercion, story weaving, and story betting, the last of which reflects Boje’s antenarrative theory. For him, narratives provide a “field of choices in which meaning takes place.” In organizations managed as complex systems, these choices can create the rich diversity from which innovation emerges.

  • Michael Agar’s essay, “Telling it like you think it might be,” explores a methodology for analyzing organizational storytelling. At a time when so many organizations are trying to transform management style from the traditional mechanical model to a more complex one, Agar offers a way of measuring the degree of complexity recognized in any organization’s operations, through examining five elements of the storytelling.

  • Taking a different tack in “The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity,” Larry Browning and Thierry Boudés compare two of the major models for using “narrative as a sensemaking response to complexity.” In examining David Snowden’s Cynefin model and that of Carl Weick, Browning and Boudés conclude that, in spite of the many differences in these models, they are remarkably similar, especially in their emphasis on widespread participation and “management by exclusion.”

  • In “Wanted for breaking and entering organizational systems in complexity,” Adrian Carr and Cheryl Lapp take a Freudian approach to the function of narrative in organizations transforming from a traditional model to a more complex one. Introducing the principles of complexity into such an organization, they note, demands that people in the organization co-create stories that cannot help but cause anxiety. It is through the pain created in the destruction of old certainties, which the authors insist people cling to as an expression of Freud’s ‘Thanatos’, that the creative energies of ‘Eros’ emerge.

  • Doug Smith’s “Order (for free) in the court” examines the legal system as a complex system that has evolved as a result of what he has called “full-contract storytelling.” Rather than the traditional view that law is a system governed by rules, Smith insists that it depends on a self-reinforcing cycle of learning and retelling stories in law school and then anticipating and countering the stories of others in practice. In court lawyers use stories to reduce the complexity of life in order to win judges and juries to their clients’ points of view. Ironically, this central role of storytelling in the legal system remains unacknowledged.

  • Similarly, Michelle Shumate, Alison Bryant and Peter Monge argue, in “Storytelling and globalization,” that networked global organizations engage in “narrative netwar” in order to affect the ideological landscape. Using the Direct Action network’s protest of the World Trade Organization’s 1999 meeting in Seattle as an example, they explore how people in both networks use narrative to simplify an issue as complex as global trade in order to persuade people to support their positions. The world is much more complex than any one story can communicate; by reducing that complexity with narrative, they can make their cases, suggesting that those narratives are the reality.

  • Finally, Check Teck Foo’s essay, “Three kingdoms, sense making and complexity theory,” examines the famous Chinese novel, Romance of three kingdoms, as a narrative about the phase transition between the Han and Jin dynasties. Rather than a monolithic narrative, the story is presented as a collection of short stories with interlocking characters, whose interactions eventually result in the reemergence of orderly government. As a novel about social phase transition, he notes, this work offers insights into how today’s leaders and approach the chaotic developments of our own period.

If, in fact, this intersection between the study of complexity and of storytelling is as powerful as the co-editors suspect, an enormous amount of work remains. Those exploring it are only beginning to develop methodologies and a vocabulary.

We would like to offer a bold conclusion, one that is an answer to Boulding (1968), as well as Pondy’s (1976) challenge to system/complexity theory. We think that the difference between coherence-narrative and the more emergence-storytelling theories is the dawn of the ‘Third Cybernetics’ of dynamic complexity. Boulding made it clear that for systems theory to theorize and study higher orders of complexity, we need to differentiate between sign-representations (e.g., narratives as the ‘mirror’ of experience). First and Second Cybernetics has been dominated by master-narratives, each with a particular metaphorization: level 1 (frameworks of narrative types); level 2 (mechanistic narrative); level 3 (thermostat-control narrative); level 4 (cell of the ‘open system’); and level 5 (tree as ‘organic’ narrative). First cybernetics is the mechanistic-narrative of deviation-counteraction through the input-output-feedback sign-comparison model of communication. Second cybernetics is the open (cell) system narrative of deviation-counteracting (comparing narratives of the environment, systemically-organizing more variety to process them).

We think the articles point to a Third Cybernetics, where what Boulding calls image (managed in story, level 6), symbol (self-reflexion in story, level 7), societal discourse (social organization shaped by story, a domain of discourse, level 8), and transcendental (stories of unknowable and knowable, level 9). For Pondy, these upper levels are where language, story, and symbol, exceed the theory of ‘open system’ modeling. The problem is that narrative (conceived as linear metaphorization), does not come to grips with the needs of Third Order Cybernetics[1].


  • Agar, M. (2005). “We have met the other and we’re all nonlinear: Ethnography as a nonlinear dynamic system,” Complexity, ISSN 1076-2787, 10(2): 16-24.
  • Baskin, K. (2005a). “Storytelling and the complex epistemology of organizations,” in K. A. Richardson (ed.), Managing organizational complexity: Philosophy, theory, application, Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, ISBN 1593113188, pp. 331-344.
  • Baskin, K. (2005b). “Complexity, stories and knowing,” Emergence: Complexity & Organization, ISSN 1521-3250, 7(2): 32-40.
  • Boje, D. M. (2001). Narrative methods for organizational and communication research, London, UK: Sage Publications, ISBN 0761965874.
  • Boje, D. M. (1995). “Stories of the storytelling organization: A postmodern analysis of Disney as ‘Tamara-land’,” Academy of Management Journal, ISSN 0001-4273, 38(4): 997-1035,∼dboje/papers/DisneyTamaraland.html.
  • Boulding, K. (1968). “General systems theory: The skeleton of science,” in Walter Buckley (ed.), Modern systems research for the behavioral scientist, Chicago: Adeline, ISBN 0202300110, pp. 3-10. More recently reprinted in K. A. Richardson, J. A. Goldstein, P. M. Allen and D. Snowden (eds.) (2004). E:CO Annual Volume 6, Mansfield, MA: ISCE Publishing, ISBN 0976681404, pp. 252-264.
  • Dervin, B., Foreman-Wernet, L. and Lauterback, Eric (eds.) (2003). Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, ISBN 1572735090.
  • Kurtz, C. F. and Snowden, D. J. (2003). “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world,” IBM Systems Journal, ISSN 0018-8670, 42(3): 462-483.
  • Pondy, L. R. (1976). “Beyond open systems models of organization,” Annual meeting of the Academy of Management, August 12, reprinted in this issue of E:CO, pp. 122-139.
  • Stacey, R.D. (2001). Complex responsive processes in organizations, London, UK: Routledge, ISBN 0415249198.
  • Weick, K. E. (1995), Sensemaking in organizations, London, UK: Sage Publications, ISBN 080397177X.

Fourth Order Cybernetics

M. C. Escher’s pictures illustrate some relevant issues…

See First Order Cybernetics
See Second Order Cybernetics
See Third Order Cybernetics

Can we Define a Fourth Order System?

  • Fourth Order Cybernetics considers what happens when a system redefines itself.
  • It focuses on the integration of a system within its larger, co-defining context.
  • Ultimately, Fourth Order Cybernetics is difficult or, perhaps, impossible to conceive.
  • It unavoidably defies certain principles that make sense at the ‘lower Orders’ .
  • Fourth Order Cybernetics acknowledges the complex system’s emergent properties.
  • Emergence entails a greater complexity that reduces knowability and predictability.
  • It also implies that a system will ‘immerge’ into its environment, of which it is part.
  • Immergence means ‘submergence’ or ‘disappearance in, or as if in, a liquid’.

The Distributed Nature of 4th Order Cybernetics

  • Who (or what) is capable of seeing a Fourth Order system in its full complexity?
  • At the Fourth Order, the discrete observer’s boundaries become problematic.
  • Who is sufficiently mercurial to notice all relevant changes as, and when they occur?
  • A single agent is unable to see enough – its standpoint is too fixed, partial or out of date.
  • In First Order Cybernetics the idea of a Network (external link) makes sense.
  • So could a network be described as an ‘observer’ of a Fourth Order system?
  • Yes, in theory, but we may not be able to learn what it ‘knows’ in any depth. (see neural networks (external link))
  • Consider a musical ensemble, and how it attunes itself to audience responses (e.g. cheering).
  • This raises complex issues of consciousness – where, when, and how it emerges.
  • We can discuss this by describing how the body manages many levels of knowing.

Fourth Order Systems Integrate the Inner with the Outer

It is difficult to focus on the dark birds at the same time as the light ones

  • Some human knowledge is tacit (external link) rather than descriptive or declarative (external link).
  • Embodied knowledge is an example of knowledge distributed within, and across a network
  • It is something we may say we ‘know’, but it exists at a level that cannot be described.
  • Saying that we know how to ride a bicycle is not saying the ‘knowing’ itself.
  • When I am riding, my body uses knowledge that cannot be described in words.
  • Nevertheless I may sit quietly and meditate on what it was like to ride a bicycle.
  • When I do so my attention focuses inwards and distracts me from events around me.
  • Conversely, when in a difficult task (e.g. winning a cycle race) I soon forget the ‘inner’ me.
  • This illustrates that systems appear to have distinct ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ realities.

Fourth Order Systems are Holarchic (external link)

  • How can we view a system as though from the outside and the inside, simultaneously?
  • To do this would mean combining two (categorically) opposite descriptions.
  • In Fourth Order Systems, anything we notice can also be seen as the system.
  • The system can therefore seem to become its own inverse
  • This cannot be conceived in terms of classical science
  • The ethical system needed to sustain a 4th Order system is likely to be eudaimonic (external link)

  • Fourth Order Cybernetics can only be understood and described in terms if the inverse of First Order Cybernetics.
  • Yet by understanding the underlying principle of system inversion, this makes it possible to describe the Open System.
  • The 4th Order system is contextualised, embedded and integrated into the context
  • It can thereby become representative for the integrated context.
  • It therefore operates at two levels simultaneously.
  • It is no longer a system, but a meta-system.
  • It operates both as a system in its context, and as a system that is part of the context.
  • It thereby has the capacity to integrate and disintegrate the contact between both.
  • It is an active, interactive, reactive and ideally representative agent in/for/with/of that context.
  • This requires a different level of description: not in relationship to the system, but to the relationship between systems.
  • The Interface is now the system of reference, instead of the system.
  • This relationship is the basis of the interaction.
  • The transformation is the basis of the processing.
  • The integration is the basis of integrity.
  • The significant feature of the meta-system is its duality.
  • The essence is the same, but the relevance brings inversion.
  • The metasystem is an object; the meta-system is a subject.
  • Whereas a system can normally be described, a meta-system can only be experienced
  • The ‘pillars’ in this transition are the relationships (Second Order) and the interactions (Third Order).
  • Fourth Order Design would integrate all activities in an inverted, contextualised form
  • It would be embedded in its context and responsible in, and for, its actions
  • The system would act as meta-system and design would act as meta-design.
  • This represents the level of self-awareness.
  • It is where the system reflects upon itself and steers itself (i.e. is autopoietic).
  • These attributes facilitate self-regeneration, thus self-healing.
  • They can therefore be managed to enable a healing process.

Fourth Order Cybernetics


Can we Define a Fourth Order System?

Fourth Order Cybernetics considers what happens when a system redefines itself.

It focuses on the integration of a system within its larger, co-defining context.

* The 4th Order system is contextualised, embedded and integrated into the context
* It can thereby become representative for the integrated context.
* It therefore operates at two levels simultaneously.
* It is no longer a system, but a meta-system.
* It operates both as a system in its context, and as a system that is part of the context.
* It thereby has the capacity to integrate and disintegrate the contact between both.
* It is an active, interactive, reactive and ideally representative agent in/for/with/of that context.
* This requires a different level of description: not in relationship to the system, but to the relationship between systems.
* The Interface is now the system of reference, instead of the system.
* This relationship is the basis of the interaction.
* The transformation is the basis of the processing.
* The integration is the basis of integrity.
* The significant feature of the meta-system is its duality.
* The essence is the same, but the relevance brings inversion.
* The metasystem is an object; the meta-system is a subject.
* Whereas a system can normally be described, a meta-system can only be experienced
* The ‘pillars’ in this transition are the relationships (Second Order) and the interactions (Third Order).
* Fourth Order Design would integrate all activities in an inverted, contextualised form
* It would be embedded in its context and responsible in, and for, its actions
* The system would act as meta-system and design would act as meta-design.
* This represents the level of self-awareness.
* It is where the system reflects upon itself and steers itself (i.e. is autopoietic).
* These attributes facilitate self-regeneration, thus self-healing.
* They can therefore be managed to enable a healing process.


More Information interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems.

Please see my related posts:

Cybernetics Group: A Brief History of American Cybernetics

Ratio Club: A Brief History of British Cyberneticians

Second Order Cybernetics of Heinz Von Foerster

Cybernetics, Autopoiesis, and Social Systems Theory

Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Recursive Vision of Gregory Bateson

Socio-Cybernetics and Constructivist Approaches

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann

Reflexivity, Recursion, and Self Reference

Autocatalysis, Autopoiesis and Relational Biology

Systems and Organizational Cybernetics

Feedback Thought in Economics and Finance

On Holons and Holarchy

Psychology of Happiness: Value of Storytelling and Narrative Plays

Drama Theory: Choices, Conflicts and Dilemmas

Drama Theory: Acting Strategically

Drama Therapy: Self in Performance

Aesthetics and Ethics: At the Intersection

Arts and Moral Philosophy

Narrative Psychology: Language, Meaning, and Self

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

Cyber-Semiotics: Why Information is not enough


Key Sources of Research:

Introduction to Sociocybernetics (Part 1):

Third Order Cybernetics and a Basic Framework for Society

Roberto Gustavo Mancilla


Click to access Third+order+cyberntics.pdf


Introduction to Sociocybernetics (Part 2): Power, Culture and Institutions

  • Roberto Gustavo Mancilla

Introduction to Sociocybernetics (Part 3): Fourth Order Cybernetics

Roberto Gustavo Mancilla

Click to access 208de7103c9fd87688023e66d06111454862.pdf




The Third Order Cybernetics of Eric Schwarz

Eric Schwarz and Maurice Yolles

July 2019




“There’s Nothing Like the Real Thing” Revisiting the Need for a Third-Order Cybernetics


Click to access kenny_cyber3.pdf




Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics

Francis Heylighen Free University of Brussels

Cliff Joslyn Los Alamos National Laboratory

Click to access Cybernetics-EPST.pdf

A new – 4th order cybernetics and sustainable future

Stane Božičnik, Matjaž Mulej


Publication date: 14 June 2011




The cybernetics of systems of belief

Bernard Scott

Centre for Educational Technology and Development, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

Click to access b1c419023f5cec784d0c75e8058930f9e6c9.pdf




Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics*

Heinz von Foerster


Philosophical-Methodological Basis for the Formation of Third-Order Cybernetics

V. E. Lepskiy

The New Science of Cybernetics: A Primer

Karl H. Müller




New Horizons for Second-Order Cybernetics


April 13, 2018

Karl H. Muller et al., “New Horizons for Second-Order Cybernetics” (World Scientific, 2017)









Introduction to the Theory of Intersubjective Management

Vladimir A. Vittikh

Click to access s10726-014-9380-z.pdf




Lacan and Maturana: Constructivist Origins for a 30 Cybernetics

Philip Boxer & Vincent Kenny


Click to access 552bda070cf2e089a3aa87d4.pdf




The Economy of Discourses: a third order cybernetics?

Philip Boxer & Vincent Kenny


Click to access The-economy-of-discourses-a-third-order-cybernetics.pdf





Vladimir Lepskiy

(Institute of Philosophy Russian Academy of Sciences)





Stuart A. Umpleby, Vladimir E. Lepskiy, and Tatiana A. Medvedeva


Click to access db4a81a13d83bd3222ead66e9988bc5b47ac.pdf




First-, Second-, and Third-Order Cybernetics for Music & Mediated Interaction


Click to access IDAH-FA10.pdf

Relational Turn in Economic Geography

Relational Turn in Economic Geography

This is an important topic.  Uneven development using orthodox economic and development theories has led researcher to look for alternative explanations.

  • How to properly integrate Global – Regional – National – Local perspectives?
  • How valuable is relational (network) perspective?
  • What is the role of power relations among Actors?
  • How does Institutional, Cultural, and Social embeddedness of Actors impact development and economy?
  • How does actions and interactions of Actors affect local economic environment?


From Toward a relational economic geography

During the 1990s, a controversial debate has emerged in economic geography and other social sciences, such as economics and sociology, focusing on the question of what research program, key focus and methodology a novel economic geography should embody (Perrons, 2001). This was, partially, a reaction to the work of Krugman (1991), Fujita et al. (2001), and others who claimed to have developed a new economic geography. This self-proclaimed new economic geography offers an interesting economic perspective on the conventional problems of spatial distribution and equilibrium, based on an analysis of increasing returns, transportation costs, and other traded interdependencies (Martin and Sunley, 1996; Bathelt, 2001). Yet it fails to develop a comprehensive research program as a basis for economic geography because ‘. . . the new economic geography ignores almost as much of the reality they study as old trade theory did’ (Krugman, 2000, p. 50).1 In following Martin and Sunley’s (1996) suggestion, this approach is better classified as geographical economics. While this literature brings economic geography closer to the core ideas of neoclassical economics, Amin and Thrift (2000) have recently suggested another fundamentally different direction for economic geography, capitalizing on concepts and theories from other social sciences. Amin and Thrift (2000, p. 4) provocatively claim that economic geography is no longer able to ‘fire the imagination’ of researchers. Therefore, they ask for a critical reflection and renewal of this field’s basic goals, concepts, and methods. The reactions to their contribution have stimulated a debate, parts of which have been published in a special issue of Antipode in 2001. This debate has unfortunately been dominated by discipline-political arguments, opinions, and claims. In essence, it focuses on the question of whether economic geography should be closely associated with economics or lean towards the social, political, and cultural sciences. In particular, Thrift (2000) has identified a growing interest in the cultural dimension of economic relations, as well as in economic issues of cultural studies. While Amin and Thrift (2000) propose a cultural turn away from neoclassical economics, their critics emphasize existing linkages with and the importance of economic theories as a foundation of economic geography (Martin and Sunley, 2001; Rodriguez- Pose, 2001). We agree with Martin and Sunley (2001) that this debate is partly based on false dualisms, such as economics vs. sociology and quantitative vs. qualitative methodology. In our view, this discussion is unclear because it mixes normative accounts of the discipline’s policy implications with epistemological and methodological arguments. The debate is also somewhat misdirected for it tries to separate those economic and social aspects that are inseparable. The decisive question cannot be whether economic geography should be economized or culturalized. Rather, the economic and the social are fundamentally intertwined. They are dimensions of the same empirical reality which should be studied in a dialogue of perspectives rather than in mutual exclusion and reductionist prioritization (Stark, 2000).

The second transition is characterized by a reformulation of the core concepts of economic geography. In the following sections, discontinuities between relational economic geography and regional science will be identified according to five dimensions of the research design. These dimensions include the conception of space, object of knowledge, conception of action, epistemological perspective, and research goal. From this, we develop a relational framework for analysis which systematically focuses on economic actors and their action and interaction. The basic propositions of this framework will be developed in the remainder of this section (Table 1).

4.1. Conception of space

A relational view of economic geography is based on a relationship between space and economy which is contrary to that of regional science.10 Specifically, regional science views space as a container which confines and determines economic action. It treats space as a separate entity which can be described and theorized independently from economic action. In contrast, a relational approach assumes that economic action transforms the localized material and institutional conditions of future economic action. Similar to Storper and Walker (1989), this approach emphasizes that the economic actors themselves produce their own regional environments. The way in which spatial categories and regional artifacts have an impact on economic action can only be understood if the particular economic and social context of that action is analysed (Bahrenberg, 1987). Spatial structures and processes have, however, been socially and economically underconceptualized in regional science. We contend that space can neither be used as an explanatory factor for economic action nor be treated as a separate research object in isolation from economic and social structures and relations. Consequently, as space is not an object of causal power to explain social or economic action it cannot be theorized (Sayer, 1985; Saunders, 1989; Hard, 1993).11 Of course, economic processes also have material outcomes (e.g. infrastructure) which are localized in certain places and territories and exist over longer time periods. Such structures clearly have an impact on economic action and interaction in these localities. Nonetheless, economic actors and their action and interaction should be at the core of a theoretical framework of economic geography and not space and spatial categories. Spatial scientists, such as Bunge (1973), treat spatiality as the object of knowledge in economic geography. They aim to detect those spatial laws which govern human action without looking at the actors themselves. Instead of treating space as a container, we suggest a conception of space as perspective (Glu¨ ckler, 1999). In other words, we use space as a basis for asking particular questions about economic phenomena but space is not our primary object of knowledge. It is this conception that we refer to as the geographical lens. As part of this, economic exchange becomes the focus of analysis and not space. Similarly, we do not seek to identify spatial laws but, instead, look for explanations of localized economic processes and their consequences.12 It is particularly through the application of a distinct perspective to the study of an object of knowledge that discipline-specific research problems can be formulated. The spatial perspective or geographical lens leads economic geographers to pose research questions about an economic phenomenon, different from those typically asked by economists or sociologists. We also suggest that the perspective applied helps mobilize a particular terminology and, over time, a set of tacit knowledge which entails an understanding of what it is that is being analysed and how this subject matter can be described and evaluated adequately.



From Rethinking relational economic geography

Since the mid-1990s, the softening of sub-disciplinary boundaries within human geography and the more general call for a ‘relational thinking’ in human geography (Massey et al . 1999; see also Allen et al. 1997; Sack 1997; Lee and Wills 1997) have stimulated the consolidation of what might be termed a ‘relational economic geography’. 1 In this ‘relational turn’, economic geographers tend to place their analytical focus on the complex nexus of relations among actors and structures that effect dynamic changes in the spatial organization of economic activities (see Amin 1998; Dicken and Malmberg 2001; Ettlinger 2001; Bathelt and Glückler 2003; Boggs and Rantisi 2003). This relational economic geography is concerned primarily with the ways in which socio-spatial relations of actors are intertwined with broader structures and processes of economic change at various geographical scales. Despite the claims of novelty among most economic geographers who have taken on such a relational thinking in their geographical analysis, it remains unclear whether this ‘relational turn’ represents merely a modest reworking of earlier work in economic geography that might not be explicitly relational in its conceptualization and analysis. After all, heated debates on the spatial divisions of labour, locality studies and flexible specialization dominated the heyday of economic geography during much of the 1980s and the early 1990s (Scott 2000). With hindsight, these debates have legitimized the analytical concern of economic geography with the social relations of production and the relations between the spatial and the social (Harvey 1982; Thrift 1983; Massey 1984; Smith 1984; Gregory and Urry 1985; Lee 1989). By sidestepping the pitfalls of an earlier brand of quantitative economic geography concerned with spatial geometries and locational analysis, the substantive foci on regions, localities and production processes in these debates have no doubt foregrounded the recent ‘relational turn’ in economic geography. While many recent geographic writings have addressed aspects tangential to the core theoretical categories deployed in a relational economic geography (e.g. Barnett 1998; Thrift 2000; Barnes 2001; Storper 2001), there is surprisingly a lack of systematic evaluation and integration of our knowledge of this growing field. In view of limited space, this paper develops a sympathetic critique and rethinking of the ‘relational turn’ in order to clarify the distinctive contributions of a relational economic geography and to rework some of its conceptual tools. In the next section, I critically examine the nature and emergence of the ‘relational turn’ in economic geography, by revisiting relational thought that existed as an undercurrent before the 1990s and situating the recent ‘relational turn’ in this earlier work in economic geography. Whilst the recent ‘relational turn’ has some of its intellectual antecedents in the earlier debates of the 1980s (particularly the social relations of production framework), its substantive content has been broadened to include social actors and their network relations at different spatial scales. Focusing on recent economicgeographical writings on regional development, embedded networks and geographical scales, I note that much of this large body of recent work is relational only in the thematic sense that relations among actors and structures are an important theme in contemporary economic-geographical enquiry. In particular, the causal nature of relationality and power relations are under-theorized and underspecified. If relational thinking in economic geography is to have a greater impact, we need to rework and deepen its theoretical constructs to go beyond simply a ‘thematic turn’ (Jessop 2001, 1214). The paper moves on to rework some of the most important theoretical insights in the ‘relational turn’ – relationality, power and actors. Dynamic and heterogeneous relations among actors and structures are conceptualized as causal mechanisms of socio-spatial change in economic landscapes. Here, I explore the notion of ‘relational geometries’ constituted through relationality and power . The concept of relational geometries refers to the spatial configurations of heterogeneous relations among actors and structures through which power and identities are played out and become efficacious. These relational geometries are neither actors (e.g. individuals and firms) nor structures (e.g. class, patriarchy and the state), but configurations of relations between and among them – connecting actors and structures through horizontal and vertical power relations. Relational geometries are also not networks per se because the latter refer mainly to horizontal and, mostly, static ties among actors only. Actors in these relational geometries are not static ‘things’ fixed in time and space. They are dynamic and evolving in such relational ways that their differential practices unleash multiple forms of emergent power in relational geometries. Building on the concept of different and emergent forms of causal power as positions in relational geometries and as practice through social action, this relational perspective allows us to avoid the two polarized frameworks in contemporary economic geography – actor networks and institutional structures. This effort to rework relational economic geography thus parallels the recently reinvigorated ‘relational sociology’ that ‘sees relations between terms or units as preeminently dynamic in nature, as unfolding, ongoing processes rather than as static ties among inert substances’ (Emirbayer 1997, 289). To substantiate the relevance of this reworking of conceptual categories, I show how relationality and multiple forms of power can offer vital insights into regional development that go beyond existing relational frameworks in economic geography.



From Geographies of circulation and exchange: Constructions of markets

In the preceding sections we have discussed three heterodox alternatives to the orthodox free market logic.

For socioeconomists, markets are embedded in social structures and are a far cry from the virtual market model celebrated by orthodox economists. It is social relations that underwrite real markets, guaranteeing their functioning in the face of uncertainties. Work un- dertaken in this spirit puts emphasis on social relations and institutions, and analyses how non-economic institutions either enable or constrain efficient market exchange.

Political economists insist that, neoliberal claims to the contrary notwithstanding, capitalism cannot exist without “market imperfections”. In these accounts, the market model is nothing else than a fictitious ideological device to hide from view the underlying dynamics of capitalism. Accordingly, political economic scholars regard it as their task to remove the veil and to lay open the contradictory reality of concrete markets under capitalism.

Cultural economists apply the cultural theoretical concept of performativity towards the market. Rather than reproducing the classical distinction between the abstract market model and real-life markets, protagonists point to the role that the practice of economists widely understood plays in the self-realization of economic thought. It is argued that the model of the perfect market realizes itself in the world in the assembly of far-reaching socio-technical arrangements. Here, markets take on ambivalent form as relational effects of socio-technical networks engaging in the twin processes of framing and overflowing. The latter process includes the proliferation of new social relations, groups and communities which may articulate economic and non-economic alternatives.

In the discipline of economic geography heterodox approaches have managed to break the hegemony of the neoclassical orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the arguments in heterodox debates on the market and on alternative economic geographies more generally are very often taken from entrenched positions, authors apparently finding it very difficult to understand the train of thought followed by the “opposing” camp. While this is true for all positions introduced in this progress report, cultural economy has arguably had a particularly difficult time. With our representation of the performativity approach we hope to have been able to clarify some of the misunderstandings. The strength of the heterodox project lies precisely in the co-existence of competing positions, each challenging the still omnipresent logic of the perfect market in different ways. This is what a vibrant heterodox project should aspire to: A healthy competition of plurivalent and opposing ideas, a competition, however, which at the same time does not prevent conversation across different approaches and is pluralistic enough to gain from the application of different perspectives (see Barnes 2006).



From  Advancing evolutionary economic geography by engaged pluralism



Please see my related post on Relational Sociology.

Boundaries and Relational Sociology



Key People:

  • Harrison White
  • Henry Wai-chung Yeung
  • H. Bathelt
  • J. Gluckler
  • Jeffrey S. Boggs
  • Norma M. Rantisi
  • Christian Berndt
  • Marc Boeckler
  • Robert Hassink
  • Claudia Klaerding


Related Schools of Thoughts:

  • Social Economics
  • Political Economy
  • Cultural Economy
  • Manchester School of Global Production Networks
  • German School of Relational approach


Key Terms:

  • Relational Geometries
  • Actor-Networks
  • Relationality
  • Actor-Structure
  • Global – Regional – National – Local
  • Social Embeddedness
  • Economic-Social-Political-Spatial
  • Cultural Economics
  • Critical Realism
  • Causal Relations
  • Boundaries
  • Institutional Economics
  • Political Economics
  • Spatial relations
  • Scale Structure
  • Regionalism
  • Power Relations



Key Sources of Research:


Geographies of circulation and exchange: Constructions of markets

Christian Berndt

Marc Boeckler


Click to access 3-BerndtBoeckler2009.pdf



Whither Global Production Networks in Economic Geography? Past, Present and Future

Martin Hess

Henry Wai-chung Yeung


Click to access 2006%20EPA_Hess_Yeung.pdf



Rethinking relational economic geography

Henry Wai-chung Yeung



Click to access 2005_TIBG.pdf



Towards a Relational Economic Geography: Old Wine in New Bottles?



Toward a relational economic geography

Harald Bathelt and Johannes Glueckler


Journal of Economic Geography 3 (2003) pp. 117–144

Click to access 0c96052832bce3e2bf000000.pdf



Relational and evolutionary economic geography: competing or complementary paradigms?

Robert Hassink and Claudia Klaerding




Towards an integrated Evolutionary and Relational Economic Geography approach

for analysing the evolution of destinations


Cinta Sanz‐Ibáñez,

Salvador Anton‐Clavé


Click to access SanzIbanez_AntonClave2014.pdf

Click to access 557194bb08ae7467f72ca317.pdf



Chains and networks, territories and scales: towards a relational framework for analysing the global economy



Click to access DKOY_2001.pdf



What Really Goes on in Silicon Valley? Spatial Clustering and Dispersal in Modular Production Networks

Timothy J. Sturgeon



Click to access 03-001.pdf



Theoretical advancement in economic geography by engaged pluralism

Robert Hassink, Claudia Klaerding






The ‘relational turn’ in economic geography

Jeffrey S. Boggs  and Norma M. Rantisi

Click to access The-Relational-Turn-in-Economic-Geography.pdf



Manifesto for a Relational Sociology

Mustafa Emirbayer


Click to access Emirbayer%20Manifesto%20for%20a%20Relational%20Sociology.pdf



Relational Economic Geography: A Partial Understanding
or a New Paradigm?

Peter Sunley


Click to access 552fb80c0cf2f2a588a8f6c7.pdf



The Relational Economy : Geographies of Knowing and Learning

Harald Bathelt and Johannes Gluckler





Can we learn anything from economic geography proper?

Yes, we can!

Robert Hassink, Huiwen Gong, Fabian Faller

Click to access peeg1622.pdf





Accepted March 2011



Geographies of Production I:
Relationality revisited and the ‘practice shift’ in economic geography


Andrew Jones


Click to access SR%20PiHG%20Geographies%20of%20Production%20Report%201%2024%20Jul13%20FINAL.pdf



Advancing evolutionary economic geography by engaged pluralism


Robert Hassink, Claudia Klaerding, Pedro Marque


Click to access 54200ea90cf241a65a1afcd4.pdf



Geographies of Production: Growth Regimes in Spatial Perspective 3 – Toward a Relational View of Economic Action and Policy

Harald Bathelt


Click to access 43_Bathelt%202006_PIHG.pdf