Sunday, June 30, 2024

Is it helpful to adopt a dialectical approach to problem definition?


When you think of dialectical approaches the idea that may come to mind is thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. As suggested in the sentence quoted above, I am viewing dialectical approaches more broadly in this essay. Before discussing the meaning of dialectics, however, it might be helpful for me to outline why I think problem definition is a topic worth considering.

Importance of problem definition

Fundamental values are clearly at stake in public discussion of some issues (e.g. abortion, the death penalty, assisted dying). 

Most people tend to agree about policy goals when it is not obvious that fundamental issues are at stake. For example, when people are discussing climate change, they tend to agree that exposure to extreme weather events has undesirable consequences for human flourishing. Similarly, when health services are discussed, people tend to agree that illness is undesirable; when education is discussed they tend to agree that literacy and numeracy are desirable; and when poverty is discussed, they tend to agree that it would be desirable for all humans to have the wherewithal to maintain a minimum standard of living.   

However, when a participant in public discussion proposes a remedial strategy, those who disagree often claim that the proposed strategy is built on an implausible view of the nature of the problem being addressed. Much public discussion is about questions such as: Is there really a problem? Is the problem one that individuals are normally expected to manage by themselves, or is some kind of collective action usually considered appropriate? What plausible explanations have been offered as to the causes of the problem?  Should we be thinking about how to tackle the causes of the problem or about how to alleviate symptoms? Which potential remedial strategies should be the focus of our attention? Discussion often focuses on the validity of research findings and other information offered to answer such questions.

Relevance of dialectics

I am adopting here the definition of dialectics proposed by Chris Sciabarra, in his book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

“Dialectics is an orientation toward contextual analysis of the systemic and dynamic relations of components within a totality.” (173)

Sciabarra explains that “a totality” “is not simply an undifferentiated or all-encompassing whole”. He suggests it could be a two-person dialogue, an economy, or a social system. I will take the “totality” to encompass everything that can be shown to be relevant to the topic under discussion. If a dialectical approach to problem definition is adopted, the meaning of totality would be a matter for consideration in any specific context.

Sciabarra emphasizes that dialectics “is a thinking style that emphasizes contextual analysis of systems across time”. In a dialectical approach, “the aspects of a totality are understood systemically – that is, according to their spatial, or synchronic, interconnections – and dynamically – that is, according to their temporal, or diachronic, interconnections”.

Sciabarra offers his definition of dialectics after considering the use of dialectics from Aristotle to Hegel, and, after Hegel, by Marx, Hayek, Rand and others.

The question I have posed above - of whether it is helpful to adopt a dialectical approach to problem definition in public discussion - is not discussed explicitly in Total Freedom. However, that context seems to me to be one in which dialects has potential to be more helpful than alternative approaches.

In this essay I refer to some issues that have recently been the focus of public discussion to illustrate how a dialectical approach to problem definition would differ from the range of other methodological orientations. I focus on the four broad orientations that Sciabarra has identified: strict atomism, strict organicism, dualism, and monism.

Strict atomism

Strict atomists look at the world as if each aspect of it is separable from every other aspect. A recent Australian example of such an approach is the decision of the government of New South Wales (NSW) to build homes for “essential” workers in Sydney. The rationale given is: “NSW would grind to a halt without nurses, paramedics, teachers, police officers and firefighters, but many can’t afford a place to live in Sydney, close to where they work”. The announcement acknowledges existence of a more general housing affordability issue in Sydney but the government’s approach to dealing with that issue is clearly atomistic.

A dialectical approach would address a range of questions including whether anything is preventing the labour market from functioning flexibly to remunerate “essential” workers sufficiently to ensure that sufficient numbers are available to meet demand for their services in Sydney, and whether government regulation (e.g. zoning regulation) has been discouraging construction of sufficient affordable housing.

Strict organicism

Strict organicism relies on an illusory synoptic vantage point and views all relationships encompassed within the topic under discussion as constituents of a holistic principle at work. I see examples of strict organicism in recent discussion in Australia of the murder of women by their current or former male partners. Some people have suggested that this is a cultural problem which requires a fundamental change in men’s attitudes towards women. For example, Senator David Pocock stated: "we have a huge cultural issue" that needs to be "tackled". "This is going to take far more than some extra funding. This is a fundamental shift in the way that we treat women in this country.”

However, defining the problem as one that requires further improvements in men’s attitudes toward women tends to overlook the potential for other remedial action that is likely to be more effective in protecting the women whose lives are at greatest risk.

A dialectic approach would recognize that many of the men who kill their partners have known histories of violence. Research by Kate Fitz-Gibbon et al based on sentencing remarks by judges indicates that few intimate femicides occur without the offender having prior interaction with the criminal justice system.  This suggests the existence of effective intervention points that are not dependent on bringing about cultural change.

Dualism and Monism

 Sciabarra considers dualism and monism under the same heading. “Dualism is an orientation towards analysis by separation of a system’s components into two spheres”. “Monism is an orientation towards analysis of a system’s components as manifestations of a single factor”. Monists often embrace the dichotomies defined by dualists, while advocating a one-sided monistic resolution.

The mind-body dichotomy is a classic example of dualism. Another is the division of the social world into two spheres – the state and civil society (including the market). Sciabarra notes that dualist statists and dualist anarchists perceive these two spheres as fundamentally opposed and propose to resolve the conflict between them via monistic absorption of one sphere by the other. One side proposes a statist solution whereas the other proposes a civil society solution.

The debate about climate change provides examples of dualism and monism. For example, consider differences of opinion about CO2. On one side of the debate, many people argue that CO2 is polluting the atmosphere and causing adverse climate change. Their opponents argue that increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have had beneficial impacts on crop yields and the growth of forests. A dialectic approach would recognise that those views are not necessarily in conflict. A central issue is at what CO2 concentration the adverse impacts are likely to exceed beneficial impacts.

Dualism and monism are also evident in the broader debate about action to reduce CO2 emissions. On the one side, some people consider the idea that CO2 emissions influence the climate as a hoax perpetrated by statists to gain greater control over the lives of ordinary people. On the other side, some people claim that the world is heading for disaster if urgent action is not taken to reduce emissions.

A dialectic approach would emphasize the importance of keeping context in mind when considering such issues.

Let us first consider an individual who wants to come to an informed view on whether extreme views of climate alarmists or sceptics should, or should not, be dismissed as implausible. That individual could be expected to spend many hours sifting through available scientific evidence. They might conclude, as I have, that projections of climate change models endorsed by the IPCC are more plausible than the views of climate alarmists and sceptics. On the other hand, they may come to different conclusions, as have some of my friends who seem to be fairly intelligent.

Now, let us consider the appropriate policy response of the Australian government in the light of two facts: Australian greenhouse gas emissions contribute just over 1 percent of global emissions, and on a per capita basis, Australia’s emissions are among the highest in the world. That context has considerable relevance in considering an appropriate policy response:

Climate alarmists should be encouraged to understand that even if Australia’s emissions went to net zero tomorrow, that would have an insignificant direct impact on global greenhouse gas emissions and would certainly not prevent the global calamity that they fear. A policy of rapid reduction in emissions may offer Australia the worst of all worlds – high cost of transition to a low emissions economy accompanied by high cost of adaptation to climate change.

Climate sceptics should be encouraged to understand that international sanctions may be imposed on Australia if this country is seen to be unduly slow in taking action to reduce emission levels.


 In this essay I have considered whether a dialectical approach is relevant to problem definition in public discussion. I have adopted Chris Sciabarra’s view of dialectics as a thinking style that emphasizes contextual analysis of systems across time.

The examples of problem definition that I have considered – housing for “essential” workers in Sydney, murder of women by their current or former male partners, and the debate about climate change – support the view that a dialectical approach is preferable to strict atomism, strict organicism, dualism and monism.

It could be claimed that context-keeping is something that people who are skilled in problem definition do as a matter of course without declaring that they are adopting a dialectical approach. I have some sympathy with that claim but I note that I have had no difficulty finding examples where people who might be expected to have some skills in problem definition have adopted approaches that can be described as strict atomism, strict organicism, dualism and monism.

Some people need reminding about the importance of context-keeping.

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