06th January 2021

Book in Focus: Formal Dialectics

In this edition of our Book in Focus blog series, philosopher Thomas Dylan Daniel takes a look back over the eventful two years that have elapsed since the publication of Formal Dialectics, and provides some insights into what the future might hold.

Formal Dialectics

By Thomas Dylan Daniel

It’s hard to believe two years are all the time that has passed since Formal Dialectics was released at the end of 2018. Authoritarianism, an out-of-control pandemic, and continuous misadventures by top officials in government have characterized the past couple of years in our shared political history and the time has dragged by as we collectively suffered for these mistakes by our political elite.

My reason for investing so much time into the creation of Formal Dialectics was that it seemed philosophy could be used to improve decision-making at the highest levels; however, it appears the world is not yet ready to engage in such quality cognition.

The Case for Optimism, Even in the Present Day

Though it sounds pessimistic at first, the message here is one of optimism. In Formal Dialectics and elsewhere, I speak with some dismay of an academic system that seems to be falling apart in the United States. True to the form of postmodern anxiety, I never really answered any of my deeper questions about academia to any degree of satisfaction. I spent most of 2019 working in biotechnology and have been quarantined since March in 2020, writing articles for various online outlets to avoid the risk of exposing myself, and thereby my family, to the deadly pathogen that permeates our environment here in West Texas, where nobody seems capable of orchestrating anything like a coherent attempt at widespread mask-wearing.

Despite my great interest in philosophy, it is likely that I will not have another opportunity to obtain a post at a university as a teacher. In addition, our society has much, much bigger problems to deal with than the higher education funding problem that leads to atrocious working conditions for adjunct lecturers in the humanities, as well as the sciences. Introduction-level science classes have long been so bad on average that even qualified students avoid them. 

Instead of having a moment to deal with these issues, we Americans are beset by a plague and by a disgraceful authoritarian President who still refuses to admit he lost the election last year. The myriad crises will likely keep even first lady Dr. Biden, an education advocate, from making much headway on education-related issues in the short-term.

The absurdity of the historical moment is so vividly apparent that it’s difficult to even conceive of a philosophy book as anything like relevant, but the most bizarre realization for us here is simply the growing recognition of the fact that our absurd choices at the collective level directly led to the absurdity we’re all experiencing individually.

So, how do we end up at anything even resembling optimism in the midst of a pandemic?

Why, dialectically, of course!

The character of rationality itself is one of continuous development towards a particular goal: better predictions that lead to better consequences when we act. In The Plague, Albert Camus recognizes what he calls the feeling of absurdity in the soliloquy delivered by the character Tarrou, who I characterized in an essay as the hero of the story. In the speech Tarrou delivers to Rieux, the physician, we see the virtue of the individual man’s action as an absolutely central mainstay to the survival of the collective; yet he dies, alone and virtually unthanked for his service!

And yet…. the character of the dialectical relationship between the individual and the collective has never been as clear as it is in these stark passages. In such a large mass of individuals, bad ideas and, hence, regrettable actions are inevitable. Through a deep understanding of the works of Camus, we see that the twin threads of hope and despair are largely made of the same components; what separates them is a combination of attitude, character, and understanding. What makes us good is service to the greater whole, yet at times the best way to serve the human collective is precisely to oppose the ones who hold power. 

This struggle is one of life and death. The survival of social humanity is contingent upon the general trend toward increasing social consciousness and responsibility, yet many people are unable to perform the basic ethical calculation necessary to function on the rational autonomous axis of human behavior. The constrictions of illusory economic opportunity and an unprecedented level of debt have made the case in favor of changes to the centerpieces of our economic structure impossible to deny.

That’s where the optimism comes from. We will eventually reach a tipping point, if this continues, and a transformation will follow. What emerges ought to be better than what we left for it, at long last.

The Future of Formal Dialectics

In Formal Dialectics, I disputed Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous claim that the world was headed for a new dark age on the grounds that the internet stands to facilitate increasing communication between people who live in different places—the opposite of a dark age. Yet here we are, having lived through four years of a Trump presidency that did an untold amount of damage to humanity’s efforts to mitigate the ill effects of climate change and the global order itself. During this time, the internet has shown us its dark side by enabling bad actors to obtain power by misguiding the masses via social media. Of that there is no question. However, perhaps the tide is turning. 

Soon, we may see a more resilient, more democratic, and more powerful avenue for political expression in online networking. Our lifestyles are only increasing in terms of connectedness. Perhaps we will eventually all learn to live together. Indeed, perhaps the time of a popular Formal Dialectics is coming. It is a beautiful book and the argumentation it contains has withstood the test of time thus far. I believe in this little book, full of powerful proofs and honest dialectical reasoning. It seems that some on the religious right are opposed to the very concept of dialectics itself, and I look forward to conversations with such people because I believe their view is self-contradictory.

Dialectics is nothing to be afraid of, and it is not “against God” any more than building an iPhone or going to the moon is against God. The sorts of conversations that can be had, using the dialectical method, are the type of thing that creates answers to even the most difficult questions, not by providing simple axioms, but by providing the dialectician with a multifaceted view of the entire situation. The reason preachers are against dialectics is that dialectics is an activity in which the individual is forced to think for himself; this makes people less easy to control and makes many religious people uncomfortable because the whole religious game we humans like to play so much is a game about social cohabitation more than anything else. 

The Catholic Church, in particular, has struggled to keep up with the times as dialectical reasoning has progressed. It could be argued that the Recovery of Aristotle was such a monumental event historically as to lead to the excommunication and later canonization of St. Thomas Aquinas precisely because it reintroduced the dialectical component of the philosopher’s thought into the school system the Church had developed. It is my firm belief that dialectical engagement with the subject is the method by which excellence can be reached. 

A dialectician is not interested in being the argument’s winner, or in being right all of the time. Rather, dialectically inclined thinkers like to know about the possibilities, about the arguments that can be made by various involved parties, and, hence, we are interested in the people, the situation, and the solution to whatever problem we may be looking at.

The result? 

A deeper grasp of the situation that leads to, not trolling and winners or losers, but a greater understanding of the situation itself and the motives of the actors taking part in it.

With this thought in mind, I am proud to announce that I will be creating a series of videos about Formal Dialectics. I’m still fine-tuning my home studio to produce quality content for everyone who is interested in the book, but within a few weeks my YouTube channel will feature them. Go ahead and follow it to be notified as I release the Formal Dialectics Video Series.

It has been two very full years since Formal Dialectics came out, and now over six years since the concept exploded into my mind. I don’t know what hasn’t changed: I’m experimenting with new media and on a new, freelancing-oriented career path that keeps steering me toward blockchain and cryptocurrency. One thing remains the same: I’m still working on Dialectics of Liberation, with no end date in sight. I suppose it also still seems feasible to provide a material reductionist account of ethical decision-making. Were this thesis to be borne out by time and thought, it could signal the end of the postmodern era and the beginning of a new age, with its own archetypal patterns and a different set of shortcomings.

In these, as well as many other things, time will tell.  

About The Author

Thomas Dylan Daniel is a free-thinking Texan philosopher with degrees from Southwestern University and Texas State University, both in the USA. His essays have appeared in Oil, Gas and Energy Law and Philosophy of Language. His key research interests include philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and ethics, as well as cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and environmental science.

Formal Dialectics is available now from the Cambridge Scholars website in paperback and hardback formats, where you can also access a sample from the text. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount. Ebook available via Google Play.