Exhaustion of the Dialectic as End of History
by E. John Winner
(1) Every field of human endeavor requires communication, and in communication, language generates ideas in the ordinary sense of that term (and sometimes in the technical philosophic senses of the term, as well). Since communication is a process, developing over time and in concrete contexts of social involvement, every idea has a history. Reviewing the history of any idea reveals that none receives universal acceptance by the first generation to be exposed to it. Rather, what we see is a narrative of conflict: disagreement, argument, counterargument, opposing ideas, criticism, rebuttal, appeals to differing authorities and differing procedures for justification. Eventually, the idea has been tested and comes to enjoy general (although rarely universal) agreement, or is displaced by a stronger idea, or gets subsumed into a better idea. Sometimes, as the context of its generation recedes into history, itself altered by changing economies, cultural formations, scientific discoveries, the idea simply fades from view.
There are intimations that thinkers among the ancient Greeks (and in a different away among the ancient Hebrews) were aware of the historical processes that bring ideas to full fruition. Possibly the first thinker to make use of this process (without recognizing full implications of it) was Aristotle, who begins many of his texts by reviewing and comparing what others had said on his given topic. He thus effectively began a certain practice of scholarship used recurrently down the centuries since, the zenith of which was perhaps reached in the Summas of Thomas Aquinas. Notably, however, the sense that this process was by nature historical – that it had a narrative structure – is clearly lacking in Aquinas. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that this narrative structure began to come into view (Vico is a good example), and the first thinker to attempt a complete description of it was Hegel. He saw it not only as having a logic, but as being a logic, since its development is inevitable once initiated. He named it the “Dialectic,” a term previously used for argumentative discourse per se, because argumentative discourse is the primary medium of the narrative’s development. (I’ll retain the capitalized first initial for Hegel’s specific logic, while the small case ‘dialectic’ will indicate the more traditional understanding of the term.) Nonetheless, one can read historic dialectics, dialogues concerning conflicting ideas, narratively or dramatically, so even without Hegel’s over-arching thesis, much of what he says can apply to them.
(2) As every field of human endeavor generates ideas, it follows that each field will initiate, in its original ideas, a dialectic with regard to the history of the ideas it generates. For Hegel, all of these field-specific dialectics ultimately fold into the grand Dialectic of shared history, the ideas of the separate fields converging through sublation into the self-realization of the human spirit in the Absolute. We should notice two things: First, an undeniable insight into the historical contextualization of any idea, endeavor, or achievement. One can’t get Cicero without the Coliseum; there is no modern science where there is no Reformation; Galileo and Columbus are both participants in the ideas of their own time; participants in the different but related histories of their fields of discovery. Secondly, any dialectic has a determinant end. For Hegel, points of completion for certain ideas of the past resolved into the grander narrative of shared history. That is, they reached the end of a chapter or the curtain of an act, but could not be considered as anything but part of the whole story. Medieval theology, for instance, had a starting point, a rich narrative of developing institutionally bound ideas and salvaged ideas from the Classical era, but it had reached a completion requiring an answering counterargument in the de-institutionalized, inwardly directed Reformation. The page had turned, and a new chapter needed to be written, for the Spirit to realize itself in its self-identity and yet also in its plenitude as Absolute.
For Hegel, Spirit goes everywhere and does everything, until finally achieving a level of consciousness in all its human endeavors, such that it knows all it needs to know and has achieved all its ideas could achieve within the Dialectical structure of its narrative. At that point, history ends. That is not to say that people stop doing things. It’s just that they will generate no new ideas or counter-ideas; no new arguments; no potential new histories or competing narratives. There will be no further progress that isn’t merely a refinement of what has already been achieved. For Hegel, this was true of the histories of most, perhaps all, human endeavors up to his time and especially the fields that most concerned him (philosophy, the fine arts, law, religion, politics), but perhaps also even in the natural sciences. (Although there is evidence that Hegel didn’t quite “get” Newton or calculus.)
Although in 1989 Francis Fukuyama published a notorious paper celebrating “the End of History,” in the completed dominance of the liberal democratic state in world politics, most people no longer pay much heed to this part of Hegel’s narrative. Most, I think, are persuaded that history is composed largely of the narratives that historians relate in texts designated “history.” Since this endeavor is clearly not going to “end” anytime soon, if there is a market for it, either public or academic, why ruminate over any ‘end’ of it?
This misses what can be learned from Hegel’s insights on the subject. Get rid of the hope for an Absolute, forego the possibility of a happy ending, ditch the idea that ideas can achieve universal agreement in a nation-state maintaining social harmony while promoting individual liberty. What we’re left with are undeniable historical problematics that reach out and influence our own age. The accepted fact is that Medieval theology came to an end by the 15th Century, and the next century saw the initiation of the Reformation, the general distribution of the Bible in vernacular languages, and the collapse of Europe into religious wars deploying new technologies of destruction. What was this not the “end” of Medieval theology? Was it not a point at which all ideas it could generate had been generated, all the arguments and counterarguments made, all sublations reaching synthesis in negotiated compromises and modifications achieving general agreement? It required an innovation that it could not produce within itself. In 1517, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche, and the new chapter began writing itself.
(3) Shortly after Hegel’s death, it became a point of contention among his followers whether mastery of the Dialectic provides a predictive power over the future – as Hegel seems to suggest in the Phenomenology of Spirit – or whether the Dialectic is merely a prism through which we can read the past and gain greater understanding about it, as Hegel makes almost explicit in the Philosophy of Right. Those holding the former view became known as “Left Hegelians,” those holding the latter “Right Hegelians.” Although politically on the left, if I were to be an Hegelian (which I’m not), then I suppose I would be a Right Hegelian, because assumed mastery of the Dialectic and the activities and rhetoric this motivates can prove quite dangerous, especially in practical politics where the more traditional understanding of ‘dialectic’ as argumentative discourse makes better sense.
But I wish to suggest here one way Hegel’s Dialectic can be used to understand how history unraveled Modernity, as an unstable merger of Enlightenment and Romantic concerns (which included unresolved nostalgia for previous religious formations), into the present day as fragmented, tribalistic, tasteless, uncommunicative (despite the never ending wash of useless information spewed at us through every media), relativistic and occasionally resoundingly irrational era we call the Post-Modern. Thus far, I’ve been discussing the history of philosophy, because this was Hegel’s primary concern. Yet we can see exploded or exhausted dialectics, unraveling histories, everywhere around us. Aesthetics, political theory, economics, law … the old stories no longer make sense, except with regard to very specific tribal concerns. Even science seems moribund. That contemporary technology no longer needs grounding in the theoretical sciences may speak to the health of technological endeavors but doesn’t say much good for the sciences that once grounded them.
(4) The Dialectic as logic of historical narrative should always be read forward. We will always have a sense that the story finally reaches a resting point in our own day, but we want to start at the beginning and work our way through the Dialectic just as it worked itself out historically. The proper reading of philosophy, for instance, should begin with the ancient Greeks. How can anyone understand how the Moderns go beyond Aristotle without reading Aristotle?
But it’s entirely possible to read historical dialectics backward. When one does, non-narrative structures begin to appear, though no less discursive and rational and no less constructed through time. For our present purposes, I suggest that we think of a dialectic as the realization of a matrix of possible arguments implicit in the original generation of ideas. The matrix forming the dialectic of the pre-Socratics is rather limited, because, from the fragments, the ideas were too simple and all-encompassing. (Is everything change? Does nothing change? Is movement an illusion?) We characterize the “pre-Socratics” as such because except for Parmenides, Plato’s Socrates has no interaction with them. Why is Plato decisive as a turning point? The success of the Sophists as educators led them to theorize their teaching. But they had limited interest in what we know as metaphysics (the primary concern of the pre-Socratics), and almost no interest in the problem of knowledge. They taught social skills and presumed knowledge was pretty much what everyone in their society agreed to. This introduction of the social into their theories is what initiates Plato’s critical response. Is knowledge perfectible through reason? Or is it simply what we all agree that we know? If the former, then surely those who have perfected knowledge ought to guide the society; if the latter, then all in agreement ought to participate in that guidance. And so on – ideas, problems, arguments that have developed until the present day.
Well, not exactly. In fact, the matrix of Greek philosophy, the expression of all possible positions and counter-positions implicated by the first disagreement between Plato’s Socrates and the Sophists – the exhaustion of its dialectic – was essentially complete by the time of Rome’s dominance of the Greek peninsula. Interestingly, the remnants of that dialectic that carried into Roman culture were primarily ethical in social orientation – Epicureanism and Stoicism, for example – or effectively dismissive of the effort to perfect knowledge: i.e. Skepticism and Cynicism. The Roman ideology had very little room for the higher calling suggested by Plato. That was left to religious cults. So, the questions raised among the Greek philosophers that interest us today actually needed to be resurrected later, for different social purposes in different historical contexts. By the time of the Roman Empire, the philosophy of the Mediterranean had entered a period of stagnation, barely kept alive by small sects of speculative scientists and mathematicians in outlying colonies.
This is an over-simplification obviously. A very interesting description of how this process progresses can be found in Randall Collins’ massive study of world philosophies, The Sociology of Philosophies.  Collins does not have my “matrix theory” informing his text, and he is no Hegelian. But what Collins notices and describes, but doesn’t really get into, is the way in which philosophic traditions simply run out of steam. At some point they say everything they can say, and what follows is a period of reiterating arguments that have already been made, on behalf of ideas already accepted or rejected by different camps. Nothing new really happens until some innovation effectively disrupts or even discards the tradition, generating ideas needing their own arguments and counter-arguments (in Hegelian terms, their own Dialectic; in non-Hegelian terms, their own tradition). How many Modern thinkers, from Luther to Descartes, Francis Bacon to Vico, Locke to Hume and Kant, explicitly dismiss Medieval Scholasticism or simply ignore it. One early Modern philosopher, Montaigne, makes clear why: the discovery of the Americas, new interactions with non-European cultures, the new astronomy, the re-invigoration of mathematics; they all introduced ideas and possible lines of inquiry and experience that the Scholastics had never accounted for and could not, given the terms of their own ideas and argumentation.
(5) I had prepared, by way of example, discussion of a political issue of our day. Politics may not be defined by Hegel’s Dialectic (and shouldn’t be), but any politics engages dialogue between competing ideas over time. Eventually, even in politics, everything that could have been said will have been said, because, while the possible expansion of any dialectical matrix is indefinite, it cannot be infinite. At some point, all possible positions within a given social-historical context will have been expressed and accounted for, their arguments, counterarguments and critiques all made. Should we all live happily ever after, just as Hegel promises us? No. What no one yet has effectively accounted for (except possibly Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents) is that simply because a position has been critiqued and debunked and all the arguments for it stripped of value and conviction, doesn’t mean that those holding the position as a firm belief are ready to surrender it and move on. Human beings are only the “sometimes-rational” animal. Once all the political arguments have been made, and thus no argument convinces anyone of anything any longer, we are left effectively shouting at one another, the exemplar of current political discourse is the social-media troll, whose sole interest lies in drawing lines of division between “friends” and “foes” real or perceived. So, I realized that whatever I write politically will be perceived as trolling and attacked by trolling, in kind, however sophisticated it may be. So, let’s consider a different arena of post-modern life: fashion.
This occurred to me originally many years ago, when a former professor of mine and a former hippie in the ‘60s Cultural Revolution, complained of the lack of fashion innovation among her undergraduate students; that unlike the hippies, they seemed unable or unwilling to discover new ways of transgressing current fashion norms. It became clear to me that in the ‘60s and ever since, everything that had been worn had been revived and worn again, from the skins of primitive tribes to fancy Georgian ruffles, from the Bowery chic of Punk to the Victorian drag of Goth. The status quo of fashion among the young had become the lack of a status quo. The matrix of possible fashion statements was effectively complete. Anything that could be physically worn is now socially acceptable, making innovation merely a matter of finding one’s preferred niche. But let’s get into that.
Although Pragmatists have never said this outright (it’s implicit in Peirce and James and almost explicit in Mead and Morse Peckham) any human behavior may, semiotically and psychologically, be read as a kind of argument. That I stop my car at a red light argues my respect for the laws of the community, and my acceptance of the rationale establishing those laws. Implicitly, it argues that very rationale: if I accept the rationale, then the rationale has validity.
It follows that even the choice of wearing apparel may publicly present arguments, since what we wear signifies to ourselves, our family and friends, our colleagues at work, strangers in the street, in different ways. Unless we suffer from a psychological disturbance, we generally will strive to keep these various arguments consistent, although we may be willing to engage conflicting arguments in very different social environments, such as wearing certain expected clothing at work (thus signifying my acceptance of my employers’ expectations of my appearance), while wearing very different clothing in, say, a nightclub where I am meeting my friends. There, what I wear may be transgressive of any expectation my employers may have for me. Indeed, this may be the very argument, namely, that outside of my place of employment, “I am my own person” (at least to the extent that my friends expect this of me).
But while certain implicit or explicit dress-codes still exist for given situations – many still wear their “Sunday best” to church, and few go to work in a bikini – the fact is that these situations are quite limited, and most people feel fairly comfortable wearing what they will, when they will. The bikini was criticized when introduced in the 1950’s as resembling women’s underwear. By the 1990’s in certain circles, women were wearing underwear in public. The situations restricting such wear (e.g., most workplaces) constitute niches themselves and have little influence outside themselves.
The world of the fashion industry and that of its critics has a language of its own, so we are repeatedly assured by its promoters and critics that the latest fashions to come out of that world are new, even revolutionary. That sells copy to those fascinated by the fashion world, but we wear what we please , at least to the extent that our friends expect this of us. And if our friends are offended, we can always find new friends (and wearing fashion our friends find offensive is usually a clear signal that we are interested in finding new friends).
Except for those committed to the validity and usefulness of the fashion world, its industry and media, anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the history of fashion must recognize that this history is now complete. Since what we wear constitutes a kind of argument, clearly we’re all engaged in re-iterating the arguments of that history: “women wear skirts”; “men wear trousers”; “a decent man never wears skirts”; “any individual has the right to wear trousers”; etc. But excepting the situational restrictions mentioned before, no argument is convincing beyond the limit of a given community, and innovation is impossible. A woman wears trousers and then wears her underpants on the outside? It’s been done. Even a man wearing a skirt to work is no longer shocking.
(6) The “end of history” – any history – represents an exhaustion of the Dialectic (or merely dialectics) as narrative into the matrix of expressed possible ideas and counterarguments. But, it is also a babble of voices regurgitating arguments already made, critiques already devastating (but ignored); attempted renewal of previous ideas with new but unconvincing terminology; neologisms masquerading as innovation. It is an era not of drama but of shadow-play; not of story but of soap-opera and pantomime. It is the great desert of intellect. It needs real innovation and not just the production of empty signifiers for hollowed out ideas and endeavors that no one really cares for or believes in anymore. In the desert of the intellect, anyone can do that. Indeed, everyone will do that. We are not the puppeteers, but the puppets of our own past. We may attempt to shock through transgression, however that is no innovation, but merely a fad; filling up time and space with our own lack of imagination. The only shock is that reasonable, grown men and women could be shocked by it, at this late stage. Piss on a crucifix and call it art; portray a rape on streaming television before 30 million people; assume the office of the President and tweet insults at a movie-star; all is permissible and nothing matters. Nietzsche’s “last man” as reality television participant; a mere simulacrum of a Self.
Innovation will have to come from elsewhere. From the East or perhaps the South? Is some new Martin Luther waiting over the horizon with a yet unimaginable new set of theses to nail to our internet door? Who knows? Post-Modernity tells us that the Modern is at an end. But the human species survives, and if it shares a spirit, then another chapter is about to write itself.
 Belknap Press, Harvard; revised edition 1998.