Dialectic and Deliberation

One of Aristotle’s characteristic methods for solving philosophical problems is dialectic: upon (i) reaching an impasse (aporia), he (ii) surveys existing explanations (logoi) and reputable opinions (endoxa), (iii) engages in analysis to remove paradoxes and draw distinctions, then (iv) formulates a synthesis that harmonizes the explanations and saves the appearances (phainomena).

As far as I know, this dialectical method has not been applied to the pursuit of practical truth, i.e., to the process of deliberation for the sake of taking action (praxis). Yet we can see similarities in its underlying structure: (i) deliberation is often triggered by reaching an impasse in the form of an ethical dilemma or personal crisis; (ii) there might exist many explanations for and opinions about the causes of such an impasse; an ethical agent, a person, needs to (iii) analyze the relevant explanations and opinions, then (iv) formulate a synthesis that is consistent with – or that challenges – her values and worldview. However, in the case of practical truth, a person also needs to (v) make a choice (prohairesis) and commit to a particular course of action or personal practice and, finally, to (vi) take action following up that commitment, for instance steering clear of akrasia by maintaining awareness (theoria) of that commitment.

Applying dialectical insights to deliberation is interesting not only for its inherent value to ethics and the philosophy of action, but also because it has serious implications for the domain of philosophical practice as developed over the last 40 years by theoretician-practioners like Gerd Achenbach, Elliot Cohen, Lou Marinoff, Shlomit Schuster, Peter Raabe, and Ran Lahav. Unfortunately, the field of philosophical practice has been riven by a split between those who favor unstructured Socratic dialogue and those who favor the structured identification and correction of critical thinking errors. Aristotelian dialectic might help to heal the rift by defining flexible method or “mason’s rule” that does justice to both epistemic norms and situational particulars. It is just such a middle way that I am actively working to define.

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