Definition and Examples of Dialectic in Rhetoric


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In rhetoric and logic, dialectic is the practice of arriving at a conclusion by the exchange of logical arguments, usually in the form of questions and answers. Adjective: dialectic or dialectical.

In classical rhetoric, notes James Herrick, "Sophists employed the method of dialectic in their teaching, or inventing arguments for and against a proposition. This approach taught students to argue either side of a case" (The History and Theory of Rhetoric, 2001).

One of the most famous sentences in Aristotle's Rhetoric is the first one: "Rhetoric is a counterpart (antistrophos) of dialectic."
Etymology: From the Greek, "speech, conversation"

Pronunciation: die-eh-LEK-tik

Dialectic of the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Academicians have commented on how the concept of dialectic stretches back to the time of Aristotle, Socrates, and even Cicero, as these quotes demonstrate.

Janet M. Atwell

"In the simplest form of Socratic dialectic, the questioner and respondent begin with a proposition or a 'stock question,' such as What is courage? Then, through the process of dialectical interrogation, the questioner attempts to lead the respondent into contradiction. The Greek term for the contradiction that generally signals the end of a round of dialectic is aporia."
(Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle and the Liberal Arts Tradition. Cornell University Press, 1998)

Thomas M. Conley

- "Aristotle took a different view of the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic from what Plato had taken. Both, for Aristotle, are universal verbal arts, not limited to any specific subject matter, by which one could generate discourse and demonstrations on any question that might arise. The demonstrations, or arguments, of dialectic, differ from those of rhetoric in that dialectic derives its arguments from premises (protaseis) founded on universal opinion and rhetoric from particular opinions."
(Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Longman, 1990)

Ruth CA Higgins

"Zeno the Stoic suggests that while dialectic is a closed fist, rhetoric is an open hand (Cicero, De Oratore 113). Dialectic is a thing of closed logic, of minor and major premises leading inexorably toward irrefutable conclusions. Rhetoric is a signal toward decisions in the spaces left open before and after logic."
("'The Empty Eloquence of Fools': Rhetoric in Classical Greece." Rediscovering Rhetoric, ed. by J.T. Gleeson and Ruth CA Higgins. Federation Press, 2008)

Hayden W. Ausland

- "Dialectical method necessarily presupposes a conversation between two parties. An important consequence of this is that a dialectical process leaves room for discovery, or invention, in a way that apodeictic normally cannot, for the cooperative or antagonistic encounter tends to yield results unanticipated by either party to the discussion. Aristotle opposes syllogistic to inductive argumentation separately for dialectic and apodeictic, further specifying enthymeme and paradigm."
("Socratic Induction in Plato and Aristotle." The Development of Dialectic from Plato to Aristotle, ed. by Jakob Leth Fink. Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Dialectic in Medieval Through Modern Times

Other academicians have explained how dialectic has been an important concept in philosophy, government, and science from medieval times through the present.

Frans H. van Eemeren

- "In medieval times, dialectic had achieved a new importance at the expense of rhetoric, which was reduced to a doctrine of elocutio and actio (delivery) after the study of inventio and dispositio had been moved from rhetoric to dialectic. With [Petrus] Ramus this development culminated in a strict separation between dialectic and rhetoric, rhetoric being devoted exclusively to style, and dialectic being incorporated in logic . . .. The division (which is still very much alive in present-day argumentation theory) then resulted in two separate and mutually isolated paradigms, each conforming to different conceptions of argumentation, which were considered incompatible. Within the humanities, rhetoric has become a field for scholars of communication, language, and literature while dialectic, which was incorporated in logic and the sciences, almost disappeared from sight with the further formalization of logic in the nineteenth century."
(Strategic Maneuvering in Argumentative Discourse: Extending the Pragma-Dialectical Theory of Argumentation. John Benjamins, 2010)

Marta Spranzi

- "During the long interlude which started with the Scientific Revolution, dialectic virtually disappeared as a full-fledged discipline and was replaced by the search for a reliable scientific method and increasingly formalized logical systems. The art of debate did not give rise to any theoretical development, and references to Aristotle's Topics quickly vanished from the intellectual scene. As to the art of persuasion, it was treated under the heading of rhetoric, which was devoted to the art of style and figures of speech. More recently, however, Aristotle's dialectic, in close interaction with rhetoric, has inspired some important developments within the fields of argumentation theory and epistemology."
(The Art of Dialectic Between Dialogue and Rhetoric: The Aristotelian Tradition. John Benjamins, 2011)

Alex Ross

"The word 'dialectic,' as elaborated in the philosophy of Hegel [1770-1831], causes endless problems for people who are not German, and even for some who are. In a way, it is both a philosophical concept and a literary style. Derived from the ancient Greek term for the art of debate, it indicates an argument that maneuvers between contradictory points. It 'mediates,' to use a favorite Frankfurt School word. And it gravitates toward doubt, demonstrating the 'power of negative thinking,' as Herbert Marcuse once put it. Such twists and turns come naturally in the German language, whose sentences are themselves plotted in swerves, releasing their full meaning only with the final clinching action of the verb."
("The Naysayers." The New Yorker, September 15, 2014)

Frans H. van Eemeren

"[Richard] Weaver (1970, 1985) believes that what he considers as the limitations of dialectic can be overcome (and its advantages maintained) through the use of rhetoric as a complement to dialectic. He defines rhetoric as 'truth plus its artful presentation,' which means that it takes a 'dialectically secured position' and shows 'its relationship to the world of prudential conduct' (Foss, Foss, & Trapp, 1985, p. 56). In his view, rhetoric supplements the knowledge gained through dialectic with a consideration of the character and situation of the audience. A sound rhetoric presupposes dialectic, bringing action to understanding. [Ernesto] Grassi (1980) aims to return to the definition of rhetoric espoused by the Italian Humanists to give rhetoric a new relevance for contemporary times, making use of the concept of ingenium—recognizing similarities—to grasp our ability to distinguish relationships and make connections. Returning to the ancient valuing of rhetoric as an art fundamental to human existence, Grassi identifies rhetoric with 'the power of language and human speech to generate a basis for human thought.' For Grassi, the scope of rhetoric is much broader than argumentative discourse. It is the basic process by which we know the world."
(Strategic Maneuvering in Argumentative Discourse: Extending the Pragma-Dialectical Theory of Argumentation. John Benjamins, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Dialectic in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 14). Definition and Examples of Dialectic in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Dialectic in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).