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Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis
by Reg Harris
Nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is known primarily for being an idealist: we do not live in the world of material objects, but in an ideal world of the Mind, Spirit (Geist) or “world-soul.” Hegel believed that everything that exists originates in this ideal spirit, and that human history was the unfolding of this spirit through time.
For Hegel, the Geist unfolds through history following a logical process of negation. This process is known as the Hegelian dialectic. In Hegel’s dialectic, progress or greater understanding originates in the paradoxical nature of consciousness. Consciousness is intentional, discriminating. It focuses on one pole of a reality, called the “thesis.” However, as with hsiang sheng or mutually arising in Taoism, focusing on one pole provokes its negation, the discovery of a contradiction within the thesis or an awareness of its self-limiting opposite pole, the “antithesis.”
Awareness of both thesis and antithesis awakens the mind to the relationship between the two, the distinction that was created by the mind. This awareness triggers the third stage of the dialect: “synthesis,” in which the poles have become not opposites, but merely two sides of one reality. We have synthesized the “opposites,” combining the positive aspects of the two.
We may be seeing this process currently in the American public education system. In the later decades of the 20th century, with behaviorism falling into disfavor, we saw a dramatic swing toward more individualized and humanistic approach to education. Then, toward the beginning of this century, we saw a severe swing in the opposite direction, toward academics, standards and scripted teaching. This approach could be considered the antithesis to that humanistic movement. Hopefully, with this negation, we will begin to see a synthesis of the two poles, where we can work with children as children, not products, but still address quantifiable skills. This synthesis would balance the best of both poles.
The Cycle Continues
But Hegel’s dialectic does not end with synthesis, for the synthesis itself becomes a new way of seeing things, another opinion, so it becomes the thesis in a new dialectic cycle. This process continues until, presumably, one achieves an “ultimate” truth that is so broad that it subsumes all poles.
In Hegel’s dialectic, then, each stage in growth, progress or understanding emerges from the discovery and synthesis of opposite. The dialectic reminds us that opposites do not exist in reality but are constructs of the discriminating mind.
Both the beautiful and ugly, the good and not good, have a psychological origin, being products of human consciousness and valuation, but the very consciousness and pursuit of beauty and goodness as values are accompanied by the consciousness and presence also of the ugly and not good as disvalues. Opposites, including moral and value opposites, issue from the same ground and always accompany each other (Chen, p. 56).
In a sense, the dialectic breaks the mind free of the dichotomy it has created and makes us aware of the deeper unity from which the opposites appear. As Alan Watts wrote when discussing the yin-yang: “The yin-yang principle is not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity” (1975, p. 26). In the context of our study, this emergence of a higher awareness is the transformative potential in polarities.
If we visualize the dialectic as a cyclical process, we can see clear parallels with the transformative pattern in the Hero’s Journey. We begin the cycle from a basic understanding (our thesis or equlibrium). That understanding eventually brings to consciousness a weakness, contradiction or limitation in our thesis, which becomes the Call (or antithesis). The Road of Trails involves “working through” this apparent dichotomy (the negation) until we reconcile the two in the Abyss and Apotheosis, thus creating a new, more inclusive understanding (the synthesis). Seen its most abstract form, this hermeneutic or interpretive “feedback loop” appears to be the basis for all human engagement with the world.
Negation Stimulates the Growth in Perspective
There is another important aspect of the dialectic that is worth noting: negation drives the process because it stimulates the transformation in perspective necessary for growth and change. One could infer from this that if we are to grow, we must remain open to the negations in our lives, which come to us as disagreements, criticisms, suggestions, and failures. Only by being open to the negation of our current understanding, our thesis, can we be open to the transformative power of opposites that will bring us greater understanding.
Hegel’s dialectic is usually applied to the evolution of society, but it is clearly a process of reconciling opposites similar to what we see in Taoist thought in the flow of the yin-yang, and which we can see in other expressions of polarity, including enantiodromia, hermeneutics and the complimentary poles of mythos and logos.
Chen, E. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A new translation with commentary. New York: Paragon House.
Watts, A. (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon.
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