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Dialectical Thinking in The New York Daily News

I've been working really hard on deadlines, and have fallen a bit behind in my reading. But I finally got to the July 3, 2020 issue of New York's Hometown Paper: The New York Daily News. And I came to the op-ed essay by Eli Merritt, entitled "How To Remember the Founders" (also found at the History News Network) ... and my jaw dropped. Merritt is a visiting scholar at Vanderbilt completing a history of the founding period entitled Disunion Among Ourselves: How North-South Compromise Saved the American Revolution. I have no idea how much we might agree or disagree on any number of issues, but, as you'll see from the excerpt below, he had me at "dialectical thinking."

As many folks know, I've been championing the virtues of dialectical thinking for the better part of four decades now. But too much of that discussion has gone on in scholarly circles. So it was a breath of fresh air to see Merritt's application of a more contextually sensitive approach to understanding the American founders. Whether or not you agree with Merritt's characterizations or conclusions, I think he's spot on with regard to how to approach these issues, something that I drove home in my recent post, "On Statues, Sledgehammers, and Scalpels." Here's a dose of what Merritt has to say:

Over the past several decades, the Founding Fathers have fallen severely out of favor. Once revered as the trailblazers of American liberty and equality, they are now often denounced as the nation’s patriarchal and racist architects of white male supremacy. Statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are under attack, sometimes literally. Especially for the original sin of slavery, whether as practitioners of it themselves or as willing conspirators in its perpetuation in the Constitution, the Founders are held up as objects of censure, not honorary celebration, including on the Fourth of July. ... [W]here does the reality of the Founders’ racism and barbaric practice of slavery leave a history-conscious nation?
After grappling with this question for years, I find only one way out of the grievous moral morass of our founding history. It is dialectical thinking. This method of analyzing historical questions contrasts with dichotomous or all-or-nothing thinking, in which the thinker makes binary judgments based on formulas of "right or wrong" and "good or bad." In dialectical thinking, we tolerate the cognitive dissonance of holding opposing, contradictory viewpoints in our minds at the same time, such as the proposition that Washington and Jefferson were immoral and corrupt slaveowners and, simultaneously, fierce and brilliant dissenters who established equality and justice as our nation's founding principles.
In fact, once we subject our analysis of the founding period to the dialectical method, we can marvel at the unity of our history from the toppling of the statue of King George III in New York City in 1776 to the toppling of Confederate and other white-dominant statues across the country today. Opening our minds to historical paradox, we discover that, in spite of the horrors of the past and present, Americans are philosophically one people with one narrative. Our common narrative centers on the undying fight for equality and justice for an ever-widening circle of "We the People."

What Merritt drives home in this thoughtful essay is essentially the central motif of dialectical thinking, which requires us to pay attention to the larger context. When we do look at things from different vantage points and on different levels of generality, and as we broaden the scope of our inquiry, we tend to move away from what psychologists in the cognitive-behavioral field characterize as cognitive distortions. Such distortions include: All or Nothing Thinking; Overgeneralizing (for example, thinking that if one thing goes wrong, everything must go wrong); Mentally Filtering Our Experiences (viewing an entire experience through either a fully positive or fully negative lens); Catastrophizing (magnifying a single aspect to the detriment of the wider context); and Jumping to Conclusions (taking a single factor as universal and rendering a judgment that drops the wider context).

I think that what Merritt puts his finger on is something that dialectical thinkers have understood, from Aristotle to Hegel (and Hegel himself saw Aristotle as "the fountainhead" of dialectical method). As I write in Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

One of Hegel's distinctive concepts in this regard is the notion of aufheben, which, Hegel tells us, "has a twofold meaning in the language: on the one hand it means to preserve, to maintain, and equally it also means to cause to cease, to put an end to." [It] has been translated on occasion as "to supersede." ... Hegel occasionally uses the phrase "erhalten und verklaren," which means, more broadly, "to preserve, transfigure, or illuminate" [sometimes rendered as] "to sublate," which means to cancel, abolish, or annul---and, simultaneously, to preserve. This translation has become standard. ... To sublate, then, actually has three cognitive implications: to cancel, to preserve, and to elevate or transcend. [It can be compared to] the English phrase "to put aside." To put something aside "may mean to put it out of the way, to have done with it, abolish it. Or it may mean to put it aside for future use, to keep and preserve it." "To sublate" embodies both of these meanings, taken together.

So, in a sense, when we look at any historical event or social problem, even when every aspect of our moral conscience tells us to cancel, abolish, annul ... there is a moment when we need to take pause and move away from "all or nothing thinking." Because it is equally important to preserve, elevate, and transcend. And dialectical thinking about any event or problem offers us the tools by which to get that job done ... with scalpels, rather than sledgehammers.

It's a good article, whatever your perspective on current events; I recommend it to your attention.