Dialectical thought involves seeking a synthesis of two or more seemingly opposing viewpoints.
Throughout our lives, our views about how the world works change. New ideas can be learned through experiences with the world or through interpersonal interaction. As a person’s views on a topic, behavior, or experiences begin to conflict with one another, that person may become motivated to resolve the conflict. Conflicts may be resolved by logically deciding in favor of one of the competing viewpoints—an analytic style of solution. However, they may also be resolved by seeking synthesis of the two competing viewpoints—a dialectical style of solution.
Consideration of dialectical thinking can be traced back to the philosophies of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx. In psychology, Klaus F. Riegel and Michael Basseches both proposed influential frameworks for understanding the development of dialectical thinking. Riegel, for example, proposed that development depended on conflicts that occur throughout life. In his view, development never ends. As people grow older, they tend to adopt a dialectical thinking style in which people seek to live with contradictions and accept that it is impossible to escape them.
Jean Piaget’s influential theory of cognitive development proposed that children go through several unique stages, ultimately resulting in the formal operations stage. In the formal operations stage, a new kind of thought develops based on logic and consistency. However, there have been challenges to the belief that formal operations necessarily reflect the highest stage of thinking and that cognitive development plateaus prior to adulthood. Some recent challenges come from cultural psychologists, who have argued that analytic thinking (or formal operation–based thinking) is prototypical of Western thinking, while dialectical thinking is more prototypical of highly developed Eastern thinking. Both the analytic and dialectical styles of thinking are eventually learned in most cultures, but the emphasis on one or the other varies considerably. Which develops earlier depends on cultural values and parenting practices. Within a culture, development of reasoning styles is often thought to depend on interactions with peers.
The most relevant work in developmental psychology is on epistemic reasoning, a term used to describe peoples’ beliefs about what constitutes a valid argument and their general approach to structuring arguments. Recent developments in this line of thinking have explored how people in American society gradually adopt more dialectical reasoning styles for dealing with problems that have no clear answer (called ill-structured problems), such as whether life or liberty is a more valuable ideal. Jan D. Sinnott, for example, believes that older adults tend to move toward a style that simultaneously embraces multiple thought systems while accepting that we are always limited in our knowing. Similarly, Patricia M. King and Karen S. Kitchener have outlined how young adults move from a reasoning style that involves conflicting ideas being judged quickly as either true or false to one in which people explore conflicting viewpoints and view ideas as relatively more likely or less likely based on the evidence. In each case, dialectical thinking emerges as people consider multiple possibilities and admit that there is no way to be absolutely certain in uncertain situations.
Currently, most mainstream cognitive psychologists find it difficult to accept the research on dialectical (or postformal) thinking because it often is not backed up by clear experimental results. Most of the frameworks are based on interviews or observation and cannot easily be confirmed using more traditional research techniques. However, recent developments tend to be based on experiments, so perhaps the field is moving toward broader acceptance of dialectical thinking.
- Basseches, (1980). Dialectical schemata: A framework for the empirical study of the development of dialectical thinking. Human Development, 23, 400–421.
- King, P. , & Kitchener, K. S. (1998). The reflective judgment model: Twenty years of research on epistemic cognition. In B. K. Hofer & Paul R. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing (pp. 37–61). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Marchand, H. (2002). Some reflections on post-formal Retrieved from http://www.prometheus.org.uk/Publishing/Journal/Papers/MarchandOnPostFormal Thought/Main.htm
- Richard Nisbett, http://umich.edu/~nisbett/research.html
- Riegel, F. (1976). The dialectics of human development. American Psychologist, 31, 689–700.