Dialectics Bout: Richard Norman vs. Sean Sayers

Review by Ralph Dumain

Norman, Richard; Sayers, Sean. Hegel, Marx, and Dialectic: A Debate. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980.


This book consists of five essays. Essays one to three I call Round One of the debate. It remains to be seen who becomes the champeen in the end, but I declare Norman the hands-down winner of Round One.

Sean Sayers' initial defense of dialectical materialism is pretty much the standard one: the laws of dialectics, metaphysics vs. dialectics, etc. As such it is the usual hash of valid insights and conceptual confusion. Worse, Sayers completely discredits himself with copious citation of Mao, which is enough to merit perdition in my estimation. Sayers is thus the perfect embodiment of how not to present dialectics.

By contrast, Norman's treatment is exemplary. Norman is sympathetic to some conception of dialectics, but he intends to clearly and logically straighten out the mess of confusions and conflations within the usual presentations. At times I have made presentations almost exactly like his, but I was too lazy to write out my ideas and publish them. I'm glad Norman did.

Norman sees the initial kernel of rational truth in the notion of dialectics as a conceptual dialectic that serves as an alternative both to reductionism and dualism—i.e., the recognition of the distinction and unity of polar opposites. Norman begins by treating various notions presented in Hegel.

Especially exemplary is Norman's treatment of the paradoxes of motion (pp. 30-31). Norman correctly analyzes the problem of motion: to leave motion as a logically contradictory phenomenon is to leave it unexplained. The paradox arises because we have viewed motion the wrong way, as an infinite series of states of rest, which it cannot be.

Norman then analyzes how Hegel builds up his system of the progression of categories. But then Hegel's metaphorical expressions take over, and he sometimes conflates logical progressions with real progressions. Nonetheless, Norman is willing to grant the value of Hegel's conceptual dialectic, but here is where Engels mistakenly criticizes Hegel: Hegel sees dialectics as the self-development of concepts, but his dialectics needs to be turned upside down and viewed materialistically as the development of real things. But Engels is wrong! Hegelian conceptual dialectic is not incompatible with materialism.

One must first understand the distinction between conceptual truths and empirical truths, and how the former can sometimes also be the latter. To take a trivial example, a bachelor is always an unmarried man purely logically, by the definition of the concepts themselves, independent of empirical realities, while it may also be true of actual bachelors in the real world (p. 35). Hegel's analysis of the relation between particular and universal would be a non-trivial example. Lenin's treatment of the relation between particular and universal is an analogous example (p. 36).

Hegel actually denies in his writings the possibility of evolution in the physical world, for example the evolution of species (pp. 37-38). But worse is his analysis of history as a logical progression of the conceptual dialectic, e.g. his analysis of the historical progression from the ancient, feudal, and modern worlds "as deriving from the logical relations between the concepts 'universal' and 'particular' (p. 40).

Pay attention people, because here is where Norman nails Hegel's ass! Hegel uses the logical relations between universal and particular to explain historical causation:

Why should Hegel have held such a strikingly implausible view of historical change? The answer lies in his philosophical idealism . . . .(p. 41)

If the real world is the unfolding of Reason or God through time, then the conceptual dialectic can be identified with the temporal dialectic. And this is where Engels' criticism of Hegel is proper (pp. 41-42).

The empirical-temporal dialectic should then be considered separately, and it boils down to the pedestrian yet valid recognition of change and development as opposed to a static, unchanging conception of the world or of systems within it.

In chapter 3, Norman continues by analyzing the problem of contradiction. This chapter too is a paragon of clarity and incisiveness.

Norman first of all stresses the necessity to distinguish between dialectical contradiction and the logical law of non-contradiction, and argues why the latter must be upheld even if the former is admitted (p. 49). The very notion of rational argument is at stake if one equinanimously accepts "that one and the same proposition can be both true and false."

On the other hand, opposed to Popper, Norman does accept the fruitfulness of paradoxes (p. 50). But while paradoxes may be important and profound, and acceptable as fruitful statements, they cannot be left to stand logically as they are.

And now we get to the nuts of what dialectical contradiction is all about. Here the tender testicles of dialectics lie delicately poised in the scrotum of their mutual interdependence: section II: contradiction as interdependence of opposed concepts (see esp. pp. 52-54). The issue is the interdependence of united yet mutually opposed categories! (Hopw many times have I said this?) There are trivial examples and there are better examples:

The relation between these opposed categories is tighter than that between the rather trivial examples I have previously quoted. here the point is not just that, for the one concept to be applicable, the opposed concept must be applied to something else, but rather that, for the one concept to be applicable, the opposed concept must also be applied to the same thing." (p. 53)

The contradiction which is involved could, with more plausibility, be said to require the assertion of a self-contradictory statement—for the statement that one and the same thing possesses opposite characteristics looks like a self-contradictory statement. However, I still want to resist this suggestion. In all these cases the same thing can possess opposite characteristics because they are ascribed to it under different aspects, from different points of view. (pp. 53-54)

In the text that follows, Norman's resistance is rather feeble; however, in the footnotes on pp. 65-66, he admits that the question of logical formal contradiction is appropriately raised here. Study carefully, folks because here is the essence of the whole issue of dialectical logic!

In section III of the same chapter: Norman proceeds to analyze the notion as contradiction as conflict of opposed forces, as it is usually seen by Marxists. Here Norman agrees with Sayers that the notion of contradiction properly goes beyond the mere notion of conflict and opposed forces to included an interdependence of opposed concepts as well (p. 57, 59). Norman nonetheless warns as viewing this kind of contradiction as a logical law. When one sees an interdependence of concepts as well as forces, then:

. . . the vocabulary of 'contradiction' becomes appropriate. But this does not entitle us to say that one force 'contradicts' another force. The term 'contradiction' still refers to the relation between the concepts by which the forces are characterized. The relation between the concepts 'inciting force' and 'incited force' is one of contradiction because it is a meaning-relation. The two have opposite meanings but at the same time each depends for its meaning on its relation to the other. this is what makes the relation between them an interdependence of opposites, an opposition within a unity, a contradiction. (p. 59)

Norman clarifies beautifully what I clumsily attempted to say long ago about the tricky relation between objective and subjective dialectics. Norman, wherever you are, I could kiss you, but no tongues.

To wind up this chapter, there is a discussion of self-contradiction in human behavior and society. Norman promises to return to the dialectics of nature in a future chapter, but he distinguishes it from contradiction in human affairs.

End of Round One—Norman wins pants down.


Battered and reeling from round one, Sayers comes charging into the ring for round two, or, as the book would have it, essay four: "Dualism, materialism, and dialectics". Sayers is hot to inflict some punishment, but his vision is blurry, he staggers about the ring, and he spends most of his time flailing away at empty space, too dizzy and confused to keep track of his opponent. He's about to go down, but he angrily puts up an aggressive fight. This is the longest chapter of the book, and by far the worst.

Sayers sees Norman as an exemplar of analytical philosophy. There are irreconcilable differences between analytical and dialectical philosophy. Norman's distinction between conceptual and empirical matters is a dualistic philosophy incompatible with Marxism (p. 68). What a surprise. I thought I hated analytical philosophers (see my satirical poem about Quine and my haiku on analytical philosophy), but now my hero Norman is being lowered to their level. Not a good sign.

Hegel and Engels recognize a distinction between the dialectics of concepts and of the real world (p. 71), but Norman has a rigidly dualistic view of their relation and has an atemporal, aprioristic notion of the logic of concepts characteristic of analytical philosophy.

Desperate to land a blow, Sayers makes a fantastic linkage of Sayers and Althusser, who also enforces a rigid distinction between science and philosophy (which has no history) (p. 82). Sayers is punch-drunk now. Sayers charges that Hegel is wrongly taken to task for his infamous formulation that the rational is actual and the actual is rational (p. 83). This proposition encapsulates everything that bodes most odious in Hegel, and Sayers is eager to defend him. But then Sayers is still quoting Chairman Mao. Bad medicine.

Hegel has been badly understood. Hegel stresses the contradictions between reason and actuality as well as their identity. Incredibly, Sayers claims that the identity of reason and reality is materialist, not idealist! Then he drags in Colletti to slam him as a dualist for daring to claim that the identity of thought and being is an idealist notion! (p. 85) Sayers is only beating himself up here, while Norman is off somewhere relaxing, sipping on a Coke.

And now, claiming a connection I cannot see, Sayers equates Norman's view with Althusser's treatment of the inversion metaphor (pp. 86-87). For the first time in my life I find myself in agreement with Althusser and admire his perspicacious criticism of the inversion metaphor.

Sayers goes on to deny that either Hegel or Marx were reductionists of an idealist or materialist variety, and that the inversion of Hegel does not lead to reductionism. Sayers then spends several pages on the relation between base and superstructure, arguing for a subtle understanding of the interaction of the different spheres of social existence without collapsing them into one another and without keeping them separate and unrelated. This is all very fine, but it is a distraction from the subject of the debate.

Then there is the question of dialectics of nature. Norman is brave for even acknowledging the validity of the very notion, swimming against the tide of universal condemnation by the likes of analytical philosophers, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Colletti, etc., who, if they even they admit the possibility of any respectable notion of dialectic, restrict it exclusively to the subjective, human realm. Sayers sees Norman ultimately being swallowed up by this tide in refusing to see contradiction in nature and acknowledging only the clash of opposing forces (p. 99).

Thinking to oppose a mechanistic approach to the natural world, Sayers argues for negativity in things themselves. He treats the question of more complex organization of matter beyond the laws of physics and chemistry. There are several valid observations here, but none of his objections apply to the real Norman.

Section III: the sphere of reason: Norman's treatment of human behavior, i.e. that contradiction is the occasion for a critical view, is wrong, according to Hegel and dialectical materialism. Contradiction is not a blemish. Norman is wrong to want to keep opposites logically apart and non-contradictory. Sayers opposes Norman's superficial paradoxes. Sayers insists on the interpenetration, not the mere interdependence of opposites (p. 115). He denies non-contradiction as a necessary law of thought. The scientific method in practice (cf. Kuhn) doesn't work like this.

In mathematics, in calculus, contradictions were consciously accepted from the beginning. However, Sayers confutes his own claim that logical contradictions are not a blemish by then saying:

Had this not been so, Weierstrass and others would not have bothered to try to produce a more coherent formal theory of the calculus. (p. 119)

Sayers further claims: Contradiction is not purely negative, but the negative aspect necessitates change and development (p. 121). Formal logic has limited validity: formal inconsistency is invalid, but is indifferent to truth and considerations of content (p. 123).

Now comes the world of man, of activity and social institutions. Norman posits a duality of the natural and human world, says Sayers. In human affairs, Norman considers contradiction as a manifestation of irrationality. The notion of human behavior as normatively rational is Kantian, un-Hegelian and un-Marxist (p. 126).

Again, Sayers goes off on a tangent, ascribing views to Norman which he has not adopted. Sayers argues that being determines consciousness and reason is a product of history and social activity, not of sui generis reason. It would have been apt of Sayers instead to prove, as can be easily done, that in human affairs, in the sphere of ethics, for example, contradiction is objective and irredeemable and not merely a defect of inconsistency.

Sayers properly trashes Althusser's history without a subject and theoretical anti-humanism (pp. 128-129), but this has nothing at all in common with Norman. Then Sayers shoots himself in the foot (pp. 130-131) by claiming that Marxism does reject humanism (Maoist asshole!) and a fixed human nature, but not by simply discarding it.

Sayers goes on to examine the Hegelian notion of the ontogenesis of reason in individual human development (p. 132) and the Marxist notion of development from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Norman's notion of dialectic as a normative critical concept is accused of being purely Kantian (p. 135). Again, contradiction is seen as a defect rather than part of the objective world. But no abstract utopia free of contradiction is possible.

The spate of footnotes at chapter's end (all on Mao) remind us of Sayers' fatal attraction to Chairman Mao, a sure sign of intellectual bankruptcy.

This chapter is a confused mixture of valid insights and mixed-up and even harmful notions, and Sayers rarely ever approaches a critique based on Norman's real position. In my estimation, Norman has made only a minor error in confining human self-contradiction to a defect of the individual or of society, as I indicated above, but Sayers' rants are all over the place. He ends up shadow-boxing with himself alone.

For Norman is no opponent of dialectical materialism, as we shall see in the final round, where Norman defends the rational core of Engels' dialectics of nature, where he opposes both sloppy formulations of nature-dialectic AND its dogmatic opponents. Here Norman will deliver the fatal blow, but the contest is already over: Sayers has virtually knocked his own self out.


Finally, we come to essay five: "Dialectical concepts and their application to nature" by Richard Norman. Norman begins by acknowledging that Sayers represents the orthodox diamat position, which is now unfashionable and has been supplanted by a new orthodoxy—the denial of the validity of the very concept of a dialectics of nature. Norman announces that he aims to defend a version of the dialectics of nature and a tenable core of Engels' philosophy. Norman promises to offer a more satisfactory account of the positive connection between the conceptual and empirical-temporal dialectic.

Norman then analyzes the problematic features of Engels' Dialectics of Nature and his use of Hegel's categories, which are not taken from the Philosophy of Nature but from the Logic. Engels criticizes the Procrustean conformation of empirical facts to an a priori system instead of the deduction of the laws of dialectics from the history of nature and human society (p. 149). Norman does not believe that Engels really reverses Hegel's procedure, so he critiques Engels' use of examples from the natural sciences, arguing that Engels' appeals to scientific examples do not in themselves vindicate dialectical interpretations, for Engels really "appeals to Hegelian arguments in order to interpret the scientific results dialectically" (p. 151). This does not make Engels, or Norman, for that matter, dualists through their inherent recognition of a distinction between conceptual and empirical enquiry (pp. 151-152). This is a general feature of the relation between dialectical philosophy and science, in fact between most philosophy of science and science.

Norman argues that Engels tries to establish a non-mechanistic, non-reductionist, and non-dualist materialism.

The connection of the conceptual and empirical-temporal dialectic is to be established by seeing them united in the general dialectical world-picture. There are empirical facts of nature, e.g. biological evolution, or the levels of organization of matter, out of which all kinds of bad philosophical conclusions can be drawn, but Engels' general world-picture, a monist but non-reductionist view of motion, matter, its forms and transformations, and his treatment of the categories of quality, quantity, identity, and difference, guide us toward a proper interpretation of the empirical facts (p. 157). Norman backs up Engels 100% and opposes the dualism of the idealist Marxists who accept a mechanical materialist picture of nature while reserving dialectics for the mind and end up making a mystery of both and of their relation to one another (p. 158)!

This is the tenable core of Engels' dialectic of nature and it is authentically Hegelian.

Norman insists that dialectical concepts have not only users but applications. Norman is especially keen on the interpenetration of opposites and the quality-quantity relation. For Norman, contradiction means the unity of opposed concepts, and means essentially the interpenetration of opposites. Contradiction is a relation between concepts, but the concepts have empirical applications (p. 160).

And in saying that the term 'contradiction' describes the relation between concepts applicable to natural processes, we are not thereby committed to saying that the term also describes a relation between natural processes themselves." (p. 161)

Engels is often guilty of this confusion of nature and concepts. Even more so Norman criticizes Engels' spurious examples of negation in nature (grain-barley, etc.) (p. 162). However, there are processes of organic life which subsume yet transcend lower-order physical and chemical processes which are authentic applications of the notion 'negation of the negation' (p. 162). But this is not to say that natural processes negate one another. This is the defensible core in Engels: we need concepts of contradiction and negation "to describe the relations between dialectical concepts applicable to nature."

Norman then defends the notion of dialectics from the charge of idealism, by showing that Hegel, though idealist and aprioristic, is not irredeemably so much so that his ideas cannot be altered and used productively in a materialist form . . . as Engels does, and Lenin. Norman then blasts Colletti! (pp. 164-165)

Norman admits distinctions between nature and human agency, but he refuses, in opposition to Lukàcs, Kojeve, Schmidt, and Gunn, to confine dialectics to the relation between subject and object (pp. 166-167). On the contrary, one needs to comprehend dialectics more broadly in order to understand what is dialectical about the subject-object relation!

Furthermore, the philosophical importance of praxis (I use this term, not Norman) is also acknowledged in Engels (p. 168).

There are key reasons for defending a dialectic of nature. A non-reductionist, non-mechanistic, non-dualist philosophy is needed to deal with the polarities within Marxist socialist theory between determinism and voluntarism, between science and humanism, and between the obliteration of qualitative distinctions (of which Sayers is ultimately guilty) and dualism (p. 169). It is also important for philosophy as an academic discipline, which itself wavers between the extremes of mechanical materialism and anti-scientific lebensphilosophie.

In a footnote (p. 173), Norman mentions that he has treated the relation between conceptual and temporal dialectic only as pertains to dialectics of nature. The connection between the two in Marx's economic theory requires a separate analysis.

Sayers was already reeling from his own shadow-boxing. But in defending a cleaned-up, de-confused version of dialectical materialism, Norman has vaporized him!


This book, though it deals—because it deals!—with the most elementary philosophical notions of Marxism, is an exemplar of the issues surrounding writing introductory texts in Marxist philosophy. It is in essence two textbooks cut and pasted into one, for comparison. In one book we are shown how to do an intelligent exposition of dialectical logic (Norman) and how not to (Sayers), the latter regrettably having been standard practice for too long.

Additionally, this elementary-level book simply and straightforwardly (without impenetrable jargon à la Roy Bhaskar) presents some basic issues, thanks to Norman, in a way that can guide the most advanced and sophisticated investigations into unraveling the mysteries of the relationships between the Hegelian dialectic and the dialectical conceptions of Marx and of Engels.

Written 13 March 1995
Edited & uploaded 19 June 2006
© 1995, 2006 Ralph Dumain

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