On the Evolution of Ideas

by Scott London

One of Hegel’s great contributions to Western philosophy was a theory he called dialectical progression. As he saw it, ideas and worldviews tend to evolve through a series of stages. First there is an idea or concept, a thesis. Over time it inevitably gives rise to its opposite, its antithesis. The interaction of the two in time leads to a new concept, a synthesis, which in turn becomes the thesis of a new triad.

J.N. Findlay, in a wonderful lecture on Hegel, rightly noted that the theory had been grossly oversimplified and misused. But he went on to say — and this strikes me as central to the notion of paradigm shifts and conceptual revolutions — that the dialectical method always involved “higher order comment” on a thought position previously achieved. In the dialectical process, you operate at a given level of thought and then proceed to stand outside it. That is to say, you’re taken in by an idea and accept all of its basic assumptions. But over time, as the idea is taken to its logical limits, its shortcomings become more and more apparent. At that point, you “become conscious,” in a sense, and begin to see the idea from the outside. It’s not unlike a gestalt-switch, only it’s more rational and linear.

“In dialectic,” Findlay pointed out, “one sees what can be said about a certain thought-position that one cannot actually see in it. And the sort of comment made in dialectic is not a comment on the correctness or truth of what is said in a certain manner or in terms of certain concepts, but a comment on the adequacy or logical satisfactoriness of the conceptual approaches or instruments one has been employing.” In this sense, each stage transcends and includes the one that came before it.

This observation ties in with what Thomas Kuhn, Joseph Schumpeter, Kenneth Boulding, Arthur Koestler, and others have observed about how systems of knowledge, or frames of reference, evolve not by an orderly and incremental step-by-step process, but by occasional upheavals in which accepted truths are overthrown and reordered.

Critics of Kuhn and his followers like to play the old relativism card, saying that his notion of shifting paradigms was flawed because it said nothing about the effectiveness of one paradigm or another in getting closer to the truth. But my understanding of the evolution of paradigms is that each one represents, in Findlay’s words, “a series of improving definitions of the absolute.”

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