Revised version of an article published as "Dialectic: East and West," Indian Philosophical Quarterly 10 (January, 1983), pp. 207-218.

The word dialectic is derived from a Greek prefix dia-and the Greek verb lego, whose verbal noun is the famous word logos. Dia- means across, apart, or thoroughly and is found in such words as diagnosis, a thorough knowledge or a knowledge through and through. It is also found in diameter, a measurement across the circle. In Latin dia- was translated as dis-, which followed the Greek meaning of apart as well as asunder, separation. These meanings will become what I call existentialist dialectic.

The meanings of lego, if we follow the one root leg, are to gather, to collect, to pick up, to put together, and later to speak or say. The other root of lego, lech, means to lay. It appears, not surprisingly, in the Greek word for marital couch, lechos. Using both roots here, we have a very graphic laying down and joining together, the synthetic aspect of what I call both-and dialectic.

As I lay out the various types of dialectic, I intend to draw on these etymological sources as a heuristic guide. I realize that some of my derivations will border on the edge of creative etymology, but my use of the etymologies is strictly for insight and illumination. I do not offer them as contributions to the science of etymology.

Dialectic As Traditional Logic

In Europe dialectic as logic began with Socrates. His formula for true knowledge (episteme) was an opinion (doxa) backed up by an argument (logos). Socrates’ principal aim was to come up with definitions that were not equivocal and arguments which did not violate the law of contradiction. Aristotle formalized the rules of logic and criticized the pre-Socratics (especially Anaxagoras and his theory of seeds) for their flagrant self-contradictions. Among the pre-Socratics only Parmenides had a firm, albeit implicit, grasp of the law of contradiction.

In the Protagoras (333c), logos is the personified logical guide who speaks to her subjects and chides them for not following her rules. In the Phaedrus, dialectic is a philosophical method by which thinkers can maneuver across the face of the real and speak to each other about true knowledge. The good dialectician would be like the expert butcher: she would be able to find the joints of the real and be able to cut off one concept cleanly for another. Here the meanings of dia- as apart, asunder illuminate the analytic character of this type of dialectic.

Medieval philosophers continued this Greek tradition with their dialectical disputations, and this meaning continues with us to the present day. In the East this form of logic developed with just as much vigor and sophistication as in the West. Oriental philosophy, however, chose to emphasize ethical and religious concerns much more heavily than Occidental philosophy. In the East logic is rarely ever just an end in itself.

Existentialist Dialectic

Both traditional logic and existentialist dialectic are types of either/or dialectic. For example, after one separates all geometrical figures into their proper logical classes, then a figure is either a square, or a circle, or some other figure; a square cannot be both a square and a circle. Logical arguments against the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation follow the same model: either Jesus is God or human; he cannot be both at the same time.

Existentialist dialectic, however, is dramatic and disjunctive, not formal and logical. It is epitomized in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, who, in The Concept of Irony, claims that Socrates’ main aim was not logical  clarity but conceptual confusion. According to Kierkegaard, the goal of the early dialogues was to lead the interlocuters into aporia. This led Kierkegaard to believe that ethnical choices are based on faith not reason.

The irrationalist tenor of much of existentialism comes from Kierkegaard’s works and this concept of existentialist dialectic. Kierkegaard’s favorite example was Abraham faced with this choice: either to follow God’s arbitrary will or to follow the moral law and God’s previous promises. There was no way in which Abraham could have made a rational decision. The existentialist thinkers used situations like these to support their belief that logic and ethics are ultimately incompatible. Dialectic theology (early Barth, Bultmann, Brunner) also uses Kierkegaard to declare the complete autonomy of faith and eliminate reason and traditional dialectic in so-called natural or philosophical theologies.

Etymologically, one can recognize the meaning apart in the dia- of existentialist dialectic. This becomes more clear if we are allowed to include the Latin translation of dia- as dis-, as in dysfunction and disjunction. Existentialist dialectic is definitely dysfunctional and disjunctive in its alleged capacity to jolt us out of complacent modes of thought, including the confidence we have in logic as a solution to human problems.

Although most Buddhist thought should be placed under the rubric of neither/nor dialectic, some Buddhist writers (especially in the early writings) tend to propound their issues in terms of a dramatic either/or: viz., either the religious life ending in Nirvana or the life of Samsara continuing in eternal rebirth. Some Mahayana thinkers, however, propose a both-and dialectical coincidence of both Samsara and Nirvana.

Both-And, Synthetic Dialectic

In European philosophy this type of logic is epitomized in the philosophy of Hegel. But Hegel himself tells us that he is indebted to the pre-Socratic Greeks, especially Heraclitus’ idea of logos reconciling all opposites into a unitary process. Aristotle’s criticisms of the pre-Socratics prevailed, however, and the law of contradiction and traditional logic won out in the West. Until Hegel, a both-and dialectic survived in the Western mystical tradition, most notably in Nicholas of Cusa and his doctrine of coincidentia oppositorum.

The key to synthetic dialectic is the rejection of the law of contradiction and the belief that opposites coincide or are reconciled (Hegel’s aufgehoben) in the higher synthesis. Etymologically, we can now see other dimensions of the meaning of dia- and lego coming to the fore. Dia- preserves its meanings of thoroughly and through, but the meaning of lego as to put together is now crucial. Hegel’s dialectic is a thorough putting together of all of the conscious elements of Spirit; it is a synthesis through and through.

Central doctrines of Christianity are explicitly articulated  as both-and, synthetic formulae. It is understandable, then, that Hegel though that he had finally discovered the true logic of Christianity. The doctrine of the Incarnation literally means that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully God. The Christian doctrine of liberty, as phrased by the evangelical J. I. Packer, is that man is both free and controlled. (J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the World of God [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958], p. 117.) Finally, Luther expresses the Protestant doctrine of justification as simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinful). By contrast, the traditional dialectician must answer either God or man on the Incarnation; either free or coerced with regard to Christian freedom; and either saved or damned on justification.

Luther’s simul iustus et peccator could also be interpreted in an existentialist way. Indeed, much existentialist dialectic could be reformulated as an unresolved both-and synthesis. Luther’s dialectical insight about justification does not actually mean that sin and sanctification are united without tension; quite the opposite is the case. Luther’s understanding of Law and Gospel is also dialectical in the same way. We live under both Law and Gospel, but never at least during our earthly lives are they resolved in some form of higher synthesis. The same dialectic is revealed in Luther’s notion of Satan as a mask of God: in so far as we are sinners, God appears as Satan to tempt us; but in so far as we are under grace, God appears as a loving father.

One can call Luther’s dialectic existentialist because he anticipates a dialectical understanding of Christianity which we find in existentialists like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. It is especially in the latter where we find characters trapped between opposite tensions vying for synthesis. Dostoevsky shares Luther’s preoccupation with Satan and the demonic, and he is obsessed with the dramatic coincidence of the saint and the sinner.

In an appendix to The Devils a character called Tikhon declares that complete atheism is much more acceptable than worldly indifference...The absolute atheist stands on the last rung but one before most absolute faith (whether he steps higher of not), while an indifferent man has no faith at all, nothing but dismal fear, and that, too, only occasionally, if he is a sensitive man. (Stravrogin’s Confession, an appendix to The Devils, trans. David Magarshack [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971], p. 679.)

Among contemporary theologians it is Thomas Altizer who best expresses the full implications of a dialectical Christianity. Although Altizer is not always clear about important differences between Hegel and the existentialists, his insights about Dostoevsky are most apt: "In the world that Dostoevsky created, salvation and damnation are two sides of the same coin; dialectical  opposites that are united by a radically modern coincidentia oppositorum. This explains Dostoevsky’s deep attraction to the devil, his immersion in a demonic sensibility, and his inability to portray a pure act of redemption...Through [Dostoevsky’s] novels we learn that the terrifying power of darkness is inseparable from the redemptive power of the sacred, that the deeper we are drawn into the creative depths of darkness the more real the actual presence of the sacred becomes. Thus it is by means of the very power of the demonic (of the profane) that an epiphany of the sacred occurs" (Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963], pp. 112, 114).

Martin Heidegger is another philosopher influenced by dialectical thinkers such as Heraclitus, Hegel, and the 19th Century existentialists. One particular notion found in the concept of Riss reveals a unresolved both-and dialectic. In this work from 1935 Heidegger substitutes the terms World and Earth for Being and entities (beings) from his earlier work. The concept of Riss is also a figurative replacement for the earlier ontological difference between Being and entities. As Heidegger attempts to explain:" The conflict [between World and Earth] is not a rift (Riss) as the ripping open of a mere cleft; rather, it is the intimacy of opponents that belong to each other. This rift draws the opponents together into the source of their unity out of the single ground" (excerpted in Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty [New York: Modern Library, 1964], p. 686). In a footnote the translator, Albert Hofstadter, recognizes that Riss is "a dialectical word, for by the drawing of line a rift is made and by making a rift a line is drawn, and in both cases what unites separates and what separates unites...."

Synthetic Dialectic in Asia

In Asian philosophy and religion we can find many examples of synthetic dialectic-- Chinese Daoism and Hindu Vedanta in particular. (I distinguish between the original Vedanta of the Upanishads and Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, which can be seen as a form of neither/nor dialectic.) "Knowledge and non-knowledge--he who this pair conjointly knows," a line from the of Isha Upanishad, is an example of the both-and dialectic of this literature. Brahman can be seen as both nirguna Brahman (without qualities) and saguna Brahman (with qualities). Brahman, just like Dao, is both Brahman and Atman. The difference between Hegel and Vedanta is that the synthesis of being and nonbeing leads Hegel to a real progressive movement in history; whereas for Shankara’s Advaita (nondual) Vedanta any change is illusion unreal and unprogressive. The Upanishads affirms the reality of all beings but does not imply any progression of reality from one stage to another.

R. C. Zaehner, one of the most outstanding commentators and translators of the Hindu scriptures, recognizes a both-and dialectic in the Bhagavad-gita: "Arjuna, like most Europeans, thinks in either/or categories: he has not yet realized that Krishna’s categories and those of the religion he inherits and further develops are not either/or but both-and. Opposites do not exclude each other but complement each other" (The Bhagavad-gita with a Commentary on the Original Sources [New York: Oxford University Press, 1973], p. 200). Arjuna is deeply puzzled about the apparent exclusion of a life renunciation (which he now desires) and the life of action (which he now abhors). In Chapter Five of the Gita Krishna’s answer is a dialectical union of both renunciation and action.

Daoism definitely does have a feel for real movements and plurality in nature, but lacks the historicity of Hegel. A synthetic dialectic pervades the entirety of the Dao De Jing. The first stanza of the second chapter expresses this dialectical method well:

When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty, there arises the recognition of ugliness.

When they all know the good as good, there arises the recognition of evil.

Therefore: Being and non-being produce each other;

Difficult and easy complete each other;

Long and short contrast each other;

High and low distinguish each other;

Sound and voice harmonize each other;

Front and behind accompany each other.(Chan translation)

Dialectical reversal describes the "movement of the Dao" and everything achieves harmony through the unification of affirmation and negation (chap. 40). "Ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang" (chap. 42, Hsu trans.).

A synthetic dialectic can also be found in Buddhism, one example being Ashvaghosa’s commentary on "suchness." Ashvaghosa maintains that the noumenal and the phenomenal soul "constitute all things, and both are so closely interrelated that one cannot be separated from the other. In a coincidentia oppositorum, both souls "coincide with each other. Though they are not identical, they are not a duality" (The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, excerpted in Lucien Stryk, ed., The World of the Buddha [New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1969], p. 248). In the same passage Ashvaghosa states that the phenomenal soul "comes forth from the Tathagata’s womb. It appears as if we have the Hegelian equivalent of the emanation of nature and history from the first dialectical negation of Spirit-in-itself. This thesis is further supported from a passage in the Avatamsaka-sutra in which the Dharmakaya is said "to create all things" (Stryk, p. 271).

The historical, progressive nature of Hegel’s dialectic is still missing. Granted, there is a gradual, historical  overcoming of ignorance in Buddhism, but this development does not change the basic nature of reality as it does in Hegel. There is real dialectical development in Hegel. This means that Hegelian dialectic has been fully ontologized. For Plato and the Buddhists, dialectic is a mental process only; for Heraclitus and Hegel, it is a development in reality itself.

Even though an emanation theory is supported by the two passages cited above, it is not a correct interpretation given the context of Ashvaghosa’s works and Mahayana philosophy in general. A similar confusion appears in the Upanishads where Brahman is said to create a phenomenal world by its "uncanny power." For both Advaita Vedanta and Ashvaghosa, there is no other reality than Brahman or the Dharmakaya. Plurality, change, distinction are the result of ignorance; and, notwithstanding the passages above, the phenomenal world does not emanate from the ultimate reality.

The analogy of passing white light through a prism is helpful. If the white light is the true reality and the various colors are only the appearance of this reality, then the prism represents ignorance. If one removes the prism/ignorance, there is nothing but an undifferentiated reality left. As the Lankavatara-sutra puts it: "But, if they only realized it, they are already in the Tathagata’s Nirvana for, in Noble Wisdom, all things are in Nirvana from the beginning" (Stryk, p. 282).

Neither/Nor Dialectic

The Buddhists were much more successful in expressing this preceding notion by the use of a neither/nor dialectic, which carries dialectical negation to an extreme. While the disjunctive thoroughness of existentialist dialectic leads to alienation and despair, neither/nor dialectic leads to the peace of Nirvana. Despite these differences, both existentialist and neither/nor dialectic have distinct nonphilosophical ends.

In contrast to the speculative metaphysics of Hegel and Vedanta and the dramatic fideism of Kierkegaard, Buddhism combines dialectic with a sophisticated empirical method. The neither/nor dialectic is a means to persuade a thinker to stop reasoning about subjects for which experience can give no answer. More subtle and entrenched than sensual lust is the "craving for views" about the origins of the universe, the nature of reality, and the essence of the soul. The proper conclusion about such questions is that the universe neither had a beginning nor no beginning; that the nature of reality is neither a permanent substance nor an impermanent flux of skandhas.

As we shall see, the presence of neither/nor locutions does not necessarily mean that we have a true neither/nor dialectic. An early example of this is Sutta 63 of the Majjhimanikaya, usually entitled "Questions Which Tend Not To Edification." A certain monk by the name of Malunkyaputta, who has obviously lost sight of the true meaning of basic Buddhist doctrines, craves for more answers  about whether the world is eternal or not eternal; whether it is finite or infinite; whether the soul and body are a unity or a duality; and whether the saints exist after death. Although he goes on to phrase the question about the saints in classic neither/nor fashion, it is clear that he still yearns for positive answers to these questions.

The Buddha calls Malunkyaputta a "vain man" and proclaims that religious liberation does not depend on answers to those questions. One is reminded here of Wittgenstein’s Buddha-like admonition in the Tractatus: "We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched"; or "the solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem" (6.52, 6.521).

The sutra’s conclusion, which is probably the view of the historical Gautama, shifts the focus away from the dialectical method, even the neither/nor formula. It is possible that Gautama did not want to address these questions in any way. Gautama does not formulate his answer in the neither/nor mode; he simply maintains that Malunkyaputta’s questions are not relevant for the liberation from suffering. It is important to note that the Buddha, in contrast to Nagarjuna, is not ruling out the possibility of knowledge in these areas. Therefore, the developing neither/nor dialectic in the rest of the Pitakas should probably not be identified as Gautama Buddha’s method.

Questions of Milinda

The famous Questions of Milinda offers the exciting possibility of a confrontation between European either/or and Asian neither/nor. We are, however, disappointed. Either Nagasena rejected the neither/nor approach or he decided to defer its subtleties and conform to Milinda’s Socratic approach of straight question and answer.

For whatever reason, the Buddhist neither/nor dialectic does not dominate in this debate. In fact, Nagasena is very much the Buddhist Socrates, and Milinda quickly becomes the typical fawning disciple. Much like Simmias and Cebes in the Phaedo, who fall over themselves praising Socrates, Milinda calls Nagasena a "clever man," and his answers "marvelous... brilliant beyond measure, highly illuminating" (Stryk, p. 93).

Even more striking is the Buddhist equivalent of Socratic aporia. After struggling to refute Nagasena’s contention that there need not be a soul agent behind the mind’s various actions, Milinda finally reaches the deadend of aporia: "I am no match for you in an argument. Be good enough to explain the matter to me" (Stryk., p. 106). With their backs against the wall, Socrates’ opponents are not usually this kind.

The first mention of the neither/nor dialectic is short-lived. In the famous chariot analogy of the soul, the initial conclusion is that the chariot is neither the sum of its parts nor something other than the sum of its  parts. The final conclusion, however, returns to a confident either/or dialectic: the soul is nothing but the sum of its parts. The second appearance of neither/nor dialectic comes with the examples of embryo and child, lamp and flame, milk and butter. These are used as analogies to show that the person reborn is neither the same nor different. The effect of the dialectic is to utterly destroy the idea of an enduring object called the soul in which a continuous personal identity resides. Much like David Hume in his analysis of personal identity, Nagasena shows that the embryo, child, adult are obviously not the same thing, but at the same time, not different either. There is a basic nonsubstantial continuity even though all the basic components (skandhas) of the mind and body are changing. One is neither the same person nor a different person.

On the questions of time and creation, Nagasena appears to give straight either/or answers; i.e., time has no beginning and therefore it is eternal; and the world is eternal, because there can be no creation out of nothing. Similarly, Nagasena concludes quite confidently that Nirvana is unalloyed bliss, instead of a neither/nor conclusion that it is beyond "perception and non-perception." (This language is found in the Pali accounts of the Buddha’ death.) Nagasena continues within the either/or mode: "Pain is one thing; Nirvana is quite another" (p. 111). Nagasena then proceeds to name the qualities of Nirvana, which, though figurative in character, are nonetheless far from true neither/nor dialectic.

In the final discussion about Nirvana, Milinda offers a Buddhist explanation of Nirvana in the neither/nor mode: "You Buddhists say [that] Nirvana is neither past nor future nor present; it is neither produced nor not produced nor to be produced. Nagasena responds in like manner, but Milinda protests: "Do not, Reverend Nagasena, throw light on this question by covering it up. Milinda obviously wants a straight answer in the Greek dialectical mode and Nagasena obliges him. He answers that Nirvana is characterized "by its freedom from trouble, by its freedom from adversity, by its freedom from peril, by its security, by its peace, etc.( p. 118).

Later Developments: Mahayana and Shankara

Although I have pointed out some both-and dialectic in Ashvaghosa, the neither/nor dialectic is central to his thinking. When describing the Buddhadharmas as "neither identical nor non-identical" with the essence of the mind, his intent is to show that speculation about this relationship is "utterly out of the range of our comprehension" ( pp. 250-1. For the same reason, dialectical negation is intensified in the Vimalakirti-sutra. Here the Buddhist Void (shunyata) is described as "not existing and yet not not existing, not coming into being and yet not going out of being, not acting and yet not not acting" (quoted in  D. Ikeda, Buddhism: The First Millennium [Kodansha International, 1977], p. 105).

There is neither/nor language in at least two philosophers of the Yogacara school, but closer scrutiny reveals a methodology wedded to the use of speculative reason. In his famous criticism of the theory of atoms, Vasubandhu declares that the external world is "neither one thing, nor is it many atoms" (excerpted in E. A. Burtt, ed., The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha [New York: Mentor, 1955], p. 175). But Vasubandhu’s final conclusion is an affirmative one: the external world does not exist in any independent form.

Asanga’s teacher Maitreya states that "on the pure stage there is neither oneness nor plurality of Buddhas"; but, as D. J. Kalupahana points out, this language is designed to give a basis for the speculative idea of the Buddha’s three bodies (trikaya). (Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis [Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1976], p. 149.) Furthermore, Asanga is serenely confident when he lists the positive characteristics of the Buddahdharmas and the Dharmakaya. (Mahayana-Sangraha- Castra, excerpted in Stryk, p. 292.) In the Yogacara literature I have read there is rarely a hint of the neither/nor dialectic of other Buddhist schools.

Moving away from Buddhism momentarily, it is significant to note that Shankara develops a sophisticated neither/nor mode which goes beyond the initial both-and dialectic of the Upanishads. Only the famous neti, neti (not this, not that) of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.5.15) and verse seven of the Mandukya Upanishad approaches neither/nor dialectic. P. T. Raju has shown that Shankara, just like Vasubandhu, uses dialectical negation in order to ultimately affirm a doctrine of absolute monism. ("The Principle of Four-Cornered Negation in Indian Philosophy," The Review of Metaphysics, June, 1954.) This again is contrary to the mature dialectic of the Buddhist Madhyamika school. It is significant that in his famous debates with the Buddhists, Shankara revealed the positive goal of his dialectic by labeling his opponents "voidists" and "nihilists."

It is also significant to note that Shankara rejects the coincidentia oppositorum implicit in the Upanishads. Shankara concludes that Brahman cannot be both being and non-being, because they are opposites. In other words, the neither/nor dialectic in all its Indian forms preserves the law of contradiction. This constitutes yet another crucial difference between both-and and neither/nor dialectic. With its acute analysis and commitment to noncontradiction, neither/nor dialectic actually has more in common with either/or logic. Buddhist dialectician Nagarjuna definitely affirms this view: "How could Nirvana be both existent and nonexistent? These cannot be in the same place" (Mulamadyamakakarika 25.14, Garfield trans.).

In the Buddhist tradition it is Nagarjuna who becomes the master of dialectical negation. His famous four-cornered negation can be found in the earliest Pali sutras. Raju has shown that it actually has its origin in the pre-Buddhist skeptic Sanjaya. Even the unenlightened Malunkyaputta can give us the four logical possibilities concerning the continued life of the saint: "That the saint exists after death, that the saint does not exist after death, that the saint both exists and does not exist after death, that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death." (Stryk, p. 133). Therefore, the logical form of the four-cornered negation is S is neither P, nor not-P, nor both P and not-P, nor neither P nor not-P.

European logicians may shake their heads at the apparent redundancy of this dialectical thoroughness (one meaning of dia- again), but they miss the Nagarjuna’s ultimate motive: to completely eliminate the possibility of logical affirmation. Affirmation will lead to attachment and attachment will intensify the craving for views, and philosophers will remain in the wheel of Samsara just as surely as murderers, rapists, thieves, and gamblers.

In European logic the negation of one proposition has always been balanced with some form of commitment to the truth of a related proposition. For example, to say that "the queen’s dress is not red" is to imply that it is therefore some other color. In Indian logic, however, there are two types of negation, one in which the commitment aspect dominates and one in which it does not. B. K. Matilal suggests that in Madhyamika dialectic "the denial aspect may be so pronounced as to reduce the commitment aspect practically to nullity" ("Negation and the Madhyamika Dialectic" in B. K. Matilal’s Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar [Mouton, 1971], p. 163).

There are some who think that Nagarjuna’s dialectic goes too far and subverts the original position of the Buddha himself. Both Nagarjuna and the Buddha wanted to stop all metaphysical speculation about questions which could not be answered, but Nagarjuna’s skepticism appears to encompass knowledge from experience as well as speculative reason. For Kalupahana, this leads to a significant contrast between what could be called Nagarjuna’s "transcendentalism" (transcending both concepts and experience) and the Buddha’s "experientialism." Kalupahana once supported this view of Nagarjuna, but now after a thorough study of him (Nagarjuna: Philosophy of the Middle Way), he has changed this mind. A. J. Bahm may, however, be correct in claiming Gautama Buddha would not have indulged in endless negation and that Nagarjuna’s dialectical extremism could possibly be seen as just another form of craving and attachment. (The Philosophy of the Buddha [New York: Capricorn Books, 1969], pp. 101-102.)

Adapted from N. F. Gier, "Dialectic: East and West," Indian Philosophical Quarterly 10 [January, 1983], pp. 207-218, with additions and deletions.