Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st century Roman artwork

Rational debates and historical processes

The discovery of ignorance

Is there progress in ideas? And can we achieve progress in thought by rational debates and persuasion? These questions are not easy to answer, most notably because people disagree. Still, some ideas may be better than others. So, how can we achieve progress or can we not? Socrates was a Greek philosopher who pondered this question. He lived around 400 BC and was the founder of the practice of rational debate. Socratic debates are discussions between two or more people with different viewpoints who wish to establish the truth using reasoned arguments. Asking and answering questions is a critical component of this process. It stimulates critical thinking and draws out ideas and underlying presuppositions.

In his dialogues, Socrates acted as if he was ignorant. According to Socrates, admitting one’s ignorance is the first step in acquiring knowledge, and awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. The discovery of ignorance can wake you up and push you into pursuing knowledge. For instance, the discovery of America, a previously unknown continent, was a shock to the European worldview. There was an entire continent that nobody in Europe had known. It set in motion the Scientific Revolution. European scientists started to ask themselves what more they did not know. They began to investigate anything they could think of.1 After 500 years, science has completely altered the way we live.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Hegel’s dialectic

By the year 1800, the idea of progress was firmly established. The impact of scientific discoveries began to increase and the Industrial Revolution took off. Societies began to change and enlightenment ideas were spreading. The American Revolution followed the Glorious Revolution in England. During the French Revolution, the masses mobilised for the first time, and they ended the corrupt old regime. The armies of Napoleon then spread enlightenment ideas over Europe. It was the time when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came up with a scheme for rational arguments. It consists of three stages:

  1. A theory is invented. Hegel calls it the abstract.
  2. The theory is criticised or tested. Hegel calls it the negative.
  3. The criticism and testing lead to a better theory. Hegel calls it the concrete.

Alternatively, the three stages of Hegelian dialectic are presented like so: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction; an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and the tension between the two being resolved in the synthesis. You can apply it to rational debates. It works like so. First, someone comes up with a proposition. Then someone else brings in an opposing idea. If both parties have valid concerns and are willing to listen to each other, a rational debate between them can lead to a better understanding of the issue. The new understanding can be a thesis in a new argument. And so, the process can repeat, resulting in the progress of ideas.

An example can illustrate this. Suppose that Adam Smith and Karl Marx meet in a conference hall. Suppose further that a discussion between the two could settle the debate between capitalism and socialism. Smith sets out the thesis. He says that capitalism and free markets are great because they create wealth and distribute goods efficiently. Marx then comes up with the antithesis. He argues that the living conditions for workers are miserable and that capitalism distributes its benefits unfairly. He then says that workers should take control of the factories. Smith then objects by saying that workers are poor entrepreneurs so if workers take over businesses, that will cause a drop in living standards.

If both are willing to consider each other’s ideas and understand the issues at stake, they might concur that capitalism creates wealth but that the plight of workers needs improvement. They could agree on minimum wages, unemployment benefits, workplace safety laws, and state pensions. That is the synthesis. It may work for a while. Then a third individual might enter the debate and say that some people abuse welfare schemes. Another person might argue that economic activity will destroy the planet. That could be the beginning of new discussions that lead to measures to reduce fraud with unemployment benefits and investments in making the economy sustainable.

Hegelian dialectic applied to history

For Hegel, historical development proceeds not in a straight line but in a spiral leading upwards to growth and progress. From the opposition of action and reaction, harmony or synthesis emerges.1 In history, progress often involves conflict, and in many cases, there is not a synthesis but an end to the old ideas. For example, in the second half of the eighteenth century, more and more people felt that slavery was morally wrong. It took nearly a century and civil war in the United States to end slavery. And so, activists, planners, and politicians use Hegelian dialectic to enforce change. The Marxists are a prime example. They believed that capitalism would vanish and that socialism would replace it. The Marxists thought they were helping history by trying to end the capitalist world order.

The conflict between capitalism and socialism turned into a power struggle during the Cold War. The United States and its allies advocated capitalism, while the Soviet Union and its satellites promoted socialism. The capitalist block featured freedom of expression, so there was a public debate and ideas could be tested and improved in a Hegelian fashion. Consequently, governments interfered with markets and created welfare states. Their economies became mixtures of capitalist and socialist elements. In the socialist block, there was no freedom of expression or public debate, so the socialist countries did not enhance their economies with capitalist elements. In the end, the leadership of the Soviet Union realised that its mission of uplifting the working class had failed.

In the nineteenth century, workers did not appear to benefit from capitalism. It was hard to envision how socialism works in practice, so it may have been necessary to try it. The Soviet Union did so for seven decades. With the benefit of hindsight, the flaws of socialism appear evident, but if no one had tried it in practice, they probably were not so obvious. The main issue with socialism is that it can make people passive so that they will not take matters into their own hands and wait for the state to solve their problems. Socialism can work well in specific situations. For instance, healthcare in socialist Cuba is cheap and effective compared to the United States. The life expectancy in the United States and Cuba is nearly the same despite the United States spending more on healthcare per person than any country, while Cuba only spends a fraction of that amount. Once upon a time, market-driven healthcare may also have seemed a great idea. By trying, you can find out.

Some Scandinavian countries are more socialist than the United States, and citizens in those countries appear happier with their lives than Americans. The degree to which socialism can work depends on the social trust and work ethic within a group. Scandinavian countries have a Protestant work ethic and are culturally homogeneous. Cultural homogeneity can promote social trust like in Scandinavia, but not necessarily so. Greece is also culturally homogeneous, but the level of social trust is much lower than in Denmark or Sweden. Hence, culturally diverse countries can develop a high level of social trust, even though that is more difficult because of cultural differences. To make socialism work, people should contribute what they can and take what they need, and the needs should not exceed the contributions. Imposed socialism, like in the Soviet Union, will not work. Scandinavian countries are not as socialist as the Soviet Union once was. Their economies are a mixture of capitalist and socialist elements.

Hegel and dialectic conflict

Ideologies like socialism and capitalism are models that describe how society works or is supposed to work. Models are simplifications or abstractions. Models can help us organise our thoughts and establish which ideas have merit and under what circumstances. But for many people, ideologies are like religions. People who use one model all the time tend to be poor problem solvers. If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Political debates are often about scoring points rather than reasoning and listening to each other in a Socratic fashion. Parties use the Hegelian dialectic as a tool in political conflict. They frame the discussion by using their models and language. In your model, you are right, and your opponent looks stupid. Consequently, there can be no rational discussion between opponents who live in different realities like liberals and conservatives in the United States.

Scientific progress

In science, ideas advance. Thomas Kuhn came up with a scheme to describe scientific progress. He believed that science moves forward by theories replacing each other. Scientists in a specific field often work with a set of hypotheses. You may not be surprised to learn about that. So let’s call one of those theories the Old Theory. The Old Theory works fine in most situations, but sometimes it does not. Scientists at first ignore these exceptions, for instance, unexpected readings on their instruments. At first, they may think that faults cause these readings. As more and more experiments indicate that something is not right with the Old Theory, some scientists start to question it.

Then one of them then comes up with a revolutionary New Theory that explains a lot more than the previous Old Theory, including the unexplained readings on the instruments. At first, most scientists have their doubts because the New Theory is revolutionary. When experiments confirm the New Theory, scientists gradually embrace the New Theory and the Old Theory gets abandoned. In this case, there is also an argument going on between two sides, but the New Theory is superior to the Old Theory. That is most clear in the exact sciences like physics. In social sciences and economics, there is progress in theories but there are also debates between different approaches that appear unresolved.

An example might clarify how it works. Around 1680, Isaac Newton worked out the laws that explain the motion of objects. Newton’s laws tell us how fast objects fall to the ground and how planets orbit around the Sun. Newton presented his laws in a few mathematical formulas so it became possible to calculate how long it would take before a stone hits the ground if you drop it from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

In the centuries that followed, scientists developed more precise instruments and did measurements they could not explain. These were only small deviations from the values calculated with Newton’s formulas so they did not worry much about them at first. They could be errors. But the more precise the instruments grew, the more sure physicists became that something was not right. Albert Einstein then developed a theory that explained these curious readings, but also the motion of objects.

Assessing what to do

A reasoned debate combined with experimenting may be the best way of assessing what to do. Social sciences, including economics, involve human interactions. The number of variables is high and not all are known. That makes it difficult to ascertain causes and effects or to make accurate predictions. And so, experts in these fields make wrong judgements from time to time. It can be dangerous to blindly trust experts, but ignoring them can be even more hazardous. An ignorant person can be right by accident, while an expert can miss out on something. Sometimes, the difference between expert opinion and mere guessing is obscure. That emboldens the ignorant, and it makes the experts cautious.

Experiments can help to ascertain whether or not an assumption or a theory is correct. In social sciences, that may involve experimenting with humans. And that is not always ethical. And so, we should be careful as to the social experiments we engage in.

Reasoned debates are more common in science than in politics but scientists need research budgets provided by businesses and governments. The issues scientists investigate and the outcomes of scientific research can be influenced by the interests of those who fund the research. And so, the results of their research are not always what you might expect from an unbiased investigation.

Even when actions are based on the outcome of rational debates and experimenting, the actions lead to new issues that may need to be resolved in subsequent discussions and trials. The questions that will arise are often difficult to foresee, and it is even harder to think of how they will be resolved. Marx thought he could predict the future. Using Hegel’s dialectic, he thought he could predict how history would play out. Thinking that you know what will happen is a mistake many people make.

Marx believed in progress as Hegel did. Many people think there is progress. Yet, that is not so obvious. That is why conservatives want to keep things the way they are or go back in time to revert things to as they once were. To put it into perspective, if you live in a developed country, you may ask yourself, ‘Are you happier now than your parents were fifty years ago?’

Featured image: Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st-century Roman artwork. Eric Gaba (2005). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Hegel’s Understanding of History. Jack Fox-Williams (2020). Philosophy Now. [link]