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Approaches to the art of disagreement

Beyond Method: engaging opposition in psycho-social organization (Part #5)

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1. The previous section suggests that there is a major need for a "science of disagreement" to clarify the manner in which active disagreement can be usefully structured. It appears that agreement in society is essentially superficial or token (if it prevails at all). There is a total absence of knowledge on how to disagree intelligently in an organized manner, rather then in an irrational, fear-ridden manner requiring some form of violent response to eliminate the disagreement as soon as possible.

2. It might be assumed that the methodologies of conflict resolution, mediation or arbitration would provide guidelines for a science of disagreement. This is not the case. Such methods are primarily concerned with eliminating the disagreement between the parties, or reducing it to a level at which it is not significant for their relationship.

3. In looking for a "science" of disagreement some care is necessary as the previous sections have shown. Science, as it claims to be practiced, can be usefully considered to be about agreement processes and the elimination of disagreement. "Art" may however be considered to be about disagreement processes, set against a background of the rise and fall of agreement. Agreement is not useful without disagreement. In fact it is meaningless. It is the disagreement which introduces the essence of diversity and avoids the uniformity of undifferentiated mass consciousness.

4. There is an obvious problem in using Feyerabend's "method" as a basis for any art or science of disagreement. He explicitly advances his views as epistemological anarchism and states:

'It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, "objectivity", "truth", it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.' (4, pp. 27-28)

But he goes further in arguing that science is itself anarchistic:

'To sum up: in so far as the methodology of research pro- is "rational". it does not differ from anarchism. in so far as it differs from anarchism, it is not "rational Even a complete and unquestioning acceptance of this methodology Hoes not create any problem for an anarchist who certainly does not deny that methodological rules may be and usually are enforced by threats, intimidation, deception. This, after all, is one of the reasons why he mobilizes (not counter-arguments but) counter-forces to overcome the restrictions imposed by the rules.' (4, p. 198)

But the somewhat quixotic element in his extremely valuable approach is then revealed in his remarks on its status in his own view (as the author):

'Always remember that the demonstrations and the rhetorics used do not express any "deep convictions" of mine. They merely show how easy it is to lead people by the nose in a rational way. An anarchist is like an undercover agent who plays the game of Reason in order to undercut the authority of Reason (Truth, Honesty, Justice, and so on).' (4, p. 33)

5. Feyeraband takes us to the very useful point at which it is possible to say that "disagreement is OKI' and that scientific progress might be impossible if imperfections were eliminated (41 p. 255). But, as an anarchist, he is obviously totally uninterested in the need to "organize" disagreement in any way, even if it were possible. As a result his approach provides no clues for any new way of organization which could take account of new levels of disagreement.

6. The most fruitful guide to further understanding of disagreement should be found in writings on dialectics, which were clearly of value to Fayerabend. But whether it be in the writings of Hegel Marx, Engels or Lenin, or in recent writings on dialectics as it emerges in modern science (e.g. complementarity, etc), there is little to be gleaned beyond the concept of the essential (thesis, antithesis, synthesis). Most authors emphasize the intimate relationship to the cognitive subject-object process, about which it is necessarily difficult to be "objective" without distorting comprehension of its essential dynamism. Thus: "If we try to analyze what it is that the threefold describes, we are in a bind for it is just that element of participation in life that analysis cannot, and does not even pretend to, cope with" (5, p. 57). "Since it is basically nonconceptual, it cannot be defined..." (5, p. 27). For this reason dialectics has been most favoured as a method by those capable of anchoring it in practical action a concrete material context.

7. The Marxist scholar Jean-Marie Brohm points out that neither Marx nor Engels attempted to define dialectics positively (6, p. 43). They defined it negatively by the criticism of adverse positions, as have most of their successors:

"Ce faisant ils obéissaient à un grand principe général do la dialectique: la négativité. Le positif est toujours le résidu do le négativité, un moment négatif provisoire qui attend à son tour d'être nié .... La dialectique est le produit d'une lutte ininterrompue contre les conceptions adverses. Elle se définit négativement par ce contre quoi elle s'oppose". (6, p. 43)

8. Hegel summarizes the essence of dialectics as follows (as quoted by Brohm):

"les choses finies sont, mais leur rapport à elles-mêmes est de nature négative, an ce sens qu'elles tendent à la faveur de ce rapport à se dépasser. Elles sont, mais Ia vérité de leur être est qu'elles sont finies, qu'elles ont une fin. Le fini ne se transforms pas seulement, comme toute chose en général, mais il passe, il s'évanuit; et cette disparition, cet évanouissement du fini n'est pas une simple possibilité, qui peut se réaliser ou non, mais Is nature des choses finies est telle qu'elles contiennent le germe de leur disparition, germe qui fait partie intégrante: l'heure de leur naissance est an même temps celle de leur mort". (7, p. 129)

9. In commenting on Hegel's Science of Logic (7), Lenin clarifies one of Hegel's definitions of dialectics by the following:

  1. Definition of, the concept on the basis of itself (the thing itself should be considered in its relationships and in its development)
  2. Contradiction in the thing itself, forces and contradictory tendencies in each phenomenon
  3. Union of the analysis and the synthesis.

Then he further clarifies these elements in 16 points (8, pp. 209-210):

    1. objectivité de l'examen (pas des examples, pas des digressions, mais Ia chose an elle-même).
    2. tout l'ensemble des rapports multiples at divers de cette chose aux autres.
    3. Ie développement de cette chose (respective phénomène), son mouvement propre sa vie propre.
    4. les tendances (at aspects) intérieurement contradictoires dans cette chose.
    5. Ia chose (le phénnomène, etc) comme somme et unité des contraires.
    6. la lutte respective (ou encore) le déploiement de ces contraires, aspirations contradictoires, etc.
    7. union de l'analyse at de Is synthèse, séparation des différentes parties et réunion, totalisation de ces parties ensemble.
    8. les rapports de chaque chose (phénomène, etc) non seulement sont multiples et divers, mais universels, Chaque chose (phénomène, processus, etc) est liée à chaque autre.
    9. non seulement l'unité des contraires, mais aussi les passages de chaque détermination, qualité, trait, aspect, propriété en chaque autre en son contraire.
    10. processus infini de mise à jour de nouveaux aspects, rapports, etc.
    11. processus infini d'approfondissement de la connaissance par l'homme des choses, phénomènes, processus, etc, allant des phénomènes à l'essence et d'une essence mains profonde à une essence plus profonde.
    12. Ia coexistence à la causalité et d'une forms de liaison at d'interdépendance à une autre, plus profonde, plus générale.
    13. répétition à un stade supérieur de certains traits, propriétés, etc, du star's inférieur et
    14. retour apparent à l'ancien (négation de le négation)
    15. lutte du contenu aver le forms et inversement. Rejet de la forma, remaniement du contenu.
    16. passage de la quantité en qualité et vice versa. (15 at 16 sont des examples du 9)

10. In the case of psychologist Jean Piaget, there are five characteristics of dialectics:

    1. construction of previously non-existing interdependencies between two systems considered either as opposed or as strangers to each other, and which are thus integrated into a new totality; whose properties exceed them.
    2. the interdependencies of the parts of the same object are in dialectical relationship.
    3. every new interdependency engenders properties exceeding the component parts if it results in a totality greater then that without it.
    4. intervention of circularities or spirals in the construction of interdependencies.
    5. relativisation of parts due to their interdependencies..

These five properties of dialectics are summarized by a sixth which gives its general significance: "dialectic constitutes the inferential aspect of all equilibration". This means that dialectics does not intervene at all stages of cognitive development, but only during the course of the equilibrating process. It is therefore important to distinguish carefully between the state of equilibrium corresponding to a non-dialectic moment of evolution and the dialectic processes permitting the construction of new frameworks. Piaget distinguishes eight kinds of interdependency (9, pp. 213-227). A co-author, Rolando Garcia, draws attention to similarities between Piaget's concept and that of Lenin as detailed above (9, pp. 233-237).

11. In one of the few studies that also reviews non-marxist concepts of dialectics, Paul Foulquié concludes with the following general definition:

"Est dialectique une pensée constamment tendue pour as dépasser elle-même aussi bien en allant jusqu'au bout de ce qu'elle a découvert qu'en se portent à des points de vue nouveaux qui semblent contredire ses affirmations premières". (10, p. 125)

12. Despite the relevance of dialectics to the problem of disagreement, as noted above, it does not appear to do more than explain the dynamics of the environment it constitutes. It explains the eventual future evolution beyond the stage of disagreement, but does not clarify the nature of any possible present order whilst the disagreement holds. It does not clarify the nature of the psycho-social forms to which disagreement can give rise in the present, it merely affirms that they are necessarily temporary. The question is whether there is any pattern in the present to the ancillary processes to which a dialectical confrontation gives rise. Is it possible to discover any underlying structure to disagreement? For example, evident disagreement might be considered to be structured like interference patterns from distinct interacting wave sources. Or disagreement might be compared to recent thinking on the relationship between interacting parallel universes.

13. More accessible to reflection (but spread over time) is the concept of development stages, of which the beat example is the individual human being. Development for the individual is a series of separations which give rise to a qualitatively different sense of unity. Stages include:

  • birth (loss of physical connection within the womb)
  • physical separation from adult, supervision
  • emotional separation with external orientation of affections at puberty
  • intellectual separation from parental framework with departure from home
  • and possibly others

Each of these separations, as a form of disagreement, can be very painful. They are accompanied by changes of perspective which are difficult to communicate to younger siblings, for example. This effective secrecy is enshrined in primitive initiation rites of which equivalents still exist for apprentices, students, and soldiers. At each stage new adversaries emerge as potential enemies with whom to disagree.

14. The shock effect of such initiations has been extensively explored by psychoanalyst C G Jung in his study of the confrontation of an individual with archetypes (including adversaries) corresponding to each initiatory level (11). Of special interest is the individual's encounter with his "shadow" and its relation to creative comprehension of the significance of death as a dramatic form of disagreement. He clearly demonstrates that avoiding this confrontation is unhealthy for the development of the individual.

15. At each such development stage intense regret may be expressed for the loss of the togetherness and innocence of the preceding stages despite profound appreciation for the new insights achieved. The advantage of using such stages to model levels of disagreement is that it highlights the possibility that many of those involved in movements for "peace". "equality" and "solidarity" may be hoping to achieve a kind of womb-like of agreement within their environment. Or some childish condition of "eternal summertime" and parental security. But the more separation or disagreement that has been achieved, the greater the potential for new kinds of unity. It is the degree of disagreement which qualifies the scope and depth of the unity possible.

16. This problem is well illustrated in the various levels of disagreement with which the poets of the ancient Rg Veda hymns struggled using music as a language:

"In the beginning was tone. This is the most important clu to beer in mind in our effort to understand the Rg Vedic conception and use of Language and of languages. The whole of the Rg Veda is chanted ... we have already pointed out the sophisticated musical-metrical structure of the hymns; and it is precisely an this model of musical tones that the meaning of the hymns is grounded ...

That tones recur cyclically at every doubling or halving of frequency or wave-length is the "basic miracle of music". From this acoustical phenomenon, the number 2 acquires its "female" status; it defines invariantly the octave matrix within which all tones come to birth. Here, in this initial identification of the octave with the ratio 1:2, is the root of all the problems which haunt the acoustical theorist, problems which the ancient theorist conceived as symbolizing the evil and disorder of the universe. The octave refuses to be subdivided into subordinate cycles by the only language ancient man knew -- the language of natural number, or integers, and the rational numbers derived from them. It is blunt arithmetical fact that the higher powers of 3 and 5 which define subordinate intervals of music never agree with higher powers of 2 which define octave cycles. It is man's yearning for this impossible agreement which introduced a hierarchy of values into the number field. For our ancestors, the essence of the world and of the numbers which interpreted that world was sound, not substance, and that world was rife with disagreement among an endless number of possible structures ...

Therefore, from a linguistic and cultural perspective, we have to be aware that we are dealing with a language where tonal and arithmetical relations establish the epistemological invariances... Language grounded in music is grounded thereby on context dependency; any tone can have any possible relation to other tones, and the shift from one tone to another, which alone makes melody possible, is a shift in perspective which the singer himself embodies. Any perspective (tone) must be "sacrificed" for a new one to come into bein the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while maintaining continuity, and the "world" is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions with the song.' (11, pp. 55-57)

17. Clearly there is a communication problem in arguing for new levels of unity, if this is comprehended as equivalent to arguing for separation of mother and child, for example. Any such argument can then only be perceived as "bad" or "evil" under present circumstances. But, at the same time, as the Rg Veda case illustrates, there is a certain level of disagreement inherent in any pattern of organization which gives rise to an "impossible yearning for agreement" that drives the search for subtler levels of agreement. But this search may be driven in either of two conflicting directions, whether towards the primordial unity (soundless, womb-like, by recovery of the past). Or towards a unity based on greater differentiation (in the future). In both cases it is necessary to live with disagreement, rather than rejecting it as "evil". As the previous quotation states:

"It is men's yearning for this impossible agreement which introduced a hierarchy of values into the number field...and that world was rife with disagreement among an endless number of possible structures".

The disagreement is only absorbed and contained, as a complementary study demonstrates, by the use of large numbers sets:

"The great expansion of the number sets in later diagrams is motivated, I believe, by the effort to approximate as exactly as possible the irrational square root of 2 which is needed to locate a tone symmetrically opposite the mean on D, that is, precisely in the middle of our octave". (14, p. 37)

An interesting study has been made of dissymetry as an anti-entropic force, This may lead to a valuable contrast between symmetry (as agreement) and dissymetry (as disagreement):

'Dans toute symétrie établie peut surgir une rupture partielle at non accidentelle qui tend à compliquer l'équilibre formé. Une telle rupture est proprement une dissymmétrie. Elle a pour effet d'enrichir la structure ou l'organisme où elle se produit, c'est-à-dire de les doter d'une propriété nouvelle ou de les faire passer à un niveau supérieur d'organisation.' (13, p. 78)


The problem of "world peace", etc needs to be seen in a similar light. As presently conceived, the level of articulated separation, disagreement or diversity is not yet great enough to sustain more than an undifferented, mass-consciousness version of the-desired level of agreement.

18. The previous point would appear to indicate that the deficiency of dialectics in understanding disagreement arises whenever some stability is required for disagreement sets higher than the threefold by which it is characterized (e.g. thesis, antithesis, synthesis). This is clearly stated by Arthur Young: "But when the stimulus causes wrong action and the result is not achieved, the (fourfold) learning cycle becomes necessary. Thus the learning cycle only becomes necessary when there is an obstacle in the larger, threefold cycle". ( 5, p. 24)

19. This suggests the need to explore more highly differentiated patterns of disagreement with higher numbers of component elements. The most interesting development in this direction is that arising from the impact of quantum theory an the conceptual bases for the classification of knowledge (15), especially that of P A Heelan (16) who is concerned with incompatible frameworks, and with complementary frameworks and dialectical development. He advocates the use of non-Boolean partially ordered lattices to interrelate such frameworks and the languages associated with them. Heelan's approach is cited by the authors of the above-mentioned studies on the Rg Veda as appropriate to the complexity with which they are dealing. Heelan relates his own work to that of Feyerabend who was extensively cited above:

'The context of assumptions in which I am working comprises those counter-positions to classical logical empiricism, established by such authors as N R Hanson, P K Feyerabend and T 5 Kuhn, such as the absence of any hard distinction between observational and theoretical language, the validity of multiple explanatory viewpoints, the existence of both continuous trajectories of theory development and discontinuous trajectories representing revolutionary episodes in the history of science or culture.' (16, p. 260)

He concludes:

'From the foregoing, it is clear that there are a variety of logical models at hand to understand inter-framework relationships and especially developmental transpositions between frameworks in history. The task of using these models practically in problems of classificationp has yet scarcely been begun.' (16, p. 272)

20. Heelan indicates the relevance of his approach to relating certain incompatible theories of physics. The question is whether, by using the term "logical", he is restricting its relevance to situations in which the disagreement is less fundamental. How irrational can disagreement be and still be organized in some way? Both Feyerabend in his book Against Method (4), and Heelan in identifying himself with "counter positions" (quotation above), are taking up positions and "disagreeing" with others. They are therefore trapping themselves in a dynamic relationship without providing any organization for that disagreement thus leaving the basic difficulty unclarified. It would seem that the difficulty lies in the .paradigm in which "positions are taken". The difficulty is less that of whether one takes a particular position and more that of the nature of the relationship to the positions one fails to understand or support (of which others, or the future, may understand more).

21. Paradox is implicit in the approach of Feyerabend and Heelan, but can it be made paradoxically explicit? Somehow any static "balance" between agreement and disagreement must be by-passed through a set of paradoxes which legitimate contradictory positions. It is strange that the absence of humour from the development of psycho-social organization is not a cause for comment given its fundamental importance to human beings, even in political life. Arthur Koestler has explored its relation to paradox and creativity ( 17 ). Can contradictory positions be mapped into a self-reflexive hierarchy of paradoxes in which dynamism is inherent? Such a context might then prove more appropriate for the dialectic process. At present this is rather like having access to the central component of an electric generator, without being able to mount it in a suitable framework so as to be able tap the energy generated to drive other psycho-social processes -- and without tearing the mounting apart as it rotates between opposing positions.

22. The remainder of this paper explores the possibility of generating a pattern of progressively more differentiated disagreements as a basis for a more appropriate manner of psycho-social organization.

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