According, to my understanding, the meaning of dialectic is...

  • In Plato: a back-and-forth conversational style of reasoning from his later dialogues
  • In the Middle Ages: the scholastic style of reasoning so well exemplified in Aquinas (objection, objection, objection—main point—answer to objection, answer to objection, answer to objection...)
  • In Hegel: the historical movement of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, logic played out in history through the movement of the World Spirit

Kierkegaard seems to be consciously responding to Hegel, so the way he redefines his terms (spirit, for example) is important to understanding him.

How does Søren Kierkegaard use the word dialectic? How does his use of it differ from G.W.F. Hegel's? How is it affected by Hegel's sense as opposed to Plato's or the scholastics'?

The sense I'm getting from Kierkegaard is that he means to use it as something like paradoxical reasoning, or tension in thinking, which seems to be distinct from any of the definitions given above. An example is his statement from the beginning of Section C of Part One of The Sickness Unto Death:

Freedom is the dialectical element in the categories of possibility and necessity.

It also seems to him to be divorced from the historical understanding in Hegel.


3 Answers 3


In very broad strokes:

All of the definitions you propose for "dialectic" share a common, crucial factor: that truth is not static, but something that unfolds via a back-and-forth process. Plato, the scholastics, Hegel, and Kierkegaard all subscribe to this notion, and the differences in usage between them are secondary when viewed in this manner.

Kierkegaard's usage of the word "dialectical" in the given quote ("Freedom is the dialectical element in the categories of possibility and necessity") is clearly Hegelian; there's nothing about his usage that Hegel could object to. (The degree to which Kierkegaard was being parodic/ironic is another matter altogether.)

It also seems to him to be divorced from the historical understanding in Hegel.

How so? How would freedom play out dialectically, if not in historical time?

  • 1
    +1 But could you expound on the truth not being static in Plato? Isn't he the best example of that in his static metaphysical basis for epistemology? By the lack of the historical understanding, I was referring to the fact that while Hegel is world-historian, Kierkegaard is concerned with the individual. Of course things happen in time for Kierkegaard, but not with the whole-world historical progression of Hegel.
    – Kazark
    Commented Feb 13, 2012 at 15:42
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    For Plato, the truth may indeed be static in the Ideal realm, but the process of our "recollecting" it is an uncovering in time, so it is not all present to us at once; Heidegger goes into this in some detail. As for the distinction between the individual and the world-historical, this is true but doesn't affect the meaning of "dialectic", which operates similarly in both domains. Commented Feb 13, 2012 at 15:50

There is a footnote in Postscript which is very useful here:

"There is no excluding dialectics. It may be that a generation, perhaps two, can live in the belief of having found a barricade that is the end of the world and of dialectics. That doesn’t help. Thus, for a long time it was thought possible to exclude dialectics from faith by saying that it was on the strength of authority that faith found its conviction. Were one then to question the believer, that is, challenge him dialectically, he would with a certain free and easy frankness deflect the question by saying: I neither need to account for it nor can I, because I rest in my confidence in others, in the authority of the saints, etc. This is an illusion, because dialectics merely turns and asks, i.e., challenges him dialectically, about what authority is, and why he regards these as authorities. That is to say, it speaks dialectically with him not about the faith he has from his confidence in them, but about the faith he has in them."

I think Kierkegaard’s concept of dialectic is in a great degree Platonic. But the difference is that for Kierkegaard this back-and-forth process is something as long as one’s life. So we cannot achieve an Idos at the end of this process, because there isn’t any end to it. The Dialectician is an ever-striving kind of person. The Dialectical comes from our life’s temporal aspect. Existence (and “tilværelse”) are dialectical, and that is the difference between these concepts and Being. Of course I couldn’t grasp the distinction he puts between “quantitative dialectic” and “qualitative dialectic”.

In the end, excuse me if my English is a mess!


Kierkegaard comes to me firmly through Carl Rogers, and I don't think a more anti-dialectic person ever lived--he didn't even have to mention the word! What this means is that the divider is somewhere between Hegel and Husserl, with Hegel simply confirming the Platonic discussion (if an egotist such as Plato could have one) with thesis-antithesis-synthesis, with synthesis being the "truth" decided on by the "auditor" Needless to say, as applied to international relations, and especially war, as Marx did, the auditor is superior force and synthesis is genocide.

Geist seems to come into the picture with Hegel, which hints at the post-modern, but Geust did not come into force until the new world, where a full picture was created as "conception" or self-concept that we reference for decision making. Dewey equated experience with learning giving Rogers his boost; Dewey got it from David Hume (as did Adam Smith who I now think only created a red-herring in Rand's financial objectivism -- it has been didactic materialism all along--sorry, capitalists! though Smith did tip us off about the invisible hand, which is Palto's auditor)

Kierkegaard comes to us through Rogers by (sort of) saying "be true to thyself." So I am assuming his dialectic, if he had one, was simply the internal fluency that we all use because it is necessary for internal communication (along neural paths) as it is for person-to-person communication, which is not the historical dialectic, that was/is communicated with 9" shells and now drones.

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    If Kierkegaard hates dielectic, why does he use the word in the example? The remainder of the answer seems to involve some vagueness: by "genocide" do you mean killing people, or getting rid of uncomfortable ideas? That "synthesis" is political power quashing some ideas is not questioned by anyone, but I think you are saying it's bad. Did Kierkegaard say that? Why do you assume the invisible hand is a bad auditor? Did Kierkegaard? Why is war so different than other forms of politics? Did Kierkegaard consider it so?
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 25, 2012 at 17:29
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    It doesn't appear that the link you included at the end is directly related to this answer, so I removed it. Adding "signatures" like that to your posts is considered spam on this site. If you'd like to promote your website, please feel free to add it to the "website" field of your user profile, or even the "about" section. Commented Apr 25, 2012 at 20:35

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