Is it possible to clarify the "helical change" in Hegelian dialectic with an example?

  • 3
    Book name and page number? I'm a Hegel scholar and I'm not immediately familiar with this term.
    – virmaior
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 6:30

3 Answers 3


Helical change

Helical change involves an interplay between 'opposites'.

The dynamic dialectical interplay between opposites can best be captured as an image of a helix that depicts the developmental aspects of changes over time ... (Arnold Sameroff, 'A Unified Theory of Development: A Dialectic Integration of Nature and Nurture', Child Development, Vol. 81, No. 1 (JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010), pp. 6-22: 10.

Agreed, tangled exposition. But read on after you've looked at this model of a helix:


A simple example of a developmental progression is the daily cycle where spiraling to the right would be the movement toward day and spiraling left would be the movement toward night.

Although this is a repetitive cycle, it becomes helical in that each day is different because of the experience of the previous night and each night is different because of the experience of the preceding day. (Sameroff:10.)

Helical change in Hegel

In the philosophical writings of Hegel ...There is a unity of opposites between one's cognitions and the world that is being cognized. Without the world there would be nothing to cognize, and without the cognizer there would be no cognitions. But there is also an interpénétration of opposites. One's cognition leads to one's action which becomes part of the world ..., and then the changed world becomes a part of one's cognition ... in a continuing dialectical progression. The dialectical perspective on nature and nurture is that they mutually constitute each other. There is a unity of opposites in that development will not occur without both, and there is an interpénétration of opposites in that one's nature changes one's nurture and conversely one's nurture changes one's nature, as captured in current transactional models. Moreover, and most salient, without the one, the other would not exist. Species and their environments evolved together in a coactive and transactional relationship. (Sameroff: 9.)

I cannot find the phrase, 'helic change', in Hegel but he may well use it. But for ideas and arguments that support the concept, see JME McTaggart, Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic', Cambridge: CUP, 1896, reprinted 2011).


To give a more Hegelian example, consider a simple moral dialectic.

  • Person A offers a thesis: "it is wrong to kill another."
  • Person B suggests an antithesis: the case of self-defense, or defending another, or defending a nation from attack, all of which may entail killing someone.
  • Person A offers a synthesis, that while it morally wrong to kill another, there are cases in which it is necessary to do so.

Superficially, it may seem as though the synthesis in °3 has returned full circle, in actual fact it has come around at a higher level of abstraction and complexity: °1 is a simple moral absolute; °3 is contextual and conditional, calling for an assortment of secondary moral considerations about necessity. This is the helical nature of the dialectic. Person A hasn't simply reverted to his original thesis, but has evolved his original thesis into something richer.

Hegel developed the dialectic specifically to address the kind of polarized thinking we see in the modern political world, where people repeat talking points with a nauseatingly mindless ferocity (which to be fair was as common in his era as in ours). Any modern symbolic battleground you care to mention — abortion, evolution, nationalism, climate change, terrorism — would largely resolve itself if participants were willing to think dialectically and allow their thinking to complexify past simple absolutes. Unfortunately, there are entire political industries dedicated to preventing exactly that kind of dialectical thinking.

C'est la vie...


Hegel proffers weltanschauung to be either agreed or disagreed with. Note that while this is distinct from advancing knowledge claims, it is the logical equivalent of poetry and no more philosophy than opinion or sentiment. So, sure - it's possible to clarify. What then does the poet mean when one interpretation is as valid as the other? From "Dialectics for Kids"

Many changes are cyclical--first one side dominates, then the other--as in day/night, breathing in/breathing out, one opposite then another. Dialectics argues that these cycles do not come back exactly to where they started; they don't make a perfect circle. Instead, change is evolutionary, moving in a spiral.

...these are the ABCs of spirals:

A - An Acorn falls in the woods. It sprouts into a tree that eventually makes new, and different Acorns.

B - You're walking along and you happen to trip. Next time you're more careful to keep your Balance.

C - It's the big game. You're team starts to lose and you're feeling bad. But then you feel great when your team makes a Comeback.

D - A baby doesn't know how to use a bathroom so we use Diapers to keep from having a mess. When a toddler learns to use a bathroom we're glad that there is no more need for the Diapers

...and so on.

Here as well is further example by poetic use of analogy, from Popcorn, Haircuts and other Changes:

Circles and Spirals

Some changes go in circles, returning to where they started.

Like a Ferris wheel that goes up and comes back down to the same spot. Or the day which turns into night and then into day Or the seasons--Winter--Spring--Summer--Fall--and Winter again Or our breathing--in and out and in

Some changes go in spirals--they look like they come back to where they started, but something is different.

Like a winding staircase that moves in a circle, but comes around to a higher point. Or going to school and coming back home, but learning more about the world every day. Or losing something; then finding it, and then putting it in a special place so you won't lose it again. Or like children growing up to be parents with children of their own.

(See the linked page for the poetic formatting)

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