Fredric Jameson is one of the few hard line Marxists in America today. He writes extensively on topics about capitalism, postmodernity, etc, all through the lens of Hegelian/Marxist dialectics, which is reflected in his writing. In fact, it is said that Jameson makes a living out of these so called "dialectical sentences".

The notion of dialectics has intrigued me for a while, but the notion of dialectical writing and dialectical sentences intrigues me much more. How exactly is dialectics reflected in writing?

I wonder if anyone here is acquainted with Jameson's texts and writing style, and can please give me an example of a "dialectical sentence" along with an explanation of why it is considered dialectical.


4 Answers 4


In regards to Jameson, the assertion that we could take individual sentences, lift them out of context and observe their "dialectical" style, is itself an inherently undialectical approach (in that, dialectical thinking resists arbitrary "cut-off" points that allow someone to exclude an outside (in this case, all the other sentences in the text) and treat the sentence one selects as somehow sufficient in itself to reveal anything at all, let alone a "dialectical style").

It's not individual sentences or writing style that make Jameson's method dialectical. It's the movement or progression of thought in which popular truths, often expressed in binary oppositions, that we take as stable, self-sufficient and universal (politically neutral) are shown to be highly unstable and dependent for their staying power upon the prestige and even sometimes the force exercised by the ruling class. To try to separate either the style from the content (or to extract a content apart from the form in which it is presented) is already a distortion of dialectical thinking. This is not a religious insistence on some kind of purity. (Obviously, I'm committing the very sin that I am warning against here in regards to Jameson.) It's merely to say that understanding Jameson's dialectical method goes beyond examining individual sentences. There can't be any dialectical style in a single sentence.

As for Jameson's dialectical thinking expressed in writing, take the essay "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture". We tend to see a simple binary opposition between mass culture and high (modernist) culture (the "stable" truth, in which each side of the opposition appears to be self-sufficient). Jameson shows that both are fundamentally shaped by the logic of commodity Capitalism (works of art of both types become commodities that advocate their own consumption). The division itself is embraced and advanced by the ruling class (who favor high art as opposed to low art) and does the work of masking the possibility of truly collective art (art produced within conditions of collective political action).

  • This certainly makes sense, from the question I had thought it was Jameson who was claiming "dialectical sentences," which didn't make sense. Sep 24, 2021 at 21:13

Here's is a trick I use to explain the meaning of dialectics. I will present the term using two methods: without, and with the dialectical approach. The second helps understanding dialectics better precisely by means of dialectics.

Method 1. Dialectics is a philosophical approach consisting in exposing the truth based on multiple perspectives. The longest answer in this question page includes a list of possible alternative descriptions, following the same line. This kind of exposition of ideas can also be called sentential or argumental, because a single simple sentence can be used to present the idea.

Method 2. Dialectics is to be understood as the opposite of argumental. An argumental exposition usually does not allow understanding the whole problem. The dialectical approach, on the contrary, presents ideas as the conclusion of a discussion considering the relevant issues of the subject.

In this last example, understanding the difference of argumental and dialectical allows an easy understanding of the term. Denoting such difference is precisely the goal of the dialectical method.

Same facts in a different form: a) dialectical is related to conclusions, argumental to propositions; b) dialectic is a discussion, argumental is an affirmation; c) dialectical considers all problems, argumental considers only one.

Regarding your question, "dialectical sentences" is an oxymoron, giving that "sentential" would oppose to "dialectical", as presented above.

Anyway, checking some Jameson's writings, it is clear that he uses a lot of sentence contrast connectors ("but", "nevertheless", "however", etc.), which can be understood as the simplest form of using the dialectical method. So, as a possible example:

The argumental method presents a single-sided perspective of things, HOWEVER , in order to expose relevant issues to consider, using the dialectical method is suggested.

Consider that the term dialectical applies to the method, not necessarily to a sentence. "Dialectical sentence" is possibly a Jameson's invention.

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    I'm not sure the "however" contrast is sufficient, since we also require the evolution (or revolution) into subject-object identity. Apart from any content, it seems you could sloppily or pretentiously call any sentence "dialectical" in form, as opposed to, say, mathematical equations. Sep 24, 2021 at 13:53

The idea of dialectic is a regression relatively to Aristotelian logic. Dialectic is an essentialisation of logic, which echoes the initial idea of the logos, conceived as having a divine essence, and the principle that put order into the original chaos. Aristotle's conception of logic was a progress compared with the logos in that it framed logic as a kind of reasoning, and therefore a property of the human mind, not a property of the cosmos.

Dialectic reverts to some extent to the logos in that it is an essentialisation of logic. The idea of dialectic is the idea that contradictions literally exist in nature itself, not just in our reasoning. For Marx, it is the contradictions of capitalism which will cause a new order to emerge, somewhat like the logos brought order into the original chaos.

This was an interesting idea but it is ultimately a non-scientific idea, and therefore one which is probably impossible to substantiate from the empirical evidence available. Instead, its proponents have to resort to waffle to pretend they understand what they are doing. It is a long time now since the publication of the work of Marx. If is was true in this respect, we would know by now.

As to the so-called dialectical sentences Jameson insists he should write, my understanding is that they have to be performative. They should be at the same time a dialectical analysis of the purported contractions of the real world, and an enactment of these contradictions. This is apparently all there is to it. In my view, waffle.

My guess is that both Hegelian and Marxist dialectics argued themselves into a corner, a sort of self-referential corner. Dialectic shifts contradictions from text to the real world, and then, because the dialectic analysis failed to become operational, doubles back on itself, insisting that a text is part of the real world and as such not only subject to its "contradictions", but incapable of escaping them, hence the idea of the necessary failure of the dialectical analysis of reality. And then the objective becomes to strive to articulate these contradictions back into the text, offering a sort of tragic self-contradictory performance where the text tries and fails at the same time to demonstrate the impossibility of changing the world only through analysis.

There, are you enlightened now? I don't think so. These people profoundly fail to understand how proper logic works. Their writings become a theatre of the absurd. They are not longer trying to change the world, as Marx would have urged them to do, they are just justifying their own failure to change it by painting a world somehow impossible to change.

  • This commentary on the material dialectic really does not address the question of what could be meant by a "sentence" that is itself dialectical, as opposed to the content of the sentence. Also, the case for a material dialectics of "life" or nature, as speculated by Hegel and later Engels is roughly demonstrated in Darwinism and other "evolutionary" sciences. An evolutionary, historicist approach to technology and society isn't far from what Marx was getting at, though it is true his theory of the revolutionary proletariate appears "disproven," so far. Sep 24, 2021 at 13:44
  • @NelsonAlexander 1. "does not address the question" It did, "waffle". I edited to be more explicit, but you're not going to like it. - 2. "is roughly demonstrated" I doubt that very much. How long is it going to take before it is scientifically demonstrated? Sep 24, 2021 at 16:56
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    This discussion about the relevance of Hegel's logic is really for another question. Both Marx and Engels were intrigued by Darwin, Marx even proposed to dedicate his book to him. At that time Darwinism was not considered properly "scientific" in the mechanical, causative sense of physics. Discovery could only be retrospective, much as historical trends can only be discovered in the "fossils" of artifacts, though with the added problems of self-reference, inescapable in history. Still, aspects of Marx's "material dialectic" can be shown in the regularity of financial crashes and elsewhere. Sep 24, 2021 at 17:21

I honestly don't know and and don't care for Jameson's style myself, though I'm generally sympathetic to his Marxism. Just by googling, it seems there is a book on this very topic. I am not repelled by difficult styles and concur that there is often a genuine necessity for them, as in Kant or Heidegger, for example. But often I feel I am getting very little nutrition per sentence, which was my feeling about Jameson, as I recall. Maybe I should try him again. In some ways, you might say that any sentence with a transitive verb is "dialectical."


This is the first book to provide a critical overview of the work and career, as a whole, of the Marxist culture-critic Fredric Jameson, foremost among American intellectuals and a vanguard figure in the "theory movement" of the past three decades. Steven Helmling identifies major themes and traces both continuity and change in Jameson's engagement with the challenges presented by continental theory from the 1950s to the present. Instead of approaching Jameson's work by circumventing his notoriously difficult writing style, as many have chosen to do, Helmling takes at face value Jameson's insistence that the success and failure of critique are conditioned on how it is written. Jameson insists on a "dialectical prose" that not merely analyzes but enacts or performs the contradictions of its subjects, resulting in an agitating, dramatic, and compelling style that questions the very success or failure of critique itself. Style is thus regarded both as a salient feature of the writing, and as a problem for critical practice in general. Besides illuminating an oeuvre that's far from fully understood, the book makes a timely contribution to the current, "What was theory?" discussion.

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    Transitive verbs cannot denote opposites, alternatives or contrasts, which is the goal of dialectics. I would say that if "dialectical sentence" could be meaningful, it would be due to the use of sentence contrast connectors ("but", "in spite of", "nevertheless", etc.).
    – RodolfoAP
    Sep 24, 2021 at 4:23
  • Yes, I suppose that could be. But dialectics does not simply "denote" opposites. Any sentence synthesizes contrasting elements through the unity and reasoning of a presumed speaker-subject, but as noted I have no idea what is meant here, have not and probably will not read the book cited. Sep 24, 2021 at 13:30

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