The three principles of dialectical thinking

In the run-up to this year’s seminar series, I met with Harm Boukema, a wonderful philosopher who taught for many years at the University of Nijmegen and whom I was fortunate enough to have as a teacher. We discussed the nature of dialectical thinking. Harm comes from a Hegelian background but has relinquished the elaborate ontological/logical edifice of the Hegelian system. What remains? He formulates three principles of dialectical thinking:

  1. Principle of reflexivity: you cannot adequately state something that pretends to be of universal import, unless you are prepared to equally apply it to yourself as stating it.
  2. Principle of opposition: you cannot understand whatever it is in isolation, i.e., without taking into account the way it is related to what it is not (Hegel’s “definite negation”).
  3. Principle of persecution: you cannot free yourself from something supposed to be bad by the way of aversion. The more anxiously you try to avoid something, the more persistently it will persecute you.

What these principles have in common is: not being isolated or separated, not being outside. According to the first, you are not outside the whole, the totality you are stating. According to the second nothing is intelligible outside its neighbour or counterpart.  According to the third you are not outside the evil that irritates and moves you.

Boukema’s philosophising is characterised by the persistence with which he takes these principles seriously and applies them to his readings of Wittgenstein, Austin, Hegel, Descartes, Copernicus and a host of questions and themes in theoretical philosophy, logic, the philosophy of mathematics and philosophical semantics (see here for some of his works, including a penetrating dialectical reading of Russell’s On Denoting). “Philosophy is a struggle against bad philosophy.” In the first session we investigated what happens when we apply these three principles to Novalis’ remark “philosophy is homesickness”. In this way an approach to the questions of exile that are at play in the texts we are studying this year has started to open up.


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