Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Courtship is a Proper Model of the Dialectic

In one of my periodic attempts to understand Hegel, I came across the most memorable of his several attempts to explain what he means by the dialectic. He says that the relation of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is like that of bud, blossom, and fruit. This is a gripping visual image, especially now in the blooming spring.

Every analogy has its strengths and weaknesses. The strength of this image is that it helps show how the synthesis preserves the essence of the stage that came before, while utterly transcending its form. Moreover, it is clear how each succeeding stage requires the destruction of the previous one. The weakness of this image, though, is that bud and blossom are not antithetical; the blossom is not generated by the negation of the bud.

I think a great deal about marriage and children, especially now in the blooming spring when I teach my family life class. It occurred to me in talking to a student that we have before us a much better analogy for the dialectic: the courtship of a man and a woman which brings forth a baby. Now, a men and woman are not opposites, but complements. And courtship much better captures the back and forth and back and forth of how a dialectical opposition gets worked out in history -- much better than the image of a sudden, violent Revolution does.

And there is no model of synthesis better than a baby.

Now, the birth of a baby does not annihilate the parents. This may be a way in which the analogy actually illuminates the original notion. When we apply the dialect as an abstract idea, we act as if the thesis and antithesis were annihilated in the generation of the synthesis. In fact, though, among intellectuals the thesis and antithesis never really die, even if the main narrative of history has moved on with the synthesis.

In a larger sense, though, the child does end the parents' existence; they cease to be fully separate beings. The essence of the parents is sublated (a world that is not better English than the German word it is supposed to translate) into the child. The child carries forward the combined, complementary essences of the parents, now transformed into a new thing.

And this new thing seeks, and usually finds, its complement in the next courtship.

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