On Dialectic: Dissoi Logoi – Teaching the Trivium

Ralph_Hedley_(follower)_An_argument_from_opposite_premises

Plato saw dialectic as a way of refining opinions to reveal truth. Aristotle saw dialectic as remaining in the world of ‘opinion,’ (with logic being the way to reveal truth). In the ‘Topics’ Aristotle talks of dialectic as probable ideas being discussed in a spirit of enquiry, with the result likely to be opinion rather than certainty. To Aristotle dialectic is a series of interruptions, questions and answers, objections and counter objections.  Dialectic has a long and varied history as an idea and as a pedagogical and philosophical technique. Rhetoric seeks to persuade, dialectic, maybe, seeks to explore.

Nowadays we are, arguably, brought closer to conflicting world views in our everyday lives than ever before. It can be problematic to arrive at ‘the truth’ as it sometimes means we end up decrying another’s opinions as a lie, a falsehood or, indeed, evil. This means that relativism rears its ugly head, challenging us to believe that anything might be true and this truth is resident in the opinion of the individual. This belief has a long pedigree, we can go back at least as far as the fifth century BCE and to the sophists.

Protagoras, is thought by many to represent the epitome and the origin of a sophist world view, known for the aphorism: Man is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not… This is often explained in the following way: two people are sitting in a room, one finds it cold and the other finds it warm which to the Greeks was an interesting philosophical debate. Nowadays we’d solve the argument with a thermometer though the ‘result’ that this would show would still be unsatisfactory to the person ‘proved’ wrong as they would, no doubt, still feel cold or warm.

I find the idea that all is relative to be fascinating and, ultimately, unsatisfactory. Some things are better than other things. However, in order to explore what these things might be we need to surrender ourselves to the possibility of doubt, uncertainty and the risk of being proved wrong, and realise that not all things that we personally value are better than other things.

The Aristotelian view of dialectic can open up the power of argument or conversation without the need for a conclusion. In its own terms this is a useful technique for looking at questions which have no easy answers. An excellent technique for doing this is dissoi logoi (double arguments) a pedagogical technique associated with the sophists and thought to be close to the original methods employed by Protagoras. Unlike in court where a jury weighs the opinions of both sides of the argument with the outcome resulting in an opinion which we then hold as ‘true’ as this system allows it to be, or in a Socratic dialogue where, in Plato’s writings, Socrates was generally the interlocutor with people who were ultimately ‘wrong’ in one way or another, a proper two sided argument cannot arrive at a single truth.

I think the dissoi logo is an excellent technique to use within the confines of separate ‘arts’ (disciplines, subjects etc.) to explore areas of thought which present grey areas to us. It can also be a method to look at cross-disciplinary ideas where there could be conflict: For example in asking ‘how did the world begin?’ one could look for arguments from both science and religion. A dissoi logoi sees beyond a single truth or subservience to a tradition in that it opens up the possibility of other, competing, truths and traditions and gives them equal weight. The crucial thing being that this equal weight is not a debate in the traditional sense where two or more people from opposing sides argue with each other, the vital part of a dissoi logoi is that one person argues both sides, gives them equal credence and does not reach a conclusion.

Dialectic in the classroom:

The teacher needs to approach dialectic with care. In early days in a class it might be common practice to ask a student what they think of something. Don’t. Their opinions can be sounded off in many places, the playground, the corridor or even online. We don’t need to hear them in the classroom… Yet… One of the jobs of a teacher should be to educate the pupil to be able to think about things, because they know things, especially in areas where opinion counts. We need to move beyond immediate thoughts that might be an emotional reaction to, say a sonnet, as being ‘rubbish’ to a more sophisticated view that can critique said sonnet from a variety of viewpoints some supportive, others less so. Every subject has its areas of debate, these are fruitful areas to explore in a dialectical classroom, where knowledge of why something might be right or wrong enriches the debate and helps form sophisticated opinions through which the student can become more academically self assured by seeing why certain problems are far more interesting than their immediate response might have conveyed. I would go as far as to say that the immediate response of a student can destroy further study. A dialectical classroom is, therefore, not one of crude, violent, opposition, it is one where a great deal of empathy for differing views can grow. However as views will sometimes be difficult to explore it will be a challenging classroom and will need to be handled sensitively by the teacher.

Although some place dissoi logoi in the realm of rhetoric, I believe it belongs more to opinion than persuasion, and works well through challenge and response rather than through the unfolding narrative of great rhetoric. In order to use it well in the classroom the teacher begins the focus of a dissoi logoi through the means of a question. The question is then explored by looking at ‘answers’ to the question from different viewpoints. By studying two or more texts alongside one another a student might want to agree with one more than the other. Don’t let them. The dissoi logoi is a dialogue that presents both sides as carrying equal weight and therefore being equally true. It opens up debate rather than closes it down. It is ‘inductive’ rather than ‘deductive’.

The student is then asked to construct a narrative, either written, spoken or both by which they show how both sides (or more) of an argument have equal validity. This possibility can be pursued in order to increase knowledge and understanding before we begin to approach the vexed nature of mere opinion. This narrative can be represented as a debate between two people each refuting the other and making their points or it can be presented as one narrative by which the student explores the issues showing how fascinated they are in the argument rather than in the need for conclusion.

Dissoi logoi is a great way to ensure students aren’t concerned with their own prejudices and being proved right, as a result they become better scholars, and are readier to learn than refute.

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9 thoughts on “On Dialectic: Dissoi Logoi – Teaching the Trivium

  1. pointsofpedagogy

    An aspirational piece. I, too, would love to incorporate some dialectic into my classroom. Unfortunately the pressures of content and exam technique tend to balls everything up in this regard however, so I feel it would be important to prop up such an exercise either with pre-discussion scaffolding or with an intensive postmortem.

    Do you have any practical step-by-step ways in which I could explore this method for, say, an A Level Psychology class? Many thanks. Sam.

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      Hi Sam,

      Interestingly there is some evidence that exploring conflict aids students in their learning and in their ability to memorise something, therefore this might aid exam preparation.

      I am interested that you mention pre discussion scaffolding and postmortem… This would fit neatly into the Trivium 21c framework: The scaffolding and learning facts to aid the dissoi logoi would be the role of ‘grammar’ and the post mortem implies some sort of decision and sharing which would fit into the art of rhetoric…

      Step by step, in your subject, I will leave for you to think about as I think subject expertise is vital in order to frame the work. Let’s say you were looking at comparing views of the unconscious, first teach a couple or more different viewpoints, get them to research further, then look at setting up the dissoi logoi pointing out areas where they might like to explore in depth, usually where profound differences lie, then get them to write them and, how about reading them out loud in class? This could open up areas for further research and for you, as expert, to point out if anything has been misunderstood.

      Then you could prepare them to write essays, do a project, or write speeches in which they make up their minds about what a theory of the unconscious should entail.

      Maybe?

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      1. pointsofpedagogy

        Hi Martin, thanks for your reply.

        I think you’re absolutely right about conflict aiding memory, or any higher order thinking for that matter. It’s something I’m only recently developing in my questioning and choice of activities. I work with a lot of reasonably unmotivated students so anything beyond the bread and butter is often not met with the warmest of receptions.

        The only wall I hit when considering dialectic activities is the lack of genuine dilemmas at A Level Psychology. Your consciousness example is a very applicable one, but sadly is not even hinted at in the current specification. I’ll get thinking about possible ideas over the festive season.

        Do you have a particular example of when this technique has worked for you in your practice?

        Thanks,
        Sam

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  2. Eddie Playfair

    Thank you for another excellent piece Martin. I think there is a good case for saying that all learning is dialectical given that it starts from a question, a challenge to the known posed by the not-yet-known, and the possibility that there is more to things than we currently know. As well as the dissoi logoi I also like oxymoronic formulations such as “progressive traditionalism” or “revolutionary gradualism” which contain a dialectical tension within them.

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  3. Pingback: Teaching the Trivium | SurrealAnarchy

  4. Pingback: The Trivium and the Baccalaureate: The flesh and the bones of a great education. | headguruteacher

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