MWP 1.3.k: Dialectic and Homeostasis

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The Middle Way can be described as a dialectic, in that it posits a way that opposing forces can be reconciled and their apparently opposed views transcended. The classic dialectical structure is that of thesis (an initial claim), antithesis (an opposed claim to the thesis) and synthesis (a unification of the two claims). By itself, this basic dialectical structure just explains how progress occurs and how conflict is resolved. The Middle Way does this through agnosticism about both thesis and antithesis where their claims are opposed a priori, but the adoption of provisional and incremental views about the topic (which may include aspects or interpretations of the thesis and antithesis). These provisional and incremental theories can then be considered in relation to experience in order to provide a resolution of the conflict, not as exactly stated in the thesis and antithesis, but at a different level where the assumptions of each have been questioned. In some cases the higher level of thought might involve just coming to terms with our lack of knowledge and resting with agnosticism – as in opposed claims about God’s existence, for example. In other cases it might need a process of analysis to bring out which aspects of the thesis and antithesis can be understood in incremental or provisional terms in which they can be reconciled through investigation[1], with merely metaphysical aspects of the thesis and antithesis being left to agnosticism.

Dialectical structure only becomes problematic when it is appropriated in the service of a metaphysical assumption that is assumed to explain the dialectic – in other words, where the synthesis is assumed to be metaphysical in nature rather than non-metaphysical in nature. This has often been the case when dialectical approaches have been used by great philosophers of the past. Hegel and Marx in the nineteenth century both used dialectic to metaphysical ends.

Hegel’s dialectic is based on an absolute idealism, in which history is believed to inevitably bring about the synthesis of all conflicting beliefs, because all such beliefs are ultimately aspects of one universal mind. Thus his overall philosophy assumes a determinism of history – a definite metaphysical view – and that history’s pre-determined outcome will be positive – a metaphysical optimism. Many of the syntheses he identifies along the way are also false syntheses, because they consist in a further metaphysical position rather than a pragmatic solution that overcomes the metaphysical assumptions of thesis and antithesis[2].

Marx’s dialectic is also historical and determinist, believing that history will necessarily have a good outcome, as conflicting class groups with conflicting ideologies struggle and bring about a synthesis of their opposing interests. This process culminates in the supreme synthesis, the Communist society. Rather than being idealist, however, Marx’s account of the dialectic is materialist, the inevitable process of historical dialectic being claimed to be ascertainable from history. Although Marx claims a scientific basis for his dialectic, then, it is just as dogmatic as Hegel’s, with his materialism being just as metaphysical as Hegel’s idealism[3].

The dialectic of the Middle Way should not be confused with those of either of these two philosophers, as it avoids their overriding metaphysical assumptions[4], makes no claims about the inevitable course of history, and sees synthesis only in the avoidance of metaphysical assumptions. The type of dialectic involved in the Middle Way is much closer to the epistemological and moral negative feedback loop discussed in 3.e. Here the thesis consists of a theory, the antithesis the falsification of a theory by experience, and the synthesis of a revised theory. This is the epistemological dialectic offered by Popper, which (provided we do not incorporate his assumption of the fact-value distinction or his rejection of psychology) can also provide a model for Middle Way dialectic.

As discussed in 3.f, the Middle Way dialectic also has no final goals. We do not know what the continued use of the dialectic will lead us to in future, as it is merely a method of investigation. It is progressive only in the point that it is leaving behind and improving on the thesis and antithesis, the limitations of each of which can be seen in the context in which the dialectic is used, rather than according to any wider framework. We experience objectivity moment by moment in a dialectical process, but the further we stand back the harder it is to ascertain whether it is objective progress that has taken place. This implies that we should not stand back too far from the negative feedback process, but rather seek a vantage point which balances our immediate experience of progress with an awareness of the intermediate (but not final) goals that may be suggested by a succession of smaller dialectical changes.

A Middle Way dialectic is also a dynamic one, leading to new resolutions of problems confronted by the human system, and should not be confused with the settled patterns of homeostasis. In a homeostatic relationship, two systems enter a stable and mutually dependent pattern of balance and thus form a larger system: for example, the population of rabbits and that of foxes that consume them are mutually dependent, and changes in one will force adaptations in the other. Ecological models of homeostasis are far more complex than this because they involve the interactions of large numbers of species or systems forming a complex system that nevertheless has an overall stability – the ‘balance of nature’.

Although such a stable balancing reflects that of the Middle Way in important ways, it needs to be noted that the Middle Way is a dialectic of judgement, not a homeostatic pattern in total. The Middle Way consists of a maximally balanced response to conditions that may come out of a position that, in the larger analysis, is extremely unbalanced. The position of human beings in the wider ecology of the planet Earth has a good deal of instability about it, and we are currently seeing accelerating extinctions of other species, habitat destruction, rising CO2 levels, and a threat of melting ice caps and rising sea levels, all of which threaten the homeostasis of the earth’s biosphere. A Middle Way response to that situation is not a leap to an ecologically homeostatic position, but rather one in which we, as perhaps unavoidably unbalanced creatures, attempt to address the conditions of this environment as best we can. In the longer term, the closer we can get to homeostasis, the better, but the Middle Way consists in a realistic attempt to get closer to it through dialectical engagement, rather than an idealised attempt to imitate a ‘natural’ balance.


[1] For examples of the incrementalisation of various metaphysical dualisms, see volume 4, or Ellis (2001) 6.b

[2] See Ellis (2001) 4.h for a much fuller discussion of Hegel

[3] Ibid. 4.i for a much fuller discussion of Marx

[4] See IV.4.d for more on these assumptions in relation to realism and idealism

2 Replies to “MWP 1.3.k: Dialectic and Homeostasis”

  1. In 1991 I completed a doctoral dissertation in Children’s Literature at New York University entitled “An Analysis of Wilhelm Grimm’s’Dear Mili’ Employing von Franzian Methodical Processes.” The study explored the Jungian concept of Individuation within a fairytale framework.

    In the study I argued that “The individuation process is one of tension and relief, harmatia and catharsis, that is symbolic of a homeostatic dialectic.” I further elucidated the concept of “homeostatic dialectic” as follows:

    “The concept of homeostatic dialectic comprises two terms, the first of which (homeostasis) suggests the pursuit of balance, and the resulting antimony (the merging of opposite forces or energies).

    I’ve since often wondered if there have been other scholarly investigations concerning this phenomenon, and in my internet search came across your website and the blog on “Dialectic and Homeostasis.”

    1. Hi Karl, Thanks for your comment, and glad to hear about your dialectical interpretation of Jung. There is a strong dialectical element in the Middle Way, and my forthcoming work on Jung and archetypes particularly focuses on the Middle Way in Jung. You might be interested in my forthcoming book ‘Red Book, Middle Way’ in this respect. There is also a good deal in all my books about integration, which is another term for what Jung called individuation.

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