Inner Dialectic


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Preparatory Study

     In previous studies we've discovered that Plato's mystical science of dialectic was an extraordinary kind of shared mystical experience in which Socrates served as a psychagogic midwife, overseeing the process of the divulgence of, the bringing into being of new elements: entities, events, ideas, feelings, inspirations, and images.

      Dialectic involves the participants attempting to gain a genuine understanding of "that which has true being"--Eternal Forms. Since Plato makes it clear in the Phaedo that Forms cannot be discovered or understood in the ordinary mind-state, dialectic occurs only when the participants are in a heightened mode of consciousness. Socrates and the other participants in the dialogues entered into a higher state of consciousness.

      At times, Socrates had to work assiduously to bring other participants into a heightened state, since they were almost totally unfamiliar with the experience or they were opposed to Socrates and dialectic. But Socrates' presence and his actions ushered them into this higher state--so much so that the participants sometimes spoke of being entranced, charmed, or bewitched.

"There exists a faculty in the human mind which is immeasurably superior to all those which are grafted or engendered in us. By it we can attain to union with superior intelligences, finding ourselves raised above the scenes of this earthly life, and partaking of the higher existence and superhuman powers of the inhabitants of the celestial spheres.

"By this faculty we find ourselves liberated finally from the dominion of destiny, and we become, as it were, the arbiters of our own fates. For, when the most excellent parts in us find themselves filled with energy; and when our soul is lifted up towards essences higher than science, it can separate itself from the conditions which hold it in the bondage of every-day life; it exchanges its ordinary existence for another one, it renounces the conventional habits which belong to the external order of things, to give itself up to and mix itself with another order of things which reigns in that most elevated state of being."

Iamblicus, The Egyptian Mysteries

The Meaning and Activity of Inner Dialectic

     Plato's concept of dialectic (dialektos) refers to the activation of inspiration through reciprocal interchange between persons, aspects of a person, or between a person and spiritual beings. One of the extraordinary elements Plato introduces is locating dialectic both in outer discourse and in inner dialogue.

      In Theaetetus, Plato defines thinking as:


This frieze depicts Socrates communing with a Muse. Socrates was known to engage in frequent inner dialectic with his Muse or Daimon.

    "a dialogue which the soul has with itself about the objects under its consideration. . . It seems to me that the soul when it thinks is simply engaging in dialectic with itself in which it asks itself questions and answers them itself, affirms and denies. And when it arrives at something definite, either by a gradual process or a sudden leap, when it affirms one thing consistently and without divided counsel, we call this its judgment. So, in my view, to judge is to make a statement, and a judgment is a statement which is not addressed to another person or spoken aloud, but silently addressed to oneself." [189e-190a]

     In the Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger states that thinking and discourse are the same thing, except that what we call thinking is, precisely, the inward dialectic carried on by the mind with itself without spoken sound. [263e] He also asserts that there is true and false speech, that thinking is the soul's conversation with itself, that belief is the conclusion of thinking, and that what we call appearing is the blending of perception and belief. [264b]

Thinking as Inner Dialectic

     According to Plato, conceiving or thinking is the conversation the soul has with itself in considering things, asking itself questions and answering them. It is possible to practice dialectic as an inner dialogue with one's soul.

     Plato's written dialogues are dramatic representations of "outer dialectic," to help us learn how to create an "inner dialectic" indispensable for attaining wisdom. The Greek concept of dialogue (dialogos), is composed of the word logos meaning communication or divulgence and dia which means "through"--not "two." A dialogue, then, can be among any number of people, not just two, and a single person can experience dialogue between elements within herself.

"The primary meaning of consciousness is the presence of the self to itself through operations that attain an object. The originating meaning of consciousness is the self-presence that grounds every other form of presence in human consciousness. The secondary meaning of consciousness is the mediation of self-presence through conscious acts. The tertiary meaning of consciousness pertains to the object or content of the conscious activity."

Emile J. Piscitelli, "Insight As a Theory of Knowledge:
Basic Method And Metaphysics"

     Dialectic is interchange focused on specific issues or questions, engaged in deliberately with the goal of increasing understanding, investigating issues, and examining thoughts and actions. Dialectic engages the heart as well as the mind. It is not merely ordinary, everyday conversation; it has a focus and a purpose. Dialectic differs from debate, in which two points of view vie with each other to prove the correctness or superiority of one viewpoint over the other. Real dialectic presupposes an openness on the part of the participants to modify deeply held beliefs. In a true dialectic, whenever a false belief is discovered on the part of any one person, everybody gains increased understanding. Participants in dialectic do not engage in a contest against each other, but investigate crucial issues with one another in a joint effort to attain knowledge.

     Plato's written dialogues not only record specific inquiries into philosophical problems but also instruct us in the dialectical process. The dialogues are object-lessons, living models of the dialectical method. They exemplify how participants in dialectic learn through directed interchange of ideas. This allows persons learning to engage in philosophic dialectic to continue the process of dialectical discovery beyond the actual presence of the written dialogue. Plato's method of presenting written dialogues is instruction in a way of life (agôgê) for the budding philosopher, and not merely the acquisition of specific knowledge. The written dialogues lead the seeker, but at the same time allow her to internalize the dialectic process; they allow self-discovery and assimilation of the process of philosophic inquiry. The process of dialectic thus becomes habitual and dialectic is then used in forming well-founded beliefs and acting in principled ways.

     A number of creative artists--dramatists, philosophers, writers, performers, etc.-- have built on Plato's concept of inner dialectic. We've explored Boethius' inner dialogue with Lady Philosophy in a previous study . In this essay we'll explore Shaftesbury's concept of soliloquy as a form of inner self-awareness.

Shaftesbury's Concept of Soliloquy

     Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, advocated a form of inner dialectic, called soliloquy, as a prerequisite for writing intelligent material, coming to ethical decisions, and behaving rationally. Without the discipline of self-examination, Shaftesbury claimed, mindless persons write the veriest nonsense.

"For having had no opportunity of privately conversing with themselves, or exercising their own genius so as to make acquaintance with it or prove its strength, they immediately fall to work in a wrong place, and exhibit on the state of the world that practice which they should have kept to themselves, if they designed that either they or the world should be the better for their moralities." 1

     "Tis no wonder," Shaftesbury said, "if such quaint practitioners grow to an enormous size of absurdity, whilst they continue in the reverse of that practice by which alone we correct the redundancy of humours, and chasten the exuberance of conceit and fancy." 2

     "Great talkers in company," Shaftesbury claimed, blowhards as we would now call them, fail to converse inwardly with themselves, so they engage in mere blathering and their "froth abounds."


    "But when they carry their attempts beyond ordinary discourse, and would rise to the capacity of authors, the case grows worse with them. Their page can carry none of the advantages of their person. They can no way bring into paper those airs they give themselves in discourse. The turns of voice and action, with which they help out many a lame thought and incoherent sentence, must here be laid aside, and the speech taken to pieces, compared together, and examined from head to foot. So that unless the party has been used to play the critic thoroughly upon himself, he will hardly be found proof against the criticism of others. His thoughts can never appear very correct, unless they have been used to sound correction by themselves, and been well formed and disciplined before they are brought into the field. 'Tis the hardest thing in the world to be a good thinker without being a strong self-examiner and thorough-paced dialogist in this solitary way." 3

     Shaftesbury believed that the Delphic inscription, Know Thyself, was an admonition to practice inner dialectic or soliloquy. Philosophers were then known as persons who engaged in inner self-examination and it was claimed "that they were never less alone than when by themselves." Knaves, Shaftesbury asserted, are persons who cannot be by themselves, always needing an audience. To become an ethical person, he claimed, one should "exert this generous faculty [of soliloquy], and raise himself a companion, who being fairly admitted into partnership, would quickly mend his partner, and set his affairs on a right foot."

"One would think there was nothing easier for us than to know our own minds, and understand what our main scope was; what we plainly drove at, and what we proposed to ourselves, as our end, in every occurrence of our lives. But our thoughts have generally such an obscure implicit language, that 'tis the hardest thing in the world to make them speak out distinctly. For this reason, the right method is to give them voice and accent. And this, in our default, is what the moralists or philosophers endeavour to do to our hand, when, as is usual, they hold us out a kind of vocal looking-glass, draw sound out of our breast, and instruct us to personate ourselves in the plainest manner." 4

"The self-presence of the subject is the primary form of presence because it is I who am conscious. Acts are said to be conscious when they mediate the object to the subject: I am conscious through conscious acts. The object is that of which I am conscious through conscious acts. Neither objects nor other persons can be present to me without the mediation of conscious operations. Consciousness is experience grounded in self-presence. If consciousness is experience, then consciousness is the experience of experience, the experience of understanding, the experience of reflection, and the experience of deliberation and decision. Insight undertakes an examination of consciousness as experience in order to understand: experience, questioning, understanding, reflection, judging, and deciding. The self-affirmation of the knower arises in a reflection on my conscious acts so that when I judge that I am a knower, I am saying that I am one who experiences, understands, judges, and decides. What I know is my self as knower. When I decide to live and act in accordance with self-knowledge, I have appropriated my rational self-consciousness.

Emile J. Piscitelli, "Insight As a Theory of Knowledge:
Basic Method And Metaphysics"

     Shaftesbury believed that inner dialectic would allow persons to examine themselves and make improvements in their person.

"A certain air of pleasantry and humour, which prevails nowadays in the fashionable world, gives a son the assurance to tell a father that he has lived too long; and a husband the privilege of talking of his second wife before his first. But let the airy gentleman, who makes thus bold with others, retire awhile out of company, and he scarce dares tell himself his wishes. Much less can he endure to carry on his thought, as he necessarily must, if he enters once thoroughly into himself, and proceeds by interrogatories to form the home acquaintance and familiarity required. For thus, after some struggle, we may suppose him to accost himself: 'Tell me now, my honest heart! Am I really honest, and of some worth?

"Or do I only make a fairs show, and am intrinsically no better than a rascal? As good a friend, a countryman, or a relation, as I appear outwardly to the world, or as I would willingly perhaps think myself to be, should I not in reality be glad they were hanged, any of them, or broke their necks, who happened to stand between me and the least portion of an estate? Why not? Since 'tis my interest. Should I not be glad therefore to promote my interest, if it lay fairly in my power? No doubt; provided I were sure not to be punished for it. And what reason has the greatest rogue in nature for not doing thus? The same reason, and no other. Am I not then, at the bottom, the same as he? The same: an arrant villain, though perhaps more a coward, and not so perfect, in my kind. If interest therefore points me out this road, whither would humanity and compassion lead me? Quite contrary. Why therefore do I cherish such weaknesses? Why do I sympathise with others? Why please myself in the conceit of worth and honour? A character, a memory, an issue, or a name? What else are these but scruples in my way? Wherefore do I thus belie my own interest, and by keeping myself half-knave, approve myself a thorough fool?'" 5

     Shaftesbury believed that "the grand artifice of villainy and lewdness, as well as of superstition and bigotry," was fostered by putting distance between oneself and what he called the "proving method of soliloquy." Only by regular self-examination, he believed, is one able to "be sure of his own meaning and design; and as to all his desires, opinions, and inclinations, be warranted one and the same person to-day as yesterday, and to-morrow as to-day." 6

     Shaftesbury recognized that some of the elements involved in inner dialectic could possess negative qualities, similar to our discussion of the debilitating self.


"The presence of one person to another, the mutual presence of persons through intersubjective communication is a form of presence not considered in cognitional theory. The reason it is not is that the process of knowing is under a measure of abstraction in the quest for a method of inquiry. Collaboration is an element of method, but its interpersonal presence is defined by the mutual objectives of the common work. Interpersonal communication can include but goes beyond knowing. The presence of the self to itself is incomplete without the concomitant presence of the self to itself through meaningful speech. A cognitional theory based on an understanding of consciousness as self-presence makes the empirical component of human consciousness constitutive of consciousness. If true, since there is no empirical component in God, God could not be said to be conscious. If the experience of intersubjective understanding goes beyond the empirical, then consciousness could be meaningfully predicated of God."

Emile J. Piscitelli, "Insight As a Theory of Knowledge:
Basic Method And Metaphysics"


1 Shaftesbury, Anthony, Earl of, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 1711, p. 109

2 Op. Cit.., p. 111

3 Ibid

4 Op. Cit.., pp. 113, 114

5 Op. Cit.., pp. 114, 115

6 Op. Cit.., p. 123

7 Op. Cit.., pp. 123, 124