Reflections on dialectically guided writing, or: Can dialectics help us tell better stories?

Guest post by Richard Sorg.

Prof. Dr. phil. Richard Sorg, born in 1940, is an expert in dialectics. What is that, and what does it have to do with my novel? Well, “All great, moving and convincing stories are inconceivable without the central significance of the contradictions and conflicts that represent the driving energy of movement and development.” This puts us in the middle of dialectics. And of storytelling.

After studying theology, sociology, political science and philosophy in Tübingen, West Berlin, Zurich and Marburg, Richard Sorg taught sociology in Wiesbaden and Hamburg. His book “Dialectical Thinking” was recently published by PapyRossa Verlag. (Photo: Torsten Kollmer)


Ideas that contain a potential for conflict.

Sometimes there is a single but central chord at the beginning of a piece of music, even an entire opera, which is then gradually unfolded. Its inherent aspects, harmonies and dissonances emerge from the chosen, sometimes inconspicuous beginning, undergoing a dramatic, conflictual development, so that a whole, complex story emerges at the end of the path of this simple chord after its unfolding. This is the case, for example, with the so-called Tristan chord at the beginning of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde”, a leitmotif chord that ends with an irritating dissonance.

The beginning of a story is sometimes an idea, an idea which you may not know how to develop. But some such ideas or beginnings carry a potential within them that is capable of unfolding and which holds unimagined development possibilities. ‘Candidates’ for viable beginnings – comparable to the dissonant Tristan chord mentioned above – are those that contain a potential for conflict or contradiction within. But it can also be a calm with which the matter is opened up, a calm that may then prove to be deceptive. We also find something similar in some dramas, for example with Bertolt Brecht.

And with that, we are already in the middle of dialectics. 

Hegel – Contradiction as the power that constitutes the vitality of a thing.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), the most important German philosopher for the question of dialectics, also offers an introduction with a disturbing, contradictory beginning. He begins his main work “Science of Logic” (after his great preparatory work “The Phenomenology of the Spirit”) with the question of how to begin a basic philosophical work, which should presuppose as little as possible. His initially irritating, incomprehensible answer is: “Sein, reines Sein, – ohne alle weitere Bestimmung” (Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik I, Werke Vol. 5, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/Main 1969, 82). Being, pure being, without any provision, since each provision would already presuppose something that would then itself have to be argued, justified or derived. But, as it quickly becomes apparent, such a pure, undetermined being is – because nothing definite, but rather completely indeterminate – indistinguishable from nothing. After a long tiring, even absurd-looking back and forth between being and nothing, whereby being, if you want to grasp it, turns into nothing – and vice versa – finally a way out of this labyrinth appears: the only thing one can say is that this apparent rocking motion is a movement. Hegel calls this movement “becoming”; it is pure emergence and decay. In his search for an unconditional beginning, “becoming” has thus resulted in a first, albeit completely abstract, general category.

But at the same time – at least in his understanding – he has discovered or formulated the engine of further development. For all future – i.e. more concrete, more complex facts and categories – is based on this elementary movement between being and nothing, between the two sides of this contradictory relationship. In the movement of becoming, the two (which seen in isolation seem abstract sides or moments) form a coherent unit, thus a first “concrete” in Hegel’s terminology, yet a unit that does not eradicate the contradiction, but instead understands it as the motor for further development, as the force that constitutes the vitality of a thing. (On Hegel’s use of the terms “concrete” and “abstract”, contrary to popular understanding, cf. his small text “Wer denkt abstrakt”, works vol. 2, 575-581, which is exceptionally easy to understand but very informative for his dialectical thinking.)

Potential for conflict drives events forward.

If we look at the things or stories we experience or produce, it can be illuminating for their understanding and development to pay attention to the potential for conflict or contradiction contained therein, which drives events forward. The negative and the negation belong to the contradiction. This is therefore unimaginable without its opposition, the positive or the position. Contrary to what one is used to thinking, the negative understood in this way has a creative power. Goethe knew this, for example, when in his “Faust” in the study scene Mephisto, the epitome of the negative or evil, said that he was “a part of that power that always wants evil and always creates good” and “I am the spirit that always negates!”

All great, moving and convincing stories are inconceivable without the central significance of the contradictions and conflicts that represent the driving energy of movement and development. And everywhere we look, we recognize this interdependence, this togetherness or unity of contradictions. For example, death is part of life; life always also means dying, cells in us constantly die off and new ones emerge; we, seen as an organism, can only live if many plants and animals have to give their lives for it. For Hegel, life is the ‘overarching general’. Not the life of the individual, for as individuals we are mortal; but life as such remains – at least as long as we do not destroy our earth to the extent that all life that has arisen in the process of evolution is also destroyed, which we would already be able to do today.

“The truth is the whole.”

All the great dramas and novels that seize and move us live from these contradictions and conflicts that drive the plot forward, and gain their vitality and persuasiveness not least through them.

But not only here, where great feelings and shocks are at stake, contradiction and negation belong to even such elementary operations as a definition. To define or to determine something means to separate the something that I define from the other that it is not, i.e. to exclude the other, to negate it. When we reflect on this rather than insist unilaterally on a limited position, we must also include the excluded in our considerations, we must think the whole, the defined as well as the excluded, because both belong together. That is why Hegel writes in his phenomenology: “The truth is the whole” (Hegel, Works Vol. 3, 24), a sentence that can also be understood as a methodical maxim.

The “dialectical” in writing.

With all this we have described the “dialectical”, dialectical thinking, or at least one of its basic forms. Applying this way of thinking when writing texts can promote the persuasiveness and the experience-saturated reality content of what is written. I can also apply this to fictional texts, because even these need a motor for their inner logic that drives development forward, that promotes the multifaceted and complex nature of a depicted situation, event or relationship.


Have you ever tried to understand the protagonist as the force that differentiates itself from the antagonist or antagonism, i.e. from the other that it is not? Both together form the true, the whole. How and why antagonism can be understood as a defining element of protagonism will be the subject of our next guest post. 


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