Dialectical Thinking: Chinese vs. Western Style


A method of argument or exposition that systematically weighs contradictory facts or ideas with a view to the resolution of their real or apparent contradictions. The contradiction between two conflicting forces viewed as the determining factor in their continuing interaction.

Dialectical Thinking:  Chinese vs. Western Style


As written by Richard Nisbett (2003) in "The Geography of Thought" (p. 27):

"In place of logic, the Chinese developed a type of dialecticism.  That is not quite the same as the Hegelian (or Western) dialectic in which thesis is followed by antithesis, which is resolved by synthesis, and which is "agressive" in the sense that the ultimate goal of reasoning is to resolve contradiction.  The Chinese dialectic instead uses contradiction to understand relations among objects or events, to transcend or integrate apparent oppositions, or even to embrace clashing but instructive viewpoints. In the Chinese intellectual tradition there is no necessary incompatibility between the belief that A is the case and the belief that not-A is the case.  On the contrary, in the spirit of the Tao (道) or yin-yang principle, A can actually imply that not-A is also the case, or at any rate soon will be the case. ("物極必反")  Dialectical thoght (Chinese version) is in some ways the opposite of logical thought.  It seeks not to decontextualize but to see things in their appropriate contexts:  Events do not occur in isolation from other events, but are always embeded in a meaningful whole in which the elements are constantly changing and rearranging themselves.  To think about an object or event in isolation and apply abstract rules to it (as in Western intellectual tradition) is to invite extreme and mistaken conclusions.  It is the Middle Way that is the goal of reasoning."

Similarly, as written by Kaiping Peng and his colleagues (2006) in "Naive Dialecticism and the Tao of Chinese Thought" (p. 256):

"However, we have to point out that there is a fundamental difference between Chinese naive dialecticism and the commonly understood dialectical thinking in Western thought.  In Western intellectual domains, dialectical thinking usually refers to three levels of analysis, including dialectic dynamic at the societal level (e.g., Hegelian or Marxist dialectics (馬克思)), dialectic argumentation at the level of interpersonal discourse, and dialectical integration at intrapsychic level.  Importantly, Chinese naive dialecticism is different from all three types of Western dialectical thought.  Western dialectical thinking is fundamentally consistent with the laws of formal logic, and aggressive in the sense that contradiction requires synthesis rather than mere acceptance.  The key difference is that Chinese naive dialecticism does not regard contradiction as illogical and tends to accept the harmonious unity of opposites. ......  Western dialectical thougt, particularly the Marxist dialectic, treats contradiction as antagonistic.  As Lenin wrote in the Philosophical Notebooks, the unity of opposites is only temporary, transitory, and conditional.  Equilibrium and harmony are only temporary; conflict, contradiction, and the struggle of opposing tendencies are permanent."

Therefore, Chinese (naive) dialecticism is very different from the commonly known Western dialecticism.  (I wish that scholars had coined a different term for Chinese pattern of thought, because Western dialecticism is so ingrained in people's mind when the term dialects is used.)   Ironically, Chinese communism follows the Western Marxist dialectic rather than Chinese traditional dialectic.  Therefore, "清" "算" "鬥" "爭" (many bad consequences happened in the height of Chinese communism in the name of "struggle of classes") may be blamed on the Western Marxist/Lenin dialecticism rather than Chinese naive dialecticism.




Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently and why. New York: Free Press.

Peng, K., Spencer-Rodgers, J., & Nian, Z. (2006). Naive dialecticism and the Tao of Chinese thought. In U. Kim, K. S. Yang., & K. K. Hwang (Eds.), Indigenous and cultural psychology: Understanding people in context (pp. 247-262). New York: Springer. 15