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Method: Approaches to the art of disagreement

Integrative Knowledge Project


In interrelating highly diverse focal concepts, it would be naive to ignore the fact that those identifying with such different concepts tend to disagree and to oppose each other. Such dynamics need to be taken into account if the resulting integration is to be of more than academic significance. The difficulty is that the ability of conventional methodologies to encompass essentially incommensurable concepts is poorly developed - methodologies themselves tend to be mutually "hostile". In such a situation it is necessary to move "beyond method" (Anthony Judge, Beyond Method, 1984) if a diversity of methods is to be interrelated in a manner which is relevant for integrated development.

There is therefore a major need for a "science of disagreement" to clarify the manner in which active disagreement can be usefully structured. It appears that agreement in society is often essentially superficial or token (if it prevails at all). There is a total absence of knowledge on how to disagree intelligently in an organized manner, rather than in an irrational, fear-ridden manner requiring some form of violent or repressive response to eliminate the disagreement as soon as possible.

1. Conflictual approach

It might be assumed that the methodologies of conflict resolution, mediation or arbitration would provide guidelines for a science of disagreement. This is not the case. Such methods are primarily concerned with eliminating the disagreement between the parties, or reducing it to a level at which it is not significant for their relationship.

Edward de Bono (1985) suggests that people seek to solve conflicts by a conflict method of thinking. Even through negotiation, the method is still that of compromise or consensus. Compromise suggests that both sides give up something in order to gain something. Consensus means staying with that part of the proposal on which everyone is agreed, namely the lowest common denominator.

He stresses that: "We do have to accept that our methods of solving major disputes and conflicts have been crude and primitive, inadequate and expensive, dangerous and destructive. Even if we operate these methods with the best will in the world and with the highest intelligence, they will not suffice. There is a need for a fundamental shift in our approach to these conflicts." (2, p.viii) He suggests that in current approaches there is insufficient attention to the creative and design aspect and to the creation of elements that were not there to begin with. The question however is how to introduce this "design dimension".

In looking for a "science" of disagreement some care is necessary. Science, as it claims to be practised, can be usefully considered to be about agreement processes and the elimination of disagreement. "Art" may however be considered to be about disagreement processes, set against a background of the rise and fall of agreement. Agreement is not useful without disagreement. In fact it is meaningless. It is the disagreement that introduces the essence of diversity and avoids the uniformity of undifferentiated mass consciousness.

2. Anarchistic approach

Since disagreement can be perceived as arising from differences in method, there is merit in exploring Paul Feyerabend's thesis Against Method (1975). But there is an obvious problem in using Feyerabend's "method" as a basis for any art or science of disagreement. He explicitly advances his views as epistemological anarchism and states: "It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, "objectivity", "truth", it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes." (p 27-28)

But he goes further in arguing that science is itself anarchistic: "To sum up: in so far as the methodology of research programmes is "rational", it does not differ from anarchism. In so far as it differs from anarchism, it is not "rational". Even a complete and unquestioning acceptance of this methodology does not create any problem for an anarchist who certainly does not deny that methodological rules may be and usually are enforced by threats, intimidation, and deception. This, after all, is one of the reasons why he mobilizes (not counter-arguments but) counter-forces to overcome the restrictions imposed by the rules." (p 198)

But the somewhat quixotic element in his extremely valuable approach is then revealed in his remarks on its status in his own view (as the author): "Always remember that the demonstrations and the rhetorics used do not express any "deep convictions" of mine. They merely show how easy it is to lead people by the nose in a rational way. An anarchist is like an undercover agent who plays the game of Reason in order to undercut the authority of Reason (Truth, Honesty, Justice, and so on)." (p.33)

Feyerabend takes us to the very useful point at which it is possible to say that "disagreement is OK" and that scientific progress might be impossible if imperfections were eliminated (p.255). But, as an anarchist, he is obviously totally uninterested in the need to "organize" disagreement in any way, even if it were possible. As a result his approach provides no clues for any new way of organization which could take account of new levels of disagreement.

3. Marxist-Leninist dialectical approach

The most fruitful guide to further understanding of disagreement should be found in writings on dialectics, which were clearly of value to Feyerabend. But whether it be in the writings of Hegel, Marx, Engels or Lenin, or in recent writings on dialectics as it emerges in modern science (eg complementarity, etc), there is little to be gleaned beyond the concept of the essential (thesis, antithesis, synthesis). Most authors emphasize the intimate relationship to the cognitive subject-object process, about which it is necessarily difficult to be "objective" without distorting comprehension of its essential dynamism. Thus: "If we try to analyze what it is that the threefold describes, we are in a bind, for it is just that element of participation in life that analysis cannot, and does not even pretend to, cope with." (Arthur Young, The Geometry of Meaning, 1975, p.57) "Since it is basically nonconceptual, it cannot be defined..." (p.27) For this reason dialectics has been most favoured as a method by those capable of anchoring it in practical action in a concrete material context.

The marxist scholar Jean-Marie Brohm points out that neither Marx nor Engels attempted to define dialectics positively (1976, p.43). They defined it negatively by the criticism of adverse positions, as have most of their successors: "Ce faisant ils obéissaient à un grand principe général de la dialectique: la négativité. Le positif est toujours le résidu de la négativité, un moment négatif provisoire qui attend à son tour d'être nié... La dialectique est le produit d'une lutte ininterrompue contre les conceptions adverses. Elle se définit négativement par ce contre quoi elle s'oppose." (p.43)

Hegel summarizes the essence of dialectics as follows (as quoted by Brohm): "Les choses finies sont, mais leur rapport elles-mêmes est de nature négative, en ce sens qu'elles tendent à la faveur de ce rapport à se dépasser. Elles sont, mais la vérité de leur être est qu'elles sont finies, qu'elles ont une fin. Le fini ne se transforme pas seulement, comme toute chose en général, mais il passe, il s'évanouit; et cette disparition, cet évanouissement du fini n'est pas une simple possibilité, qui peut se réaliser ou non, mais la nature des choses finies est telle qu'elles contiennent le germe de leur disparition, germe qui fait partie intégrante: l'heure de leur naissance est en même temps celle de leur mort." (Science de la Logique, p.129)

In commenting on Hegel's Science of Logic, Lenin clarifies one of Hegel's definitions of dialectics by the following:

Then he further clarifies these elements in 16 points (Cahiers Philosophiques, 1973, p.209-210): As indicated above, these insights are not especially helpful to developing a method of disagreement.

4. Non-marxist dialectical approach

In the case of psychologist Jean Piaget, there are five characteristics of dialectics:

These five properties of dialectics are summarized by a sixth that gives its general significance: "dialectic constitutes the inferential aspect of all equilibration". This means that dialectics does not intervene at all stages of cognitive development, but only during the course of the equilibrating process. It is therefore important to distinguish carefully between the state of equilibrium corresponding to a non-dialectic moment of evolution and the dialectic processes permitting the construction of new frameworks. Piaget distinguishes eight kinds of interdependency (Les Formes Elémentaires de la Dialectique, 1980, p.213-227). A co-author, Rolando Garcia, draws attention to similarities between Piaget's concept and that of Lenin as detailed above (p.233-237).

In one of the few studies which also reviews non-marxist concepts of dialectics, Paul Foulqui concludes with the following general definition:

"Est dialectique une pensée constamment tendue pour se dépasser elle-même aussi bien en allant jusqu'au bout de ce qu'elle a découvert qu'en se portant à des points de vue nouveaux que semblent contredire ses affirmations premières." (La Dialectique, 1976, p.125) Despite the relevance of dialectics to the problem of disagreement, as noted above, it does not appear to do more than explain the dynamics of the environment it constitutes. Dialectics explains the eventual future evolution beyond the stage of disagreement, but does not clarify the nature of any possible present order whilst the disagreement holds. It does not clarify the nature of the psycho-social forms to which disagreement can give rise in the present, it merely affirms that they are necessarily temporary. The question is whether there is any pattern in the present to the ancillary processes to which a dialectical confrontation gives rise. It is possible to discover any underlying structure to disagreement? For example, evident disagreement might be considered to be structured like interference patterns from distinct interacting wave sources. Or disagreement might be compared to recent thinking on the relationship between interacting parallel universes.

5. Developmental stage approach

More accessible to reflection (but spread over time) is the concept of development stages, of which the best example is in the case of the individual human being. Development for the individual is a series of separations that give rise to a qualitatively different sense of unity. Stages include:

Each of these separations, as a form of disagreement, can be very painful. They are accompanied by changes of perspective that are difficult to communicate to younger siblings, for example. This effective secrecy is enshrined in primitive initiation rites and rites of passage of which equivalents still exist for apprentices, students, and soldiers. At each stage new adversaries emerge as potential enemies with whom to disagree.

The shock effect of such initiations has been extensively explored by psychoanalyst C G Jung in his study of the confrontation of an individual with archetypes (including adversaries) corresponding to each initiatory level (The Collected Works, 1953-71). Of special interest is the individual's encounter with his "shadow" and its relation to creative comprehension of the significance of death as a dramatic form of disagreement. He clearly demonstrates that avoiding this confrontation is unhealthy for the development of the individual.

At each such development stage intense regret may be expressed for the loss of the togetherness and innocence of the preceding stages despite profound appreciation for the new insights achieved. The advantage of using such stages to model levels of disagreement is that it highlights the possibility that many of those involved in movements for "peace", "equality" and "solidarity" may be hoping to achieve a kind of womb-like level of agreement within their environment. Or some childish condition of "eternal summertime" and parental security. But the more separation or disagreement that has been achieved, the greater the potential for new kinds of unity. It is the degree of disagreement that qualifies the scope and depth of the unity possible. This problem is well illustrated in the various levels of disagreement with which the poets of the ancient Rg Veda hymns struggled using music as a language as discussed in Section KD (Antonio T de Nicholas, 1978).

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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