The word "dialectic" means, from the Greek, "to speak through." This is a poor picture of this beautiful, rich concept of lover and seeker, and that waiting, desiring, to be found. Let me try again:
"Diá" (διά ) is a preposition that has a sense, in the richness of Greek, of getting successfully across to the other side, and carries also a sense of 'for the sake of' or 'on account of.' The fact that διά is a preposition is beautifully parallel to the meaning of this word, for isn't a preposition itself a kind of bridge between things in a sentence, providing a means to relationship of substances: "the child in the mother"? The best picture of διά is that of a bridge, which holds all the connotations of this tiny bit of speech within itself. It is a bridge and yet more, for bridges hold within themselves, by virtue of what they are, the possibilities of the Other Side. The Other Side of a bridge holds a fascination for those who are seekers and those who are lovers. You know who you are, as you imagine the Other Side, and the desire for a way across, and the joy at the building of the bridge, the relationship between things that makes possible a journey to something Other, something new, or something ancient we find again, in recollection.
"Lectic" is a variation of the word "lexi": word, speech; it is also related to "logos" which St. John uses, as the Hebrews used "memra" (word, speech), for God. The Logos who Speaks the Cosmos in John, and the 'memra' who spoke to a scared and lonely prisoner in the dungeon of Pharoah is the same One. The very ancient root words for speech also hold the connotation of "pulling pieces together" or a kind of ordering, which makes sense both for speech as we commonly understand it, and for the Creator.
Together, διά and λόγος are "bridge-across-to-the-other-side-pulling-together-ordering-word-speech."
Dialectic. Fr. Benedict Ashley, in his A Handbook of the Liberal Arts states, " The art of conversation, discussion, debate, and inquiry is called dialectics"; the use of the word 'art' always fascinates me: this language-as-bridge is, in fact, an art--not a science, not a cold method, but rather a moving, living, morphing activity that has beauty and rightness, and an ordering-for-the-sake-of-something-higher. It is a practice that requires practice, and like the painting of Rembrandt, or the sculpting of the great Phidias, it is best done in the passion of love (which is always a seeking) tied to the humility and strength of discipline, for the sake of something deep and great and true, an almost, or truly unknowable, for-the-sake-of, for the sake of pleasing the Highest, through imitation-praise of the Highest.
Dialectic happens between humans and between humans and God. Animals do not have dialectic: they may even have a form of speech, but never dialectic. Why? Animals have conversation: we've all seen those infernal squirrels teasing the poor dogs (probably cussing them out, based on the dogs' reactions), and teenager robins calling out for their parents as they flutter around the yard, trying out their wings. But dialectic is an art: Animals don't practice something for-the-sake-of a higher cause; their speech is limited to the needs at hand.
We practice an art, like dialectic, to reach deeper towards the center of things, towards the sources, to participate in reality in deeper and deeper ways, to stand under the fire and water of Meaning, becoming one with it, the way one wants to become one with the beauty of the Grand Tetons or the light flowing across the sea at dawn. No wonder the Greeks personified nature; if Dawn is more than just energy particles, one has a hope of knowing her (though the truth hidden, deeper, that the Greeks were on to but could not see, is that the desire for knowing and unity is truly for the Creator). An art, like the art of love, is always about, towards, knowledge-in-being, not knowledge outside myself, but myself within it, being within it; it is also always about creation, and bridging, and getting to the other side. Seeking, more like a lover than a prospector.
Dialectic is also a dance; it cannot happen in the vacuum of self alone with self, but even if over a lifetime with one's selves at different times, it is always in the context of the other, of other thoughts, just like one cannot build a bridge with wood alone: one at least needs hands, and tools to shape it. An art is a conversation between hands and material, and dialectic art is language-bridging between oneself and another, the 'interlocutor,' towards something greater than either.
Recently, I have noticed something. I have seen dialectic strangled. Of course, it happens in many big and obvious ways: as one friend put it, "Beware of vested interests masquerading as facts"; one find it also in many people's inability to put words to reality, a refusal to step outside the borders of more and more extreme 'toleration' to the point that naming, personal logos-ing, has lost touch with reality. Joseph Pieper phrased the billboard-level of strangled dialectic as "abuse of language"; he meant, I think, that the hijacking of words and speech is really a power-play, and a deeply effective one. Laws requiring that you call people by pronouns that they dictate to you is a power-play, a naked, bloody-edged, loaded-gun power play. The individual's 'right' to define their own universe enshrines the Triumph of the Individual but is itself a cloak for the Triumph of those who find it all too easy to control individuals completely out of touch with reality and prone, therefore, to be enslaved to their own thoughts, whims, and passions.
I have seen, as we all have, dialectic strangled in the public square.
I have seen it more subtlety done, however, and perhaps, just perhaps, this more subtle version is the seedling of the poisonous imitator of the mustard tree growing over human culture presently:
Recently I read a conversation online in the comments box about a rather provocative article. One interlocutor provided a masterpiece of dialectic which moved beautifully, artfully, between first principles (that which is immediately evident), authority, evidence, and well-grounded hypotheses, a position inviting dialectic in the true sense, a building of the bridge which asked for the essential materials of another.
Then came another, who took the first person's invitation to art, this receptive masterpiece, and reduced it to a caricature of itself, and then asked a skillful question based not on the dialectical material at hand, but rather on the caricature--an attempt, whether conscious or not, to make the first person look like an idiot. Add to that the "ethos" or known character of each, the first person a less authoritative, less-titled person, and the almost-halo put by others habitually around the second interlocutor, and you have both a rhetorical trump and strangled dialectic: The bridge to the Other Side weighed down and broken finally, by the sheer weight of a dump truck full of cotton candy speech. The Other Side became, suddenly, again, unreachable, unknowable, all done possibly for the same reasons the US nuked two Japanese cities even when they knew the Japanese government would surrender yet cloaked it in language about 'saving lives' and 'peace,' the way the Japanese themselves committed war atrocities and cloaked them in hijacked language, the torrent of language most like the torrent of pee from a strange dog covering the four corners of your yard: vested self-interest in something other than the for-the-sake-of, a blindness about the larger meaning, the Other Side, the Truth, towards which the dialectic had been a bridge.
How often does vested-interest, self-aggrandizing rhetoric strangle dialectic? Are these small sins, like the tiny specks of dandelions, precursors to a field infested? If we learned how to put self aside and look for, like a seeker and a lover, the 'that for the sake of which', would the world change, at least in the small corner that is our territory?
I will contend here that all dialectic, if it is to be what it is, looks inevitably, essentially, always, towards reality, deeper and farther in, like the concentric Narnias in The Last Battle, like the white shores under a swift dawn (Tolkein), like the longing we all know, if we are true to our being, for Home--a Home which is not just about rest, or safety, or surfeit of love, but which is truly about being who we were meant to be: A being in relation with Love and Being, the paradox of ourselves finally one with the Other yet still the most ourselves possible through this knowing.
Put another way, dialectic is about the truth of ourselves, which can only be found outside ourselves in relationship with Truth.
Anything else is Bad Rhetoric: clanging cymbals that drown the still, small voice in the wind.