In classical philosophy, dialectic referred to a dialog based on arguments and counter-arguments, the purpose of which was to arrive at the truth. A prime example of dialectic would be the method used by Plato’s Socrates to shake various citizens of Athens out of their ignorance and complacency. Through a vigorous process of argument and counter-argument, Socrates would hope to at least get a better understanding of certain important concepts such as justice.
What’s interesting about the use of dialectic in Plato is that it often leaves things hanging in the air without resolution. In other words, the end of the dialog is seldom the last word to be said on the subject, and merely serves to inspire further debate. It is this open-ended quality of Plato’s dialectic that makes his thought so relevant to our own age, where we’re so often reluctant to pronounce the final truth.
For the most part, this is because we exist in an age where science is held up as the paradigm of human knowledge. As science, of its very nature, is constantly changing and evolving, it never makes, nor seeks to make final pronouncements. All scientific knowledge is subject to further revision by new developments in science.
That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us that Plato’s open-ended dialectic, with its never-ending process of argument and counter-argument, speaks to us in the twenty-first century as loudly and as forcefully as it did to Socrates and his interlocutors back in ancient Athens.