RE: dualisms

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Wed Apr 28 2004 - 12:03:50 PDT

Hi Don. Part of the problem for me about discussing dualisms - and trying
to recover from them! (LOL) - might be that there seems to be a current
tendency for the term "dualism" to become an everyday word, at least in
academic discourse - and which, in turn, seems at times to be used as a
negative descriptor of something that should be avoided.

As a philosophical term, the term "dualism" describes a world view that
sees the world as two "fundamental entities" (, the most
famous being the mind/matter dualism of Rene Descartes. People who believe
in both a natural and a supernatural reality are employing philosophical
dualism. Materialists like Karl Marx, on the other hand, are monists.

As an apparently more and more frequently used "everyday" word in academic
circles, the term "dualism" seems to be getting used not as a general
ontological statement, but as a label for everyday oppositions. You
provided a typical list of such oppositions in an earlier post:
"inside/outside; knowledge/knower; subject/object; self/other;
subjective/objective". Pluralization of this everyday use (as in
"dualisms") helps to distinguish it from its philosophical use.

As a neutral term to discuss ways of making distinctions and
classifications - as a term equivalent to the word "oppositions" -
identifying "dualisms" seems sensible to me. The challenge from my point
of view becomes looking for the appropriate dualisms that can successfully
describe a situation or process, and shedding the ones that don't. This is
the point you make - striving to avoid uncritically applying dualisms. As
you imply, they must be applied with great care to be helpful.

This is the way I am finding myself using the term, since its
ubiquitousness seems to make its use unavoidable. To make the process of
critically shedding unwanted dualisms clearer, I find myself using terms
such as "mechanical dualisms" and "mechanical oppositions" to describe the
unsuccessful ones, and "dialectical oppositions" to describe the ones that
seem to be successfully capturing the dynamics of a situation or process.

Since dialectical reasoning is always critiquing itself, always questioning
and refining its understanding, one never fully arrives at a solution ( a
fully successful description and analysis) - one can only (hopefully) keep
getting closer. In this way of looking at "dualisms," they are neutral
ideas to be kept in toolboxes and applied as needed. Since every situation
and process has uniqueness, most dualisms will not work, but some or
perhaps just one will. Discovering the appropriate dualisms for
description and analysis becomes the task of thinking clearly and using
scientific methods.

Now, to my problem. What follows is a perception I am developing and need
some help understanding. It seems to me - or it is seeming to me as I
think I observe this - that the term "dualism" in some academic uses seems
to be evolving - at least in some uses - into something more than
neutral. It seems to be evolving into a description of something
undesirable, something to be avoided, and this creates a problem for
me. In its more radical form, this tendency to use the term in this way
seems to be a way of not just discouraging the use of "dualisms," but of
also condemning certain lines of reasoning. A more strident use of the
dictum "avoid dualisms" seems to suggest that people should reject an
argument a priori simply because it employs "dualisms." This dictum
implies "After all, we all want to avoid dualisms, don't we?" In effect,
it appears to be a way of trying to steer how people talk - away from
discourse styles employing "dualisms" - and toward ones that do not.

 From my point of view, an odd (and amusing) thing about this dictum
("dualisms are bad") is that it is very difficult (according to my attempt
at a "dialectical" world view) to describe the world without using dualisms
and oppositions, so I am hearing people who are sensitive to this dictum
constantly apologizing when they use them.

The solution may be to rethink this anti-dualism dictum altogether. In my
opinion, getting rid of this relatively recent everyday-academic usage of
the word "dualism" wouldn't hurt either, but this meaning of the word seems
to be sticking, so that is probably not going to happen.


- Steve

At 10:37 AM 4/28/2004 -0500, you wrote:
>My name is Don Cunningham and I am a recovering dualist!
>Steve, I also use dialectical reasoning as a methodological tool. The
>dualisms I worry about are those I uncritically apply in my everyday
>thinking (and since I think of myself as a scientist that is also included
>in my everyday thinking). One of my favorite Umberto Eco quotes is “A
>worldview can conceive of anything except an alternative worldview”, or
>something to that effect………djc
>Don Cunningham
>Indiana University
>From: Steve Gabosch []
>Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 3:32 PM
>Subject: Re: dualisms
>My own private hell - I like this method of self-disclosure Don introduces
>- is to avoid the pitfalls of mechanical reasoning and stay on track
>(sometimes just try to get on track at all) using dialectical
>reasoning. This creates just the opposite approach to dualisms and the
>"trap of oppositional thinking" than the approach Don and Peter speak
>about. I find myself not trying to avoid, but rather, trying to embrace
>oppositions and dualisms. This sounds like the point Peter makes
>referring to Knoblauch, who I would like to learn more about (along with
>Jim Garrison, who Don mentions, Nystrand, etc. All in due time!).
>In trying to transcend mechanical thinking, I find myself dealing with the
>problem of not thinking in terms of oppositions clearly enough - not
>dialectically enough. The problem with mechanical thinking is not that it
>does not produce the notion of or does not have a way of processing
>oppositions - it most certainly does - it is that it usually picks the
>wrong oppositions and then treats their development in a linear,
>mechanical way.
>What I mean by "wrong" oppositions is that every developmental process -
>every system, which is a "unity" (tricky word) of contradictory
>developmental processes - is having its own unique war between its
>elements and with its wholeness. It is in constant motion, development,
>evolution and negation. The trick for me is to understand that system or
>process (e.g. a human activity) in terms of its actuality, its
>concreteness, its own development. Conceptualizations of *abstract*
>mechanical oppositions are often needed to get one started in deciphering
>some process, but they need to be shed as the *concrete* oppositions are
>revealed. This is the notion of the ascension from the abstract to the
>concrete. To do so, one needs to work at "thinking" dialectically because
>(and this is my dialectical materialist ontology speaking here), whatever
>the object of study is, it is "developing" dialectically. Scientific
>thinking then becomes the challenge of trying to reflect actual processes
>in our cognitive activities.
>Since human consciousness must always lag behind reality, it can never
>fully close this gap, (and can sometimes get very, very far away from
>it). Therein lies what I see as a core dynamic of what it means to be
>human - our continual struggle to rediscover ourselves and how we think,
>perpetual features of our species trying to understand and work with reality.
>- Steve
>At 11:45 AM 4/27/2004 -0400, you wrote:
>For a class I'm teaching we read Nystrand, Greene, & Weimelt (1993), Where
>did Composition Studies Come From: An Intellectual History. Written
>Communication, 10(3), 267-333. It includes the following:
>We recognize a basic irony in our use of such categories to characterize
>the evolving schools of thought that have constituted the field, despite
>our contention that much is to be lost when we begin to see these as
>historically isolated, fixed "entities," rather than as related
>tendencies. Yet as Knoblauch (1988) points out, the stipulation of
>"difference" among competing classes is the fundamental ground of
>dialectic inquiry. In other words, what might be regarded as "the trap of
>oppositional thinking" is also the very quality of dialectic that moves us
>toward enriched understandings and interpretive resolutions. (pp. 273-4)
>I found my reading of this to be propitious because, like (I think) Don, I
>try to avoid dichotomies and binaries in my own thinking and writing, yet
>find myself parsing ideas categorically. Nystrand's observation regarding
>dialectic inquiry helps me see the value of such categorizations when they
>are used to promote synthesis rather than to divide the world into
>polarities (which perhaps I've just done).
>At 10:31 AM 4/27/2004, you wrote:
>Hi Steve. My own private hell is trying to avoid (or at least recognize
>when I am using) dualisms: inside/outside; knowledge/knower;
>subject/object; self/other; subjective/objective. For example, some folk
>talk about the ZPD as being a characteristic of an individual (i.e., we
>work with the student in his ZPD). Our job is to get in there and fix
>things up, a kind of “Cool Hand Luke” approach where we get his mind
>right. Other talk about the ZPD as occurring between individuals,
>dynamically created in interaction, but often retaining the directionality
>of transmission that Victor talks about in his post. These two correspond
>nicely to what self action (acting as individuals) and interaction (acting
>in a causal relation to another). The third possibility is
>transaction. This is a difficult (to me at least) concept. Jim Garrison’s
>paper was extremely helpful to me. My understanding of the transactional
>view is that it alerts us to the chaotic complexity of phenomena and that
>any of the distinctions we make by “fixing” or “detaching” time and space
>are methodological. As such, we are free to reframe, look anew from an
>alternative framework. We recognize that we have a world view, an ideology
>if you will, and then systematically explore alternatives. So, for
>example, a more transactional view of ZPD might look beyond the space and
>transmission metaphors and actively seek others to more richly describe
>the process. I like the metaphor of connection, for example. When I write
>a paper with Gary Shank, I am connected to rich network of connections he
>has to Peirce’s philosophy, alternative models of inquiry, etc. The
>product that we jointly produce is something that neither of us could have
>constructed alone. I suppose I could say that we mutually scaffolded (!)
>but I think the connection metaphor is more powerful. Of course this is
>another dualism: connected/not connected. So I take it for what it is
>worth! Does it help me think about the problems I would like to solve?
>Have to run……..djc
>Don Cunningham
>Indiana University
>From: Steve Gabosch []
>Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 3:09 AM
>Subject: RE: No Dialectical Pumpkins yet please.
>At 06:16 PM 4/26/2004 -0500, you wrote:
>Steve, are there only two possibilities ( i.e., “all inside the head” or
>“in dialogue”)? Is dialogue between people and culture really possible?
>Does the metaphor of “zone” open up our thinking in useful ways? Does it
>constrain our thinking at all?
>Don Cunningham
>Indiana University
>Good thought-provoking questions, Don. I have Kris's recent post about
>space in mind, so I will focus some on space and spatial metaphors. Just
>the question I posed of the "location" of cognition presupposes a spatial
>metaphor as an answer, but as you imply, there are more places that
>cognition can be than just "inside the head" or just "in dialogue," and
>going farther (a space metaphor) there is certainly more to human
>cognition than just where it is and where it isn't. The essential point I
>think Bill was making and I was endorsing is that human cognition is very
>definitely more than just something that happens inside the head. I think
>the concept of distributed cognition may be very important here.
>My writing that you refer to was a little sloppy - it did sort of imply
>the idea of a dialogue between people and culture by the way I wrote a
>phrase, but what I was thinking of (inside my head?) was the dialectic
>(the problematic of development) - between people and culture - and the
>dialogues between people. These arenas (another spatial metaphor) -
>people and their cultures, and people and their dialogues - could be
>considered the general field (still another space metaphor) of events and
>artifacts that distributed cognition - in general, cultural activities -
>are created from.
>As Kris points out, "zone" is a spatial metaphor, which is what got me to
>notice all of mine in this post. The term "zone" certainly does open up
>our imaginations to think of human consciousness in spatial terms - as in,
>for example, the zone of proximal development, a very powerful concept -
>but like any metaphor, it is limited by the features of its image and
>mechanism. Time does not figure directly into the "zone" metaphor, for
>example. Seeing this vacuum, (geez, another space metaphor!) Bakhtin
>created the technical term chronotope, which was also discussed in the
>AERA session about space and CHAT that Kris spoke of. The term chronotope
>covers (I can't believe all the space metaphors I use) both time and space
>- roughly, a particular slice (another one) of human time and space in an
>historical context - but it has the limitation of not only not being a
>metaphor, but only being an unusual technical term unknown in everyday
>All of these words and metaphors are useful in helping us understand human
>consciousness - in space, in time, in development, in history, in an
>individual, in a dialogue, in culture, in learning, etc. etc. At the same
>time all have some limitations, and can certainly constrain our thinking
>if we use them with insufficient care. I think the trick is to have a
>tool box (finally, something other than a space metaphor) of metaphors and
>concepts at hand to help us describe and analyze in a balanced and
>effective way. The concept of "zone" would certainly be one of the
>handiest of such metaphors.
>Thanks for these interesting questions, Don. What are some of your
>thoughts about them?
>~ Steve

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