March 28, 2009 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Assignment Filter: What the heck is a "dialectical relationship"?

I'm supposed to write a 7 page paper for Monday. I haven't even started because I'm having trouble understanding the assignment. I don't want you to do it for me, but here's the question:

"Constitutions necessarily give rise to, and require, a dialectical relationship between law and politics, between courts and political actors. Agree or disagree."

What does "dialectical" mean? My google-fu fails me in this context. I know is has to do with a dialogue, but do they mean an adversarial one in which one comes out on top, or an ongoing exchange?

Can you translate this into less awkward wording? I think it's trying to say that a constitution sets up an ongoing conflict between the judges who guard it and the other political bodies who want to fracture it, but I'm not sure. Wikipedia has been no help.
posted by Phalene to Law & Government (16 answers total)
Um, Wikipedia?

Also, maybe take some time to read your textbooks.
posted by rhizome at 9:39 AM on March 28, 2009

posted by Autarky at 9:40 AM on March 28, 2009

Wikipedia was no help. I didn't understand that entry. I've also read my texts and they didn't help either.
posted by Phalene at 9:41 AM on March 28, 2009

It's the idea that Thing 1 affects Thing 2, and vice versa.
I may be wrong, but I'm also not here to do your homework.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:47 AM on March 28, 2009

Basically it means "back and forth" in a way similar to a negotiation or mutual compromise/accommodation.

Next time you don't understand an assignment, go to your professor's office hours rather than leaving the paper to the last minute.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

Well, I'm not your teacher so I'm not sure if this is what he or she wants, but I see the question as:

Do constitutions create and require a relationship between law and politics whereby reality is created in the space between courts and political actors as a result of their interactions? Is there any way a constitution could create a workable government where law and politics keep to their separate spheres, or where one completely informs the other?
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:50 AM on March 28, 2009

It means that each of those compared parties in the statement tend to adopt opposing positions based on their interpretation of both the meaning of the created constitution and whether its meaning omitted things that need inclusion or vice versa. The two sides then attempt to have the other admit to their correctness through argument and persuasion, and thus affect the letter and/or application of the law.
posted by fearnothing at 9:50 AM on March 28, 2009

Look over your class notes; this precise topic has surely been discussed at length.
posted by agent99 at 9:51 AM on March 28, 2009

Assuming it means "dialectical" in the traditional sense, it's trying to say that constitutions create a process like this:

law is passed -> courts react in some way, e.g. by declaring it unconstitutional -> a new legal status quo is created -> law is passed -> etc.
posted by nasreddin at 9:53 AM on March 28, 2009

The concept of the dialectic here can be probably be treated to the philosophy of Hegel. At the core of Hegel's philosophy is the idea that intellectual history (which he thinks is the driving force behind all history) is the story of the development of ideas through a mechanism he describes as the "dialectic."

So you start with one idea, called the "thesis". An opposing idea arises, called "antithesis". Over time, it is realized that neither is solely in the right, and the two are merged into a new idea, the "synthesis". This synthesis becomes the new thesis, to which a new antithesis emerges in opposition, and the cycle continues.

In the context you're describing, the concept would be that the constitution sets up a mechanism wherein the political order can evolve by incorporating and merging ideas from points of opposition, i.e. the demands of law in tension with political realities, frequently expressed as opposition between judges and elected officials.

Given the way the question is framed I'd suggest that you agree unless you've got a much better handle on the subject than you seem to, because it's pretty clear to me that that's what the professor believes.
posted by valkyryn at 9:53 AM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would interpret this to mean that constitutions are written in a way that requires some sort of dialogue in order to "use" them. This dialogue is essentially ongoing.

For instance, look at the Second Amendment to the US Constitution:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

On could argue elements of this forever, it's wide open to interpretation, and its meaning could change with time - Are atomic bombs considered "arms?" What makes a group of people with arms a "militia," specifically? And so on. It allows for, and encourages, dialectical response. Debate, in other words. Give and take. Reinterpretation in light of cultural and technological change.

If the Second Amendment said, "Americans citizens are required to own a Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol, for the sole purpose of shooting squirrels wherever they are found," well, that would be more like a law (a very specific thing) rather than a constitution (kind of a guideline, open to changing interpretations.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:54 AM on March 28, 2009

1- I'm assuming the assignment isn't to know what dialectical means, it's to interpret and riff on what the effects of a constitution are.

2- I'm assuming that the word dialectical hasn't been covered in class or readings. It's just a word Phalene isn't groking.

(If I'm wrong, I'm helping you cheat. Sorry.)

From the first paragraph in the Wikipedia entry:
Dialectic [...] is a method of argument [...which] is rooted in the ordinary practice of a dialogue between two people, each of whom holds different ideas and wishes to persuade the other. The presupposition of a dialectical argument is that the participants share at least some meanings and principles of inference in common, even if they do not agree.
So if you replace the word "dialectical" with its meaning, your question becomes:

"Constitutions necessarily give rise to, and require, a relationship between law and politics, between courts and political actors, where both sides have different viewpoints and wish to persuade each other. Agree or disagree."

So, it would seem that your task is to figure out what a constitution is and isn't, and whether the act of having one requires this sort of relationship. Or whether this dialectic relationship is just an effect of certain types of constitutions.
posted by gjc at 10:08 AM on March 28, 2009

Thank you Dee and Valkyryn. Now lets hope the cold and flu meds hold out long enough to let me get this sucker finished tonight. (And yes, valkyryn, I think the prof is steer the question, given that my other options were judicial activism VS democratic legitimacy or if I thought the judicial sphere became political thanks to the Rule of Law)
posted by Phalene at 10:13 AM on March 28, 2009

A dialectical relationship, in this sense, means one that contains contradictions. The concept you're looking for is, technically, the "unity and interpenetration of opposites": one system contains multiple factors which are mutually hostile and yet bound to one another for existence (that is, they cannot exist separately). These opposing forces cannot both exist in a stable system, and their interaction leads to change. If one side wins out, the result is the destruction of the whole system.

The question is whether politics and law embody contradictory forces in society, whose tension drives social change forward. Courts and political actors (in the viewpoint posed by the topic) are fundamentally opposed and in conflict that, if one side were to win, would destroy the whole constitutional system. If you disagree, you would be saying that there is a fundamental harmony between courts and political actors, that law and politics serve ultimately the same ends in a constitutional system.

Does that framing help?
posted by graymouser at 10:21 AM on March 28, 2009

Following is a joke I was told my a Soviet emigre when I was in college. I didn't understand it at the time, but did repeat it to a famous philosophy professor at Harvard who laughed riotously when I was done. Now I understand it. It is about dialectic.
During the time of Stalin, the central committee arranged for instructors to visit peasants in villages around the country to teach them about the philosophical underpinnings of the Soviet state. These instructors held group meetings with the peasants.

At the end of one such meeting, an old woman arose and said, "This is all very interesting, but I have one question. What is this 'dialectic' of which you keep speaking?"

The instructor responded, "Dialectic is very simple. I will explain it to you now by asking you a simple question.

"Two peasants come from the country to the city. One is clean and one is dirty. Which one should be allowed to use the public baths?"

The old woman responded, "Well, the dirty one of course. He is dirty. He needs to use the baths."

"No, no, no!" said the instructor. He was very angry. "He is dirty. If we send him to the baths, he will make the baths dirty. The clean one should be kept clean, so he should be sent to the baths."

The old woman nodded her head. The instructor went on, "I will ask you again. Two peasants come from the country to the city. One is clean and one is dirty. Which one should be allowed to use the public baths?"

The old woman responded, "Why, the clean one of course. He should be kept clean. If we send the dirty one to the baths, he will make the baths dirty."

"No, no, no!" the instructor shouted at her. "The clean one does not need to use the baths. He is already clean! We must send the dirty one to the baths so he can be clean as well. Now, let me ask you one more time, Two peasants come from the country to the city. One is clean and one is dirty. Which one should be allowed to use the public baths?"

The old woman threw up her hands and said, "Now I'm completely confused. I have no idea."

The instructor smiled and said, "ah, now you understand dialectic!"
posted by alms at 1:00 PM on March 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

Thanks guys. I finished the paper with time to spare, so I even had a chance to go over it three times for typos, errors, missed citations and other caltrops. My bacon was saved. ^_^
posted by Phalene at 8:01 AM on March 30, 2009

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