The Dialectic of Knowledge

The communist revolutionary forces in China defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s forces and instituted a communist government in 1949. With the overthrow of Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) assumed control.[1]Mao was a masterful strategist and also an insightful tactician. According to Mao only through “practice”, whether one’s own practice, or through the practice of some other historical figure, can one acquire knowledge. In Mao’s essay “On Practice”[2] he discusses how to act effectively.

Like communists in general, Mao believed that that which was most essential and truly real was matter. According to materialists, the impact of matter on the world drives history. This unfolding of history, and ones impact on it, is determined by an effective interplay between oneself and the changing world. An effective dialectic between one and the world determines ones effectiveness in action.

Theories About the Dialectical Process

The use of forms of the dialectic have a long history. The idea of a dialectic comes early with the Socratic Method.[3] Plato’s dialectic, examined opinion to arrive at truth. Through examination of someone’s position, Socrates would dissect the position and then dispassionately deconstruct it. This was brought about by a give and take dialogue where principles are necessarily derived or discarded based on logical conclusions or contradictions.

While Plato used his dialectic to prove or disprove the truth of someones position, Hegel, an idealist, found that the unfolding of history as spirit, was engaged in a sort of dialectic.[4] While this was not the dialectic of Plato, Hegel’s dialectic theory based on his logical theories, rather than reconciling individuals political and social beliefs like Plato, through history was found a resolution of problems on a grand scale. Unlike materialist communism, Hegel’s grand scheme followed the history of spirit or mind rather than matter coming to know itself through ever expanding knowledge.

Marx, a student of Hegel, rather than embracing Hegel’s idealism, dismissed it. Marx transformed Hegel’s idealism of history, to the physicality of existence. The result was that because of the centrality of matter, the revolutionary change in the productive forces under capitalism was constantly transforming social relations. Marx was a philosopher of action and felt that the academic study of philosophy was largely useless, because it was not applicable to the material conditions in day to day life.

Mao’s Epistemology

Mao, a materialist like Marx, in his essay “On Practice”, develops a system of engagement with the world that is made relevant by one’s ability to effect change, and therefore change the world. Like Marx, Mao thought that if philosophy was to be important, it had to be more than an academic exercise. Mao took Marx’s position of matter driving history, to developing a way of engaging the world, and by doing so he develops a theory of knowledge (e.g., epistemology) which he characterizes as the true scientific method. Mao calls this method the “dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge”.

Mao eschewed empiricism (knowledge based on experience) as being useless in itself. This was because acquired sensory knowledge was subjective, and therefore the perceiver was unable to bring about change. According to Maoist theory, one must instead have a direct, outward looking orientation. Like other rationalists, Mao believed knowledge based on rational principles, is the only reliable way of knowing the world. Mao believed that knowledge ultimately is based on sense perception, but was only useful when it was transformed into rational knowledge, and only then could it be used effectively. How this transition from empirical to rational principles occurred is a matter of debate.

Mao embraced science, and his epistemology, like the scientific method, is if it works (produces useful results) then it is knowledge. If one engages in simply abstract thought without any real word testing, then the truth of one’s philosophical position is unproven. It is necessary for knowledge to be honed in matter, through the application of learned principles in the driven world.

The Importance of the Dialectical Process

According to Mao, only through encounters with the external world can one attain knowledge, and one can not have knowledge until they engage the world. When something does not work effectively, then the strategy is modified until it is effective, and then what is brought about is the advancement of truth.

The dialectical process has been important throughout the history of philosophy. Different philosophers have different ideas about what is essential in a dialectical system. Where one is talking about idealism or materialism, history or ethics, a dialectical system is about the advancement of dynamic knowledge in the personal or public sphere. Whether such order, as shown by dialectics, really exists in the world, or rather is a construct of human logic is uncertain. One can look at the uncertainty of quantum mechanics or the seeming randomness of evolution, and wonder.


1 Cucchisi, Jennifer Lynn. The Causes and Effects of the Chinese Civil War, 1927-1949. Master’s Thesis Seton Hall University: New Jersey. (2002)$File/Cucchisi-Jennifer-Lynn_Master.pdf?Open

2 Mao Tse-Tung. On Practice: On the Relation Between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing. 1937

Retrieved on September 7, 2011 from

3 “ The question-and-answer method of philosophizing (dialectic) used by Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues (e.g., Euthyphro} often in conjunction with pretended ignorance (Socratic Irony), whereby a self-professed expert’s over-confident claim to knowledge is subverted.” Ted Honderich ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995. Socratic Method Page 837.

4 Excerpt from Hegel for Beginners. Retrieved on September 9, 2011 from

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Doug Frame

I am a former professor who taught for 8 years. I have a BA and an MA in Philosophy. I enjoy reading philosophy but ever more so I enjoy writing philosophy. I am a Certified Logic-Based Consultant Email me for an initial consultation

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