‘The Dialectical Tradition in South Africa’ reviewed by Christopher Allsobrook

The Dialectical Tradition in South Africa

Routledge, London, 2009. 266pp., £80 hb
ISBN 9780415975308

About the reviewer

Christopher Allsobrook is a Senior Researcher with the Centre for Leadership Ethics in Africa (CLEA) …


We provincial South African philosophers, trapped in second-hand, neo-Kantian antinomies, tend to discriminate just two basic senses of the abused and beleaguered term, ‘dialectic’: the first associated, respectfully, with a dialogical method of Ancient philosophy; the second, pejoratively, with muddled transgression of the principle of non-contradiction in Continental philosophy. Dialectical thinking is held unreflectively to stand in contrast to analytical thinking; the insertion of such a term in philosophical discussion confirms suspicion that a line of argument has run astray, if not to the point of opinionated assertion, then, to senseless confusion occasioned by impassioned failure to draw sufficiently clear and precise distinctions. In the dominant English-speaking philosophical environment, right-minded philosophers sensibly avoid the dialectic. It is in response to this crisis that The Dialectical Tradition in South Africa recalls and attempts to revive a dormant tradition of dialectical critical thinking that has long animated a dissident sector of predominantly Afrikaans-speaking philosophers in this country.

Veteran Marxist political philosopher Andrew Nash studied and taught for many years at the University of Stellenbosch – the traditional stronghold of white, nationalist, Afrikaner academia – and at the University of the Western Cape – an historically ‘‘coloured’’, Afrikaans-speaking institution. Since 2006 he has been an associate professor in political theory at the liberal, English-speaking, haute bourgeois University of Cape Town. It is surprising, given the materialist thrust of Nash’s own meta-philosophical position, that he fails to reflect on a long-standing historical animosity between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, its consequent effect on intellectual divisions between Stellenbosch and UCT, and – particularly – the tendency of Afrikaans-speaking philosophy departments to work in the more dialectically mediated Continental tradition, while English-speaking philosophers most often prefer the Analytic tradition. Consideration of such factors would better contextualise not only the cultural motivation behind the ‘‘dialectical tradition’ the book identifies, but also the author’s almost exclusive focus on Afrikaans-speaking philosophers.

Nash proceeds, with this historical account of a distinctively illiberal streak of philosophical dissent so close to the heart of conservative, Calvinist Afrikanerdom, to recall and recover what he calls ‘a complex continuity in South African political and intellectual life’, namely, the ‘defence of ongoing discussion’, of ‘freedom and speech as preconditions for a good society’, expressed, specifically, in terms of a distinctively Socratic commitment to ‘following the argument where it leads’ (1) and a ‘non-dogmatic’ ‘openness to life’ (11). So diverse and diffuse is this scarce, yet influential and tenacious tradition, that Nash hesitates to christen it ‘‘dialectical’, adopting for the most part the label ‘the rival tradition’. He characterises this ‘rival tradition’ by way of a contrast between the republican defence of free speech (as civic duty and condition for a good society) with the traditional liberal defence of free speech ‘as an individual right’ (4). Nash associates the latter with an individualistic, agent-centred ontology which he contrasts with the communally oriented social ontology of the ‘rival tradition’, which treats belief as a product of social engagement that helps determine the character of individual social agents, as opposed to treating beliefs as the property of pre-constituted, individually rational agents (5-9).

Nash identifies three distinct strands of thinking in the ‘rival’, ‘dialectical tradition’ (in predominantly Afrikaner philosophy, as practised, predominantly, at Stellenbosch). The first he traces back to the influence of the ‘liberalism struggle’ in the Cape Dutch Reformed Church [DRC] in the mid-19th century, born of a liberal political culture that flourished in 17th and 18th century Britain and the Netherlands, of toleration of dissent, free speech and scientific enquiry. Nash notes the tremendous influence of the republican figure of Socrates, dominant at the time, as proto-Christian martyr, paragon of civic virtue, and ally of discursive reason (as opposed to religious authority), embraced by leading theologians in the DRC, such as Erasmus, Jan Helmers, Johan Luzac, Hemsterhuis, Van Hemert and Van Heusde. While this emancipatory, Enlightenment strain of dissident dialectical thinking waned significantly during the 19th century in the Netherlands, it continued to flourish in the DRC at the Cape through the influence of theologians trained in the Leiden and Groningen schools, such as Leopold Marquand, D.P. Faure, J.J. Kotze, and F.C. Kolbe (55-61).

The liberalism struggle within the Cape DRC was mostly silenced by the end of the 19th century by an alliance of conservative Calvinist authorities and British military administrators, but the tradition lingered among Afrikaner thinkers through a second strand of dialectical influence, namely, the long-standing tradition of volkskritiek, or ‘internal criticism’. Nash argues that the notion of the loyal ‘local critic’ is often overstated, anachronistically, by historians such as Hermann Giliomee who are unduly influenced by the work of the communitarian political philosopher, Michael Walzer (9-13). Nash thinks a more apt characterisation of the dialectical tradition may be found in the third strand of influence he identifies, namely, the Afrikaner tradition of oop gesprek, discussed in some depth by the celebrated Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, in the 1950s and, in the 60s and 70s, by the influential, left-leaning Stellenbosch philosopher, Johann Degenaar (15-6).

The basis of the tradition of oop gesprek may be found in the republican civic imperative to cultivate a healthy cultural identity through public argument and free, individual decisions; to encourage honest, forthright talk about anything, no matter how extreme, without discussion degenerating into insult, hostility and anger (14). Nash traces a third pole of influence on early 20th century Cape intellectual life – between Dutch Calvinist dogmatism and English liberal individualism – through a few divergent figures such as Olive Schreiner, Jan Rabie, Uys Krige, Laurens van der Post and Roy Campbell – diverse, isolated writers who often lived for sustained periods abroad. Since such figures were so scattered and isolated, Nash argues, the ‘dialectical tradition’ could not have been sustained in South African intellectual life without the influence of the University of Stellenbosch, between 1910 and the mid-1970s, when it reportedly died a swift and sudden death (67).

An exotic theological-existential, dialectical hybrid strain of philosophical dissidence took root at Stellenbosch from the early 1940s onwards, initially under the influence of the philosophy chair, JF Kirsten, who was influenced primarily by Heidegger, Bergson and Kierkegaard (as interpreted in the liberal wing of the DRC by Karl Barth). Theology, thought Kirsten, is dialectical insofar as it aims to avoid closing off ongoing discussion, to preserve the last word on any matter for God (83). Kirsten’s students adopted a radically modern, anti-teleological dialectical approach that dismisses hope for certainty or general agreement in rational argument, yet maintains the duty for active citizens of the good society to clarify and give reasons to one another for their convictions. Kirsten’s students, D. Oosthuizen, J. Oglethorpe, and, later, J. Degenaar became leading philosophers at Stellenbosch, shifting the department towards a critical, dialectical ‘philosophy of flux’ that focussed on the freedom and responsibility to adopt an independent worldview, at a time of heightened Nationalist-Calvinist conformist pressure on, and from, Afrikaner intellectuals in South Africa (85-92).

Nash is critical of this Kierkegaardian strain of Stellenbosch philosophy for rejecting objective knowledge and rational certainty in favour of paradox, discontinuity and dialectic. As he sees it, the effort amongst these thinkers to resist reconciliation and closure in their work leads such philosophy to fall victim to its own abstraction through failure to draw on sufficiently substantive, historical, material content. Though they did not support apartheid, these dissident dialectical Stellenbosch philosophers tended to focus inwards, on the effort to give to Afrikaners an alternative voice to predominantly English-speaking, monopoly capitalist liberalism, through the development of a model of selfhood capable of autonomous, but historically conscious choices (98-102).

Though Nash goes to great lengths to work through the substantive philosophical material produced by the various ‘dialectical thinkers’ he examines in these chapters, the close attention to detail sometimes obscures the broader pattern of the ‘dialectical tradition’ the book intends to address, so that it is not always clear what holds together the various works he discusses, apart from their origin at his alma mater. What is clear is that his general appraisal of the Stellenbosch philosophers – great anti-individualistic, dialogically and hermeneutically sophisticated thinkers, but poor historical materialists – is influenced by his own background in Marxist critical theory.

Nash’s explanation for why the dialectical tradition died out in South Africa in the mid-1970s is that rising black militancy, after the political crisis of the 1976 uprisings, rendered irrelevant any argument for change on the basis of frank, rational open-ended discussion amongst the ruling political elite (132-3). Breyten Breytenbach, the leading dissident Afrikaner intellectual of the period, summed up the problem (also at the heart of Habermasian Critical Theory): that in an oppressive socio-economic and political context, especially an overtly oppressive system such as apartheid, public debate can never be truly open (134). Breytenbach thus jettisons the gradualist, Walzerian Afrikaner tradition of immanent volkskritiek, arguing that the compromises of the sestigers – fellow Afrikaner intellectuals of his late-60s generation – would ‘ensure that they become part of the pressure that will be brought to bear upon fools more audacious than they permit themselves to be’ (B. Breytenbach, quoted 136).

Nash does not consider the dialectical implications of these critical political moves in South African history, nor their bearing on extant questions regarding the structure of Marxist-Hegelian, or Socratic dialectic. This omission reflects a broader analytical neglect in the book, namely of the structure of internal criticism, or elenchus, from which the ‘dialectical tradition’ is often said to proceed. Considering the unwieldy, contingent associations between the various thinkers examined here, more careful analysis is needed than Nash gives us of the dialectical distinctions he draws (with respect to the situation of the critic, for example) between Marxist-Hegelian and Socratic dialectic, or teleological and open-ended sublation. Such issues have a crucial bearing on whether contradiction is supposed to elicit an intrinsic Aufhebung, or whether this presumes an additional premise; whether strict Socratic elenchus – in which premises are elicited only from the interlocutor – is at all feasible, or whether the ascending-descending dialectic of the later Platonic dialogues smuggles in additional premises, through an ‘independent’ transcendental deduction, from premises supposedly elicited solely from the interlocutor.

The remainder of the book – on the Marxist turn of the South African dialectical tradition – focuses on a period Nash controversially identifies with its historical demise, and chiefly associates with Breytenbach and Richard Turner, two broadly influential, Western Marxian South African writers (like Nash), influenced (unlike Nash) by the work of Jean Paul Sartre through the Catholic philosopher at UCT, Martin Versfeld. Turner and Breytenbach played an important intellectual role, along with the communist, Jeremy Cronin, in effecting a more dialectically nuanced, Western Marxian influence in South African socialism, against the deterministic, doctrinaire Soviet Marxism that had dominated since the early 1920s (160-2). Turner and Cronin were important figures in the formation of the independent trade union movements which played a key role, with the ecumenical movement, in the successful, broad-based activism of the United Democratic Front in the 1980s. Nash is critical of Turner’s influence here, however, on the grounds that his Sartrean, existentialist ‘utopianism’ supposedly ‘blinded’ leading trade unionists and black consciousness members to the material, historical context of collective social agency (167, 170-2).

The same materialist criticism of ideology – failure to reflect on the influence of historical class-based divisions that mediate our ideas – is raised again by Nash against the first offshoot of dialectical thinking that has taken root since apartheid amongst a new pluralist breed of deconstructive, post-modern Afrikaner intellectuals (193-8). In a country still dominated by the same white minority, this anti-idealist critical formula has plenty of political warrant, but does it render sufficiently clear and precise the criterion by which to discriminate a coherent ‘dialectical tradition’ in South Africa?

4 March 2012

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