Step into the Service and Challenge of Dialectical Thinking:
A Brief Review of Otto Laske’s Manual of Dialectical Thought Forms
How we think. For many people, this may
be a mysterious black box to consider. Most of the time, most of us are so busy thinking what we think that we are not observing how we do our thinking. In many life settings, what we think is on the surface more important than being aware of how we think. I daresay most of us probably operate on the belief that the ideas—the content—of what we think and say is most important for influencing, instructing, coaching, and/or leading others in our personal and professional lives.
Content—the subject matter of our thoughts—is not all there is to consider, however. How the thoughts are dynamically constructed—that is, structured—lies beneath the surface of thoughts’ subject matter. The structure of thought, some of us in the developmental field would argue, is vitally important to understand, oftentimes more than the surface level content it gives rise to. Yet, we have to acknowledge that it takes a different analytical lens to see the underlying structures of thought. To “see through” content’s flesh down to its “skeleton” of underlying structure is a capacity that, with appropriate support, can be developed into a skill, and the skill further developed into an art. If we take the path of learning to see the structures of thought and how they work, we can expect our efforts to help others (and ourselves) increase their learning and effectiveness to extend well beyond the norm.
One of the structures of thought is called dialectical thinking. With relatively few exceptions (and there are exceptions), dialectical thinking is the most complex, most comprehensive, and most transformative way of thinking possible at this stage of human evolution. What makes dialectical thinking so complex, so comprehensive? In fully developed form, it is “systems-of-systems thinking.” But it does not just suddenly show up in that form. Rather, dialectical thinking is the result of dialectical processes of constructing itself.
The skill to observe how we think—and to use the resulting knowledge to serve others constructively—is not a simple one to develop, but it can be developed, with much reward. Otto Laske has dedicated himself for many years to explicating what is involved and to developing training materials and tools. He pursues this passion because he recognizes how essential dialectical thinking is. For example, if humans had always had and used this kind of thinking, we would never have operated in all our historical ways that generated global climate change and economic crises. We would have foreseen the systemic interconnections of behaviors, beliefs, social structures, and unsustainable pressures on social and natural systems, and behaved otherwise. At this point, we should be ratcheting up the amount of dialectical thinking that operates in our world. If we are to mitigate the damage we have caused and stop digging ourselves into the same holes, dialectical thinking is essential.
Dialectical thinking processes are essential because they continually receive, create, and process additional information in more complex ways than happens at pre-dialectical thinking stages. Open to the constant flow of additional information to consider, we can construct conceptual systems of understanding about our complex world. These are functions of our cognition’s dynamic systems nature. When we are consciously interacting with the environment—including our social-emotional one—to understand our world, we are free of the constraints of closed-loop linear logics that fool us into thinking we understand how the world works and we have ”the” solution for each problem. As Laske stresses, this is open systems thinking, rather than closed systems thinking. It rises to the occasion Einstein spelled out succinctly: we cannot solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them.
To foster dialectical thinking, Otto Laske has recently published Measuring Hidden Dimensions of Human Systems: Foundations of Requisite Organization, Volume 2 (IDM Press, ISBN 978-09776800-6-1) for the audience of process consultants. It introduces knowledge to undergird cognitive-developmental coaching and management consulting. As he told me, “It is the first comprehensive book in English on dialectical thinking in process consultation, and in its manual the largest repertory of dialectical tools.” The book and its manual, part of Laske’s Constructive-Developmental Framework, are used in learning modules offered by his InterDevelopMental Institute (http://www.interdevelopmentals.org/). The book itself is available at http://www.interdevelopmentals.org/ publications-idm-press.php.
The repertory of dialectical tools is the focus of this review: the Dialectical Thought Form Manual, which comprises the last third of the volume. I admit to regret that I confine myself to that scope, because the volume as a whole is rigorous, insightful, processual, and integral in its approach. Yet, because the manual is eminently practical and also like a book unto itself at 175 pages, I want to do it as much justice as possible in the space available here.
To begin, I share a consistent finding from my action research and teaching over the years to set the stage for understanding what the use of this manual entails. Cognitive and language sciences, as well as lived experience, already tell us that we humans are incessant classifiers of information. We classify types of objects, events, organizations, and other people in countless ways. Until we develop habits of increasingly more mature critical thinking (see stages of critical thinking at www.criticalthinking.org ), what we do not tend to do is reflect on and classify the “outputs” of our thought.
For example, when asking people in groups to identify their concerns about a particular issue—that is, what worries them about it—I consistently hear a range of “outputs” that rarely includes such concerns. Instead, it is common to hear a collection of blame statements, opinions about the problem, diagnoses of the problem, solutions to the problem, and stories about what some person or group did. In such settings to date, almost never does a person initially express concern about impacts of an issue on themselves, their households, their businesses, or their communities. Rather, people begin to notice and filter their thinking and generate expressions of concern only when the uneven nature of the initial outputs is highlighted and examples of concerns are offered to show contrast.
The lesson here is that many of us do not have well-developed skills for paying attention to the nature of what we think and say. Without support, we tend to be so busy generating ideas that we do less well classifying our own thoughts into their “like types” or categories, even when asked for one such category, such as concerns about an issue that troubles us.
That prelude is meant to introduce the idea that to learn about dialectical thinking—and thus learn how to use it, measure it, and help others to develop it—involves critical thinking abilities to identify the nature of individual “chunks” of speech/thought and classify them. As Laske states, bluntly, the manual “is not a tool for dummies, but rather for those who have mastered formal logic and are ready to feel the pulse of their own thinking” (p. 450). The gift of the manual is that it uses effective pedagogy to assist in finding that pulse, with the expectation that participation in the Institute’s training modules is also essential. Independent reading of the manual is asserted as insufficient instruction and counterproductive insofar as scorers of dialectical thinking must learn how to play (a dialectical) devil’s advocate role toward their own scoring. This requires instruction by proficient teachers and practice because “learning dialectical tools presupposes a stance that cannot be taught and is developmentally determined, and thus is different from individual to individual” (p. 455). Similarly, this review cannot convey a snapshot of what dialectical thinking is and does, but rather a snapshot of the manual’s methodology.
The manual’s stated purpose is to facilitate the learning and practice of dialectical thinking. Its ten-page introduction iterates in summary form some of the key explications given in the main body of the book. For example, it is a reminder to the reader of the earlier philosophical and adult development studies of dialectical thinking upon which Laske’s work is based, notably the Frankfurt School’s roots, Theodor Adorno’s work in the 1950s and 1960s, and Michael Basseches’ in the 1980s. The manual’s origin is closely linked to the scoring manual first developed by Basseches’ student M. Bopp to systematize Basseches’ explication of dialectical thought forms. Thus the introduction iterates the quadrant organization Laske gives to Basseches’ four categories of thought forms—those of Process, Relationship, Context, and Transformational System. It relates them to the scoring system used in Laske’s Constructive-Developmental Framework of which the manual is a part. These scores derive from and elaborate Basseches’ original “fluidity index” for measuring dialectical thought: Fluidity Index (F-score), Cognitive Score (C-score), Systems Thinking Index (STI, an element of the C-score indicating the strength of metasystemic thinking), and the Discrepancy Score (D-score). Finally, the introduction outlines the structure of the manual, which is divided into two parts: the first instructs, and the second supplies assorted study and scoring materials.
Instructional Part A’s four sections unpack thought forms in the “Quadrants of Dialectic”: Process, Relationship, Context, and Transformative System. These are the four quadrant-based classes of thought forms to be learned and used in scoring narratives, such as those generated from client interviews. Within each section are five subsections.
- Statement of the main aspects of the Quadrant—its essence, and its sequence of thought forms
- Overview of the class of thought forms therein
- Presentation of each individual thought form, including examples, interpretation, and contrasts with other thought forms (so one can play devil’s advocate and score accurately)
- Listing of “mind opener” thought forms, with descriptions
- Ten exercises for practicing each thought form in the quadrant.
Thought forms unfold in a predictable sequence, because “in dialectics…we are dealing with a network of concepts, each of which presupposes the other. Human concepts form an organized whole, just like the Quadrants, which cannot be ripped apart into isolated entities (although that is how thought forms are listed in a table and learned). In true dialectical fashion, human concepts are thus separate but inseparable, just as the pieces of the real world thought is trying to capture” (p. 473). By learning the thought forms, then, one is able to watch the organic unfolding of postformal thought and understand how and why it is constructed.
Once one learns that there is a natural sequence of thought forms and how and why they are cognitively formed, then the purpose of “mind openers” becomes evident. Used to frame probing questions, and usable anywhere from coaching sessions, to interviews, to everyday conversation, they invite openings to scaffold the move from one thought form to the next. Mind openers are open-ended questions designed for generic use. When we can predict the nature of thought forms, such generic questions are easy to develop independent of specific content. Fortunately, the manual provides a wide range of such questions, making it easy for learners to experiment and practice with them. When a mind-opening question prompts a movement to a next thought form, each such “move” increases the complexity of thought by one degree, so to speak. One cannot skip over any of those steps in the process to more complex thinking. Thus, well-used mind openers help challenge others’ thinking to become more highly dialectical, a process that unfolds by degrees.
To use mind openers with oneself and others means becoming intimate with the dialectical thought forms. Toward that end, Part B materials include an array of compact and detailed tables and scoring assistance forms.
Despite the perfunctory-sounding nature of the manual, it is an incredibly rich read. The examples of each thought form in weak, medium, and strong forms are excerpted from interviews with people discussing real world concerns about organizational and personal life. They put meaningful flesh on the skeletons of thought forms introduced, and illustrate how thought becomes incrementally more complex, more nuanced, more comprehensive, all in dialectical interplays masterfully elucidated by Laske.
It is true that Laske’s manual on dialectical thinking is not for dummies. But in conjunction with formal training, it is for the curious, the dedicated, the serious, those impassioned to learn about adult development in ways deep enough to perform transformative levels of process consultation with those they serve.
Sara Nora Ross, Ph.D., is founder and president of ARINA, publisher of The Integral Process for Working on Complex Issues and the journal Integral Review: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Research, and Praxis. She holds an interdisciplinary doctorate in Psychology and Political Development, and teaches in the Antioch University McGregor graduate program in conflict analysis and engagement. She has published articles on adult and socio-political development, complex issues and decision making, and hierarchical complexity theory and its fractal dynamics, applications, and implications. She co-edited a recent triple issue of World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution on postformal thought and the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. Her interests span social sciences and integrate complexity science to arrive at metatheoretical understandings of human behavior at micro, meso, and macro scales. These inform her social analyses and designs of processes to work on complex problems. Her current research develops her discovery of the Model’s fractals in complex decision making at higher orders of cognitive complexity. She lives in Ohio, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.