Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis for essay writing

While researching Marxist ideology for revision lessons on the Russian Revolution, I came across the idea of thesis/antithesis/synthesis as an argumentative framework.

I have since used it successfully in my classes. I think the notion of Dialectics and thesis/antithesis/synthesis fits in well with my other ideas about essay writing (they are nothing new, I’ve just recast them in my own way: TEAC).


What is dialectics?

Dialectics of any sort is a means of trying to resolve a paradox.

It’s important first of all to understand the difference between a paradox and a contradiction. Two things contradict if they CANNOT co-exist. A person cannot have a broken leg AND not-have a broken leg. That is a contradiction. A paradox is something that SEEMS to contradict but which may possibly have some middle ground. For instance” All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” or “You can save money by spending it”.

That, in a nutshell, is what dialectics does. To learn about something, it considers something that is almost its opposite, and then tries to figure out what the compromise is between the two. So perhaps you’d figure out the meaning of life by comparing it to the meaning of death. But that’s getting off-topic. a

What is dialectical materialism?

Marx was a materialist. To him, the only things worth considering were real, physical things that you could see and lay your hands on. So ideas and knowledge were pointless, unless those idea were put to work and produced results. This is why most of Marx’s work has to do with money and work, instead of some of the more airy ideas that are usually associated with philosophy.

So if you’re tasa materialist, one of the dialectics you are going to be really interested in is the contrast between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. How is it that some people have lots of material stuff and some people don’t? And what is the inevitable outcome of such a situation? Marx even went so far as to describe all of human history in the terms of this materialist dialectic.

Feudalism, to Marx, was a struggle between the aristocrats (haves) and the peasants (have-nots). Slave labour works to produce things to an extent, but skilled labour produces things better. A capitalist system recognises and rewards skilled workers more highly than unskilled ones, so in his view all feudal systems were doomed to eventually become capitalist ones.

But a capitalist system still has a dialectic. There are haves (the owners of the factories, which he called ‘bourgeoisie’) and the have-nots (the workers). So how will this inevitably be resolved? Marx thought that eventually the workers would simply stop working for the bourgeoisie and work only for themselves. All workers would then be owners, and there would be no more dialectic – a permanent, stable system that he called ‘socialism’.

To him, this was inevitable. Trying to resist this transition would only make the transition harder. There are, however, many criticism of dialectics as a whole and Marx’s conclusions in specific, so exactly how inevitable it really is can still be a matter of protracted debate. b

What is thesis/antithesis/synthesis?

In our case, we are going to use thesis, antithesis and synthesis as an argumentative tool, and it can be used very effectively as an essay writing framework:

  • Thesis – a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved
  • Antithesis – the negation or contradiction of the thesis
  • Synthesis – the resolution of the conflict between thesis and antithesis

Student activity:

Pick a thesis.  Use your knowledge, handouts, your notes and the internet to do the following:

  • Support your thesis with two or three key points, quotes or explanations.
  • Write a credible antithesis and support it with two or three key points, quotes or explanations.
  • Write a synthesis which expresses your reasoned conclusion.

World War 2 Theses:

  1. Hitler was a traditional German statesman.
  2. The outbreak of the war in 1939 was entirely the fault of Hitler (and to a lesser extent Mussolini).
  3. The outbreak of war was the fault of Britain and France.
  4. The circumstances of the 1930s gave western leaders no alternative to the policies they pursued.
  5. War resulted from the failure of the principle of Collective Security and the operation of the League of Nations.
  6. To place responsibility for the outbreak of war on the shoulders of individuals is too simplistic.
  7. The source of the outbreak of war in 1939 can be found in the Paris Peace Settlement of 1919.

(If you are stuck, resources here:

Russian Revolution Theses:

  1. Judgement and mismanagement by the Tsar and Tsarina in February 1917 contributed to the overthrow of Tsarism.
  2. The fall of Tsarism in February 1917 should not be called a revolution.
  3. The formation of the Petrograd Soviet and the issuing of its Order Number One was a fatal challenge to the Provisional Government.
  4. The Provisional Government was doomed from the start. (Kerensky: The Provisional Government had “authority without power” while the Petrograd Soviet had “power without authority”.)
  5. Without the ‘July Days’ and the Kornilov affair, the Bolsheviks would not have been able to lead the Revolution.
  6. Trotsky was a more effective leader than Lenin.
  7. The overthrow of the Provisional Government in October 1917 was a Bolshevik-engineered coup, not a popular revolution.

Some examples of thesis, antithesis and synthesis

Example 1: The Provisional Government was doomed from the start.

The Provisional Government was doomed by its inability to resolve the very pressures responsible for the collapse of tsarism, as seen by Russia’s continued involvement in WW1 and the illegitimacy of its power. This “impossible and paradoxical situation”: as argued by Lynch, was therefore, its downfall in the face of the more powerful alternative of the Petrograd Soviet which provided the true promise of revolution as a body of the people and for the people.

However, the promise of democratic change following the February Revolution gave an initial sense of credibility to the Provisional Government, as it “gave rise to a short-lived mood of national unity and optimism” (Smith). As stated by Alexander Berkman: “It must always be remembered — and remembered well — that revolution does not mean destruction only. It means destruction plus construction” which arguably is the power that the Provisional Government had at the start of 1917.

Even though the Provisional Government was the promised democratic change of the February revolution, it was doomed from the start due to the paradox of its political power as rather than being a “popular mandate” (AJP Taylor), it was the imposition of a powerless authority which saw no change to Russia’s political structure. These fundamental weaknesses therefore profited the rivaling authority of the Petrograd Soviet and resulted in its ultimate downfall. c

Example 2: The outbreak of World War 2 was the fault of Britain and France

It was the weakness of Britain and France that caused the outbreak of WW2, as they chose appeasement and allowed Hitler and the Nazis to get away with aggressive behaviour, until ultimately they had no choice but to go to war. This occurred because of a number of reasons, such as the fear of communism and general belief that the Treaty of Versailles had been too unfair. This led to German rearmament and territorial gains, which were allowed and ignored by the Western powers until they had no other choice but war.

The war was the result of Hitler and Nazi aggression. Hitler always intended on making further territorial gains and to embark on rearmament, regardless of what Britain and France did to stop him. Furthermore, Hitler ignored the Treaty of Versailles, among other treaties, and so the Allies were left with no choice but to fight him.

Ultimately, it was the Nazis who broke international treaties and agreements, and it was them who made the territorial advancements beyond where they were allowed. However, it was Britain and France who were weak and chose to appease and not step in, until their only option was to go to war. So, to an extent the outbreak of war was the fault of Britain and France, as they could have stepped in earlier and stopped the situation before war, but most of the blame is on Hitler, because of his decisions to invade territory and ignore the Treaty of Versailles. d

Example 3: Exploitation of Animals

Position Statement in Paper at End of Intro Paragraph: “It is possible to be an ethical carnivore.”

Thesis: People should stop eating meat.

1. Meat-eating is an exploitation of animals, in which we are subjugating other beings for our own ends and causing them pain and suffering.
– Facts from research on factory farms goes here
2. Meat-eating is unhealthy.
– Facts from research on heart disease and cancer go here
3. Meat-eating is damaging environmentally.
– Facts from research on environmental effects go here

Antithesis: People should continue eating meat.

1. Although we should not cause unnecessary suffering to animals, it is acceptable to use them for our own ends.
– Argument using one or more ethical theories goes here.
2. Meat-eating is healthy.
– Facts from research on nutrients available from meat that are unavailable or difficult to obtain without meat goes here
3. If we decide not to eat meat because it is exploiting animals, then we must not eat eggs or dairy products and must not use any other animal products or use animals for any testing, which is both impractical and not necessary ethically.
– Facts on range of animal products we use and benefits from testing on animals

Synthesis: People should eat meat if they choose, but it should be a small part of their diet and they should purchase meat from sources that use ethical and environmentally sustainable farming practices.

1. We can avoid causing unnecessary suffering to animals both in food production and research using animal testing by choosing humane practices.
– Facts on laws on animal testing and practices such as free-range farming
2. Meat-eating is healthy as long as it is a small part of our diet.
– Facts from research on diet recommendations from health experts go here
3. Meat-eating would be less damaging to the environment if it is a small part of our diet and environmentally sustainable farming practices are used.
– Facts from research on environmentally sustainable farming practices go here e

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  3. Written by one of my IB History students  (back)
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