On dialogue and dialogicality
F: Today, there are many ideas on dialogue and dialogicality. Could you clarify what these concepts mean to you?
M: Dialogue has become a central concept of numerous theoretical perspectives in human and social sciences that study social interaction and relations and call themselves dialogical. Some scholars have suggested that we witness a ‘dialogical turn’ in human sciences and in society at large. Since these issues can be rather confusing, let us take several steps to clarify this.
First, although all dialogical approaches emphasize dialogue and communication as their central concepts, they originate from diverse theoretical traditions and foreground different issues. Some of them stem from the ancient philosophy of Platonic dialogues, others from more recent forms of phenomenology; still others follow from the study of interaction, for example from the ideas of George Herbert Mead; some are inspired by Habermas’s communicative action; yet others start from the tradition of neo-Kantian dialogism and from Mikhail Bakhtin, and so on.
Second, despite their diverse theoretical perspectives, the point of departure in all dialogical approaches is the presupposition that human minds do not function in isolation but are mutually connected. The interdependence among minds is deeply rooted in the human nature and permeates all fundamental faculties like thinking, knowing, believing, remembering, imagining, feeling and acting. Without denying cognitive faculties of the individual, dialogical approaches assume that thought, knowledge and language are generated from interactions between the self and others. The multifaceted and heterogeneous nature of social interactions is open without limits. However, beyond these commonalities, dialogical approaches do not form a unified theory. They range from those that are broadly based like Per Linell’s (2009) ‘Rethinking Language, Mind, and the World Dialogically’, through to more specific theories of the dialogical self and to analyses of detailed dialogical aspects of utterances that are examined, for example, in the contemporary French dialogical linguistics.
Third, considering this diversity of approaches, the question is, what is meant by a dialogue? We often hear that there is a need for dialogue in social conflicts, in political controversies, in the media, in workplaces and marriages. This requirement usually implies the need for ‘a good dialogue’ or ‘real communication’, in which participants maximize their effort to establish intersubjective understanding and diminish conflict in exchanges and relations. Such a perspective presupposes an open and reasonably symmetrical exchange of ideas, opinions and understanding based on mutual empathy and equal terms among participants. While these ideals are worthwhile orientations among people, nations and cultures, we need more specific concepts in social scientific endeavours if we want to describe and explain the divergent patterns of communicative interaction that take place in everyday life. I shall refer to ‘dialogue’ in four senses.
One of these senses of dialogue, the most common one, is concrete and empirical. Dialogue is a symbolic face-to-face interaction between two or several individuals who communicate using words and/or bodily gestures. We may add here communication based on various artefact-borne forms, for example, written texts, pictures and computer-messages, in particular if these are interactive in nature.
In another sense, dialogue may refer to inner speech of the self to absent others like individuals and groups like peers, parents, enemies and friends, among others. In and through inner speech individuals may reflect on problems, attempt to understand and solve personal and interpersonal conflicts, justify their thoughts and actions, and so on. People may engage in inner dialogues with others over long stretches of time.
In addition, we can talk about a dialogue between ideas rather than between people. This meaning has its parallel in the theory of social knowledge. Thus in ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’ the sociologist Emile Durkheim writes that it is necessary to investigate the ways in which social representations ‘adhere to and repel one another, how they fuse or separate from one another’. In other words, just as humans live in the world of physical objects that are positioned with respect to one another in time and space and may be in different causal relations, so humans live in the world of networks of ideas and representations that circulate in society and form their thinking and communicative environment. In this sense dialogues among ideas affect the formation, maintenance and change in human knowledge, beliefs and activities.
Finally, a dialogue can also be considered in a more abstract – or one could even say – a metaphoric – manner, like a dialogue between different cultural traditions and historical epochs. For example, Mikhail Bakhtin and Yuri Lotman spoke about dialogue between the mediaeval culture and Renaissance or the Renaissance and Romanticism. Here again, ideas from different epochs clash, transform one another and create new perspectives and new languages in which social interactions take place. When we come to dialogicality or dialogism, we do not speak simply about dialogue in one or more of these senses. While dialogue and its different modes have been present in human history for millennia, ‘dialogism’ and ‘dialogicality’ are relatively new terms. While dialogism and dialogicality share presuppositions with all senses of dialogue that I have just mentioned, the former two are theoretical concepts.
‘Dialogism’, ‘existential dialogism’ and ‘the dialogical principle’ were terms that were first used in the early nineteen twenties by the religious Neo-Kantian philosophers of the Marburg School and subsequently by Mikhail Bakhtin who was familiar with this School. In Bakhtin’s perspective dialogism refers not only to a dialogue, but to epistemologies of human and social sciences according to which knowledge, language, systems of signs and symbols, artistic products, and many other activities, are jointly generated by the self and others. Mikhail Bakhtin stated more authoritatively than his predecessors that humans make the world in terms of others and the entire existence of the self is orientated towards others’ language and others’ world. This position contrasts with ‘monologism’, that is, with traditional or foundational epistemologies that conceive of knowledge and language in terms of a single knower and an object to be known. While I adopt this perspective on dialogism, I prefer to use the term ‘dialogicality’ when referring to a social-psychological and languagebased capacity of humans to socially engage, think and communicate with others. Language in every of its forms is incomplete, always offering infinite openings for new interpretations of meanings in the multifaceted world where judgment and differences prevail, like in politics, ideology, community and in social institutions. It is this openness and infinite possibilities of interpretation that distinguish dialogicality from other approaches: it is the uniqueness of each act of communication that makes this infinite range possible.
F: You wrote in your book ‘Dialogicality and Social Representations’ (2003), that dialogicality is the ontology of humanity. Could you elaborate on that?
M: I am using the term ‘dialogicality’, to characterise the fundamental capacity of the human mind to conceive, create and communicate about social realities in terms of the other(s). I assume that dialogicality is such a basic condition of human existence that we can talk about it as ontology. What the human individual has become and what his/her prospects are for the future – is due to the capacity of dialogicality. But we need to take a closer look at this difficult concept. Each person is born as an individual in physical and biological sense with his/her own body and brain, and with capacities for intellectual and linguistic development. But the human individual is also born with a social sense, that is, with openness towards others. It is this social – or dialogical – capacity, to conceive, create and communicate about social realities in terms of the other(s) that enables the development of thought, language, knowledge, reflexivity and of the self. In this sense the self and the other(s) co-constitute one another in a dynamic set-up, both transforming in and through dialogical communication and multifaceted symbolic interactions with one another. Just to repeat: the interdependence between the self and others, which I call ontological, forms the point of departure for the study of the self, language and communication, as well as for professional interventions like therapy, counselling or any kind of education.
The self and others (or Ego and Alter) can stand for specific dyadic relations, e.g. the self vs. parents, the self vs. group, the group vs. another group, the group vs. local culture, and so on, and that these dyadic relations can be conceived as deep-rooted in one another. For instance, the dyad like the self vs. another person could be interrelated with the family, a political Party, and so on.
F: In your book you introduce the term ‘dialogical rationality’. Could you tell us something more about that concept?
M: Epistemological individualism has dominated theories of knowledge for several centuries. It presupposes that language, thought and knowledge arise from rationality and cognition of the individual. This form of individualism has originated in philosophy; it has been adopted as a theory of knowledge in human and social sciences, where it dominates epistemology until today. It has also affected researchers’ methods of analysing dialogue. Dialogue is often conceived as an exchange of messages in which each participant takes a turn; and indeed, notions like ‘exchange’ or ‘turn-taking’ are part of the existing terminology. The term ‘turntaking’ within a joint activity, e.g. a social game, implies that two (or more) individuals each make a contribution to the dialogue, which is solely his or her responsibility. Likewise, ‘exchange’ evokes an image of two or more ‘turns’, in which each participant is responsible for either ‘speaking’ or ‘listening’ or ‘give’ or ‘take’. In other words, using such presuppositions, dialogue is analysed in terns of monological rationality, that is, each participant is the sole contributor to his or her turn in dialogue.
Perhaps I can explain the notion of ‘dialogical rationality’ with reference to education. In dialogical learning, we are dependent on others. The authority of the educator comes from his/her expertness and the capacity to transmit knowledge or justified beliefs. Authority is an important phenomenon in dialogical learning as well as in therapeutic interactions and we could say that the person with authority is also the one who has epistemic trust of those to whom he/she delivers knowledge or justified beliefs. Epistemic trust is an essential feature of education, counselling or therapy, because it is the expert who transmits knowledge to a novice who cannot discover such knowledge on his or her own. Ordinary citizens are not Darwins or Einsteins or Comeniuses to invent and discover new knowledge about nature and society on their own, but we learn from experts. This is a rational and efficient manner of learning from others and adopting traditions of cumulated knowledge. And so we can say that in a dialogical relation, epistemic trust in the educator is a substitute for the self’s lack of capacity to discover and comprehend natural and social phenomena on his/her own. Nevertheless, in the dialogical process of learning the student does not passively accepts knowledge but he/she reasons about phenomena and submits the educator’s knowledge to criticism and arguments. The teacher with authority recognizes his/her responsibility to students and is in ‘the position of trust’. Equally, one should assume that the therapist with authority is conscious of his/her responsibility to the patient. The term ‘the position of trust’ refers to a position of authority in an organization or a professional body like education or therapy. Dialogical rationality is a process of reasoning based on the epistemic trust in the other. This point brings us back to dialogue and its different senses that we discussed earlier. Dialogical rationality is essential to any dialogue, whether to face-to-face talk, internal speech, dialogue among ideas or dialogue across cultures and traditions. All kinds of dialogue involve at least some trust in the other. I have used the example from education, but dialogical rationality is present in all dialogical situations; moreover, dialogical rationality is essential to therapy, legal discourses, or to any situations in which the professional is in a counselling relationship with a client.
F: The theory of dialogicality is, because of its abstract character, often not very accessible for practitioners. Do you have examples of how theory and practice have mutually influenced each other?
M: I would not say that dialogicality has an abstract character. What gives the impression of its abstractness results from the way people are socialized into the society and to the education system that prioritizes ontology and epistemology based on the individual rather than on the interdependence between the individual and others? In contrast, if you take as a point of departure the Chinese ontology of yin-yang which is based on interdependencies among phenomena, then our non-dialogical ontology would look abstract. Thus, what is, and is not abstract, depends on our presuppositions about the nature of humanity and the ways in which we are socialized into that world.
Yes, I can give you many examples of how the dialogical theory and practice mutually influence each other. I noted earlier that dialogue is often analyzed monologically, as an exchange or as turn taking. The problems of these kinds of analysis are particularly obvious in the research and practice in what we can call ‘difficult communication’. By this I mean communication between participants that have highly diverse and unusual means of expressing themselves in dialogue like people with cerebral palsy, people with deaf/blindness or those who, for one reason or other are unable to speak. Janice Light (1988, p.71) commented that in augmentative and alternative communication, dialogue is often treated in an individualistic manner:
‘the behaviors studied to date have typically been coded and quantified in isolation from each other and from the partners’ behaviors Although our theories generally take into account the dynamics of the reciprocal behaviors of the dyad, our methodology has tended to center on individual behaviors’.
Researchers and practitioners in deaf blind communication have approached me some years ago because they tried to find out whether a dialogical approach can offer a better way of understanding communication than that which Janice Light criticized. A researcher or carer with experience of working with people with a congenital deaf/blindness sees instantaneously that communication between two persons is jointly co-created, or, in more difficult cases, he/she presupposes the necessity of co-creation of communication. He/she knows from experience that language and communication start and develop from interaction between the person with deaf/blindness and the carer. The researcher may ask questions like: What role does the carer play in the development of gestures? Through which stages does the person pass before he/she is able to communicate? How do two persons, the carer and the person with deaf/blindness, accomplish interaction? Such questions already presuppose that answers will have to be sought in communication rather than solely in the brain of the individual. Of course, humans need their brains! However, the contemporary fashion that presupposes that all social phenomena can be explained by the study of neurons is totally misconceived. In other words, what the researcher needs, is a relevant theory of communication. But what makes a theory relevant? If the researcher or practitioner starts from the presupposition that language, communication and thought are dynamic processes that develop from interaction between the person with deaf/blindness and the carer, he/she also knows the following: there is no point in looking for a theory in the cognitive individual approach, or in the study of brain neurons, because such theories would not correspond to the researcher’s knowledge and experience that language and communication are joint activities between the carer and the person with deaf/blindness. Whatever are the cognitive capacities of the individual with congenital deaf/blindness, this individual would be unable to develop communication on his/her own.
Therefore it is not surprising that the carers and researchers in the Communication Network for the deaf/blind have been interested for a long time in theories that treat the development of language and communication in children with and without disability as interaction, as a collaborative project. They have built on studies of, and have referred to, researchers like Katherine Nelson, Colwyn Trevarthen, Jerome Bruner, and Luigia Camioni, among others. Thus we can read in their Dialogicality – the Communication and Deafblindness Handbook, booklet 3, p.13: ‘In this dynamic developing process, gestures and dialogicality play a very important role … during dialogues partners support the emergence of these gestures and co-create their transformation into symbolic expressions or shared meaning …etc’. The authors continue talking about uniqueness of each individual with deaf/blindness, about co-creating of meanings through repetitions, novelty, narratives and so on.
F: Earlier you mentioned the connection between trust and dialogicality. Could you elaborate on that?
M: Trust is a fundamental characteristic of interaction, language and communication. Participants in communication manifest trusting and distrusting in different forms and express different meanings of trust and distrust. Some forms of trust may refer to language as an institution into which we are born. Just like we are born into the world of people, objects, ideas, and just like we trust our vision in telling us that what we see are trees and not chairs or vice versa, equally, we trust that objects have names and that these names are relatively stable; the word ‘an apple’ refers to what we recognize as an apple and ‘a cherry’ refers to a cherry. When, under special circumstances we cannot trust meanings of words, we become disturbed just like Alice in Wonderland, or revolutionary Bolsheviks in the Soviet Russia who, despite their devotion to Marxism and to the Communist Party, were suddenly named the ‘enemies of people’.
Other forms of trusting may refer to the truthfulness of dialogical participants. When a speaker says ‘these cherries are sweet’, in addition to his/her trusting that the listener understands the meaning of ‘cherries’, the speaker knows that the listener may trust or distrust that by hearing ‘these cherries are sweet’ the speaker is telling the truth. Therefore, in addition to trusting the socially shared meaning, the listener’s trusting may refer to truthfulness of the speaker’s claim. Yet another form of trusting might refer to the speaker’s promise to give the listener some of those sweet cherries; one could ask what linguistic markers indicate to the listener that an utterance is a promise that he/she could trust; and so on. These examples show that it is pointless to ask for a single definition of trust or to conceive it as an isolated entity in the process of communication. Like other social concepts, trust/distrust in relation to language and communication is embedded in the network of other concepts and acquires some aspects of meaning from them. We may expect that if trusting is nested in the network of ‘believing’, ‘faith’, ‘hope’ or ‘co-operation’ and otherwise, such concepts will contribute different aspects of meaning than if trusting is nested in the network of ‘risk’, ‘danger’ or ‘suspicion’. For example, if trust is nested in the network of ‘risk’, it might be associated with fear of exposing one’s opinions and beliefs to the critique of the other. In this case the dialogical focus would be on the self and the other´s response to self. The speaker might look for communicative and language means to enable him/her to minimize the risk of embarrassment and denigration of the self. On the other hand, if trust is embedded in the network of ‘suspicion’, the self might focus attention on the other communicant as someone who might use the self’s vulnerability and harm.
F: When I read your chapter on themata I thought about my work as a psychotherapist. There is a current trend in psychotherapy (maybe in social work in general) to help people by relieving them from doubt, finding their way, being more assertive, knowing what they want, … . In other words ‘unifying’ them. Doubts, tensions, conflicts, … are seen as bad things, signs of pathology even.?
M: All concepts can be regarded in relation to what speakers consider to be their opposites, like doubt versus certainty, tension versus relaxation, conflict versus harmony, and so on. Doubts, tensions and conflicts can be pathological but equally, without doubts there would be no reflection. As Descartes stated, to doubt is to think. Without tension one might fall into flabbiness; without conflict, there might not be any change and reconstruction or social reality. You need both kinds of phenomena.
F: Do you mean that everybody ‚needs‘ both kinds of phenomena, or that phenomena never stand on their own. That there can’t be relaxation whithout tension, no certainty without doubt, no … That inherent in working with people is you are always working on the verge.
M: I mean that all dialogical situations involve both phenomena. One cannot be substituted by the other. This clearly presents challenges for practice.
An example of such a challenge in dialogical situations is the participants’ search for intersubjectivity and the struggle to establish oneself as an agent, i.e. the struggle for social recognition. These two modes of dialogicality are in interaction and often one mode changes into the other.
The first mode, the search for intersubjectivity, could be characterized as a tendency towards a unification of the Ego with the Alter, i.e. the struggle for mutuality and for the attunement to the other. Studies of dialogue usually focus on intersubjectivity. This is understandable. Developmental psychologists like Colwyn Trevarthen have been preoccupied with providing theoretical models and empirical evidence for early intersubjectivity and predisposition for interactional reciprocity. By ‘intersubjectivity’ developmental psychologists mean openness and readiness of the infant to enter into relations with another human being and they have shown that non-responsiveness of the carer leads to fear and distress in the baby. Trevarthen maintains that understanding intersubjectivity can provide an explanation ‘of how human social and cultural knowledge is created, how language serves a culture and how its transmission from generation to generation is secured’. Lev Vygotsky, too, viewed the development of child’s dialogical capacity in terms of mutual understanding. The idea of basic or ontogenetic forms of trust or intersubjectivity dominates communication in child development as well as communication of people with communication impairments or with various kinds of a patient. Both the Ego and the Alter seek visibility and recognition by one another, each actualizing their potentials through interaction and communication: they understand and create meanings of their world in and through communication with others.
However, the focus on intersubjectivity may disguise the fact that each individual is also an agent who has the desire to establish him/herself as such. In other words, it may be important to study not only the negotiation of meaning but the individual’s struggle to impose his or her own meaning on the other. The strife for social recognition is not a peaceful process but takes place in and through tension and negotiation of goals between the self and others. And if this strife is not successful and the self is deprived of the feeling of social recognition, it also means that the self is unable to function satisfactorily with respect to things which matter to humans, for example, partaking in democratic decisions or having the feeling of justice. Studies in ‘difficult communication’ that I have already mentioned, show that imposing one’s own meaning on the other is essential for a person with a speech or communication problem in getting the message across. In ‘difficult communication’, the interactional impact of any communication resource is dependent not only on the impaired speaker conveying it as integral to interaction, but, also, on the unimpaired speaker seeing it as such. Subtle attention to gestures, anticipation of the next contribution or responsiveness to minute communicative interactions in dialogue – all this is essential to achieving mutual understanding. Communication resources of impaired speakers must be considered in a complementary relationship with other resources, e.g. with the amount of physical disability or cognitive impairment, as well as part of the total interactional environment.
Considering these issues, numerous questions arise: Are these two modes of dialogicality, that is, intersubjectivity and social recognition, in contradiction? Are they both equally important? In our good intention to achieve intersubjectivity, do we impose on the other I-it relation and so substitute it for I-you relation? Let us explain. We need to recognize that communication is always asymmetric. One participant always temporarily dominates the other either in terms of knowledge or status or even in terms of the available resources for communication. Thus, there is always a possibility that one partner may be treated as ‘it’ – if the other, through negotiation of meaning, argumentation or through other means of authority does not give the other enough possibility to express him/herself as an agent. We can say that the search for intersubjectivity, if negotiation of meaning is controlled by the partner with more authority, could lead to the ‘I-it’ relation, if the other partner, in our case usually a person with a communication disadvantage, is not given chance to express him/herself as an agent. Is this, too, a challenge for professional practice?
There is yet another point to Bakhtin’s ideas of dialogical asymmetries and tension. Dialogical interaction also involves an effort to understand and surmount the unknown positions of other participants. We do this, Bakhtin argued, by appropriating thoughts and speech of others. This is why the strangeness of others’ thoughts and speech facilitates communication. Strangeness between the dialoguing cognitions is tied up with a constant negotiation of tension. Tension is ever present, whether participants strive for intersubjectivity, for dominance, for overcoming strangeness of one another or for dialogical mutualities of any kind. Even if participants in dialogue are in a close intersubjective relation and share a great deal of knowledge, it is tension between different kinds of mutually interdependent antinomies that keeps their dialogue going. According to Bakhtin, ambivalence never changes into monovalence. There are no hard boundaries between objects, words or cultures. Boundaries always change because, as Bakhtin assumed, ‘a tense dialogic struggle takes place on the boundaries’.
In conclusion, whether the participants search for intersubjectivity or whether they search for social recognition, an essential feature of dialogue is communicative tension. Dialogical tension is an impetus to interaction and dynamics of dialogue; it arises from forces that bind dialogical interactants, like attraction and repulsion, dominance and submission, trust and suspicion, etc. Without dialogical tension and its variants, intension, attention, contention and otherwise, dialogue would be reduced to exchange of information and flabby communication. Dialogical tension also involves an effort of the self to understand and surmount the unknown qualities and positions of other participants and their strangeness. Understanding speech and thoughts of others on our own terms and transforming them into our own communicative resources is part of the dialogical process.