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The unlimited nature of Bakhtin dialogism.

Dedicated to Ya. L. Kolominsky

I shall begin with the assertion that, in Mikhail Bakhtin's treatment of it, dialogism has no boundaries: "Life is by its very nature dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to question, to attempt to comprehend, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue, man (1) participates in his entirety and with his entire life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, his entire body, his actions. He puts himself into word, (2) and this word enters into the dialogic tissue of human life, into the world symposium." (3) In the context of the cited quotation it follows that not only does word enter into the dialogic tissue of human life, but so also do movements, actions, behaviors, images and ideas, and emotions, which possess an biodynamic, sensitive and affective tissue. In actual fact dialogic tissue is not only verbal, it also characterizes all forms of behavior, activity, and consciousness. In accordance with Ernst Cassirer's assertion made some time ago, it is not only material but also idea which possesses sensitivity; however, in the case of an idea this sensitivity is of a symbolic significance. This significance in turn arises only on interindividual territory.

Bakhtin stresses that unfinalizable dialogue is the only adequate form of verbal expression of authentic human life. It can be termed not only unfinalizable, but also the original form of human life. As a representative of the human genus, an infant is deprived of some instincts and reflexes, but is on the other hand endowed with a direct intelligible intuition, a capacity for comprehending the meaning implicit in existence. "It is not just the fact of comprehension of speech," wrote Gustav Shpet, "but to a still greater extent the fact of comprehending within the bounds of the genus, right down to its most undefined forms, such as mechanical imitation, sympathy, empathy and so on, are only manifestations of this single entity, on which every kind of social life is conditional, of 'comprehension' as a function of reason." Similar ideas were expressed by Saint Augustine of Hippo, Alexei Ukhtomsky, Martin Heidegger, Vladimir Bibikhin and, of course, Mikhail Bakhtin.

The unlimited nature of the problematics of dialogue does not preclude dialogue to be on the boundaries of other fundamental problems of humanitarian knowledge, in particular, psychology. For this problematics, the three oppositions discussed by Bakhtin are important: ontologism vs gnoseologism, (4) ialogism vs monologism, and polyphony vs homophony. Together they allow one to examine consciousness and psyche as objective phenomena (social events) in the composition of the universe. Such a view does not deprive them of the status of subjectivity, but broadens the concept of the objective at the expense of the inclusion of the subjective in it. In real life acts of subjectivisation of the objective and objectivisation of the subjective continually alternate, which sweeps away (defuse) the clear-cut boundaries between the objective and the subjective, and makes distinctions between them extremely relative. Similar contradictory directed acts are observed in dialogue, where the interpretation (and reinterpretation) of significance and the designation (and re-designation) of meanings endlessly alternate. Between acts of objectivisation and subjectivisation, just as between acts of comprehending and designating meaning, there are gaps, lacunas, zones of indeterminacy, deltas of non-understanding, and a surplus of freedom of interpretation etc. Such gaps in the continuing experience provide a place for creativity, for creative comprehension and, it goes without saying, for delusion and error. This leads to unfinalizability of dialogue, of course, if a person "develops thought via thought" (Alexander Pushkin (5)). The postulation on the alternation of contradictorily directed acts has an important consequence: the objectivity of the subjective is implicit within it and does not require any proofs lying beyond its bounds, for example, proofs "from the brain," which are insistently and importunately imposed on psychology by neurophysiology. Psychology itself is an objective science concerned with the objective world of humans (and animals). The psyche is in itself a factor of the evolution--a moving force of human history--because the three colors of time: the past, the present and the future are only given to consciousness and the psyche. Man himself creates organs by his soul and consciousness (Fichte).

The three sins--namely, gnoseologism, monologism and homophony--are shared by the science of the humanities as a whole. The existential nature of the consciousness, its non-alibi in being, was seen by Bakhtin in its active ethical orientation, in its deed (postupok). (6) He constantly spoke of deed-making, postupok-making thinking and consciousness. According to Bakhtin, consciousness is not an external force with respect to action and deed (postupok), but rather it is present within them in a concentrated form. In psychological language this can be expressed as follows: not perception (memory, thinking, etc.) and action, not perception as (or as if) action, but perception and action as a single entity (cf. Descartes: action and passion are one). Bakhtin regarded the sensation of its own activism as the most important property of action, i.e. not only its sensitivity to environment but also its sensitivity to its own fulfillment. This means that action contains the necessary and sufficient foundations of rudimentary (background) reflection, which is not only a post and pre-scriptum to action, but accompanies it also in the course of realization. This means that action is a completely valid psychic act; it is heterogeneous and hetero-structural. Represented in it are the main attributes of the soul: cognition, feeling and will. All psychic acts are hetero-structural, even including consciousness. Not consciousness and being, but, as Merab Mamardashvili (7) expressed it, a single continuum of being-consciousness. Thus, Bakhtin overcame in his own way the dichotomy between external and internal, distinguishing forms of external and internal being, and the latter's external and internal corporeal body. The internal corporeal body may take the form of the soul, a form of consciousness. In my view, for the study and description of psychological reality, including understanding the dialogism of human life, the concepts of external and internal form are very heuristic. According to Shpet, the internal form is a path, which presupposes its externalization. According to Bakhtin the path of accomplishment of action or deed (postupok) is purely internal, and the continuity of this path is also purely internal.

What has been said about the external and internal forms has a direct relationship to dialogism, to its psychological and pedagogical meaning. We should not be led astray by the apparent simplicity of the external form of dialogue-dispute-agreement. Inside of dialogue there is nor just listening, but listening into the words of the other, comprehending, empathizing, putting oneself in another's place, pondering, seeking arguments and counterarguments. Given these conditions, if we are lucky, an "unprecedented simplicity" may be achieved. Whether they wish it or not, the participants in a widely understood dialogue penetrate in the course of its realization into one another's internal forms and, by this very fact, construct and enrich their own internal forms. This does not occur with apprehension of works of art and living texts. We should not be led astray by the absence of apparent (audible) dialogue. As Boris Pasternak (8) wrote: "The more reserved a productive individuality is, the more collective, without any allegory, its narrative tends to be." Instead of the phrase "the more collective," Bakhtin would have said: "the more polyphonic" its narrative tends to be. It is not for nothing that Pasternak is quoted. Bakhtin may be fully characterized as a meta-psychologist. Creative literature served as experimental material for him. The dialogic field of psychology still remains to be ploughed. It would be good if representatives of other professions set about this difficult task. Confrontation is simpler than dialogue. The difference, it would appear, is trivial but extremely portentous: word upon word--dialogue arousing consciousness, or, word against word--confrontation arousing animal instincts. The problem is that, in order to choose consciousness as both a goal and a means, one must already possess it. But most unfortunately no "too much" of consciousness has yet been observed in humanity as it sails into the unpredictable future on a Para-Noahic Ark.


Higher School of Economics, National Research University, Moscow


(1.) Russian word "chelovek" used by Bakhtin is not sexist as it is in English. In Russian, male pronouns refer to one of the 3 genders of Russian nouns (e.g., the noun "chelovek" has male gender) and not to the gender of the referred people.

(2.) Discourse.

(3.) See, Bakhtin, M. M. (1999), Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

(4.) Epistemologism.

(5.) A famous Russian poet and writer of the beginning of the 19th century, the author of the novel-poem "Eugene Onegin."

(6.) See, Bakhtin, M. M. (1993), Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

(7.) A famous Soviet philosopher.

(8.) A famous Soviet poet and writer of the 20th century, the author of the novel Doctor Zhivago.
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Title Annotation:Mikhail Bakhtin
Author:Zinchenko, Vladimir P.
Publication:Knowledge Cultures
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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