Dialogue Theories: Dialogue’s Nature and Indispensability

‘Dialogue’ is a practice, a way of doing things. It is also an academic concept, a way of understanding and explaining ideas and practice. The term is extensively used across the boundaries of different disciplines and fields of study, and the scholarly literature on it is accordingly extensive and multifaceted. Here, I will make a beginning by outlining the interconnected ideas of two pivotal dialogue theorists, Mikhail Bakhtin and David Bohm. Then, I will relate their ideas to those of a dialogue practitioner, Fethullah Gülen.

Mikhail Bakhtin (d. 1975), author of the classic The Dialogic Imagination (1983), is variously described as philosopher of language, cultural historian and literary critic. A common thread in his writings is that meaning is conveyed through the interplay between the diverse cultural idioms, perspectives and ideologies that inform human language. In literary fiction (most conspicuously in the novel), a ‘deep-lying multitude of languages’ are engaged in energetic dialogue, a sort of ‘carnival’, a polyphony of voices and ‘social forces’ (Bakhtin, p. 365). Within the work the many voices include the protagonists in the fiction, the literary styles from which the work springs, and the culture in which the work is being read. The cultural past (before the work) and the cultural present (all that is in the reader’s mind) are integral to the experience of meaning. Meaning is not constituted by combining or canceling out the many voices to produce a single voice uttering a single proposition. Rather, meaning abides in the unfolding of the dialogue in time – in the different voices attending to each other and, in the process, deepening their understanding of themselves. In sum, dialogue is the condition for the proper functioning of human language: without dialogue, language does not produce fresh meaning.

David Bohm (d. 1992) was a distinguished specialist in quantum physics, who also wrote about new thinking in the sciences. Concerned about the imbalances which threaten the future of humankind – imbalances between people and nature, and between nations and communities – Bohm argued that our assumptions about thinking itself must change. He came to believe that ideas are a fluid legacy shared between people in dialogue. Dialogue in this sense is an attitude, as well as the mechanism, that lets meaning and understanding emerge. Dialogue ‘can be among any number of people […] Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of the dialogue is present’. He defines dialogue as ‘a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us.’ Dialogue is a creative process that ‘make[s] possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge a new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the “glue” or “cement” that holds people and societies together.’ (David & Nichol, 2004, pp. 6–7.) In sum, dialogue is an expression and the means by which human groups generate ideas that advance knowledge and connect it to wisdom: separate thinking from dialogue and ideas become extensions of individual will, which connect knowledge to power.

Fethullah Gülen’s conception and practice of dialogue developed through the 1970s and 80s, in the context of modern Turkey where various groups, differentiated by economic class or ideology or kind or degree of religious belonging, confronted each other in latent or open hostility. They shared a language, a land, a long history, yet they were unable to imagine any community of ideas or purposes. Over many decades Gülen argued that a multiplicity of idioms, if listened to with a respectful disposition, can open up new, undreamt of possibilities for collaboration in problem-solving. As the habit of dialogue settled, the people became aware that their different cultural idioms were in reality differences of emphasis. These differences enabled them to identify, and improve their understanding of, shared problems. Thereafter, dialogue enabled them to devise fresh ways of working together to tackle those problems. Through dialogue, language becomes a means of understanding others, not of accusing and marginalizing them. The effort to engage and participate in dialogue produces ‘shared meaning’ (Bohm), which brings and holds societies together.

According to Gülen’s worldview, dialogue ‘is not about enchanting or coercing others, nor is it about being assimilated or making compromises. It is about accepting people as they are and about being able to coexist peacefully on each other’s terms’ (Celik, 2010, p. 124). For Gülen, dialogue does not lead to differences being erased; rather, it leads to them being embraced. Differences between individuals and societies, including those reflected in different political idioms, are an essential and indispensable part of human nature:

“[…] different beliefs, races, customs and traditions will continue to cohabit in this [global] village. Each individual is like a unique realm unto themselves; therefore the desire for all humanity to be similar to one another is nothing more than wishing for the impossible. For this reason, the peace of this [global] village lies in respecting all these differences, considering these differences to be part of our nature and in ensuring that people appreciate these differences. Otherwise, it is unavoidable that the world will devour itself in a web of conflicts, disputes, fights, and the bloodiest of wars, thus preparing the world for its own end.’ (Gülen, 2004, pp. 249–50).

According to Bakthin, to Bohm, and to Gülen, dialogue is essential to the proper and full functioning of language, of thinking, and of co-operating with others to build durable solutions to shared problems. Dialogue is thus an indispensable part of our individual and collective lives. It is found in the multiplicity of voices and languages in a literary text, as a stream of meaning that leads to understanding and that brings us together, and as a philosophy that accepts and respects differences and aims to make coexistence in our globalized world both peaceable and fruitful.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Dr Omer Sener

Research Fellow, Dialogue Society London Branch

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