Reflections on Dialogue (I)

Perhaps the most important form of dialogue in the history of almost all cultures is sharing a meal together, breaking bread together. That kind of dialogue is much more fundamental and meaningful than empty chattering between people. So I would like to take the notion of dialogue in that broad sense as including all kinds of communication.

What I would like to do here is three things. First of all, I would like to talk about the historical background, the cultural and intellectual background of dialogue. Why has dialogue become so relevant today? Secondly, what is the role of dialogue today in the context of what we call “globalization”? Then finally I would like to say a few words about the purpose or the goal of dialogue, the meaning of dialogue.

First of all, some words about the historical and intellectual background of dialogue. Why has dialogue become important in recent times? Of course, dialogue is not a modern invention; we have had dialogues throughout history. Students of philosophy are surely familiar with the Great Dialogues of Plato; all college students have to study at least some of the Dialogues of Plato like the Meno, the Phaedo and others. And of course there were also many dialogues held during the Middle Ages, theological dialogues (often called “disputations”). However in modern times—and by modern times I mean roughly the time from the Renaissance (1500s) and on—dialogues has fallen, one might say, on bad days. It has gained a bad reputation for two main reasons. First of all, there is the upsurge of modern science, and secondly the upsurge of modern individualism. With the works of people like Francis Bacon, Galileo, Kepler and others, science has come into its own. Now, modern science is distinguished by the fact that it relies mainly on experiment, on scientific testing and not on dialogue. Scientific inquiry follows a method, a rigorous method which we called the “experimental method” and in this experimental method the scientist does not dialogue with the target of analysis but analyzes it. So in a way science may be called a form of monologue rather than dialogue. In any case, scientific method has not been very hospitable to dialogical interaction and for this reason dialogue has receded into the background during the modern era.

The second main reason for the decline of dialogue is modern individualism. The emphasis on the individual, on individual mind, has also contributed to the retreat of dialogical interaction. The leading modern philosopher familiar to all students of Western culture is of course René Descartes. Every freshman in college is familiar at least with one sentence of René Descartes: “Ego cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). Here everything is placed in the individual mind, in the ego, the mind of the ego. He did not say “we think” or “I think with somebody else.” It is his emphasis on the individual mind which in a way makes dialogue irrelevant. So this modern emphasis on the ego, on individualism has also contributed to a certain decline of interaction and has placed the emphasis on the cogito and its rational analysis. The method of cogito is rational argumentation which does not depend on or is not hospitable to dialogue where one finds truth in the slow form of interaction or interrogation. Now this rational analysis became sort of triumphant during the heydays of what we call the “Enlightenment” in the West. It was an enlightenment of the mind, but again the mind taken as an individual mind, as the mind of the individual researcher, the individual philosopher who in his or her mind can know everything. That was the Enlightenment “universalism,” the search for universal knowledge, and such universal knowledge was thought possible because we all have the same mind—which again does not encourage dialogue or mutual questioning.

Something has happened in the last two centuries or so, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which has changed the situation by placing a question mark behind modern assumptions, especially the assumptions of science and individualism. There are two main developments which have come to challenge the modern mindset or worldview. First of all, the upsurge of language or the greater attention being placed on language; and secondly, the rise of globalization, the upsurge of close intercultural interaction. First: language. In the framework that I presented before, the framework of Descartes who said “I think therefore I am,” there is no awareness of language. In what language do I think, which language do I use when I think? But as soon as I realize that I think in a language, it is no longer my own language, my individual language, because I have to share language with other people. A great recent philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein said (correctly in my view) that there is no such thing as a “private language.” Now, if there is no private language, then there can also not be a private mind, a private ego. So this led to the discovery of language as something we always share. We all speak a language, though not the same language. We all speak a language, or languages. And if this is so then there has to be a form of translation between languages and this translation is a form of interpretation, which relies on dialogue. So I have to dialogue with other languages in order to interpret and find the meaning of what is being said.

Prof Fred Dallmayr

Prof Fred Dallmayr

Professor at the University of Notre Dame in the United States

Fred Dallmayr is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame in the United States and also the Co-chair of the World Public Forum 'Dialogue of Civilizations.'

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