Schwarz and Baker refer often to the dialogical as well as the dialectical nature of argument, writing of this distinction that:
‘the dialectic is generally meant as an exchange between people to handle a disagreement; the dialogical simply means multi-voicedness in language production’ (p103)
They refer to dialogic whenever emotions and ethics come into play. This implies that dialogic – as multivoicedness – is part of the social context of dialectical reasoning. I agree with that but I think that realising that dialectic is embedded within and encompassed by dialogic has bigger implications for understanding argumentation than Schwarz and Baker seem to realise. Let me explain with a story about three distinct ways of thinking about everything or three ‘ontologies’ as we might call them: identity, difference-in-identity and identity-in-difference.
Aristotle pointed out the obvious fact that two different objects cannot occupy exactly the same space. Referring to Aristotle, Leibniz derived the more abstract principle of identity or A = A which he used as part of the foundation for classical logic. This is often elaborated as ‘a thing is what it is and not another thing’. I am me, you are you, a tree is a tree, ‘Brexit’ is ‘Brexit’ etc
For many it seems to follow from identity thinking that the correct meaning of a word is its reference to the correct thing that it refers to. A kind of pointing. This is me, that is you, there is a tree ‘Brexit means Brexit’ etc.
Understanding stuff, on this ontology, is essentially representing it correctly. Education leads us to acquire this understanding and tests it in exams. Who am I? Here is my image in a mirror. What is a tree? Here is a picture. What is ‘Brexit’?– here is my conceptual map of the key concepts linked to Brexit, etc, etc.
Dialectic: ‘difference within identity’
Hegel built on Plato’s dialectic and turned it into the basis of a whole world-view or ontology which he characterised with the phrase ‘difference within identity’. Identity comes first. A thing is what it is. I am I, the tree is a tree, Brexit is Brexit etc. Non-identity or difference is then brought in in the form of an internal contradiction – being can only make sense as a contrast to its negative or non-being. I am only I in contrast to you and to her and to them etc. That is how grammar works. The tree is also defined against what it is not, e.g it is not a cherry stone or a forest. So it seems that a thing is both what it is and not what it is. The tension between incompatibles, being and non-being, is then resolved in a synthesis. For Hegel the 'synthesis' that emerged from the clash of being ('thesis') and non-being (antithesis) was becoming. Thought realises that everything is becoming and becoming involves both being and non-being at the same time but now united in movement. The cherry stone is the tree as ‘becoming tree’ and, in a sense, I am you and you are me united in a larger dynamic system of becoming.
Vygotsky applies Hegels’ dialectic vision directly to human development and education:
‘Thus we may say that we become ourselves through others and that this rule applies not only to the personality as a whole, but also to the history of every individual function. This is the essence of the progress of cultural development expressed in a purely logical form. The personality becomes for itself what it is in itself through what it is for others' (Vygotsky, 1991, p 39).
This is a ‘relational ontology’ going beyond an ‘identity’ or ‘substance ontology’ because things now do not exist separately from their relationships with other things within a larger system. Marx adopted Hegel almost completely and followed Hegel when he described the human individual as the sum total of his social relationships[iii]. Although the system is dynamic it is ultimately closed because there is an end to history, for Hegel the Absolute Notion and for Marx, global communism.
There might not seem much to link the grand world-views of Hegel and Marx to Schwartz and Baker’s modest claim that ‘the dialectic is generally meant as an exchange between people to handle a disagreement’ but if they assume that there is one correct method to use to solve a disagreement and one correct answer to reach then they are also assuming a closed system. I am not sure that they do assume this, even in the context of mathematics education they seem aware that there are many creative ways to do maths. However, they do seem to focus on dialectical argumentation as abstract logical manipulations and not to see that it is possible and valuable to teach more dialogic ways of thinking as seeing and feeling from multiple perspectives in a way which expands consciousness even if it does not always win arguments or always come up with clear solutions to disagreements.
The dialogic alternative: 'identity within difference'
‘If we transform dialogue into one continuous text, that is, erase the divisions between voices (changes of speaking subjects), which is possible at the extreme (Hegel's monological dialectic), then the deep-seated (in-finite) contextual meaning disappears’
So what is this ‘deep-seated (infinite) contextual meaning’ that Bakhtin is seeking to preserve from the threat of dialectic?
Bakhtin’s concern is that dialectic, although modelled originally on the experience of dialogue, has forgotten the real source of meaning in dialogues and confused this with an abstract model or picture. It is as if we had replaced the real digestive system with a computer model of the digestive system and then we keep wondering why we feel so hungry all the time.
and made more 'smart'
but could it ever feed us?
Bakhtin agrees with Hegel that the truth is the whole. The true meaning of an utterance, he writes, is found in the whole dialogue. The problem is that this is a living dialogue that has not yet ended! (p146) We might think we have found the truth of things only for the next utterance to completely re-interpret everything that has gone before. There are in fact always many voices in play and always many possibilities with no final conclusion possible, no ‘last word’ as Bakhtin put it.
Like dialectic, this dialogic vision implies a relational ontology. But switching from ‘difference within identity’ to ‘identity within difference’ means that there is no longer a completed system to refer to as a guarantor of truth. [iv] Of course we think we are going somewhere and we think that there is progress but all such thinking is relative to context and might be proved wrong by the next turn in the road so it is wise to be a bit humble about claims and to be open to the possibility that we might have something to learn from others even from those who initially seem very different from us.
Bakhtin makes it clear what this dialogic world-view means for claims such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’[v],
'Contextual meaning is potentially infinite, but it can only be actualized when accompanied by another (other's) meaning, if only by a question in the inner speech of the one who understands.. …. There can be no "contextual meaning in and of itself"—it exists only for another contextual meaning, that is, it exists only in conjunction with it. Therefore, there can be neither a first nor a last meaning; it always exists among other meanings as a link in the chain of meaning, …'(p145-146).
In other words Brexit does not have one meaning but it means different things in different contexts depending on the questions that are asked about it by different people with different histories and different agendas. If we are given the task of teaching what ‘Brexit’ means, it would not be honest to define it as if anyone knew the correct answer, it would be better to introduce students to something of the background context and the range of things that people are saying about Brexit. Induct them into the dialogue in other words. The same should apply to all teaching: what we think we know now is always provisional. contextual, multiply voiced and open to new understandings which you, the student, might be responsible for in the future.
The profound significance of the shift from dialectic to dialogic ways of thinking for education is summed up by a phrase from the Christian Bible: ‘the letter kills but the spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians, 3:6). Ultimately dialectic thinking, like identity thinking, is about closing down and controlling meaning. To claim that the meaning of a thing, idea or person is given by location within a closed system is to kill meaning. To teach that there is only one correct method and only one correct answer is to kill meaning. I write this not because ‘‘Wegerif sees in the mediation of the teacher an unbearable power relation imposed on the student’, not at all, I write this because I want to teach in a way that preserves the possibility of students and teachers living meaningful and creative lives in the light of infinite possibility. And I want to preserve us from the horrors perpetrated by those who think that they know the correct answer and want only to teach it to us.
Notes and references
[i] Kerslake and Wegerif, review of Dialogue, Argumentation and Education: History, Theory and Practice’ by Baruch Schwarz and Michael Baker (2016, Cambridge University Press). To appear in next issue of Thinking Skills and Creativity.
[ii] Wegerif, R (2008) Dialogic or Dialectic? The significance of ontological assumptions in research on Educational Dialogue. British Educational Research Journal 34(3), 347-361. http://elac.ex.ac.uk/dialogiceducation/userfiles/DialOrDialBERJ(1).pdf
[iv] This switch in ontology is what is implied by the term ‘post-structuralism’ – structuralism tended to see meaning as about contextual relationships within a bounded system or whole, post-structuralism agreed with this but removed the boundary. See eg Derrida http://www.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f13/DrrdaSSP.pdf
[v] A phrase recently asserted repeatedly by the UK Prime Minister Teresa May.
Nikulin, D. (2010). Dialectic and Dialogue. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language (A. Kozulin, trans.). Cambridge MA: MIT.
Bakhtin, M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas
Plato (1955) The Republic. Penguin Classics.