A Dialogue About the Dialogical Approach

Pollard, R., Hepple, J. and Elia, I., 2005. A Dialogue About the Dialogical Approach. Reformulation, Autumn, pp.18-24.

Rachel Pollard and Jason Hepple with Comments from Irene Elia

condensed form of: “Are there Limitations to the Dialogical Approach to psychotherapy?”
by Rachel Pollard
(thank you to Irene Elia for skillfully condensing the original article published in Reformulation June, 2004)

Bakhtin’s dialogical model of discourse and consciousness offers a radical alternative to traditional cognitive and psychoanalytic models of therapy. But as his ideas are grounded in literary criticism and philosophy rather than psychology, it can be difficult to find a base from which to critically assess the application of dialogical thinking to the practice of psychotherapy. By examining the ideas of various critics within the field of literary criticism with a view to extrapolating from them to psychotherapy, I will highlight concerns about the potential of dialogic discourse as well as deficits in the dialogical model of consciousness.

Bakhtin’s dialogic conception of the self and consciousness emphasises communication as a defining feature of the human self and of the potential of dialogue—talking, listening, and creating meaning—to heal.

From an ethical point of view there are problems with Bakhtin’s notion of dialogue as it can never be judged (Emerson, 1997). The boundlessness of possible interpretations may be a source of liberation in literary criticism (Bernard-Donals, 1994) but a source of confusion in psychotherapy.

The assumption that dialogue and the valorisation of multiple perspectives always leads to a beneficial outcome is questionable. Seeing a situation from different viewpoints can also herald a dangerous slide into post-modern relativism in which truth becomes a matter of ‘choice’ or even indifference. For a conversation to become dialogic in a way that allows for jointly created intersubjective meanings to emerge, there has to be some agreement about truth (Kop, 2000).

But there is no automatic equation between dialogic discourse and truth. Even apparently straightforward monologic discourse dealing with ‘facts’ on close examination can be found to be internally dialogised double voiced or double directed discourse in which the intended meaning is disguised.

Aaron Fogel (1985, 1989) argues that Bakhtin had a utopian view of dialogue as free, spontaneous and natural and underestimated the extent to which it is coerced. An example is the public enquiry, which attempts to establish the ‘truth’ by compelling people to speak against their own interests. Joseph Conrad denounced such an inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic which he saw as a reflection of the disproportionate attention paid to the deaths of the upper class passengers and the disproportionate blame heaped on the labourers who built the ship.

Many dialogical interactions are asymmetrical because people do not have equal access to the power of words. Linguistic capital, the ability to influence others and control the self by the use of words is unequally distributed.

Michael Bernstein (1989) paints an even more disturbing picture of dialogical discourse not as liberation but entrapment. He argues that Bakhtin’s notion of dialogue is so abstract that he misses the prevalence of pain and suffering in human experience and the existence of multiple voices or dialogues as inner torment. Rather than words offering the possibility of endless creative potential, most people are doomed to repetition, parody and pastiche, unable even in extremes of suffering to find a voice of their own, condemned to an existence that has already been scripted.

Some of Bakhtin’s ideas about consciousness and the self are derived from, or perhaps justified by, his reading of Dostoevsky. Bakhtin extrapolates directly from the dialogic relationships he finds in Dostoevsky to real life:

dialogic relationships are a much broader phenomenon than mere rejoinders in dialogue, laid out compositionally in the text; they are an almost universal phenomenon, permeating all human speech and all relationships and manifestations of human life... (Bakhtin, 1984)

But to what extent can novels, even Dostoevsky’s novels, represent real life or life as it is lived outside the pages of a book? As Eagleton points out, what constitutes realism in the novel is a matter of opinion; one person’s realism is another person’s fantasy.

Bakhtin’s (1984) focus in his appreciation of Dostoevsky is purely on form rather than content, which he deliberately ignores. Bakhtin (1981) goes so far as to say that form and content in discourse are identical with the implication that all that matters in life is not what we say but the form in which it is expressed.

What if Bakhtin misread Dostoevsky and the real ‘hero’ of his novels is not the idea, or even human consciousness in all its dialogic complexity, but the human capacity for self-deception? Bakhtin does not allow for the possibility that the outcome of a dialogue might be to make things worse.

Bakhtin avoids any discussion of:

the content of ideas; a real, genuinely other person; conflict with that real person; acts of violence against real other people; death; the compulsive and rivalrous disposition of the human consciousness that manifests itself as envy, jealousy, hatred and scapegoating...(Reed, 1999)

as to do so would undermine his thesis of the benevolent nature of the polyphonic consciousness as opposed to the finalising monologic consciousness. Bakhtin’s very refusal to recognise and take account of actual violence creates the conditions for it to flourish that constitutes a moral vacuum in his analysis of Dostoevsky. As Reed (1994) rightly points out, Bakhtin’s analysis of discourse all takes place inside the consciousness of Dostoevsky. But dialogue with other people is qualitatively different from internal dialogue, which can be merely an unfinalised

...perverse, self-perpetuating, negative, run away bickering with other points of view (Reed, 1994)...

as opposed to an interaction with a real and unpredictable other. An internal dialogue is selfish in that it involves no responsibility towards or interaction with another person.

As Bakhtin blurs the distinction between internal and external dialogues, treating them as the same phenomenon, he apparently overlooks that fact that external dialogues between people are conclusive. To determine meaning involves making a finalising judgement but the polyphonic author leaves his characters ‘free’ from such finalising judgements about themselves. Reed questions whether this is any more liberating than the freedom to choose to receive a ‘final truth’ about oneself. And far from withholding his ‘final word’ Dostoevsky submits his characters to his own negative evaluation. So Bakhtin’s polyphonic interpretation of Dostoevsky amounts to an inversion of Dostoevsky’s own monologic Christian convictions, drawing very different conclusions about his moral purpose as an author from what he intended.

Reed’s critique of Bakhtin is inspired by Dostoevsky’s own view of human nature according to Rene Girard. That is that the human self is constituted by desire and is dynamically shaped by its external relationships with other people in a way that involves conflict and violence. Far from being free, Dostoevsky’s characters are caught up in the most advanced stages of metaphysical desire and to demonstrate this was, according to Girard (1966), his fundamental concern as a novelist. Dostoevsky is concerned with the banality of human desire, particularly the desire for originality or difference. The reader is expected to judge (Girard, 1966) and to see how this destructive energy can be transformed into creative energy if people model themselves on Christ rather than each other (Reed, 1999).

Unlike Bakhtin, Girard sees violence at the heart of human nature and human relations, and posits a self driven by an unconscious desire to imitate others that leads to rivalry, conflict and violence. Because this desire is unconscious it is also non representational and precedes language. Desire is always triangular in that it is mediated by another. It is therefore social.

Despite their differing interpretations of Dostoevsky, the ideas of Bakhtin and Girard, from the point of view of understanding human consciousness, could be seen as complementary. Above all Bakhtin describes how language as a social phenomenon is both formative and constitutive of consciousness, whilst Girard describes the social nature of the desires which animate language and motivate human communication. Both are concerned with the relationship between self and other and have a thoroughly social conception of the self. Both saw Dostoevsky’s novels as representing the most advanced development of their ideas. Both derived some of their ideas about the human self and consciousness from literature and are critical of ‘scientific’ attempts to define subjectivity and consciousness.

In their respective analyses of Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Notes from Underground’, Bakhtin and Girard coincide although they approach the work from very different perspectives. For Bakhtin every word of the Underground man’s internal dialogue is directed towards the anticipated response of another. His discourse is riddled with sideways glances and loopholes to the extent that he can never reach a final word about himself and is caught up in a vicious circle from which there is no escape. For Girard (1966)

...underground man is a human rag soaked in shame and servitude, a ridiculous weather-vane placed atop the ruins of “Western humanism”.

While Bakhtin is primarily concerned with the formal structural aspects of the Underground man’s discourse, he also comments on his utter dependence on the consciousness of the other coupled with his extreme hostility towards it. He fears that the other might think he fears that other’s opinion. But through this fear he immediately demonstrates his own dependence on the other’s consciousness (Bakhtin, 1984).

Neither Girard nor Bakhtin are primarily concerned with pathology but to illuminate in different ways the human condition. To think of dialogical discourse animated by mimetic desire could be one approach to understanding the current state of the psychotherapy ‘profession’. From a Girardian perspective it is unsurprising that the psychotherapy field has generated over 450 models or theories (House, 1999) in its short history. As Girard would predict, the smaller the difference between competing theories the more intense their rivalry becomes. As Samuels (1997) points out, the conflict and rivalry between different schools and theories say far more about the human psyche than any of the theories themselves.

For Bakhtin, the dialogic nature of human life and human consciousness was paramount:

...To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, with his whole body and deeds (Bakhtin, 1984).

But is a dialogical understanding, however nuanced, enough? To say a discourse is dialogical does not account for its meaning and value. Dialogical discourse is morally neutral and can perform many different functions. To define consciousness solely in dialogic terms does not account for human desire and is an evasion of our moral responsibilities as language users. The mere fact of engaging in dialogue is no guarantee of a beneficial outcome.

Dialogic discourse is a process without beginning or end. This sits uneasily with the formal practice of cognitive analytic therapy with its insistence on clear time boundaries and endings. Many people who seek psychotherapy are seeking understanding and closure and may even be harmed by an opening up of an array of possible meanings.

As a tentative conclusion, I would argue that dialogical formulations in psychotherapy, whilst offering an illuminating account of the structural aspects of consciousness, need to be supplemented by recognition of the far murkier regions of consciousness, of human desire and the human capacity for violence as well as love.



Bakhtin, M 1984. Speech Genres and other Late Essays. trans. B McGee. ed. C Emerson and M Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M 1984. Rabelais and his World. Indianna University Press.

Bakhtin, M 1981. The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays. trans C Emerson and M Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bernstein, A 1989. The Poetics of Ressentiment. in eds. G Morson and C Emerson, Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges. Northwestern University Press.

Eagleton, T 2003. Pork Chops and Pineapples, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. London Review of Books, 25 (20) 17-19.

Emerson C 1997. The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Princetown University Press.

Fogel, A 1985. Coercion to speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue. Harvard University Press.

Fogel, A 1989. Coerced Speech and the Oedipus Dialogue Complex. in eds. G Morson and C Emerson, Rethinking Bakhtin. Northwestern University Press.

House, R 1999. The place of psychotherapy and counselling in a healthy European social order: a commentary on Tantum and van Deurzen. European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling and Health. 2 (2), 235-246.

Kop, E 2000. A dialogue epistemology: Bakhtin on truth and meaning dialogism. International Journal of Bakhtin Studies. (4), 7-33.

Reed, N 1994. Reading Lermontov’s ‘Geroj nasego vremeni’: problems of poetics and reception, unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University.

Reed, N 1999. The Philosophical Roots of Polyphony: a Dostoevskian Reading. in ed C Emerson, Critical Essays on Mikhail Bakhtin. New York: G K Hall.

Samuels, A 1997. Pluralism and Psychotherapy: What is a good training? in eds R House and N Totton. Implausible Professions: Arguments for Pluralism and Autonomy in Psychotherapy and Counselling. Ross-on-Wye, PCCS Books.


Reply to Rachel Pollard’s article ‘Are there Limitations to the dialogical approach to psychotherapy?’ (Reformulation, June 2004).

By Jason Hepple

I was fascinated to read Rachel Pollard’s excellent critique of Bakhtin’s dialogics, and stirred sufficiently by it to want to reply. To lay my cards on the table straight away, I am a growing fan of the ‘in between’-ness of consciousness and indeed reality and have always been excited by the open-endedness of Bakhtin’s ‘no final word’. An awareness of the unique context of meaning in the precise time and space of a psychotherapeutic relationship has been a major development in my own practice and seems to me so much more creative than the catapulting process of transference and counter-transference. After reading Rachel’s article I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction and a desire to answer back in some way on behalf of whoever Bakhtin really was. (My approach to the problems of authorship in Bakhtin’s work is, naively perhaps, to concentrate on what the words mean to me and what further questions they generate. It is absolutely true that everything has a context, but the context of the work for me is of my reading, in my context in 2005, with my limited knowledge and fantasy of Bakhtin as an historical figure(s). I’m not sure what other context I could start from. After all, as Jacques Derrida was reported to have said: the written word is always abandoned by the author).

Bakhtin and post-modernism. Bakhtin to me is a post-modern positivist. There was always a danger, as Rachel points out, that the ‘deconstruction’ of ‘meaning’ and ‘truth’ can lead to seeming meaninglessness and ultimately nihilism. This is a scary world to end up in but that may not be a sufficient reason to want to resist this development. There is a thread in Rachel’s critique that seems to yearn for ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ as some form of absolute constructs in an attempt, I think, to get back onto firmer ground. She says: ‘to say a discourse is dialogical does not account for its meaning and value. Dialogical discourse is morally neutral and can perform many different functions…to define consciousness solely in dialogic terms does not account for human desire and an evasion of our moral responsibilities as language users’. There are a string of metaphysical concepts being appealed to here and a small flag waves for a ‘drive’ based psychotherapy theory. Derrida’s deconstruction of metaphysical philosophy made seemingly meaningless the quest for ‘meaning’, ‘truth’ and the essence of ‘inner consciousness’. I would agree with him that these concepts could be seen as a series of illusions to make up for the scariness of an open-ended universe. Rachel’s preference for Girard’s ‘Theory of Mimetic Desire’ seems like a diversion into an ingenious attempt to once again reduce human interaction and behaviour to the manifestations of an interpersonal drive based theory of motivation; not a million miles away from the death instinct or the Oedipus complex.

I see no need to find, or indeed search for, an ‘underlying’ theory like this. This is really a structuralist (modernist) quest looking for the underlying ‘why’ rather than accepting that ‘how’ is the only thing of real interest as it is the only thing subject to observation and study. Vygotsky’s theory of cultural transmission does not need a ‘why’, as Rachel suggests. Rachel seems uncomfortable with Bakhtin’s view that ‘all that matters in life is not what we say but the form in which it is expressed’. I agree with Bakhtin. I am aware that I ‘change my mind’ continually and don’t know what I ‘mean to say’ until I’ve said it (to someone) and that I will probably read this reply at some point in the future with dissatisfaction and incredulity! This reply represents a continuance of Rachel’s dialogue from the context of me now and the context of an anticipated you (the reader). There is no other meaning, truth or ‘why’ to it. It is simply what it is. (This perspective does not deny the importance of the past – this is the ‘historical how’ and it is this that can be powerfully witnessed in therapy. It is quite different from the more metaphysical ‘why’).

Finally, I would like to challenge Rachel’s criticism of Bakhtin as being ‘utopian’ and that he ‘misses the prevalence of pain and suffering in human experience’, and consequently that dialogism cannot understand human pain, conflict or violence. It seems to me that Bakhtin would have had a job to avoid these later demons in his Stalinist context. The fact that he constantly finds hope in the limitless unravelling of the dialogue of humanity across ‘great time’ is a tribute to his spirit and a beautiful and often poetic counter to post-modern nihilism. In CAT we work all the time with people who have been abused and I find the dialogic model; (the internalised self-deprecating words of the abuser, the longing for the ‘responsive understanding’ in an other) an eloquent framework for this work. CAT may be a brief therapy but the therapy does not end if, in providing ‘responsive understanding’ the therapist has allowed the possibility of reparative internal dialogue. Rachel’s discomfort with open-endedness in meaning and a suggestion that clients may be harmed if matters are not subject to ‘closure’ in therapy sits very uncomfortably with me. It is only through the reopening of dialogue from the past that new reality can emerge and the past can be seen as ‘how’ it was without having, necessarily, to know ‘why’.

Reply to Jason Hepple from Rachel Pollard

Initially I would like to say that I enjoyed reading Jason’s thoughtful and stimulating response to my article and that I am grateful to him for allowing me the opportunity to reply.

To further the dialogue there are three points I would like to take up. The first is how we use Bakhtin in psychotherapy. I am pleased that Jason has responded to my arguments because I think it is very important to discuss how we understand Bakhtin, as he is open to many varied interpretations. Part of the beauty of Bakhtin’s thought is that it can illuminate so many different human contexts bringing together people with varied interests and backgrounds. But the danger of this is that Bakhtin can become all things to all people and some of the value of his thought lost:-

I was both puzzled and intrigued by Jason’s description of Bakhtin as a postmodern positivist, both because these two categories seem to be mutually exclusive and because it is so different from my understanding of him. To me he was neither postmodern nor a positivist. I think there is an underlying ethical unity to Bakhtin that was influenced by his Christian Russian Orthodox background and is primarily concerned with the enduring relationship between self and other; whereas postmodernism is pre-occupied with surface and-ephemeral phenomena and is I think, in many ways, an ironic response to the high seriousness of modernity. Although Bakhtin’s vision allows for multiple and conflicting perspectives, it does not collapse into a post-modern vision of endless fragmentation, disorder and flux. I think it is hard to fit Bakhtin’s thought into any particular trend or era and I imagine that Bakhtin will still be relevant when postmodernism has burnt itself out.

Having said that, if I were to attach a label to Bakhtin I would settle for humanist. This is because the Bakhtinian subject, although decentred, is not a cipher for an impersonal sign system but an active responsive co-creator of meaning. People are both capable of independent moral action and judgement, as well as being constituted by their interactions with other people. Positivism is concerned with scientific certainty, with verification and therefore repeatability, whereas dialogism is by definition concerned with the unpredictable and unrepeatable, and as such is the antithesis of positivism. Bakhtin’s methodology was phenomenological and he was against rule based theory in ethics or philosophy and was concerned only with the unique and unrepeatable aspects of human experience.

However we choose to interpret Bakhtin, I think it is important to engage with him critically, otherwise we risk misrepresenting him as another authoritative monological discourse. I think it is part of my job as a therapist to facilitate ‘internally persuasive discourse’ in which conflicts and contradictions can emerge and different positions can be explored. A Bakhtinian dialogue with Bakhtin demands a critical questioning approach both to Bakhtin and our own understanding of him. Only then can he be brought into dialogue with other thinkers. Otherwise he is left to stand alone on a pedestal unchallenged and static.

The second point I would like to take up is the question of meaning. As Jason says, to dispense with concepts like meaning and truth can be scary as it allows for unlimited freedom with no constraints, moral or otherwise. Dialogical discourse allows, in theory at least, for the possibility of infinite meaning but also, if abstracted from the rest of life, infinite misunderstanding. I think one of the problems with taking the dialogical out of its context in Bakhtin’s thought as a whole is that it leads to an overemphasis on particularisation and differentiation. I think this may be what Jason means when he suggests that Bakhtin is postmodern. Contemporary western societies encourage individualism and emphasise difference. The fruitless quest for absolute difference or autonomy is the most extreme form of Girard’s mimetic desire and one that capitalist societies require us to buy into to fuel the economy’s need for the continual expansion of consumption. Dostoevsky describes this phenomenon as it was beginning to take hold in pre-Revolutionary Russia. But as Bakhtin said in his essay on the chronotope other human societies have been based on similarity and commonality in which differences between people are unimportant.

I agree with Jason that it is no longer possible to posit truth and meaning in an absolute or transcendent sense. But I don’t think it is necessary to stray into the realm of metaphysics to rescue meaning from postmodern nihilism and reach what Jason suggests is ‘firmer ground’. The term ‘firmer ground’ is what the linguistic philosophers, Lakoff and Johnson, would call a primary metaphor based on the experience of walking over rough or marshy territory and feeling relief upon reaching the end of it. The reason I and other readers can understand what Jason means is because we have had similar experiences. These shared experiences are based on having bodies that are more or less the same as everyone else’s’. Such shared understanding is based on similarity rather than difference and without such similarity language itself would not be possible. Voloshinov makes this point in the distinction he draws between theme and meaning. Theme refers to the unique meaning of each utterance as opposed to the relative stability of linguistic meaning over time and context without which there would be no possibility of understanding what we mean when we use words. The former is dependant on the latter.

Language:- writing and everyday speech is jam packed with primary metaphors based on embodied conceptual systems that arise from bodily experiences which we have in common. It is impossible to think outside the perceptions of our senses which are structured by our bodily experiences. Without such shared experiences we would not be able to understand or empathise with another person’s experience or imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes. The concept of the dialogical self is itself a complex metaphor, made up of a number of different (and conflicting) primary metaphors. From such shared experiences emerge shared meanings and importantly shared values that can enable people to live together in conditions of relative harmony. To talk about truth does not necessitate an appeal to a Kantian transcendental concept but a far more pragmatic notion of beliefs about the world which most people agree on. Concepts like meaning and truth matter because they are integrally bound up with and cannot be divorced from everyday lived experience.

It is what we have in common with another person that makes us able to understand or empathise with another person’s joy or suffering and to make moral judgements about our own and other peoples’ behaviour. This is not to deny the importance of differences – over identification can be as dangerous as lack of empathy – but to say that both are important. The way I like to think of the relationship between similarity and difference is like the hub and spokes of a bicycle wheel. We all have a basic common humanity which is the hub and the numerous ways in which people are different from each other are the spokes. It is the hub that holds the spokes together and both are essential for the wheel to function as a whole. If we forget what we have in common with other people by hiding behind official roles or retreating into behaviour governed by rules or ideology, then we leave our ordinary humanity behind us and are guilty of using what Bakhtin refers to as ‘alibis in being’ or Sartre’s equivalent ‘bad faith’.

I think it is the social bond engendered by embodiment that supplies continuity and contiguity of meaning. Without this I don’t think the practice of psychotherapy and related human practices could exist. I think it is the basic humanity that we all share that enables us to understand or imagine the experiences of others who are different from us.

In his earlier work Bakhtin develops an ethics of interpersonal relatedness that is grounded in the principle of incarnation or embodiment, which by implication, draws attention to what we have in common with each other as well as the uniqueness or ‘irreducibility’ of each person. In contemporary secular societies his ethical stance might be considered old fashioned with its emphasis on humility, self-forgetfulness, responsibility, love and on what we ‘ought’ to do rather than on ‘rights’ and individual fulfilment, but with its focus on the I – Thou intersubjective relationship it is a useful starting point for thinking about the ethics of the psychotherapeutic relationship and a reminder that all dialogical discourse takes place in a context between embodied subjects. Bakhtin returns to the theme of embodiment in his later writing about Carnival. Here the body is the great leveller in which all the trappings of hierarchy and officialdom are exposed as a sham. Peter Good explores some of the ethical implications of Carnival brilliantly in his analysis of psychiatric practices.

In psychotherapy, differences and different meaning possibilities can be explored only within the frame of an accepted level of shared values and experience as human beings. As Bakhtin said, all perceptions involve an evaluation or a judgement, in other words we are continually and, often outside consciousness awareness, attributing meaning to experience. The value of the therapist’s perceptions lie in the experiences s/he has in common with the patient as a human being as well as his or her position of ‘outsideness’, the term Bakhtin used to denote the different perceptions that are allowed from the different vantage points in the world, that are guaranteed by embodiment, and permit others to see or understand things that we cannot see or understand for ourselves. I think that when dialogism is seen in the context of Bakhtin’s thought as a whole, the apparent limitless of possible meaning and difference is constrained by the shared experience of embodiment. In Bakhtin’s thought the body is universal and permeable, connected through its various orifices to other human beings and the cosmos as well as being the only site of the unique and unrepeatable aspects of each human life.

However, I don’t think that Bakhtin either recognised or gave sufficient emphasis to the ways in which people are similar to each other and that as a result he idealised intersubjective relationships, by not taking full account of the negative and potentially destructive emotions that can occur between people. When we overemphasise difference at the expense of similarity, we also deny the essential role of benign imitation in human communication, empathy and learning as well as the development of a theory of mind. This, I think, increases the risk of imitation going underground and re-emerging in the more malignant (that is the internally mediated) forms of mimetic desire.

I don’t think it is unhelpfully critical to say that Bakhtin does not address the problem of violence or account for desire – Bakthin does not address issues of gender, sexuality or moral issues beyond the intersubjective relationship either – but to open Bakhtin up to dialogue with other thinkers. Girard and Bakhtin do not need to be seen as thinkers in opposition to each other necessitating a preference between them but as potentially complementary thinkers who supply some, though not all, of what is missing in the other. However I also think that both Girard and Bakhtin are thinkers whose ideas, from a psychotherapy perspective, can be made more useful if filtered through and informed by other perspectives.

My last point is that Jason is mistaken to equate desire in Girardian terms with Freudian drive theory or as a resurrection of the Oedipus complex. Mimetic desire is not a biological drive or instinct, it is a social phenomenon that arises in relationships between people or as Girard would say it is an ‘interdividual’ phenomenon. Girard is both an admirer and a critic of Freud and is particularly critical of drive theory and the Oedipus Complex, which led Freud to abandon the seduction theory. Girard’s own interpretation of Oedipus is both closer to the myth itself and is entirely consistent with a CAT informed understanding of childhood trauma and abuse.

Although relatively little has been written about the application of Girard’s ideas in psychotherapy, I have increasingly found them to be useful in my clinical work, but that is another story far too lengthy to be entered into here.

Comment on Rachel Pollard’s article: Are there Limitations to the Dialogical Approach to Psychotherapy ?

Irene Elia

Normally I would have skipped over Rachel Pollard’s article (2004), thinking it too specialist for me. But having just condensed it for Reformulation, I spotted a few points that did not seem to me to square with how I understood the dialogical approach being used in CAT. While Pollard says “Dialogic discourse is a process without beginning or end....opening up an array of possible meanings.”, I do not think that is how CAT views dialogue. While some philosophers may see the internal dialogue as “selfish in that it involves no responsibility towards or interaction with another person” (Pollard, 2004), this is not how I as a CAT therapist ever viewed the inner dialogue. Isn’t the self a person toward whom we bear a responsibility?

Whatever Bakhtin may have said about dialogue in literature and whatever literary critics/philosophers may have said about Bakhtin’s view of dialogue as a path to human understanding, CAT places dialogue in the context of reciprocal roles (RRs). Learned through repeated interactions with parents or other carers in infancy and childhood, RRs, like dramatic roles, entail a ‘script’, as well as non-verbal elements. Through reaction to and imitation of our carers, the script or dialogue is learned at a deep level, accompanied by tones of voice, facial expressions, postures, all the elements used by actors in their roles. Sometimes the dialogue is muted, and we need help to hear it.

We are so completely zipped into our RRs by the time we are adolescents that we think they are us. Rachel Pollard brings in this understanding of the depth and “entrapment” of RRs by referring to Michael Bernstein’s 1989 critique of Bakhtin, but she seems to see his words as not only a criticism of Bakhtin’s “notion of dialogue” but also of dialogism as used in CAT. While Bernstein may think that Bakhtin does not understand that “most people are doomed to repetition...condemned to an existence that has already been scripted”, CAT totally understands this and works with it. If, as Bernstein says, Bakhtin did not recognise the “prevalence of pain and suffering in human experience and the existence of multiple voices or dialogues as inner torment”, CAT certainly does and helps people hear and ‘re-write’ their tormenting scripts.

When Pollard says that Bakhtin extrapolates from the dialogic relationships he finds in Dostoevsky to real life, she wonders to what extent novels, even Dostoevsky’s, represent real life. I think she has missed the point. She implies, via Eagleton (2003), that because Bakhtin drew on Dostoevsky, the reality he was pointing out to us could just be a fantasy, one of a myriad of possibilities. And this, I feel, is misleading. The quote (Bakhtin, 1984) she cites:

“...dialogic relationships are a much broader phenomenon than mere rejoinders in dialogue...; they are an almost universal phenomenon...”

seems (to me) to show that Bakhtin was trying to suggest a powerful way to order reality, to make sense of it, regardless of the particular story. He was showing us that with an understanding of ‘universals’ (e.g. RRs), we can see the forest and not just the trees. “People aren’t infinitely various.” (Ryle, 2002a) “In most cases...the therapy focuses on one or two issues, not on 105.” (Ryle, 2002b).

Pollard seems to be worrying that dialogical thinking in CAT will make us miss the content, the self-deception, the reality. But it is exactly the simplifying tool of dialogism that makes it possible to capture the essence of their reality for our clients. And clients who can grasp the essence of their reality, distilled from the content of their story through dialogical thinking, can begin to see their entrapment in roles, including self-deceptions that lead to rivalry, hatred, scapegoating, and violence, which Pollard seems to think Bakhtin is avoiding simply in order to protect his thesis about the benevolent nature of the polyphonic consciousness! Something seems to have been lost in translation here. The ‘benevolence’ I think Bakhtin would be referring to in the use of dialogism is the fact that it allows you to circumvent moralising and judgements; it allows you to show what is going on, so that people can see that to change themselves is not necessary as a matter of shame and blame but as a practical course of action to reduce their pain, and, of course, that of others whom they may affect through their behaviour.

People, including therapists, who do not comprehend the idea of “an almost universal phenomenon” (see quote above) can become very confused and be very confusing. They will not connect dialogue usefully to RRs. They will resort to postulating “a self driven by an unconscious desire to imitate others that leads to ... conflict and violence” (Pollard, 2004) and “murkier regions of consciousness” (Pollard, 2004) than can be encompassed by dialogue.

While dialogism in CAT, in RRs and procedures, cannot always capture the full emotional quality, speed, or apparent ineluctability of individual acts, it can often help us anticipate and avoid those acts that are bound to cause us or others harm. I cannot agree with Pollard when she says that “to define consciousness solely in dialogic terms...is an evasion of our moral responsibilities”. And I do not think anyone using CAT claims that dialogue is the sole defining feature of consciousness. We know that there are many elements at work in consciousness, often wordlessly, on tides of hormones or even last night’s dinner. But the point is that dialogue can still show what is going on for the purposes of a client in pain.

For other purposes—to explain the transcendental, biochemical, or evolutionary—existence of consciousness dialogism is not enough. To make legal judgements (or, if you must, moral judgements) about the use of a particular consciousness dialogism is not enough. But it seems to me these are not the remit of CAT in any case.



Ryle, A. 2002a. An Introduction to Cognitive Analytic Therapy through a dialogue between Dr Anthony Ryle and Mark Dunn. Part I: Theory. ACAT c2002.

Ryle, A 2002b. An Introduction to Cognitive Analytic Therapy through a dialogue between Dt Anthony Ryle and Mark Dunn. Part II: Practice. ACAT c2002.

Rachel Pollard

Jason Hepple

Irene Elia

Full Reference

Pollard, R., Hepple, J. and Elia, I., 2005. A Dialogue About the Dialogical Approach. Reformulation, Autumn, pp.18-24.

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