Are there Limitations to the Dialogical Approach to Psychotherapy?

Pollard, R., 2004. Are there Limitations to the Dialogical Approach to Psychotherapy?. Reformulation, Summer, pp.8-14.


Bakhtin’s dialogical model of discourse and consciousness offers a radical alternative to traditional cognitive and psychoanalytic models of therapy. His emphasis on the social nature of consciousness and intersubjective meaning rather than internal dysfunction disrupts the pervasive individualism of contemporary culture. 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. This task of critical assessment is made more difficult by the theoretical complexity of the dialogical approach (e.g. Leiman, 1998, 2000) and by the lack of any generally agreed interpretation of Bakhtin himself.

In order to reach a more critical understanding of Bakhtin, I propose to examine the ideas of various critics within the field of literary criticism with a view to extrapolating from them to psychotherapy. These critics question Bakhtin’s interpretation of Dostoevsky, highlight serious concerns about the potential of dialogic discourse as well as deficits in the dialogical model of consciousness.

The Appeal of Bakhtin

In the context of the growing influence of discursive approaches in psychotherapy, Bakhtin’s dialogic conception of the self and consciousness suggests

• an optimistic alternative to post-structuralist accounts in proposing a less alienated account of human self-hood that, as Gardener (1998) suggests, whilst being socially determined, also possesses agency and free will.
• rather than an emphasis on the constraints of language, a celebration of discourse and the creative potential of language.
• that the concepts of polyphony and heteroglossia can be complementary to and inform contemporary progressive agendas of acknowledging, respecting and valuing human cultural diversity.
• an emphasis on communication as a fundamental and defining feature of the human self and the potential of dialogue, the intersubjective process of talking, listening, and creating meaning to heal.

To be means to communicate dialogically. When dialogue ends everything ends…..Two voices is the minimum for life, the minimum for existence (Bakhtin, 1984, p252)

The emphasis on ‘two voices’ echoes Bakhtin’s (1993) meditation on the ethics of the one to one interpersonal relationship, the face to face encounter, in his earlier work.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of the dialogical approach is that despite its theoretical complexity, it is non- pathologising and a direct challenge to medical models that measure and quantify.

Can the Benevolent Role of Dialogue be Overestimated?

Even so the rational for dialogic discourse as a model for psychotherapeutic practice is also open to question depending on whether Bakhtin is considered a social theorist (Aronowitz, 1994) describing an ethics of dialogue or a literary theorist concerned only with aesthetics (Linetski, 1996). From an ethical point of view there are problems with Bakhtin’s notion of dialogue as unfinalisable 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. And meaning itself can only be arrived at when a dialogue is closed down.

….dialogism must be tested not merely lauded……dialogism itself is not always just clement or life enhancing, and the resonance of multiple voices may be a catastrophic threat as much as a sustaining chorale (Bernstein, 1989, p199)

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. The rich diversity of discourses that Bakhtin saw in the polyphonic novel does not fully account for the unequal and often disharmonious relationships between them.

Not all diverse voices are tolerant of diversity. Bakhtin’s dialogism does not necessarily bridge the gap between diverse voices that do not or cannot tolerate each other’s convictions and beliefs. But 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).

Dialogue and Truth

There is no automatic equation between dialogic discourse and truth. Dialogic discourse can also be endlessly evasive and entangling (Emerson, 1999). Bakhtin, himself draws attention to the ambiguous relationship of words and truth in his analysis of Rabelais:-

..but the truth does not seek words, she is afraid to entangle herself in the word, to soil herself in verbal pathos (1981, p309).

In Bakhtin’s analysis of Dostoevsky, the exception is penetrative discourse, monologic discourse that is spoken ‘…without a sideward glance, without a loophole, without internal polemic’ (1984, p249), words, spoken with love that enable the listener to realise some truth about themselves. In his later work Bakhtin (1981, 1986) expresses increasing scepticism about the capacity of words to express the truth and the possibility of any straightforward discourse that is not false.

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. An example of this is the current tendency to evaluate public services in the form of statistics and league tables. The presentation of these ‘facts’ by government departments as objective and unbiased belies the sideways glances towards the middle class consumer, the media and the next election. Similarly the ‘facts’ of scientific research are presented with sideways glances towards funding bodies, employers and future career prospects.

The neutral property of words or linguistic signs that Voloshinov (1986) describes that enables them to be used for different purposes in different contexts can also apply to whole discourses or in Bakhtin’s terms, social languages. So as Kenan Malik (2003) writes, even the BNP now employs the discourse of diversity and, as Ilan Pappe (2003), an Israeli dissident, points out, Ariel Sharon uses the discourse of peace while pursuing the wholesale destruction of Palestinian civil society. Both examples of what Ian Parker (1992) points out is the capacity of radical discourses to become entangled with the discourses of oppression and control.

The Dostoevskian word is not only double-voiced (in Bakhtin’s innocent altogether too hopeful formulation) this word…can also be insecure, unreliable, mean spirited, sickeningly dishonest; and by its very essence as a narrated word, inadequate to transmit an honest authorial intent (Emerson, 1994, p 172)

Coerced Dialogue

Aaron Fogel (1985, 1989) argues that Bakhtin had a utopian view of dialogue as free, spontaneous and natural and underestimated the extent to which dialogue is coerced, when it is not in someone’s interests to speak and words are forced out of them. An example is the public enquiry, which attempts to establish the ‘truth’ by compelling people to speak against their own interests. Joseph Conrad angrily 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. A disproportion that is

Dialogical but virtually physical in its misapplied force - a useless scene of disproportionate coercion to speak.. (Fogel, 1985, p5).

Fogel argues that dialogue that is spontaneous and free in a way that allows people to reach deeper levels of creative intellectual understanding and emotional intimacy is the exception, enjoyed only by a privileged few. In Conrad’s novels force rather than sympathy is what makes dialogue cohesive. Many dialogical interactions are asymmetrical between people with differing amounts of social power which, as Hermans (1996) points out, is a dimension often missing from analysis of the dialogical self. 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.

For Conrad, dialogue and communication, rather than the lack of it, is the problem.

The Problem of Pain
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 and idealised, it is unlikely to be found anywhere outside a novel. Bakhtin 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.

Dostoevsky’s (1972) ‘Underground Man’ suffers from ressentiment, that is an awareness of his utter lack of singularity and a total inability to take revenge against those others who he perceives as the source of his humiliation. His inner dialogues only serve as an endless repetition of shame and humiliation and his awareness of the ‘fictional’ nature of his pain, that he can only conceive of himself in the words of others, compounds his distress. Bernstein suggests that the terrifying unleashing of ressentiment on a mass scale leads to fascism. That all its rage, racism and hatred are attempts to quell

..the intolerable babble of other voices both outside of and within consciousness.(p221)

Some Questions

Regarding Bakhtin’s Interpretation of Dostoevsky
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- in general, everything that has meaning and significance (1984, p40)

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 (2003) points out, what constitutes realism in the novel is a matter of opinion, one person’s realism is another person’s fantasy. All works of art edit and manipulate raw material and the novel’s commitments to both representation and form are ultimately incompatible. The ability that Bakhtin bestows on Dostoevsky’s heroes to enter into dialogue with the author on equal terms can only be a fictional illusion. And if what is represented is the self, the self cannot accurately represent itself but in Eagleton’s words becomes the blind spot at the centre of the picture. Bakhtin (1993) acknowledges this in his earlier work when he describes our partial awareness of our selves and our dependence on the other’s ‘surplus of vision’ to ‘complete’ us or tell us what we cannot see for ourselves. Eagleton implies that the realism that Bakhtin saw in Dostoevsky is the depiction of the lives of ordinary people, granting them psychological complexity. But Bakhtin declines to investigate the psychology of Dostoevsky’s characters or what they actually say or think.

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.

Did Bakhtin Misread Dostoevsky?

…there is a tension between Bakhtin’s benevolent and domesticated image of Dostoevsky and the much darker, more perverse and alarming Dostevsky himself (Emerson, 1996, p169).

What if Bakhtin misread Dostoevsky and the real ‘hero’ of Dostoevsky’s novels is not the idea or even human consciousness in all its dialogic complexity but the human capacity for self-deception? That all the convoluted conversations and internal dialogues are designed not so much to provide the heroes with open-ended options but to make their search for truth more difficult (Emerson, 1997). Bakhtin’s innocent and optimistic view of language is at odds with Dostoevsky’s more ‘postmodern’ concerns about the tension in the relationship between language and consciousness (Emerson, 1996). Bakhtin does not allow for the possibility that the outcome of a dialogue might be to make things worse. Dostoevsky was aware of the failures of language to connect directly to consciousness, its capacity to corrupt human communication and human relationships and its consequent association with individual and social disintegration (Jackson, 1993).

This corruption of language, this shortcircuiting of the sign and the signified, is the concomitant in the linguistic realm of the breakdown of those moral and social ‘connections’ which distinguish the functioning social organism from an arbitrary collection of disconnected happenings (Jackson, 1993, p234).

Bakhtin’s contemporary, Kariakin, argues that Bakhtin’s focus on the polyphonic construction of Dostoevsky’s novels overlooks Dostoevsky’s moral purpose; that the moral function of a character can only be understood in the context of a whole scene not the minutiae of dialogue and in the endings of the novels, an aspect Bakhtin avoids paying attention to. For Kariakin, Dostoevsky’s moral purpose is to demonstrate the process of developing self- awareness as the layers of self- deception are peeled off. (Emerson, 1996).

A Girardian Alternative to Bakhtin’s Reading of Dostoevsky

Natalia Reed (1994, 1999) raises serious questions about Bakhtin’s dialogical conception of consciousness. She suggests that Bakhtin substitutes his own theory of polyphony for the actual content of Dostoevsky’s novels. She argues that this substitution is a violent one as it ignores the meaning of Dostoevsky’s novels as he intended it to be understood. Bakhtin’s dialogue is not with Dostoevsky but a proxy of his own making. In his theory of polyphonic consciousness, Bakhtin avoids any discussion of

the content of ideas; a real, genuinely other person; conflict with that real genuine other 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 p 122)

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.

Internal and External Dialogue

As Reed (1994) rightly points out Bakhtin’s analysis of discourse all takes place inside the consciousness of Dostoevsky and he treats internal dialogue within a single consciousness as identical to dialogue with a real other person. 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 (1994, p304)

as is the case with the Underground man. Or it can be a leisurely ‘conversation’ with a fantasised other who says whatever we want them to say, 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. Polyphony absorbs everything into its own consciousness and its unfinalizable dialogues avoid facing up to the consequences of authentic living in the world (Emerson, 1997).

Thus Bakhtin’s is a philosophy that has no place for a real personal other and therefore for a theory of obligation suitable for discussion of interpersonal relations or, for that matter, verbal communication between genuinely independent and separate consciousnesses (Reed, 1999, p138-9).

The Problem of Unfinalizability

As Reed (1994) points out, the principle of unfinalizability, of endless dialogical interaction, guarantees the equality of all points of view, liberating them from the author’s finalising judgement. But as polyphony demands the author’s detachment from all points of view, it can also represent a refusal to take a moral position. 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. For Bakhtin the ‘living utterance’ travels endlessly without ever being pinned down by meaning.

The internal dialogism of authentic prose discourse, which grows organically out of a stratified and heteroglot language, cannot fundamentally be dramatised or dramatically resolved (brought to an authentic end); (Bakhtin, 1981, p326)

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.

Thus instead of illuminating the meaning of Dostoevsky’s narratives, Bakhtin’s commentary is more instructive in that it reveals the critic’s own romantic cult of the autonomous consciousness which he finds embodied by Dostoevsky’s polyphonic vision capable of operating ideological forms and remaining divinely indifferent to meaning (Reed, 1994, p355).

The Problem of Consciousness

In his analysis of dialogue, Bakhtin attributes desire to words rather than the people who use them. Utterances strive to express themselves but as Reed (1994) points out Bakhtin does account for where the human impulse for self-expression comes from. This is essentially an anthropomorphic account of language endowed with a romantic desire for original self-expression, in which human existence is made subordinate to the life of language. Human beings merely become the containers for the utterance and its ideology. Reed further argues that Bakhtin confuses ideological beliefs with human desire implying that ideology is the motivation for action without accounting for why people adopt particular ideas and beliefs. Bakhtin advances a theory of human consciousness and communication without any account of motivation and desire. Reed (1994) is sceptical. She argues that Bakhtin’s statement

…to be is to communicate….. (1963, p 252). Should be replaced with: - To be a novelist means to write down ‘conversations’ among ideas in one’s own mind (1994, p313)

In failing to take account of desire, Bakhtin also fails to recognise or take account of violence. In failing to take account of the real other, Bakhtin also fails to take account of the most powerful and most destructive emotions that occur between people that can lead to violence.

Polyphonic consciousness, a consciousness fragmented into different unfinalised voices, is neither free nor autonomous, but is rather enslaved by its desire to imitate other people and is prone to violence.

While Bakhtin links the polyphonic consciousness with freedom and autonomy of the self, Dostoevsky associates the fragmented self with violence and imitation of human models (Reed, 1994, p 361).

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 (1994, 1999) concludes that polyphony is no less controlling than monologism, leaving characters doomed to perverse inconclusiveness (1994, p368) and argues convincingly that Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony is not supported by Dostoevsky’s actual texts but is in fact a mimetic inversion of the principles of monologic writers.

The Girardian Self

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). In contrast Bakhtin (1984) dismisses Dostoevsky’s avowed Christian faith as being unimportant:

…the important thing for us is not Dostoevsky’s Christian declaration of faith in itself, but those living forms of his artistic and ideological thinking…. (p 98)1.

Girard’s Theory of Mimetic Desire

Unlike Bakhtin, Girard sees violence at the heart of human nature and human relations. Unlike Bakhtin, Girard 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.

Mimetic desire is the driving force behind human learning and human culture. It explains the ‘why’ as opposed to the ‘how’ of Vygotsky’s theory of cultural transmission. As social creatures, humans learn by imitating others and by imitating the desires of others. Unfortunately when two or more desires converge on the same object, acquisitive mimesis can lead to conflictual mimesis which can escalate into contagious violence (Girard, 1987). This ‘mimetic crisis’ is resolved only when the warring parties turn against a third party who becomes the scapegoat, whose ‘sacrifice’ leads to their reconciliation. Mimetic desire can take on many forms, one of which is the desire for a unique identity, autonomy and independence coupled with a denial of the extent to which desire is mediated by others.

To understand desire is to understand that its self- centredness is indistinguishable from its other- centredness (Girard, 1996 p8)

…interior life is already social and social life is always a reflection of individual desire (1966, p 222)

Human culture serves to contain the violence generated by mimetic desire. Dialogical discourse is used both to pursue and disguise mimetic desire and the rivalry and conflict that it inevitably gives rise to.

Mimetic Desire in Cultural Life

In intellectual and cultural life the dynamic process of mimetic desire is reflected or played out between different ideas. The world of ideas is similar to people insofar as:-

It has fighting for territory, cut-throat competition, struggles for prestige and recognition, jealousy, fear and mutual fascination…The transition from violence to critical reason was an evolutionary step forward…made possible by the emergence of a descriptive and argumentative language (Dupuy, 2000, p1)

Eric Gans (2000) argues that not only does language permit the transition from violence to reason but also originated as a way of deferring and containing violence through representation, making the sign into a sacred mediator, which allowed the first human communities to come into existence.

Can Bakhtin and Girard be Reconciled?

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. Girard uses the term ‘interindividual’ to refer to centrality of the other in his conception of self. Bakhtin seems to be not too distant from Girard’s positon when he states

This word violence (and lie) is linked up with thousands of personal motives in the creator, muddying the purity of his thirst for success, influence, recognition
(not of the word but of the creator), with the striving to become an oppressing and consuming force ( cited in Coates, 1998, p 153).

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.

At another level the Girardian perception that western civilisation is founded on the perpetual struggle and conflict between different ideas2 (Ranieri, 2002) is compatible with a Bakhtinian understanding of the unfinalizability of dialogue.

The Case of the Underground Man

It can be seen in their respective analysis of Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Notes from Underground’ how Bakhtin and Girard co-incide although they approach the work from very different perspectives. For Bakhtin the Underground man represents

..extreme and acute dialogisation: there is literally not a single monologically firm undissociated word (1963, p227) and The work does not contain a single word gravitating exclusively towards itself and its referential object, …(p 228)

In other words 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 (1987) ‘Notes from Underground’ is the first of Dostoevky’s works to reveal as opposed to merely reflect mimetic desire and its paradoxes. Girard (1966) regards the Underground consciousness as a disintegration of individual and collective being that was historically specific. He quotes a passage from a speech by Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot to illustrate how this came about that could be a description of dialogical consciousness:-

People of long ago…were very different from people of our own time: they were like another kind of human species…In those days man had, as it were, one idea only; our own contemporaries are more nervous, further developed, more sensitive, capable of following two or three ideas at the same time. Modern man is broader and it is this, I would say, which prevents him from being a single unified being as in past centuries. (cited in Girard, 1966 p 94).

But for Girard this is not a progressive development but a phase in the dynamic evolution of mimetic desire that has lead to the

….underground man, a human rag soaked in shame and servitude, a ridiculous weather-vane place atop the ruins of “Western humanism” (p94).
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. His descriptions are consistent with a Girardian perspective if not quite so damning.

This final word must express the hero’s full independence from the views and words of the other person, his complete indifference to the other’s opinion and the other’s evaluation. What he fears most of all is asking someone’s forgiveness, that he is reconciling himself to someone else’s judgement or evaluation, that his self-affirmation is somehow in need of affirmation and recognition by another…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 (1984, p229).

Dialogical Discourse and the Institutionalisation of Psychotherapy

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. The intolerance of difference between different theories in psychotherapy cannot be explained by the theories themselves.

Attempting to subjugate this diversity are the two increasingly powerful and related discourses of science and professionalisation which abrogate to themselves the power to limit and circumscribe the practice of psychotherapy by the violent expulsion of ideas and people whose understanding of human subjectivity do not meet with their approval. To quote Van Deurzen, a former chair of the UKCP, who uses the metaphor of the overgrown garden to describe the field of therapy

Sprawling plants obscure each other’s light and deprive each other of nutrients. It is then necessary to cut the plants back, quite drastically and carefully select the ones that one wishes to encourage and make room for, at the same time as uprooting those plants considered to be weeds (1996, cited in Postle, 1997 p153)

The discourses of science and professionalisation that purport to be concerned with raising standards and protecting the public are voiced with ‘sideways’ glances towards rival theories and professional groups in pursuit of the desired ‘object’ of achieving dominance and control. 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.

Far from challenging conservative institutional structures, psychotherapy and the wider field of mental health merely reflect them and the values associated with them. Psychotherapy in its allegiance to science and professionalisation is following a path already well trodden by psychiatry which as Peter Good (2001) points out has, by attaching itself to scientific medicine, solidified its commitment to conservative social goals. As Girard (1966) points out:-

Let us note that contradictions which in reality are the very basis of our psychic life always appear as “differences” between Others and ourselves. The connections established by internal mediation vitiate many would be “scientific” observations. We dehumanize every desire whose harmful consequences we perceive in order not to recognise the image, or caricature, of our own desires. Dostoevsky accurately observes that by having our neighbor confined to a mental institution we convince ourselves of our own sanity (p183).

Dialogic Discourse and the Practice of Psychotherapy

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

The dialogic nature of human consciousness, the dialogic nature of human life itself. The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. 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, spirit, with his whole body and deeds (1984, p293).

But is a dialogical understanding, however nuanced, enough? Contemporary consciousness may well be ‘dialogic’ in structure but that is by no means an exhaustive definition. 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, benevolent and otherwise. 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. A dialogical or semiotic position (Leiman, 2002) can only be understood in terms of another dialogical position and cannot account for desire.

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 Emerson (1997) suggests in relation to Dostoevsky’s tortured heroes, people in distress do not

..thirst after any fancy double voiced dialogism, which can create for them only more doubts and confounding options. From within their own unhappy unstable worlds, they simply want to believe in something; they want to be understood; and they want to be loved (p 136).

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 a recognition of the far murkier regions of consciousness, of human desire and the human capacity for violence as well as love.


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1 Bakhtin (1986) in the 1970-71 notebooks makes several references to Dostoevsky’s Christian beliefs. Towards the end of his life Bakhtin apparently said to one of his executors, Bochorov (1999), that he was forced to avoid any discussion of the religious and philosophical content of Dostoevsky because of Stalin’s raids on the intelligentsia.
2 That is between the Judeo-Christian tradition of obedience to God and the Athenian tradition of freedom and the love of knowledge.

Rachel Pollard

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