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What is 'dialogue'?

by on Thursday, 04 March 2010 9131 hits Comments
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The use of the word 'dialogue' is remarkably elastic. Does this mean that it should be abandoned in favour of a more rigorous concept? Actually, the flexibility of the term might stem from the variety of our experiences of exchange and communication, while finding within them some commonalities.

The very term dialogue introduces us into the field of verbal exchanges. Exchanges test knowledge; they check the agreement of stakeholders on the content of the knowledge they are supposed to share and in some cases they are testing the validity of knowledge itself. Knowledge may be of two kinds - either it refers to a given science such as physics, or else it refers to human beings considered in their nature and their social setting. In the first case, dialogical exchanges are at the same level of reality as those induced by mathematical formulas by which the progress of knowledge on the material world is ensured. In the second case, the truth is not primarily mathematical. The locus of truth is set into histories and cultures, a setting to which only dialogue gives access. Thus, dialogical exchange is no more a mechanical process, it centres on establishing relationships between "Others": verbal exchanges imply experiencing listening as a transformative process that cannot be separated from the one through which truth is reached.

[dropcap cap="I"]n other words, the determination of 'categories of truth' is intrinsically linked to that of dialogical styles. Let me suggest the way through which categories of truth may be associated with an array of dialogical styles:[/dropcap]- Dialogue understood as a logical exercise will generate propositions that are meant to be universally valid and part of a truth system based on the principle of non-contradiction. It does not differ fundamentally from the soliloquy that a scientist would lead with himself in order to determine the truth of a scientific demonstration.

- Dialogues within philosophical or theological schools work along similar principles except that the reference to 'universal' principles grounded on the natural light is replaced by a reference text - the one accepted by the school. The principle of non-contradiction is exercised within the reading of these texts.

- In contrast, the type of dialogue initiated and exemplified by Confucius’ Analects is first a dialogue of life which seeks to ensure that the disciple’s deeds coincide with his system of moral and cosmological beliefs. Dialogue is the gateway through which to match truth and life.

- The Gospel’s dialogical style is somehow similar to the preceding category, with the difference that the stress is put less on acquired wisdom than on the transformative process through which a decision is to be reached by the one who enters into a dialogue of life.

- We can group together several cultural and literary settings in which dialogue is meant to lead to enlightenment, as shown in the peculiar dialogical styles found in Zhuangzi, in Zen writings and in some Indian schools: the dialogue is pushed to a breaking point that challenges the principle of non-contradiction, bringing one of the participants to a sudden transformation of his consciousness or worldview.

- And there is of course the broad category that gathers variants of 'democratic dialogue', which applies not only to politics but to some models of inter-religious dialogue for example: the point here is that the process of listening is supposed to be mutually transformative for the partners once they enter an empathic understanding of the argument and experiences vis-à-vis the other, this in order to find a position on the basis of which to allow a common decision or, at the very least, ensure continued coexistence.

[dropcap cap="I"]n conclusion, true dialogue is always 'performative'. It does not merely determine one true position among all the ones championed; other procedures might lead to this result better than dialogue does. Instead, dialogue leads to a change in worldviews, practices and situations - and the depth of the change that dialogue generates is the real measure of the 'truth' it contributes in bringing to light.[/dropcap]

 

 

 

 
Last modified on Tuesday, 20 May 2014 16:41
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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