Monday, March 4, 2013


"The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others."  --Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

I've been thinking a lot about the idea put forth by Bakhtin: that ideas only come to life when they exist in dialogue with other ideas and "with the ideas of others."
I think this is something we've lost sight of in American culture, in many ways, and I'm not sure how to get it back.  I think we often think of whether or not an idea is "right" as measured by the extent to which it cannot be countered or responded to by the ideas of others, or other ideas.

It is interesting to think that, in Bakhtin's conception, such ideas are essentially lifeless.  They fail to interact with something outside of themselves and thus, they suppress the life of thought.  As Bakhtin argues, "the idea is inter-individual and inter-subjective--the realm of its existence is not individual consciousness but dialogic communion between consciousnesses" (88).

Perhaps the issue is related to the kind of consumerism practiced in American culture: we are a society defined by possessions, so we tend to think of our ideas as something we own, as entities that somehow "belong" to us and define us in some way.

How different would our understanding of ourselves and our ideas be if we thought of ideas as something to be inherently and necessarily exchanged?  If we considered the fact that they cannot come to life or define or belong to us until we've put them into an interaction with the ideas of others?

Bakhtin analyzes Dosotevsky's artistic representation of the idea and notes how, for Dostoevsky, ideas never exist apart from the individuals who think (or implement) them.  Again, this is an interesting way of conceiving of ideas: as something that is never abstract or divorced from life itself, but as integral mechanisms for operating in the world.

We think, therefore we are.  But perhaps more importantly, We are what we think.  And we can only be what we think--that is, we can only be who we authentically are--to the extent that we think ourselves in relation to others, to the thoughts of others.

As Bakhtin observes, "In Dostoevsky, two thoughts are already two people, for there are no thoughts belonging to no one and every thought represents an entire person" (93).  In the world of his novels, protagonists' thoughts "make [their] way through a labyrinth of voices, semi-voices, other people's words, other people's gestures" (95).

It is so easy to forget the ideas of others in the pursuit of one's own ideas.  We spend so much time attempting to assert and assimilate the thoughts and positions of our own ideas and experiences, that we often don't stop to hear how those thoughts resonate against and interact with the ideas and experiences of others. 

We tend to sift ideas through the filter of our own cognitive biases: we like to think we're open to new ideas, but the fact is, we tend to sort ideas on the basis of whether or not they endorse positions to which we're already cognitively committed.

Changing other people's minds is difficult; changing our own minds is no less so.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."