In this piece Paul V. Taylor examines: dialogue as a norm of behaviour; dialogue as a theory of knowledge; dialogic competence; conversation and interpretation; and praxis as action and reflection.
Contents: introduction · dialogue and conversation · communicative competence · the I and the you of dialogue · interpretative dialogue · dialogue and citizenship · word and action · further reading and references · Paul Taylor · acknowledgements · how to cite this piece
The insistence in recent years on anti-oppressive learning and on liberating education is founded on the acceptance of two key concepts, dialogue and praxis. Learners are not simply passive consumers of pre-packaged knowledge but are rather creators of their own learning, co-partners with their teachers in a process of active reflection and reflective action. However, all too easily, the words become part of the jargon of professional educators and their constructive radicalness is lost through either a naive acceptance or a cynical dismissal of the essential ideas.
Throughout this item, I have deliberately chosen to rely on a few, core texts focussed on the work of Freire, Gadamer and Habermas. Although they are not always easy at first reading, they will give you a better introduction to the complexities of the debate than will a range of secondary sources and commentaries.
To many people, dialogue is simply a professional word for conversation. We enter into dialogue with someone, as we enter into negotiations, consultations or discussions. The context is very often formal, structured, problem solving, deserving of more seriousness and importance than that conveyed by the simple, informal word, conversation.
Having a conversation, certainly a good conversation, is an important value socially and culturally. To ‘make conversation’, however, is to talk in an artificial way, to be superficial, to avoid making personal contact. Both expressions denote a way of talking and connote a particular kind of relationship.
An interesting point is that both dialogue and conversation are modern ideas but with long, classical etymological roots. Conversatio, in Latin usage, only later came to refer to a way of speaking. Its primary meaning was that of a particular way of behaving. The biblical reference in Philippians 3:20 illustrates the point. The Revised Version translates the word conversatio as ‘citizenship’, where the Authorised version keeps the Latinized form ‘conversation’. The original Greek uses the word politeuma which means ‘to live as a citizen, to be a free person in a free State’.
Individuals who are then free (I cannot be the individual that I am unless I am free), who are citizens in the fullest sense, converse with each other. They consort with each other, they behave towards each other in a way that respects that the other is equal, that the other has the same status and liberties.
Dialogue also has this social and individual connotation. The Greek dialegesthai gives us both the word dialogue and dialect. The latter is the form of language spoken in a particular group or region. It is not the way I speak but the way We speak. Language is primarily social, hence the dialogue which is the manner and the content of the verbal exchange between two or more people.
The quality of this exchange or way of speaking is revealed in a third key word which reveals a way of thinking: dialectic. Dialectics, as a branch of Philosophy, arises out of what we might readily recognise as Socratic dialogue, the insistent questioning of the obvious to reveal the underlying truth. It was developed particularly by Kant and Hegel into that discipline which is the art of arguing that exposes the contradictions which are inherent in our thoughts, our beliefs and our way of living out our individual history.
In this context, Freire attacks the very heart of the traditional education system when he accuses it of being anti-dialogic, that is, anti-individual, anti-social, anti-critical thinking. When reading Freire, we need to bear in mind that his initial goal was the transforming of the world through the democratisation of culture (1976: 43). For him this was possible because dialogue is both a ‘human phenomenon’ and ‘the encounter in which the united reflection and action of the dialoguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed and humanised’ (1982: 61).
The surprise in his pedagogy is that he asserts the need for dialogue precisely because education is not neutral. ‘It is always an action either for the domestication of people or for their liberation’ (1985a: 99). He contrasts the two forms of educational practice – banking or digestive education and dialogic or liberating education (1982: Chapters 2 and 3) – as a result of which we are, as individual human beings, either oppressed or free, either objects or subjects.
You will probably be well acquainted with Freire’s description of banking education and the way in which he emphasises the transferring of knowledge, the passivity of the learner, and the distance of the teacher from the learner. It is a mode of learning that gives a selective, filtered perception of reality that alienates the learner who is regarded as a “deposit” or ” object”.
Authentic dialogue, Freire insists, cannot be achieved if the teacher and learner remain polarised, opposed. One significant element in this realignment is that both become involved in a process of learning that is ‘problem posing’, i.e., that is dialectic as well as dialogic. This creates a different kind of learning, or at least the potential for a different kind of learning, because it can become ‘an act of knowing and a means of action for transforming the reality which is to be known.’ (1972b: 180) It is concerned not with simplistic questions to be found only within the given but with the ‘problematising of human beings and the world, not the problematisation of human beings isolated from the world, nor the world isolated from human beings (1976b: 152).
In this way dialogue achieves its impact on the individual precisely because it is a way of unmasking social realities. By the personal encounter in dialogue, we can create a critical awareness of the present, of that reality were ‘I am’ and ‘We are’ (1982: 57). We re-educate ourselves to an understanding that rejects the assumption ‘that we are merely in the world, not with the world and with others: that we are spectators and not re-creators’ (1982: 47). It is this possession of a social consciousness, of being-in-relationship, that identifies us as social and political beings.
This reading of Freire highlights a view that dialogue is an educational imperative because it is less about relationships and more about the way we learn. The core concept of dialogue conceals a fundamental theory of knowledge.
In our educational method, the word is not something static or disconnected from people’s existential experience, but a dimension of their thought-language about the world (1972b: 222). Freire is here using the means of dialogue, the WORD, and the process of thought-language in a very specific way in order to reflect the profound significance of language. Insofar as language is impossible without thought, and language and thought are impossible without the world to which they refer, the human word is more than mere vocabulary, it is word-and-action.
Freire echoes the consistent pedagogical tradition from Plato to Jaspers in asserting that dialogue constitutes the essence of societal structure and societal change:
Dialogue is the only way, not only in the vital questions of political order, but in all the expressions of our being. I can only become truly myself when other people also become themselves. (1976b: 45)
We may not have come up with the Freire’s matrix that dialogue is ‘loving, humble, hopeful, trusting and critical’, but we have begun to identify a pedagogical and ontological view of humankind. In summary, this would assert that without dialogue one cannot be human. In a very real sense, dialogue precedes monologue.
The world as we know it is dialogic. Any reality that is constructed only through monologue – such and such is real because I think or feel that it is – lacks verification. Monologue is not ‘truth-making’. Only dialogue externalises, expresses itself socially, because in dialogue there is not just me, there is always an other, there is always a you. So it is that we gain access to reality through shared language and through the verbally inherited frames of reference which constitute knowledge. All being that we encounter is presented linguistically (Nicholson, 1991).
This conclusion I draw from the works of Habermas and Gadamer, both of whom look at the importance of understanding scientifically our social and psychological world and the processes of understanding which are rendered possible by the mastery of (social) language.
You have several ways of getting into the Habermas debate: an essential read is ‘What is Universal Pragmatics’ in his Communication and the Evolution of Society (1979) and his 1970 article, ‘Towards a Theory of Communicative Competence’. A different approach is to start with Chapter 4 of McCarthy’s excellent study, The Critical Thought of Jurgen Habermas. Either way, it is important that you engage with the original text, albeit in translation, because that very process of attentive reading will illustrate the analysis that Habermas is making.
He insists immediately on the symbiotic relationship between word and action in naming his theory of communication as ‘universal pragmatics’. Any critical theory of society, he states, requires a critical theory of language, because language is the most pervasive element of human life.
I prefer to speak of general presuppositions of communicative action because I take the type of action aimed at reaching understanding to be fundamental (1979:1).
This means that any particular example of dialogue will have a universal import in that it will reveal an external reality (the world of objects and events about which one can make true or false statements). It will also reveal an internal reality (the speaker’s own world expressed sincerely or insincerely), plus a societal reality (our world of shared values and norms, roles and rules). Dialogic communication is the means by which we test out and explore reality. We make what Habermas (1979: 2) calls ‘universal validity claims’, because we presume always that such claims can be vindicated. In other words, the dialogic relationship enables us to have confidence that what we are thinking or experiences is real and true.
Such forms of interactive knowledge which arise from speaking together require a relationship of reciprocity. Before I can begin to speak to myself in monologue, I need to have learnt the language through dialogue. All language and thereby all knowledge is socially constructed.
Here Habermas insists that communicative competence goes much further than Chomsky’s ‘linguistic competence’.
In order to participate in normal discourse the speaker must have at his disposal, in addition to his linguistic competence, basic qualifications of speech and symbolic interaction (role behaviour), which we may call communicative competence. (1970: 367)
This competence reflects the ideal speech form, the dialogic elements of which generate and describe the kinds of interpersonal exchanges which make it possible for us to understand each other.
The essence of this relationship is that there is reciprocity, but never total reciprocity which would effectively depersonalise, making each partner of the dialogue a clone of the other. On the contrary, there is a symmetry in the relationship which means that no side is privileged within the dialogue: ‘Pure intersubjectivity is determined by a symmetrical relationship between I and You (We and You), I and He (We and They)’ (1970: 371).
Habermas concludes by asserting that the degree of oppression, repression and deviance in a society will be reflected in the degree to which there is a lack of symmetry in potentially dialogic relationships and where some individuals in that society lack the necessary communicative competencies.
This brings us full circle to Freire, the silence of the oppressed and the critical importance for those who are oppressed to ‘speak their word, to name their world’.
If you are interested in looking in more detail at this idea of SPEECH-ACT which enables the participants in the dialogue to have a shared understanding of their common reality and to identify their separate place within that reality, you may like to follow on with Searle’s seminal study (1968) and contrast that with Chomsky (1968), whom Habermas severely criticises for being monologistic and for assuming that linguistic competencies are innate, rather than socially, dialogically learnt.
One very instructive element which Habermas stresses is a universal constituent of dialogue, and which Taylor (1993: 78-81) also discusses in relation to Freirean dialogue, is the importance within dialogue and conversation of pronouns. Habermas asserts that shared understanding, that is, knowledge of reality is only possible in a situation where both speakers comprehend and identify the meaning from their own position and from that of the other at the same time: ‘I understand what you mean’. In asserting myself as ‘I’, I am consciously differentiating myself from the Other, but I am mindful, within the dialogue, that I am the Other, when that person asserts themselves as their ‘I’. The ‘I’ and the ‘You’ are wholly different yet can only exist within the reciprocity of the relationship.
A restatement of this central point, but in a very different style, can be found in Martin Buber’s prose poem I and You. If it is possible to summarise his view, it is this: We can relate to each other as an I to a You, or as an I to an It. The primary word I-You is spoken with the whole being: I-It can never be spoken with the whole being. The It is depersonalised, objectified (Buber 1987:2). Between the I and the You there is no barrier, because it is an active relationship, the disclosure of the person who is engaged in knowing (Buber 1987: 25, 48).
In a dialogic relationship, there is a meeting, an engagement with reality wherein each person makes destiny real for themselves. In discovery and in achievement, they meet the destiny which is their freedom (Buber 1987:21, 74).
There are therefore two potentially different relationships. There is a relationship between me and you, where within a symmetry of power and influence, without disadvantage to either, the Me of Me and the You of You (to borrow a useful expression from Gestalt psychology) meet in creative dialogue.
The other option is a relationship of me to you, or of you to me, where one of us is considered not as a person but, for example, as a student, a teacher, a case, a client, a problem. Freire expresses it well:
Dialogue is an I:You relationship, and thus necessarily a relationship between two Subjects. each time the You is changed to an Object, an It, dialogue is subverted and education is changed to deformation. (Freire 1976: 52)
It is fairly easy to see that oppression arises out of relationships which objectify, which make an Object of the other person, reducing him or her to an It. At its extreme, this is the process which Sartre refers to in his Introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Speaking of oppression and of colonial invasion, he notes that:
Our soldiers overseas apply the ‘numerus clausus’ to the human race: since none may enslave, rob or kill his fellow-man without committing a crime, they lay down the principle that the native is not one of our fellow-men. (Sartre 1985:13).
When we realise that education was the principal means of colonialisation, we are caused again to reflect seriously on the kind of relations that exist between students and teachers in our own education system. The unequal relationships of power-knowledge which are reflected in the evident inequalities in our society are made possible or accepted because we are accustomed to thinking of the illiterate or unqualified person, those who are marginalised or excluded as ‘an It who is not one of Us’. For example, in this light we can see that sexism is a way of relating to women as sex objects: racism creates colour-coded or cultural objects. But we do not discriminate against people, those whom we know as human beings like ourselves: discrimination is against those objectified as Its.
If we want, therefore, in our specific field of education to posit dialogue as a norm, we need to be able to explain not just its practice but its principles. Mass education, like banking education, depersonalises. Both are the means of cultural and social reproduction (Bourdieu 1977). To assert then that dialogue should be a normative mode of teaching and learning is not just to challenge the system of education but also to bring into question many of the structures which underpin the dominant culture of the society in which we live.
Freire required dialogue as a prerequisite of a pedagogic relationship where each would be teacher/learner and learner/teacher. Habermas argues on the fundamental principle that language is itself by definition dialogic and that learning cannot exist without language.
There is, however, a third and complementary approach. Hans-Georg Gadamer proposes that dialogue and conversation are essential because knowledge and reality and knowledge of reality are born only through the processes of dialogue and interpretation.
On the face of it, Gadamer is proposing a philosophical reflection on the divergence between the way in which hermeneutics -the study and interpretation of human behaviour and social institutions- and the social sciences help us to understand how contemporary society is the way it is. This debate touches directly the role of schooling for society and on the defining of what is to be taught or learnt within the education system. However, it goes much further than that:
Indirectly it raises all the substantive issues of social thought that are tied to education: the place of authority, the structure of institutions, questions of family and social reproduction. (Nicholson, 1991:152)
Surprisingly for a debate of such importance, Gadamer has had as yet only a limited impact on educational thinking although one or two writers have begun to address his work (e.g. Usher and Bryant 1989; Louden 1991; Smith 1994). Again, two approaches are possible: directly, to read Gadamer’s Truth and Method 1979, in particular Part III which deals with Hermeneutics and Language. Alternatively you could begin with Silverman’s edited collection Gadamer and Hermeneutics (1991), where Chapters 10, 11 and 16 provide a good launch into our discussion here.
The context which Gadamer proposes is interesting and thought provoking, particularly when we are looking at liberating education. He argues that it is quite normal for us to be prejudiced (Gadamer 1979: Part II:2.1b). Although it sounds alarming, it is true that there would be something wrong with us if we were not prejudiced and ethnocentric. Such cultural-centricity is a natural, psychological reaction, linked to a sense of identity, belonging. The processes of socialisation which we value so highly is exactly that process of ethnocentrism but viewed differently. Culture is acquired, absorbed: I have learnt to belong where I am.
We need our past, an awareness of our roots and, in a very real sense, we do not actually want to be liberated from that positive, rich and creative authority which is our cultural heritage. Certainly we need to be conscious (and here he echoes Freire’s demand for conscientisation) of how we are influenced by that past, but this begins only at the moment where we are aware that we come out of a tradition, and that we are inevitably prejudiced in our way of thinking, our attitudes and our behaviour.
What is required is a way of critically dealing with this past, interpreting this tradition so that we can understand the past in terms of the present. This is a complete reversal of the historical mirror in which we normally tend to interpret the present in terms of the past. Gadamer’s pivotal argument is that all understanding is interpretation and that all interpretation is a process of communication.
It is well worth trying to tease out the main elements of this argument. Initially, although Gadamer concentrates on the how and the why of interpreting a text, he quickly redefines this particular skill as one example of practical rationality. What is the difference between interpreting a text and interpreting a conversation? There is none: a conversation is only a verbal text, as yet unwritten, but the skills of interpretation are exactly the same. ‘Do you read me?’, asks the wireless operator, in what is one of the most oral of all forms of communication. That is but one example of how fluently we read a dialogic situation, just as precisely as we read a text. This is what Freire means when he says that no one is orally illiterate.
There is an interplay in Gadamer between the idea of reason and reasonableness. Because we may have varied and differing interpretations of what is reality, we can only communicate and fully understand each other if we are capable of a reasonable compromise. This is where interpretation is so important: the Latin meaning of the interpres: interpreter is first that of a mediator, a negotiator, a messenger. Only in a secondary sense did ‘to interpret’ mean ‘to translate’.
If there is only me, I do not have to be reasonable. Reasonableness (to be reason-able) exists in and because of dialogue. This is a very optimistic view that insists that we share so much more in our common existence that allows us to be in profound agreement rather than to find ourselves in strong disagreement. ‘Conversation produces something which is not just mine, nor not just the other’s, but something which belongs to both of us’ (Gadamer 1979: Part III:1).
The ability to be reasonable, to find compromise with the other person, is none other than the ability to see what, within the tradition-laden present, can actually be open to question. What can be interpreted? Descombes (1991:247) offers the simple but disturbing answer: every text – written, verbal or social – is interpretable.
Culture, which is the expression of a collective mental programming, is contextually specific. It can be said that each society, group and even each individual inhabit their own individual culture. Dialogue, which is a form of collective communication, is therefore a means of collective interpreting of a given culture. If we change the focal length, we see not just the I and the You but the We and the Us. Dialogue not only individualises: it socialises.
Gadamer draws from this two very interesting conclusions. Firstly, he argues that this communications or dialogic theory of reason entails a comprehensive idea of social reason. Interpretative dialogue, (Freire’s critical dialogue?) is emancipatory precisely because it is fundamental to the idea of citizenship. I cannot be a true citizen, in anything other than a limited juridical sense, if I am not active in the social dialogue which surrounds me and which constructs and changes the very culture and society in which we are living. If you are a Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, you may be an inhabitant but you will never be a citizen there.
This is why, following Freire, oppression is brought about by excluding people from the possibility of dialogue. The oppressed, he says, have no voice: they inhabit a culture of silence (1982). Silence annihilates language, is without reason because reason cannot be expressed, and so is dehumanising.
Secondly, such dialogue is emancipatory in that it makes it reasonable, and not just desirable, that people consider their heritage and traditions and reflect on how far they want that History or pre-programming to recreate their present, daily lives. It is therefore reasonable to be constantly questioning and recreating the world in which we live.
Freire calls this critical consciousness, while Habermas sees it as a rupture with tradition, a breaking with or a bursting out of. In a fascinating crossing over of disciplines, it is Freire who speaks of ‘reading the world’, but Gadamer who insists that
reading a text is the same as reading a society. Neither Freire, Gadamer nor Habermas necessarily have the same understanding of what it means to be conscious or reasonable. However, all insist on the primacy of dialogue because it is dialogue/conversation which turns individual into social, thought into word and word into action.
Descartes has his Discourse on Method, Gadamer his Truth and Method. The former (1964: 60-63) asserts ‘I think therefore I am’, by which he meant ‘I doubt, therefore I am; the latter implicitly says ‘I interpret (I bring into question) therefore I am’. Both distinguish but cannot separate Thinking from Being. Yet there is a common premise which is hidden in both statements for neither Thinking nor Being are comprehensible without Language. In the beginning was the Word.
Habermas uses the expression ‘performative utterance’ to describe the Word that is what it says it is. It is equivalent, he says, to the linguistic conceptualisation of what was traditionally known as the ideas of truth, freedom, and justice (1970:372). So what kind of word is it?
All the three philosophies of dialogue that we have discussed are grafted onto the same root, Aristotle’s notion of Logos. Logos is the Word, but it is also Reason. It is not the word in my mind, the word spoken, or the word as a part of language, although the Greeks had a separate word for each of these. Logos, the art of discourse and speech, is that above all else which distinguishes human beings from the world of the animals (Politics 1.1.1253). It is, in Gadamer’s term (he often uses the word phronesis precisely to mean this), practical and reasonable, but much more than just a functional, technical skill (Dunne 1985): it creates the dialogue and it verifies the content of the dialogue.
Logos, therefore, is not simply the expression of our rationality or of our cognitive abilities. It refers, rather, in the fullest sense of the words, to our ability to express ourselves in speech. To have logos, and the rights that go with that (we have already touched upon dialogue -‘dia-logos’- and conversation as referring to the life of a free and active citizen), is to be fully human.
Aristotle developed a phrase from Pythagoras which has enormous relevance here. In a totally different discussion, Pythagoras describes the real citizen, the truly free person, as someone who is a theoros, a spectator or someone who has theory. Aristotle immediately says that that freedom and that theory cannot exist without a context, outwith the world. We might now say that it cannot exist without a text, (written or verbal) without dialogue, because theory, like dialogue, is a ‘reading of the world’ (Metaphysics, Epsilon, 1.1026).
If we summarise this last part of the argument, we can see that word and action, action and reflection, theory and practice are all facets of the same idea.
Note, however, that this action and practice, is not merely the doing of something, what Freire describes as activism and Aristotle as poiesis. Poiesis is about acting upon, doing to: it is about working with objects.
Praxis, however, is creative: it is other-seeking and dialogic, a ‘productive quality exercised in combination with true logos-reason’ (Ethics 6.4. 1140).
That is how we can hear Freire, Gadamer and Habermas speaking together when we hear Aristotle say that ‘life is praxis not just doing-poiesis‘ and that ‘merely doing is the function of a slave’ (Politics 7.2, 1325 and 1.2, 1254).
All the above argument brings into question the very title of this item. I set out to look at dialogue, conversation and praxis. If now you have been able to get behind my summary presentation and to get to grips with the original texts of Freire, Gadamer and Habermas you will have discovered the parallels between three distinct philosophies. You may also have reflected upon the fact that the three words of the title are really only three ways of interpreting the one reality.
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Chomsky, N. (1968) Language and Mind, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World.
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Descombes, V. (1991) ‘The Interpretative Text’ in H.J.Silverman (ed) Gadamer and Hermeneutics, London, Routledge.
Dunne, J. (1985) ‘Aristotle after Gadamer: An Analysis of the Distinction between the Concepts of Phronesis and Techne’ in Irish Philosophical Journal, 2 (Autumn) pp.105-123.
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Writer: Paul V. Taylor lectures in community education at the University of Tours, France. Amongst his various publications is The Texts of Paulo Freire (1993) and The Pharmacy of Literacy: Using and Abusing the Written Word from Plato to Postmodernism (2003).
© 1994 Paul V. Taylor
Acknowledgements: Produced as part of the YMCA George Williams College BA/BA(Hons) Informal and Community Education programme. The picture, ‘Untitled’ is by efwp. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/27023836@N00/2745914513/
How to cite this piece: Taylor, P. V. (1994). Dialogue, conversation and praxis in YMCA George Williams College ICE301 Lifelong learning, Unit 1 Approaching lifelong learning. London: YMCA George Williams College. Available in the informal education archives. [https://infed.org/mobi/dialogue-conversation-and-praxis/. Retrieved: insert date].
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