On ‘the inner alter’ in dialogue

The third party in language

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4. The third party in language

Dialogical features of the inner Alter could be accompanied by linguistic characteristics. As Benveniste (1971) argued, the pronominal use of I and you shows mutual involvement of interlocutors and therefore, he argued, subjectivity begins with the use of pronouns. Benveniste also pointed out that while the pronouns I and you are marked as persons, the third person is not, because it is outside discourse. It is someone spoken about and he therefore called the third person a ‘non-person’. He listed several linguistic characteristics of I and you separating them from the third person. First, I and you are discursively reversible: I addresses him-/herself to you and vice versa and such addressivity is unique each time it takes place. Both speakers think of themselves as I and about the other as you. In contrast, he can stand for an infinite number of persons or for nobody. Discursively, he cannot become I or you.

Moreover, and in contrast to I and you, the third person can literally turn a person into a thing. Just consider numerous cases of medical or health related interviews between clients and professionals, in which the professional, while actually talking to the client as I and you, switches from you to he (e.g. Aronsson, 1991). But even in interpersonal dialogue, in which one speaker wisher to treat the other as a non-person, may switch to the third person. For example, in Ibsen’s ‘The doll’s House’ Helmer reprimands his wife Nora for spending too much money for Christmas presents. First he tells her that one should not live on credit and borrowed money. Then, seeing that Nora is upset, he switches to the third person:

Helmer: There, there. My little singing bird mustn’t go drooping her wings, eh? Has it got he sulks, that little squirrel of mine? (from Rommetveit, 1991, p. 197).

But as Benveniste (1971, p. 200) points out, this quite a ‘special position of the third person’ can take on an antinomic position. In contrast to denigration due to switching from the second to the third person, the use of the third person can also mark respect: ‘it is the polite form (employed in Italian and German or in the forms of ‘His Majesty’) which raises the interlocutor above the status of person and the relationship of man to man’ (Benveniste, 1971, p.200).

In internal dialogues, the Ego speaking to the self can address him-/herself as the I as well as the third person. For example, in Platonov’s story, speaking to himself, Ivanov says: ‘Masha isn’t expecting me’, … ‘She told me I’d forget her’, and ‘yet here I am, on my way to her for ever.’ On the other hand, if the speaker wishes to distance from the previous identity that he/she no longer wishes to expose, it may be desirable to address that old identity as ‘he’ rather than ‘I’.

Moreover, in a direct discourse the speakers usually respond to one another without repeating each other’s words which would make the dialogue redundant. They adopt Grice’s conversational maxims, in particular those of quantity (do not make your contribution more informative than necessary) and manner (be brief, avoid unnecessary wordiness). In contrast, when reverting to reported speech, i.e. the speech of the third party, they are free to treat it according to their choice. On the one hand they may preserve its linguistic and content authenticity. This authenticity actually strengthens the impact of the quotation. Depending on how the quotation is made, its impact can either increase or decrease. On the other hand, the speaker may distort authenticity by introducing his or her own interpretation, by making specific accents, by using a ‘synonym’ with a slightly different meaning and so on. Speakers may also select what to report, what not to say and all that changes the impact on the audience. They may decide want not to say or to say something in a way that distorts the original meaning. A joke about the religious dignitary when he arrived at an important visit to another country says it all. The dignitary was asked by someone: Would you also like to see our brothels? Not knowing how to respond to such a question, he responded by a question: Do you have brothels? Next day a newspaper published an article entitled: The dignitary asked the question: Do you have brothels?

5. Conclusion

A number of concepts that have been discussed in this paper, e.g. the Ego-Alter interdependence, the joint construction of meaning, positioning, the attention paid to context, and the third party, can be found in many approaches studying interaction and dialogue. The adjective ‘dialogical’ is used by scholars of different theoretical persuasions ranging from those who refer to dialogue in terms of a daily conversation to those for whom dialogicality is an ontological matter implying the theory of knowledge based on the dialogical triad Ego-Alter-Object. Clearly, ‘dialogical’ has a variety of meanings; moreover, different scholars may adopt different perspectives of dialogicality (see Linell, 1998; 2005). Consequently, such dialogical approaches may involve a mixture of characteristics and concepts coming from different theories and epistemologies, which might give the impression that some approaches could be more dialogical than others. If that is so, how can we answer the question posed at the beginning of this paper: is there anything specific about dialogicality? In any case, is it important to insist on the specificity of dialogicality? Why not accept an eclectic approach and take whatever appears be useful in the advancement of dialogical knowledge?

Let us remind here Einstein’s (1949) claim that the relation between science and epistemology is of a peculiar kind, with science being dependent on epistemology and vice versa. There appears to be no reason why that relation should not include social science and epistemology. If it does, we can assume that sharing more or fewer dialogical features does not make one system more or less dialogical, respectively. It is not that one can take out a particular characteristic of one system and transplant it into another system and so change its degree of dialogicality. We must not forget that a concept which belongs to a particular epistemological system will necessarily have a different meaning in another system and therefore in a science that is dependent on that system.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that science and epistemology are dependent on one another and that science without epistemology is not thinkable, scientists, including Einstein himself, often make use of concepts from other systems. Eclecticism is a common characteristic in science building. Dialogicality, too, can make use of concepts from other systems and appropriate them to its own perspective. Equally, dialogical concepts may cross-fertilize other fields and adapt them for their own use. If we adopt the dialogical triad Ego-Alter (including inner Alter)- object (social representation), we also adopt the perspective that language, communication, thought, social subjectivity and social representations involved in this triangular relationship is multifaceted. Despite cross-fertilisation and borrowing concepts from other fields, in my view, it is the concurrence of these characteristics that define dialogicality – or at least one of its forms - as a conceptual system.

Dialogicality by definition focuses, theoretically and empirically, on understanding phenomena in their complexity and multiplicity whether these are involved in language, communication, subjectivity or in social representations. It is therefore unlikely that it will bring comfort and ease to a social scientist seeking some definite or certain solutions of problems under study. What it provides, however, is a challenge. It creates an opportunity to redefine a great part of social psychology, if not the whole field of social psychology, in terms of epistemology based on the dynamic triad Ego-Alter-Object.


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1 I define dialogicality as the capacity of the human mind to conceive, create and communicate about social reality in terms of the ‘Alter’ (Marková, 2003).

2 ‘Dialogicality’ and ‘dialogism’ are sometimes used indiscriminately, sometimes conceptual distinctions are made (Linell, 1998, Marková, 2003). Bakhtin used the term ‘dialogism’ to refer to epistemology of human sciences. In the rest of this article I shall use only ‘dialogicality’ in the sense of the above note 1.

3 Allport gave this definition already in the Murchison Handbook of Social Psychology in 1935.

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