Mikhail M. Bakhtin [1895-1975]

John Shotter
CMN/UNH/Durham, June 1996

Some useful quotations from BAKHTIN and VOLOSHINOV:

“The catharsis that finalizes Dostoevsky’s novels might be - of course inadequately and somewhat rationalistically - expressed in this way: nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future” (PDP, p.166).

“It should be pointed out that the single and unified consciousness is by no means an inevitable consequence of the concept of a unified truth. It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that in principle cannot be fitted within the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential [sobytiina] and is born at that point of contact among various consciousnesses. The monologic way of perceiving cognition and truth is only one of the possible ways. It arises only where consciousness is placed above existence. (Bakhtin, 1984, p.81).

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.110).


“Monologism, at its extreme, denies the existence outside itself of another consciousness with equal rights and equal responsibilities, another I with equal rights (thou). With a monologic approach (in its extreme pure form) another person remains wholly and merely an object of consciousness, and not another consciousness. No response is expected from it that could change anything in the world of my consciousness. Monologue is finalized and deaf to other’s response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any force. Monologue manages without the other, and therefore to some degree materializes all reality. Monologue pretends to be the ultimate word. It closes down the represented world and represented persons” (1984, pp.292-293).

“The dialogic nature of consciousness, the dialogic nature of human life itself. The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human existence 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. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium” (1984, p.293).

[The Russian word for responsibility {otvetstvennost} implies both a literal “ability to respond,” that is “responsiveness,” answerability,” as well as a more ethically burdened meaning” (p.283 - Emerson).]


The ‘idea’ in Dostoevsky:

“The idea - as it was seen by Dostoevsky the artist - is not a subjective individual-psychological formation with ‘permanent resident rights’ in a person’s head; no, the idea is inter-individual and inter-subjective - the realm of its existence is not individual consciousness but dialogic communion between consciousnesses. The idea is a live event played out at a point of dialogical meeting between two or several consciousnesses. In this sense the idea is similar to the word, with which it is dialogically united. Like the word, the idea wants to be heard, understood, and ‘answered’ by other voices from other positions” (PDP, p.88).`

Utterances not sentences - uttered with a living responsivity to one’s surroundings:

“To ignore the nature of the utterance or to fail to consider the peculiarities of generic subcategories of speech in nay area of linguistic study leads to perfunctoriness and excessive abstractness, distorts the historicity of the research, and weakens the link between language and life. After all, language enters life through concrete utterances (which manifest language) and life enters language through concrete utterances as well” (1986, p.63).

“Any understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive... Any understanding is imbued with response and necessarily elicits it in one form or another: the listener becomes the speaker... Of course, an utterance is not always followed immediately by an articulated response. An actively responsive understanding of what is heard (a command, for instance) can be directly realized in action (the execution of an order or command that has been understood and accepted for execution), or it can remain, for the time being, a silent responsive understanding..., but this is, so to speak, responsive understanding with delayed reaction. Sooner or later what is heard and actively understood will find its response in the subsequent speech or behavior of the listener” (Bakhtin, 1986, pp.68-69).

“Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere... Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account... Therefore, each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.91).

Words in dialogical relations both to each other, and to an utterance’s surroundings:

“Language lives only in the dialogical interaction of those who make use of it...Dialogic relationships are reducible neither to logical relationships nor to relationships oriented semantically toward their referential object, [these are] relationships in and of themselves devoid of any dialogical element. They must clothe themselves in discourse, become utterances, become positions of various subjects expressed in discourse, in order that dialogic relations might arise among them.

              ‘Life is good’, ‘Life is not good’... Between these two judgements there exists a specific logical relation: one is the negation of the other. But between them there are not and cannot be any dialogical relationships; they do not argue with one another in any way... Both these judgments must become embodied, if any dialogic relation is to arise between them and toward them...

              ‘Life is good’. ‘Life is good’. Here are two absolutely identical judgments, or in fact one singular judgment written (or pronounced) by us twice... We can, to be sure, speak here of the logical relationship of identity between two judgments. But if this judgment is expressed in two utterances by two different subjects, then dialogic relationships arise between them (agreement, affirmation)” (1984, pp.183-184).

“... the extraverbal situation is far from being merely the external cause of an utterance - it does not operate on the utterance from the outside, as if it were a mechanical force. rather, the situation enters into the utterance as an essential constitutive part of the structure of its import. Consequently, a behavioral utterance as a meaningful whole is comprised of two parts: (1) the part realized or actualized in words and (2) the assumed part. On this basis, the behavioral utterance can be likened to an enthymeme” (Voloshinov, 1976, p.100).

“Orientation of the word toward the addressee has an extremely high significance. In point of fact the word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser and addressee. Each and every word expresses the ‘one’ in relation to the ‘other’. I give myself verbal shape from another’s point of view, ultimately, from the point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another... A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor” (Voloshinov, 1973, p.86).

Utterances always create something new, a ‘situation’, a ‘dialogical space’, a ‘world’ - we construct between us as we speak ‘that’ in which we live, and in which we ‘position’ ourselves:

A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels. What unfolds in his novels is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with his own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event[s he depicts]” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.6).

“Each rejoinder, regardless of how brief and abrupt, has a specific quality of completion that expresses a particular position of the speaker, to which one may respond or assume, with respect to it, a responsive position” (1986, p.72).

“An utterance is never just a reflection or an expression of something already existing and outside it that is given and final. It always creates something that never existed before, something absolutely new and unrepeatable, and, moreover, it always has some relation to value (the true, the good, the beautiful, and so forth). But something created is always created out of something given (language, an observed phenomenon of reality, an experienced feeling, the speaking subject himself, something finalized in his world view, and so forth). What is given is completely transformed in what is created” (Bakhtin, 1986, pp.119-120).

“It is much easier to study the given in what is created (for example, language, ready-made and general elements of world view, reflected phenomena of reality, and so forth) than to study what is created. Frequently the whole of scientific analysis amounts to a disclosure of everything that has been given, already at hand and ready-made before the work has existed (that which is found by the artist not created by him). It is as if everything given is created anew in what is created, transformed in it” (1986, p.120).


“The person who understands (including the researcher himself) becomes a participant in the dialogue, although on a special level (depending on the area of understanding or research)... The observer has no position outside the observed world, and his observation enters as a constituent part into the observed object.

              This pertains fully to entire utterances and relations among them. They cannot be understood from outside. Understanding itself enters as a dialogic element in the dialogic system and somehow changes its entire sense” (1986, pp.125-126).

“Any utterance always has an addressee (of various sorts, with varying degrees of proximity, concreteness, awareness, and so forth). This is the second party (again not in an arithmetical sense). But in addition to this addressee (the second party), the author of the utterance, with greater or lesser awareness, presupposes a higher superaddressee (third), whose absolutely just responsive understanding is presumed, either in some metaphysical distance or in distant historical time (the loophole addressee)” (1986, p.126).


“Each dialogue takes place as if against a background of the responsive understanding of an invisibly present third party who stands above all the participants in the dialogue (partners)... The aforementioned third party is not any mystical or metaphysical being (although, given a certain understanding of the world, he can be expressed as such) - he is a constitutive aspect of the whole utterance, who, under deeper analysis, can be revealed in it” (1986, p.126-127).

It is with our voices that we ‘reach out’ and ‘call’ others into relation with us - the power of intonation:

Intonation always lies on the border of the verbal and the nonverbal, the said and the unsaid. In intonation, discourse comes directly into contact with life. And it is in intonation above all that the speaker comes into contact with listener or listeners - intonation is social par excellence. It is especially sensitive to all the vibrations in the social atmosphere surrounding the speaker” (Voloshinov, 1976, p.102).

“One means of expressing the speaker’s emotionally evaluative attitude toward the subject of his speech is expressive intonation, which resounds clearly in oral speech” (1986, p.85).

“Any utterance is a link in the chain of communication. It is the active position of the speaker in one referentially semantic sphere or another. Therefore, each utterance is characterized primarily by a particular referentially semantic content... This is the first aspect of the utterance that determines its compositional stylistic and features. The second aspect... is the expressive aspect, that is, the speaker’s subjective emotional evaluation of the relation semantic content of his utterance... There can be no such things as an absolutely neutral utterance. The speaker’s evaluative attitude toward the subject of his speech (regardless of what it may be) also determines the choice of lexical, grammatical, and compositional means of the utterance... One of the means of expressing the speaker’s emotionally evaluative attitude toward the subject of his speech is expressive intonation, which resounds clearly in oral speech... In a particular situation a word can acquire a profoundly expressive meaning in the form of an exclamatory utterance: ‘Thalassa, Thalassa!’ [The sea! The sea!] (exclaimed 10,000 Greeks in Xenophon)... expressive intonation belongs to the utterance and not to the word” (1986, pp.84-86).

Using shared words in ‘one’s own way’ - the already existing influences:

“The linguistic consciousness of the speaker and of the listener-understander, in the practical business of living speech, is not at all concerned with the abstract system of normatively identical forms of language, but with language-speech in the sense of the aggregate of possible contexts of usage for a particular linguistic form. Or a person speaking his native tongue, a word presents itself not as an item of vocabulary but as a word that has been used in a variety of utteracnes by co-speaker A, co-speaker B, co-speaker C and so on, and has been variously used in the speaker’s own utterances. A very special and specific kind of orientation is necessary, if one is to go from there to the self-identical word belonging to the lexicological system of the language in question - the dictionary word” (Voloshinov, 1973, p.70).

“A word (or in general any sign) is interindividual. Everything that is said, expressed, is located outside the ‘soul’ of the speaker and does not belong only to him [or her]. The word cannot be assigned to a single speaker. The author (speaker) has his own inalienable right to the word, but the listener has his rights, and those whose voices are heard in the word before the author comes upon it also have their rights (after all, there are no words that belong to no one). The word is a drama in which three characters participate (it is not a duet, but a trio). It is performed outside the author, and it cannot be introjected into the author” (Bakhtin, 1986, pp.121-122).

“If we anticipate nothing from the word, if we know ahead of time everything it can say, it departs from the dialogue and is reified” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.122).

“It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own” (1981, pp.293-4).

“The search for one’s own voice. To be embodied, to become more clearly defined, to become less, to become more limited, more stupid. Not to remain tangential, to burst into the circle of life, to become one among other people. To cast off reservations, to cast off irony..” (1984, p.147)... “Speak, if only once in your life, with the voice of a man” (1984, p.277).

Expressing one’s own ‘inner life’:

Not only can experience be outwardly expressed through the agency of the sign... but also, aside from this outward expression (for others), experience exists even for the person undergoing it only in the material of signs. Outside that material there is no experience as such. In this sense any experience is expressible, i.e., is potential experience... Thus there is no leap involved between inner experience and its expression, no crossing over from one qualitative realm of reality to another” (Voloshinov, 1973, p.28)

“Although the reality of the word, as is true of any sign, resides between individuals, a word, at the same time, is produced by the individual organism’s own means without recourse to any equipment or any other kind of extracorporeal material. This has determined the role of [the] word as the semiotic material of inner life - of consciousness (inner speech)” (Voloshinov, 1973, p.14).

“After all, there is no such thing as experience outside of embodiment in signs... Furthermore, the location of the organizing and formative center is not within... but outside. It is not experience that organizes expression, but the other way around - expression organizes experience. Expression is what first give experience its form and specificity” (Voloshinov, 1973, p.85).

Hidden dialogicality:

“Imagine a dialogue of two persons in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted, but in such a way that the general sense is not all violated. The second speaker is present invisibly, his words are not there, but deep traces left by these words have a determining effect on the present and visible worlds of the first speaker. We sense that this is a conversation, although only one person is speaking, and it is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each present uttered word responds and reacts with its every fiber to the invisible speaker, points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of another person” (1984, p.197).

Understanding in practice:

“To understand another person’s utterance means to orient yourself with respect to it, to find a proper place for it in the corresponding context. For each word of the utterance that we are in the process of understanding, we, as it were, lay down a set of our own answering words... Any true understanding is dialogic in nature. Understanding is to utterance as one line of a dialogue is to the next... Only in understanding a word in a foreign tongue is the attempt made to match it with the ‘same’ word in one’s own language” (Voloshinov, 1973, p.102).

“Thus, all real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing other than the initial preparatory stage of a response (in whatever form it may be actualized)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.69).

“And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his or her own idea in someone else’s mind... Rather, the speaker talks with an expectation of a response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth (with various speech genres presupposing various integral orientations and speech plans on the part of speakers or writers)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.69).

“Every concrete utterance of a speaking subject serves as a point where centrifugal as well as centripetal forces are brought to bear. The process of centralization and decentralization, of unification and disunification, intersect in the utterance...” (1981, p.272).

Living (and dead) events:

“The event of the life of the text, that is, its true essence, always develops on the boundary between two consciousnesses, two subjects. The transcription of thinking in the human sciences is always the transcription of special kind of dialogue: the complex interrelations between the text (the object of study and reflection) and the created, framing context (questioning, refuting, and so forth) in which the scholar’s cognizing and evaluating thought takes place. This is the meeting of two texts - of the ready-made and the reactive text being created - and consequently, the meeting of two subjects and two authors” (1984, p.106-107).

“One cannot forbid a physician to work on cadavers on the grounds that his duty is to treat not dead but living people. Death-dealing analysis is quite justified in certain limits... What we foreground is the ready-made and finalized. Even in antiquity we single out what is ready-made and finalized, and not what has originated and is developing. We do not study literature’s preliterary embryos (in language and ritual)... The repeatable and unrepeatability” (1984, p.139).

The unmerged unity of the living, dialogical event:

"A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels. What unfolds in his novels is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with his own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event[s he depicts]" (Bakhtin, 1984, p.6).

“... the fundamental plurality of unmerged consciousnesses” (1984, p.9).

“Unity not as an innate one-and-only, but as a dialogic concordance of unmerged twos and multiples” (1984, p.289).

Against ‘theoreticism:’

“...all these activities [making use of discursive theoretical thinking] establish a fundamental split between the content or sense of a given act/activity and the historical actuality of its being, the actual and once-occurrent experiencing of it. And it is in consequence of this that the given act loses its valuableness and the unity of its actual becoming and self-determination. This act is truly real (it participates in once-occurrent Being-as-event) only in its entirety. Only this whole act is alive, exists fully and inescapably - comes to be accomplished. It is an actual living participant in the ongoing event of Being: it is in communion with the unique unity of ongoing Being” (p.2).

“It is only the once-occurrent event of Being in the process of actualization that can constitute this unique unity; all that which is theoretical or aesthetic must be determined as a constituent moment in the once-occurrent event of Being, although no longer, of course, in theoretical or aesthetic terms. An act must acquire a single unitary plane to be able to reflect itself in both directions - in its sense or meaning and in its being; it must acquire the unity of two-sided answerability - both for its content (special answerability) and for its Being (moral answerability). And the special answerability, moreover, must be brought into communion with the unitary and unique moral answerability as a constituent moment in it” (pp.2-3, my emphasis).

“Theoreticism is at work in all the various attempts to put theoretical cognition into communion with biological, economic, or other categories: “In all these attempts one theory is turned into a moment in another theory, and not into a moment of actual Being-as-event” (p.12).

“A theory needs to be bought into communion not with theoretical constructions and conceived life, but with the actually occurring event of moral being - with practical reason... All attempts to force one’s way from inside the theoretical world and into actual Being-as-event are quite hopeless. The theoretically cognized world cannot be unclosed from within cognition itself to the point of becoming open to the actual once-occurrent world” (p.12).

“Once-occurrent uniqueness or singularity cannot be thought of, it can only be participatively experienced or lived through. All of theoretical reason in its entirety is only a moment of practical reason, i.e., the reason of the unique subiectum’s moral orientation within the event of once-occurrent Being” (p.13).

“The world of aesthetic seeing [like the theoretical world], obtained in abstraction from the actual subiectum of seeing, is not the actual world in which I live, although its content-aspect is inserted into a living subiectum” (p.14).

My unique ‘answerability’:

“The answerable act or deed alone surmounts anything hypothetical, for the answerable act is, after all, the actualization of a decision - inescapably, irremediably, and irrevocably. The answerably performed act is the final result or summation, an all-round definitive conclusion. The performed act concentrates, correlates, and resolves within a unitary and unique and, this time, final context both the sense and the fact, the universal and the individual, the real and the ideal, for everything enters into the composition of its answerable motivation. The performed act constitutes a going out once and for all from within possibility as such into what is once-occurrent” (1993, pp.28-29).


“There is neither a first nor last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) - they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and reinvigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival” (1986, p.170).


“There exists a very strong, but one-sided and thus untrustworthy, idea that in order to understand a foreign culture, one must enter into it, forgetting one’s own, and view the culture through the eyes of this foreign culture. This idea, as I said, is one-sided. Of course, a certain entry as a living being into a foreign culture, the possibility of seeing the world through its eyes, is a necessary part of the process of understanding it; but if this where the only aspect of this understanding, it would merely be a duplication and would not entail anything new or enriching. Creative understanding does not renounce itself, its own place in time, its own culture; and it forgets nothing. In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding - in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others.

              In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding. It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly (but not maximally fully, because there will be cultures that see and understand even more). A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures. We raise new questions for a foreign culture, ones that it did not raise for itself; we seek answers to our own questions in it; and the foreign culture responds to us by revealing to us its new aspects and new semantic depths” (1986, p.7).



Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Edited by M. Holquist, trans. by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and trans. by Caryl Emerson. Minnieapolis: University of Michigan Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. by Vern W. McGee. Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1993) Toward a Philosophy of the Act, with translation and notes by Vadim Lianpov, edited by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Emerson, C. (1997) The First Hundred Years of Mikhael Bakhtin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Voloshinov, V.N. (1973) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. by L. Matejka and I.R. Titunik. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Voloshinov, V.N. (1976) Freudianism. Trans. by I.R.Titunik. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.