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Dialectic and Dialogue

reviewed by Olav Eikeland - July 20, 2011

coverTitle: Dialectic and Dialogue
Author(s): Dmitri Nikulin
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804770166, Pages: 184, Year: 2010
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The book Dialectic and Dialogue (2010) by Dmitri Nikulin is an extremely well informed book on the historical development of the relationship between the concepts of “dialectic” and “dialogue.” Although it does not refer much to Nikulin’s recent previous book, it is clearly a follow-up to his “On Dialogue” from 2006, which presents, explores, and discusses “dialogue” in more depth and detail historically, theoretically, and practically, as Nikulin understands it. Both books are quite impressive in the way they are steeped and embedded in historical and philosophical erudition and by their detailed references (in almost any European language) both to the 2,500-year history of these twin concepts and to current treatments and applications of them. Nikulin seems to have read everything there is to read and to have the relevant references thoroughly at his command. Impressive indeed!

This makes both books unique. In this respect, they rise far above the vast amount of recent popular literature on dialogue as applied to organization development, intercultural understanding, and the like. As Nikulin himself points out in the former book, “the notion of dialogue is habitually too broadly applied, treated too vaguely, and is seldom employed as a well-defined term within an elaborate theoretical framework” (2006, p. viii). I agree. Something similar can definitely be said about dialectic. Both are concepts which very many have promoted, “believed in,” and rallied around over the last century and more, and in spite of their vagueness, both concepts are somehow capable of imbuing people with a kind of religious fervor. So, a well-informed and well-documented attempt to clarify the meaning and status of both these concepts is both much needed and greatly appreciated. My present review concerns only Nikulin’s latest book, however, although it would seem necessary to take the first book into account as well in order to do the author full justice.

According to Nikulin (p. ix) the purpose of Dialectic and Dialogue is to discuss the following questions: 1) what are dialogue and dialectics and 2) how are they related to each other? The book follows the development of dialectics and dialogue through the history of Western philosophy and ideas, from the beginning in classical Greece through the Middle Ages and early modernity to the present. Both historical chapters on dialectic, Via Antiqua and Via Moderna, are excellent. They present a story about the birth of dialectic out of the spirit of dialogue (p. ix) where just about every historical claim is documented through detailed references, often to rarely used, but clearly relevant sources. Nikulin’s preference for dialogue rather than dialectic shines increasingly through as he separates them through the text. In both books Nikulin wants to demonstrate the features that make dialogue philosophically and ontologically important (p. 72); in fact he seeks to explain dialogue as the most basic conditio humana (2006, p. viii). Nikulin’s story, greatly simplified, is that dialogue started as an oral exercise (e.g., Socrates) which was imitated in writing (Plato) and then increasingly abstracted and formalized into dialectic as a way of thinking and art of reasoning trying to become a specific method of grasping the truth of a subject. Nikulin’s story is about how dialogue and dialectic gradually separate and become two quite different and distinct activities; he writes about “the drama of dialectic breaking away from dialogue” (p. 85). This is a fascinating and plausible story impressively documented and very interestingly told by Nikulin. His erudition and use of references wets the appetite of the interested reader, so much so that an objection to the book might actually be that it is too short (155 pages plus notes). The history of these concepts, the story told, and the detailed knowledge driving Nikulin’s presentation really requires more space. But at least Nikulin’s story provides an answer to his second question for the book, “how are the two concepts related to each other”?

In reading through Dialectic and Dialogue, a question occurs to me concerning his first ambition for the book: what are dialogue and dialectics? In spite of Nikulin’s erudition, I wonder whether he is quite fair to either of these concepts? Does he manage to explain their special status? There is undoubtedly a de facto dichotomy emerging and unfolding historically, but can this historical dichotomy be validated de jure? In spite of all there is to learn from seeing things in historical perspective, historical developments are more accidental than logical or analytical and may as well have resulted in an invalid and thereby confusing dichotomy. Toward the end of the book I had a creeping feeling that Nikulin may have dichotomized these concepts too much. I will try to explain.

According to Nikulin (p. 89), dialogue belongs to both anthropology and ontology, whereas dialectic belongs to logic. Somehow we cannot escape dialogue while dialectic is dispensable. He summarizes the relationship between dialogue and dialectic (pp. 85-88), and he repeats increasingly through the book that dialectic, albeit extracted from oral and then written dialogical practice, becomes a kind of monological and formal, strict reasoning that is systematic, with a firmly and clearly established order of steps in its reasoning (pp.1-3, 15, 92-93, 95-97, 118, 120, 135, 150, and others). He sees this order of reasoning as culminating perhaps with G.W.F. Hegel. In Nikulin’s story, dialogue and dialectic end up with quite different purposes (p. 94). Dialogue is primarily oral, for communicating with others and for the expression of one’s “personal other” (see pp. 72-79 for features of conversation corresponding to the four features of dialogue: (1) personal other, (2) voice, (3) unfinalizability, and (4) Allosensus, which is different from both consensus and dissensus). Dialectic, however, ends up as “rules of thought” for attempting to find out what a particular thing is. The objective of dialectic is systematic knowledge, while for dialogue it is communication and expression (p. 86). Dialogue as spontaneous oral exchange is alive, creative, and without strict rules, while dialectic becomes something possible to do alone, merely in thought, for example. Nikulin tends to see modern so-called rational subjects in general as “both dialectical and monological” (p. 95). While dialectic tends to become a specialized but dispensable instrument, dialogue becomes an ontological existential. But dialogue tends simultaneously to be reduced and trivialized to any kind of talk, informal conversation, or exchange of any kind. This is where Nikulin’s clarifications start to become confusing.

Although there is both sense in and historical evidence for seeing dialectic as a “method” for finding out what a particular thing is, this “method” is hardly reducible to the modern rule-following, monological formalism that Nikulin describes (it can hardly be both). There are activities in between Nikulin’s dichotomized dialogue and dialectic, and many distinctions seem to disappear in his coarse dichotomy. Aristotle, whom many like to accuse of leaving dialogue behind and both trivializing and instrumentalizing dialectic, is actually quite differentiated in characterizing ways of talking and thinking, distinguishing dialektikê, apodeiktikê, logikê, sullogistikê, rhetorikê, sophistikê, eristikê, elengtikê, phronêsis, súnesis and others not reducible to each other. Nikulin’s erudition does not take these still valid distinctions fully into account and thereby becomes less precise. We need to know whether his broad formal and monological modern dialectic is deductive, abstract, and/or syllogistic. This actually becomes rather unclear as he proceeds. If it is, why keep calling it dialectic? If not, what is it? Dialectic, which was not yet clearly separated from dialogue, was not deductive, abstract, formal, rhetorical, sophistical, antagonistic or polemical in Aristotle’s scheme. What was it, then? Lacking a precise designation, since dialectic was still closely connected to dialogue, Aristotle started to write about another or different way of searching (allos trópos tês zêtêseôs) overlapping dialectic and dialogue, to specify their most central and distinguishing trait, making it the way to proceed towards the basic principles in all fields, developing the substantial epistêmai (not presenting or performing/ activating them).

The Stoics made dialectic formal by neglecting its most important aspect, that it is broadly inductive and defining. As Cicero makes clear, this was an important critique against early Stoicism reformulated by his philosophy teacher, the Academic Antiochus of Ascalon, in the first century BC in trying to regain insights from Plato and Aristotle. How, then, could dialectic/dialogue be inductive and defining? Briefly: by being bound to and focused on the accumulated practical experience (empeiría) and skills of the interlocutors themselves, as it still is with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The specific task of Aristotelian dialectic as presented in his Topica is to distinguish similarity, sameness, and difference in practically accumulated experience and in ways of speaking, for example, as in Eikeland (2008). Dialectic was a skill in analyzing, refining, and developing acquired practical experience by making pragma-adequate distinctions, thus raising theoretical self-consciousness as insight and understanding (epistêmê), and simultaneously developing practical competence or virtue. This was something that, although it undoubtedly could be done alone by experienced and independent masters, would be done better in company with others, and necessarily collectively by novices. The combined and collaborative reflections of the others were needed for each and every one in order to see and grasp his or her self and in order to excel in this dialectical/dialogical skill. The task was anyhow not to reason merely formally with given, presumed self-identical, and unchangeable words and meanings. Although there are traces of dialectic-dialogue in this sense in what Nikulin presents, it fades out of sight in favor of his monological, formal modern dialectic, made too similar to modern formal, syllogistic and deductive reasoning and calculation.

There are many things common to men, for example, the basic natural biological functions and exchanges with nature (common to all animals and even living beings) historically considered vulgar and base. That we talk to, with, and about each other in all sorts of ways may not be quite as trivially common. But the most central tasks of dialogue and dialectic according to Aristotle, critically finding sameness, similarities, and differences in acquired practical experience, are common and basic on a different level, as rational and pre-logical preconditions for developing and explicating insight and virtue. To clarify the elements and structures of these commons (tà koiná) was a philosophical and political task that engaged the Academy of Plato, and Aristotle in particular. The activation of these commons actually constitutes dialectic or dialogue – or the different way of searching – with Aristotle. This different way of searching seems to get lost in Nikulin’s dichotomy. Why, then, is there this dichotomous result in Nikulin’s exposition? If I were to suggest an explanation without really providing it, I suspect it has to do with his strong Bakhtin orientation.

In conclusion, I am very impressed by and really enjoyed Nikulin’s historical presentation and exposition. I strongly recommend this book, and my only objection is that it is actually too short. I am not quite convinced, however, by his attempt at clarifying the ontological and existential status of dialogue. Hopefully, my brief allosensical comments suggest why. His is still a very thought provoking presentation, and since I thoroughly agree with Nikulin’s claim that dialogue cannot be finalized, further dialogue may contribute to further clarifications.


Eikeland, O. (2008). The ways of Aristotle – Aristotelian phrónêsis, Aristotelian philosophy of dialogue, and action research. Bern: Peter Lang Publishers

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 20, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16486, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 1:11:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Olav Eikeland
    Akershus University College
    E-mail Author
    OLAV EIKELAND is professor and research director of Program for Research on Education and Work, Faculty of Technical and Vocational Teacher Education at Akershus University College outside Oslo, Norway. He holds a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy. During the years 1985-2008 he was at the Work Research Institute in Oslo working with organizational learning as researcher, research director, and CEO. In 2008 he published the book The Ways of Aristotle -Aristotelian Phrónęsis, Aristotelian Philosophy of Dialogue, and Action Research, Bern: Peter Lang Publishers.
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