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Dialogic Formations: Investigations into the Origins and Development of the Dialogical Self

reviewed by David Kennedy - December 06, 2013

coverTitle: Dialogic Formations: Investigations into the Origins and Development of the Dialogical Self
Author(s): Marie Cecile-Bertau, Miguel M. Goncalves, & Peter T.F. Raggatt (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623960371, Pages: 360, Year: 2012
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Dialogic Formations is one of several recent volumes of papers (see Hermans & Gieser, 2012; Ligorio & Cesar, 2013) constructed on the basis of what, following its formulator Hubert Hermans (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka, 2010), is known as “dialogical self theory,” hereafter referred to as DST. A theory of human subjectivity and psychological development, it understands itself to be drawn from the conceptual work of William James, George Herbert Mead, Lev Vygotsky and Mikhail Bakhtin. It could be said to represent one more contender in the Western struggle to break out of (or, speaking dialectically, to outgrow) the Cartesian paradigm of self-understanding associated with Western modernism--the discrete, ahistorical, individualistic, isolated self—and to transition to an understanding of self as relational, multiple, polyphonic and polyvalent, deeply structured and determined by alterity, and comprised of “self-positions” that are both internal and external, and which are, in Bahktin’s words, “fated to the condition of dialogue” (p. 91).

Probably the first insight that provides access to a lived understanding of DST is to feel the distinction between an entity that persists across temporal flow and change and a process whose chief characteristic is temporal flow and change. We can spatialize this form of subjectivity in the imagination by construing multiple self-positions, say in a diagram in which we represented positions like father, child, dreamer, realist, sexualizer, ascetic, friend of humanity, survivalist, utopian, lover, reject, loved one, and so forth; not to speak of external self-positions represented by actual persons living or dead—father, boss, lover, spouse, judge, enemy or colleague. But this diagram would simply be a freeze frame, stopped in time, of a set of reified internal and external relations that are already to some extent passed.  Rather, the dialogical self is a system-state that—absent pathology--keeps flowing forward, and which is involved in a process that, at least in Hermans’ seminal formulation, is thoroughly dialectical.  That is, the various self-positions are in a dialogue that is “not freely undertaken, but endured” (p. 91), involved in working through a set of contradictions, often with an implicit developmental aim of reaching a “third position” that achieves a temporary resolution in the self-system.

The dialectical outcomes of the dialogue between self-positions is an internal politics of the self, and thus as much about power, affect, and transpersonal phenomena as about reason and rationality. We could define an unhealthy system-state as “stuck”—reified in a set of relations that are polarized. This state would be easier to diagram, just because it is stuck, or stagnant, or in the words of one of the authors in this volume, liable to “mutual in-feeding,” in which the changes involved are “redundant” rather than “developmental” (p. 229). In a well-functioning or healthy polyphonic self-system, the internal contradictions between positions are de-polarized and in motion, such that mediating positions can emerge, and the reconstruction of habit in the pragmatist sense of that term—habit as ways of responding to and acting upon one’s environment that allow for both novelty and emergent consistency—is possible.  Here, this developmental goal is variously referred to as a “widened I” (p. 191), a sense of positive multiplicity, arrived at through the integration of “silent” or hitherto hidden, marginalized, or “blind” self-positions. Since it is an adaptive process, and adaptation is a characteristic of lived time, the reconstruction of habit is ongoing.


On one level, the emergence of DST is, it seems to me, a response to a historical exigency for personal and collective self-transformation, based on the realization that the Cartesian subject has reached an evolutionary cul de sac. The philosophical deconstruction of the monistic self has already been accomplished in Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s critique of the three “paralogisms” (fallacious syllogisms) that lead us to identify self as a substance (Atkins, pp. 48-50), while Hegel introduced alterity in the realization that “oneself is also an other,” and that subjectivity originates and is mediated through relations with others—that “subjectivity is always intersubjectivity” (ibid, p. 62). In this volume, DST seeks a theory of genesis, and starts from the axiom that “Any Self-formation is considered to originate in Otherness. . . . The source of the Self lies in the Other, where this Other is a speaking, listening, and addressing person” (p. 91). Hermans’ theory is rooted in the blended soil of cultural psychology, history of subjectivity, psychoanalysis and human development, with clear therapeutic and normative implications. It assumes that “normal” “healthy” (by which is also implied “ethical,” for which see more below) subjectivity is fundamentally—biologically even—oriented to the self-organizing, dialectical process of adaptive reconstruction through the introduction and working through of the contradictions, imbalances and dissonances that follow on the existential experience of novelty and continual both inner and outer change.

Hermans & Hermans-Konopka (2010, p. 4) identify two previous historical forms of modal subjectivity—the “traditional” and the “modern”—and understand the dialogical self as “post-modern” in the sense that it starts from “a profound skepticism of the universalistic pretentions of master narratives with their emphasis on totality and unity. In opposition to the modern self, it highlights the importance of “difference, otherness, local knowledge, and fragmentation.” From the point of view of a history of subjectivity, DST may be characterized as a preliminary phenomenological sketch of an emergent modal subject, shaped by the complicated relations between Marxian base and superstructure, and triggered, on Hermans’ account, by the onset of globalism and the resulting ambiguity, marginalization, nomadism and uncertainty in the relations between the local and the global. Whether its profound emphasis on the relational and the intersubjective promises to deliver us from our planetary crisis of pervasive economic inequalities, permanent war and environmental catastrophe, to exacerbate them, or to make no difference at all is at present a moot point.

It is also interesting to note that the multi-voiced, polyphonic self to which DST introduces us was prefigured in a pathology—multiple personality disorder, now renamed “dissociative identity disorder.” As Kohut (1985) pointed out, the psychoses of one era can be prophetic of the new paradigm of the next: they are styles of subjectivity that are suppressed by the “normal” self model of any given moment, and as such, in a Laingian analysis, “driven mad” by that model. On this account, dissociative identity disorder is a case in which the multiple voices/positions of the self are not only not in dialogue, but are barely aware of each other, if at all. Seen in this way, the “healthy” self of DST is a form of subjectivity that allows for intra-subjective differences and calls for mediating interactions within the self, whereas the Cartesian self enforces a totalistic, monological ideal, which drives difference underground, leading to repression, splitting, and psychosis.  The dialogical self also recognizes the extent to which its external positions—real people either living or dead—are actually part of it, and thus introduces transubjective and intersubjective elements into the self picture, which breaks down the isolation of the subject understood as a single, discrete unit, through rendering the inside-outside or self-other boundary ambiguous and prone to shifting.  

So, is DST to be understood as an evolutionary “advance,” a form of self-understanding that allows us to “be ourselves” rather than be shaped by, for example, the protestant/capitalist ideology of radical individualism? Is it, in other words, a closer approach to the “true” (or “real,” or “authentic,” “undissimulated” or even “emancipated”) self, and thus an escape from ideology? As such, does it even promise, in its deconstruction of boundaries, a new attitude to nature, and to other life forms, as does Herbert Marcuse’s prophetic call for a “new sensibility,” a qualitative “change in the ‘nature’ of man” such that “the organism may become receptive to the potential forms of a nonaggressive, nonexploitative world” (Marcuse, 1969, pp. 5, 6)?  From a critical (if not necessarily an applied, therapeutic) perspective, this is a potentially dangerous speculation: there is no modal subject, no model or paradigm of self that is not the normative product of a certain psychoclass, and which is not rooted in the ineffable relations between base and superstructure, which are so systemically complex and causally interactive and over-determined that they resist any final analysis; in other words, there is no modal subject which is not ideologically marked. The work of Hermans tends to leave this issue moot. In his most recent presentation of the theory (2010), the emphasis is developmental and therapeutic, but not utopian. DST is understood not just as a genealogy and topology of the self, but as a form of understanding that makes it possible for “self” to grow and thrive, to work on itself--to reconstruct itself, always in response to its own systemic vicissitudes. As a grand narrative, it gathers elements of past self-theory—in particular object-relations theory in psychoanalysis, which prefigures its internalized “I-positions,” and dialectical psychology (Riegel, 1979), which understands human development as a process that is initiated and spurred forward by ineradicable internal contradictions. DST is then both descriptive and normative:  the former to the extent that it describes one historically contingent form of self-understanding among others, and the latter to the extent that it privileges that self-understanding as an emergent way of being-in-the-world, and offers an adaptive structure for the post-modern era.


The volume under review here aims to provide a persuasive picture of the onto-genesis of the dialogical self, and in order to do so takes advantage of the fascinating research in infant psychology of the last thirty or so years to paint the emergent self as wholly relational and deeply characterized by alterity, where identity development and change are rooted in dialogical interactions at the most fundamental levels—of body, gesture, and voice—with significant others. The first of thirteen papers is provided by the eminent infant and child psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen, who argues that what he calls “primary intersubjectivity” is based on “protoconversation” between mother and infant, in which rhythmic synchronization grounds a mutually regulating “proto-musical” conversation of voice, gesture, and eye-contact, and in which “creative harmonizing” leads to a “confluence of fluxes of inner time” (p. 12). It is on the basis of the “holding environment” created by these rhythms of interpersonal engagement that, on his account, “secondary intersubjectivity,” which involves cooperative attention to objects and events in the world, develops, leading eventually to “awareness of self in the eyes of another” (ibid).

Succeeding papers in this first section build on Trevarthen’s picture, exploring in detail, with documented support from empirical research, the role of voice, body, imitation (mimesis), and implicit narrative structures in the emergence of language and symbol within the aesthetic, proto-musical ground of mother-infant interaction. In “Polyphony:  A Vivid Source of Self and Symbol,” Gratier and Bertau, working closely from Bakhtin, invoke—with a nod to Freud’s fort-da, the ground of selfhood in the multiple positionings of an interactive dyad:

The striking feature of this experience is the proximity of fusion and separation, the proximity of own and other, becoming a “we” from time to time, but distinguishable—at least in the next separation episode.  It is in this “into” and “away-from” or “out-of” that self and other are experienced in their relatedness and in their separateness. (p. 113)

Following this, Lyra offers a characterization of the mother-infant communicative process as a self-organizing structure, invoking the dynamic systems perspective, with its principles of “self-organization, integration, differentiation, and stability and change” (p. 123) through which arises the idea of the self as a “simultaneity of different positions”—always, on this account, in the context of their mutual interlocution.  Here we get a picture of a form of subjectivity that fundamentally re-draws not only the boundaries between self and other but between the various “I positions” or “me’s” within the self. Perhaps I should say “erases” rather than redraws, but that would not be any more accurate. At the very least it renders the boundaries shifting, ambiguous, and context-dependent. What it does seem to confirm is a picture more faithful to the world of lived experience, in which the relation between inside and outside, between “me” and “you” and “it” is never free of psychological projection. Perhaps it is best described by Lyra as a “virtual space” that is inherently dialogical, which is both the space in which the distanciation and detachment necessary for an individual sense of self is possible, and the space in which that detachment is revealed as never final, as always under co-construction. This space is reminiscent, not just of Merleau-Ponty’s “intercorporeal self” (Marratto, 2013), but of Gilbert Simondon’s (2007) notion of the “metastability” of the individuation process—which he also terms “virtual,” in that individuation is never accomplished, but always drawing in its becoming on elements that are just taking form, and which never exhaust the potential of what might take form differently.

The direction of the volume moves outward from the first section of five papers that offer a genetic account of the origins of the dialogical self in, as Trevarthen puts it, “the infant’s innate talent for intersubjective communication, with its specific human features of vocal learning and gesticulatory mobility, [from] which are elaborated habits and structures of rational thought, problem solving and informative language” (p. 16), to papers that work forward in the life cycle, offering research-supported analyses (almost exclusively case studies) of self-work among adults that is based on the methodology of putting the multiple voices of the self’s I-positions in dialogue. One paper is devoted to expecting mothers’ dialectical working-through, based on internal and external I-positions, of their attitudes towards maternity; another to a young woman’s dialectical process of identity renewal through the encounter and resolution of dissonant self-positions; another to a polyphonic account of supervisory relationships among psychotherapists in training; another to the development and mediation of four very different I-positions in one recovered addict over the course of a lifetime; and finally, a paper on the dialogue between I-positions that results from being positioned between two cultures as a result of immigration.

The last two papers base their case study analyses on an instrument developed specifically for therapeutic contexts, the Assimilation of Problematic Experiences Scale (APES), which “describes progress in building meaning bridges between two voices, one of which is problematic (painful, contradictory) to the other”:

The first APES stages describe the problematic voices as warded off, dissociated, feared, and actively avoided.  Intermediate states describe problematic voices as acknowledged and confronted, dealt with in negotiations, and eventually understood (i.e., connected through meaning bridges). Later stages describe growing integration between voices.  Higher integration is manifested through an easier access and better cooperation between these different perspectives. As meaning bridges are built between previously non-communicating or conflicting voices, they become flexibly accessible to each other, their differences become resources, rather than a source of conflict, and they can jointly address situational challenges. (p. 263)

In the last three papers in this volume, the APES model is applied to individual psychotherapy, to a supervisory situation in psychotherapy, and finally used on a cultural level, where it acts as a framework for understanding the process undergone by individuals negotiating the vicissitudes of dialogue between two cultures (p. 320).


Taken as a whole, the guiding principles of DST are in fact familiar to developmental psychology since its inception at the turn of the last century as theory-of-organism, and any crack they open in that paradigm is not obvious. DST assumes the same patterns of structural transformation as do Piaget’s equilibrative processes, or Werner’s (1957) account of differentiation and integration of functions in development. Those organismic principles are, in turn, reconstructed in holistic and systems theory in DST in the latter half of the century, but do not lose their fundamental dialectical character. Some of those principles are:

1)  Growth as structural transformation/reconstruction.

2) Auto-regulation and self-organization as fundamental mechanisms of ongoing reconstruction. Differentiation within the self-structure is an autopoietic process that, as in Werner, involves both integration and hierarchization of functions.

3) The notion of a permanent tension between elements of the self-structure, which triggers growth (p. 175). This tension tends to organize itself in a bi-polar fashion, in which oppositions within the structure trigger the emergence of a mediated third, through both centrifugal and centripetal developmental movement. The former is characterized by a “multiplicity of positions, discontinuity and innovation, risk of fragmentation,” and the latter by “emergent meta-positions, continuity, stability, [and] risk of rigidity” (p. 42).

4)  The key role of “innovative moments” (p. 205)—moments of rupture, discontinuity, and interruption, in which the dominant structures are challenged by novel experience, which leads to reorganization.

5) A teleological drive toward the adaptive ideal of “self-actualization” through developmental change, and the “transformation from the problematic to the beneficial” (p. 265) through ongoing reconstruction. In the case of DST, this process is identified as the “emergence of new I-positions” (pp. 175, 193), and, through their assimilation and integration, a “widened I.” The healthy self is here understood as coordinating an ongoing dialogue between a “rich and diversified cast of internal characters (pp. 287, 283), as well as those “external others” who are equally part of our self-structure, which  “facilitates an individual’s understanding and acting in a more nuanced and therefore more accurate way,” and which “allows people to successfully face new experiences and makes problems more manageable” (p. 281).

The claim that DST “requires a shift in the psychological unit of analysis from the individual to the individual in dialogue” (p. 162) is not a new one, but rather a further development of organismic adaptation-theory, already clearly articulated in the early 20th century in Piaget’s equilibration theory and Dewey’s transactionalism (1949). That further development appears in the notion, not just of co-regulation, but of co-authoring, whereby the individual recognizes herself as a structure that includes both internal and external elements. In this sense, we may think of DST as an articulation and enrichment of transactionalism—a step triggered by our entry into a technologically mediated, globalized world of ambiguated boundaries. In the last paper of the volume, Robert Elliott identifies DST as an expression of “dialectical constructivism,” which

“holds that most if not all productive processes, across a wide variety of systems, involve the interplay (dialogue, dialectic) between . . . different subprocesses, aspects, parts, persons, or voices.  This interplay can be between self and other(s) in interaction, .  . [between] knower and known in development of knowledge and understanding of  self/others/world, . . .  [between] organismic self and cultural self, . . . etc. (p. 316)

DST also shares humanistic psychology’s self-actualization paradigm to the extent that no papers address its possibilities as a normative ethical theory—the implication being that the self-actualized dialogical self is ipso facto an ethical one, given its teleological orientation towards “health, balance, thriving,” etc. The only contribution in this volume that raises the philosophical issues associated with ethics and subjectivity is by Kenneth Gergen, who interrogates the capacity of the dialogical subject for ethical agency once the rational, unified, centralized moral decision maker of the Cartesian self has been dispersed. Gergen searches DST for something at least analogous to a “core being” of the modern self, and finds nothing stronger than the integrative function of a “narrating subject.” He identifies Bakhtin’s influence in the denial of any “originary voice,” and a vision of the person as “replete with multiple and conflicting voices” in a “universe of heterochrony and multi-temporality.” Absent a Cartesian/Kantian “supra-voice that would stand outside culture and its discursive traditions,” the ethical outcome, he suggests, is both relativism and determinism. He attempts to bypass this dilemma by identifying DST with what he calls “relational being” (for which see Gergen, 2009) which identifies the origins of the moral universe in the co-constitution of reality, and culture as sustained through “generative relational processes” in which the conflict between individual and communal well-being is overcome through “forms of action” that result from “conceptualizing the good,” which is a process, he claims, that is “born in dialogue” (pp. 253-257, passim).

Gergen’s attempt to draw the implications of DST for a normative relational ethics is well taken, if underdrawn in his short contribution to this volume. What might add to its reach is to identify DST’s most characteristic “form of action” as both personal and political. As a representation of the internal politics of the self, DST is openly, aggressively even, democratic. Relations between elements of the self are more or less on an equal footing, intrasubjective power is up for grabs, and the often searing and insoluble conflicts between I positions are not to be solved by the assertion of power of one part over the other. As such, the model that DST presumes to replace is not so much the atomic Cartesian self, whose only real problem is solipsism; rather it is the Platonic tripartite self of Republic (Plato, 1941) in which a “higher” function reinforces its hierarchical dominance over the “lower” functions through outright judgment, domination, and, as Freud first showed us, repression—that is, through violence.  This is a far more formidable opponent of dialogical ethics, for it is re-inscribed in intersubjective relations of power, and as such is the origin of social and political authoritarianism. As the work of the French scholar George Dumezil (1970) has demonstrated, it is the basis for the Indo-European model of social and political class structure: an “enlightened” ruling class uses the class under it—the “warrior” class—as an instrument to control a worker class for purposes of production. One has only to consider numerous recent global political events in which police brutality is used by the elites to crush citizen protest of draconian rule to see that the model is completely contemporary.  In Plato’s tripartite self, the internal and external relations of the parts mirror each other. For example, in an individual of the warrior class, his inner ruling class dimension acts as a superego to repress his own instinctual material producer class stirrings, and to justify his acts of violence against the representatives of that class, upon orders from the ruling class. Although in the psychology of police and military subjects this situation is typically idealized as a form of selfless longing to serve something higher than oneself—in this case the state and the cause of “law and order”--there are multiple levels of and opportunities for corruption in this model, since it is built on the exercise of naked power-over, which takes what it wants when it can.  

Plato’s well-known contempt for democracy is, then, easy to understand. An age in which democracy is understood as a political ideal calls for a different internal politics of the self, and DSL could be the model for the latter that makes the former possible.  Dewey (1916) called this model “social democracy,” and characterized it broadly as a communicative situation in which “each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own” (p. 87). Dewey’s conviction that the school can function as an “embryonic society” in which the democratic, dialogical subject is incubated has not yet been confirmed. Certainly a new, more adapted form of modal subjectivity does not emerge through schooling alone—in fact schooling may be its least powerful form of socialization. The dramatic conservatism, on all levels, of universal public educational institutions and the majority of those who work in them would appear to testify to its evolutionary impotence.  However we cannot help but ask, what would a DST classroom look like? A DST curriculum and pedagogy?  A DST system of school governance? Does DST need to have emerged “on the street” so to speak as a majority form of modal subjectivity, before it can be reproduced in schools, or could the school be the breeding ground for the dialogical self? Is what is commonly known as “progressive education” in fact the herald of a form of education based implicitly on dialogical self theory? These questions are beyond the scope of this review; in fact they may be simply unanswerable at this historical moment. But time will tell.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 06, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17347, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 8:42:22 AM

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