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Bakhtin the ‘Outsider’

In response to:

Revealing Bakhtin from the September 24, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

It speaks to the too familiar impenetrability of disciplinary boundaries in academic life that in her otherwise excellent review of the Morson and Emerson volume on Bakhtin [“Revealing Bakhtin,” NYR, September 24] Aileen Kelly seems utterly unaware of the striking similarities in the thought of Bakhtin and that of the early 20th century American philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Indeed, so uncanny is the resemblance that had the name Bakhtin been omitted from the discussion of his approach to issues of meaning and human action I would have assumed I was reading yet another summary by some sociologist of Mead’s seminal writings on these topics, most notably in Mind, Self and Society (University of Chicago Press, 1934) though in other works of his as well. Small wonder I was further startled to learn from Kelly that Bakhtin chose almost exactly the same title, “Toward a Philosophy of the Act,” for one of his early essays as did Mead’s editors for a particular grouping of his pieces, i.e., The Philosophy of the Act (University of Chicago Press, 1938). This is, to be sure, a coincidence. Still, given the conceptual identities I am about to cite it is coincidence of a higher order, as it were, in which commonalities of thought lead naturally to commonalities of terminology.

While obviously deriving from a very different intellectual tradition, Mead (whose philosophical roots are the American pragmatism of Peirce, James and Dewey), like Bakhtin, placed unusual emphasis on dialogical, interactive processes in the formation of the self and in the world of meaning with which the self is invested. Mead’s “taking the role of the other” has for some sociologists come unfortunately to serve as a kind of clichéd shorthand for the entire corpus of his thought. Such aside, however, it is worth noting that the very phrase is an almost exact analog for Kelly’s claim that “[for Bakhtin] the self cannot be understood…except in relation to an audience whose real and imagined responses shape the way in which we define ourselves” (p. 44). And, by extension, Mead’s call in Mind, Self and Society for a multiplicity and diversity of “others” by which to broaden and edify the experiential self is in striking harmony with the quoted passage from Bakhtin, “…The more differentiated and highly developed a society, the greater importance its members attach to others’ values as the subject of ‘interpretation, discussion, evaluation, rebuttal, support, further development’ ” (p. 44).

Further concordances abound. To point to but three:

—Like Bakhtin, Mead viewed language as much more than a formal system of signs. What he termed “the significant symbol” (only roughly comparable to the signifier in semiotics) was important not because fixed meanings can be ascribed to it but because it facilitates in imagination whole action complexes that when enacted in the give and take of human interaction permits (as Bakhtin found for Dostoevsky’s literary art) the emergence of new meanings and attitudes.

—What Kelly notes as Bakhtin’s aversion to “theoretism” (p. 46) finds striking parallels in Mead’s work. In keeping with the tenor of American pragmatism Mead constantly inveighed against the tendency to explain human action according to some “principle” or to locate it within the parameters of some preformulated system. For Mead, as apparently for Bakhtin, the human freedom to visualize and rehearse in imagination what later might be realized in social action inevitably transcended the categories by which some theorist aimed to capture it.

—While neither by his own account nor that of his interpreters could Mead be thought a literary critic (though Kenneth Burke makes interesting use of Mead’s analyses in his “dramatistic” theory of action) even on so Bakhtin-specific a concern as the novel qua communication a remarkably felicitous chord is struck. Consider the following sentences from Mind, Self and Society (p. 257): “The novel presents a situation which lies outside the immediate purview of the reader in such form that he enters into the attitude of the group in the situation. There is a far higher degree of participation, and consequently of possible communication, under these conditions than otherwise.”

Mead taught and wrote in the open intellectual clime of the University of Chicago until his death in 1931. Bakhtin lived and wrote in the cruel and stifling atmosphere of the Soviet Union until his death in the 1970s. There is no reason to believe either man knew or was even aware of the other. How thinkers of such disparate background living in the profoundly different socio-political milieus in which they did could independently, against the mainstream intellectual currents of their respective societies, achieve so similar a perspective on language and human action is a question far easier to ponder than answer.

Fred Davis
Professor Emeritus
Department of Sociology
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, California

Aileen Kelly replies:

I hope Professor Davis will be happy to learn that utter unawareness was not the cause of my failure to mention the resemblances between Bakhtin and George Herbert Mead. The reason was simply that, striking though these are, they were not relevant to my argument. Nor are they news to literary theorists writing on Bakhtin, who in this case, it seems, have found disciplinary boundaries less impenetrable than their sociologist colleagues. Michael Holquist, for example, devotes part of a chapter in a recent book to the subject (Dialogism, Bakhtin and his World [Routledge, 1990], pp. 55–57). He points out that Bakhtin is only one of a number of thinkers in the twentieth century who have grappled with the problem of how individual selves relate to groups: that the work of the American school led by James Mark Baldwin and James Rowland Angell caused Mead, in the decade preceding the First World War, “to ponder many of the same questions that would preoccupy Bakhtin…especially in the area of a language-based social psychology.” Holquist quotes from Mead’s work to illustrate the similarity between his and Bakhtin’s formulations of self/other relations, but notes that Bakhtin’s “relentless emphasis on dialogic relations sets him apart even from those other thinkers who like him have sought the essence of language in dialogue.”

The coincidences between such thinkers and the intellectually isolated Bakhtin are less mysterious than Professor Davis believes: Bakhtin had the good fortune to develop as a philosopher before that isolation was imposed on him. His thought was rooted in a tendency as common among Russian as among Western thinkers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to reformulate fundamental questions of epistemology in the light of new versions of the mind and models of the world then emerging in the natural sciences. A case in point was Empiriocriticism, developed principally by the philosopher Richard Avenarius and the mathematical physicist Ernst Mach, whose pragmatic and activist approach to cognition was adopted by a group of dissident Russian Bolshevik philosophers in the early 1900s. Bakhtin’s own reformulation of the nature of the self can be seen as part of a movement stretching back to Hegel, away from Enlightenment universalism toward the current “postmodern” insistence on the biological and cultural context-dependence of all knowledge.

There is much current interest in matching Bakhtin with other thinkers who anticipated or are now expressing these preoccupations—a process of intellectual discovery whose excitement is conveyed in Professor Davis’s letter. But, as I argued in my review, its aim is frequently to enlist Bakhtin in ranks in which he would never have marched. This was why I chose to focus instead on his distinguishing cultural characteristics as a Russian intellectual, an “outsider” with respect to the European culture that was the object of his life’s study. Bakhtin himself believed that this distancing perspective was essential to his insights. As he put it in an interview a few years before his death,

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 even 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.

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