Dialogism Between Theory and Ethics

As my title says, what strikes me most about dialog is that it lies at the intersection of theoretical and practical area, to spell it in Kantian words. We may even say that it appears as a kind of magical key or tool for both orders: it has been thought and still may be sustained that dialog defines the only way or the best way towards truth; there are people who judge that maintaining the conditions for dialog is what ethics are about, or who conceive of dialog as the right path towards valid norms. What Kant himself meant to locate “between” all the districts of philosophy, as a kind of common term, was rather reason: it could be that bestowing such a function to dialog instead of reason characterizes contemporary mind or debate.

So, my first goal will be to understand a little better dialog’s role and function both in the theoretical and the practical context.

Dialog and the search for truth

Well, we should begin the story with Plato, I guess. Being not a specialist, I’m not well equipped to deal with the subject. Still, I may dare some remarks, hoping the corresponding points to be uncontroversial.

Platonic dialectic

Dialog has a methodological weight in Plato’s philosophy. Dialog should be the living spoken one, and not the written one, in contradiction to what Plato as a matter of fact did. In the living dialog, every speech act comes with his author’s thought’s warrant: the one who uttered something stands behind it and is able to rescue it, to bring any kind of strengthening to it, in order to avoid it to be criticized or wrongly understood. This property of living Platonic dialog was underlined by Levinas.

Dialog is the right path in the research of truth, at least if we are able to admit of the thing in itself as our referee or our judge: if we do not so much speak to each other being concerned of our addressee at every step, but call for each other’s testimony about some shared object. When dialog really internalizes itself between its two partners, it does it at the risk of becoming persuasion, forgetting about truth.

Dialog has a rhythm which suits to the research of truth, but this rhythm has nothing to do with address: it corresponds with iteration of dichotomy.

Dialog is the preferred tool towards truth, but this does not mean that dialog is symmetrical.

Dialog may consist in someone extracting from someone this eternal truth she bears in herself. This typically happens during the “math’s lesson”. The math’s teacher, as we see in the Meno, asks questions to his pupil, the young slave, to the effect that he brings him to the same level of anamnesis he already enjoys. Therefore, it is very difficult how dialog could help deepening anamnesis: the best it can favor is equalizing anamnesis between subjects. And for the same reason, historical progress of mathematics as anamnesis science does not seem to may find resources in dialog.

In other cases, dialog may be the technical device thanks to which a master leads the weaker minds of his pupils to some shared conception, using them as supportive answerers before including them in the “we” of the conquered intellection: it happens so in Laws, X, as Lyotard commented it once.

In the whole, I would say that dialog does not clearly count as dialog in the strong sense in Plato’s conception. The function of dialog does not mean that there is some extraordinary value of my being “with” the other person through dialog. Dialog is a methodological device, but it has to be converted into dialog about the real object – which amounts to a new discipline – and it appears more as a structural framework for conceptual journey than as the basic “intersubjective cell”.

Kant and Hegel

Behaving like a German idealist philosopher, I jump from the Greeks (among which I neglected Aristoteles) to Kant.

First, having already Hegel in mind, we may consider Kant’s famous antithetic of pure reason. Should it really be regarded as a dialog? I’m not sure of that. To be sure, a kind of dialogical form gets exhibited, as far as the antithesis is supposed to answer the thesis. One would like to say that they built together a dialogical loop, indefinitely answering each other. But Kant does not picture things like that. Antithesis and thesis install together the paradoxical node at once, insofar as they are labeled by P and ĮP. There is no attempt in the text to bring to the fore any dialogical dynamic which would address us from the thesis to the antithesis and vice versa. What I have just described is what indeed happens with the famous Liar, but not here with antithetic of pure reason.

Also to be remembered, because of the future, is the table structure which is given by Kant to his very short dialog, consisting only in the three steps 1) P ; 2) ĮP ; 3) Paradox. Kant wants to write the thesis on the left, and the antithesis on the right, in such a way that the resulting paradox appears as “said” by the mere juxtaposition of the two columns of the table.

But we should also, I guess, think of another Kantian topos: the three maxims of common sense, appearing in the third Critique. As one remembers, these three maxims ask us to think by ourselves, to think having tried the other’s position, and to think coherently. Such kind of thinking, obeying the three maxims, is likely to promote sensus communis, a common way of feeling the world and conceiving of it. We find no explicit reference to dialog in these maxims, neither any indication that Kant would consider sensus communis as arising through dialog: such a view looks more like a contemporary import. Still the second maxim introduces some regard for the other person in the picture: but how could we measure our transposition attempts without dialog? Does this maxim not already presupposes that we have some reciprocity ability which cannot be grounded in anything but dialog? If so much is true, then dialog appears as a hidden condition of sensus communis, even if sensus communis is formulated as a shared regulation of the relationship towards World or Nature, not involving the I-The other person relationship.

Now comes the morceau de bravoure: this general setting for rationality which we call Dialectics after Hegel, forgetting in a rather unfair way other uses of the expression (even Kantian “transcendental dialectic” is sent into the shadow by Hegel’s triumph). This impressive success achieves a kind of reshaping of the expression’s semantics: after Hegel, we do not conceive dialectics as referring to human dialog; we only retain some kind of rhythm, better said of logical/ontological rhythm, not even necessarily related to language. Dialectics names a mode of move, or better the basic cell from which every kind of move arises, the scheme standing in genetic position towards becoming in general, without distinguishing itself from it: dialectics is becoming, and the key or the core of becoming at the same time. Dialectics is simultaneously temporal, logical and ontological. Being assumes the assertive form of P, but such assumption already involves the assertion of ĮP, both calling for an overcoming Q, richer and enfolding P as well as ĮP. This structure accounts for the passing of time (future is the byproduct of Aufhebung, past is what dialectics looks at back). This structure uses logic, it takes advantage of the strength and universality of contradiction (and then dissolves it). This structure, ultimately, is the deepest structure of Being, Being is nothing but Becoming, which is nothing but Dialectics.

At one level, all of this has nothing to do with Dialog, but at another level, it gets its name from Dialog and has to be read remembering Dialog. Dialectics teaches that the fundamental move of Being takes a dialogical form. We may thing Being as objecting to itself and overcoming its internal debate, such a dialogical narrative standing for the core of Being, Logic and Time. Encapsulated in the dialectical scheme, we find several most important “generalizations” of Dialog: not only Dialog may be Dialog of human person with Nature, but Dialog ultimately can be predicated of the relation of Nature to itself; and this also means that we are called to think of the transition from one instant to some future one in a dialogical way, time unfolds itself in a dialogical way; finally, negation should not be conceived of in a limited way as sentence relative, negation concerns every kind of position arising amidst Being.

All of this generalized lexicon has been assimilated by continental philosophy. Its consequences, as we perhaps do not underline it usually, run in two directions. On one hand, such lexicon encourages us to forget about Dialog, thinking in terms of Dialog what seems not to deserve it. Typically, we name Dialog and think as Dialog the epistemic relation of human kind to nature. Even more, we are ready to interpret any becoming, or ultimately the passing of time itself, as the expression of a kind of self-dialog. Such conceptions arise in a lot of writings, not only Hegelian ones. But on the other hand, this language may induce us to really think in terms of Dialog beyond the frontier of dialog in the narrow or strict sense of inter-human talk. Buber insists that Dialog has to connect the I with some not fake Thou. Because of the philosophical weigh he bestows to his Thou concept, it seems that Dialog is supposed to be relation to the irreducible, to the resisting Other as such. Nevertheless, in Buber’s conception the Thou may be Nature (associated with its mystery, as poetry sings it), and the best case for the Thou, maybe, is God: Buber takes advantage of Hegelian facility. But it can be argued that when he does it, the requirements of the notion of Dialog are not erased, on the contrary they get awakened by the very gesture of generalizing the word’s use.

To finish with this section, we may legitimately say that, from a Hegelian perspective, Dialog counts as an obligatory way towards truth, in following sense: Dialog is analyzed as the substance of Being as ongoing Being, therefore knowledge, in order to correspond to Being, has to be in some way dialogical. We know how discourse makes itself dialogical in Hegel’s sense: by taking up dialectical rhythm, which means never tolerating any rest in the “unilateral” truth, but always jumping to the other side of totality, this in turn happening only thanks to the logic of contradiction. The philosopher really seeking for truth has to listen to any finite judgment well enough to hear its negation arising from it, and to accompany the Aufhebung which determines itself as negation of negation: but these steps have under Hegelian eyes the character of a dialog. The correct way of letting ĮP arise from P is to welcome it as a kind of answer of P to itself. And this was, maybe, the deep reason for calling dialectic the new logic. Dialectic is nothing but the internalization and ontologization of dialogical move. Hegel confesses in his very particular way that thought never really moves when not advocated within Dialog.

Contemporary logically minded insights

I now come to a more recent way of taking very seriously the function of dialog within rationality: the “analytical” one, which claims to recover all philosophical stakes at the level of logic. I shall evoke here only two kind of works, quite different from each other, even if they can be related: what is called “dialogical logic” on one hand, thinking above all of Shahid Rahman’s work, and the well known “logic of conversation” of Grice on the other hand. Somewhere between the two sources or trends, we should also consider Hintikka’s work, because it crosses in some sense both: but we won’t here, at least not in a significant way.

I begin with “dialogical logic”. It may be described as a way to account for logical validity. For example, we define in classical predicate logic exceptional formulas which are, semantically considered, satisfied under any interpretation in any structure, or, which are, syntactically considered, derivable from some basic logical axioms following some straightforward inference rules ; or again, which may be proved in the system of natural deduction. These exceptional formulas are the valid ones, or the universally valid ones, or predicate calculus’s theorems: Gödel’s completeness theorem warrants that each of these denominations names the same formulas. Dialogical logic would then be an alternative formal method for singling out these formulas. For every formula X applying for logical validity, we imagine a dialog, between a proponent (P) and an opponent (O). P asserts X towards O, and initiates in that way a dialogical game, where the opponent is going to attack X in every possible way, and P will defend it also in every possible way, both according to some specific rules telling exactly how something is supposed to be attacked or defended. In this strange dialog, each protagonist only utters formulas, and each time, as an attack of a by the other previously uttered formula, or as a defense of a by the other previously attached formula. When P utters some formula, he claims it to be true. When O utters some formula, he concedes it to be true, challenging P to establish that the original formula is true granted the just uttered formula is. The game finishes when one of the player cannot do any new move, in which case this player has lost the game. The rules of this dialog game are such that X is indeed logically valid exactly when P has a winning strategy against O, starting the game with X as we said.

At first sight, the dialog game, as a tool for checking formulas validity, looks as very similar to Beth’s method of semantic tables, as Hintikka observes it. But, as Hintikka again points, justifying X with Beth tables it is at the same time very akin to formally proving X (one only has to read the semantic tables in the reverse way). So after all, we would be tempted to estimate dialog games as not really dialogical. There is no real dialog in them, because P and O are not two genuine persons, they are just labels for a drawing or presentation device (like in Kant’s transcendental dialectic, what we are facing is tables rather than dialogs). Or, if we take seriously Hintikka’s commentary on these semantic games, P stands for “Myself” and O for “Nature”, at least when the game is a real “outdoor game” in which we try to check whether some statement in true in the actual world (but we have to keep this reading in mind when we play the indoor game of checking universal validity: the only difference is that Nature in that case only speaks at the level of its most general structures). Therefore, dialogical logic appears to be only dialogic in the shifted generalized meaning introduced by Hegel: this would not make it likable for Russell.

But may be, we have not been fair with dialogical logic. When we look more carefully at some of Shahid Rahman’s recent results, the picture changes. As a matter of fact, it appears that one can characterize some more or less ‘nonstandard’ logics in dialogical terms: it is enough to introduce one specific rule on dialogs to make the underlying logic intuitionist, free, or even paraconsistent. We get the force of intuitionist rejection of excluded middle simply by forbidding any player to answer any other attack than the most recent opened one. In order to enjoy a free logic, where a logical constant may not refer to any actual individual, allowing for fictional discourse, we just have to decide that only the opponent O is allowed to introduce a logical constant in the dialog: the meaning of this rule is that logical constants involved in the original formula declared by the proponent may not be used as logical cases in the debate: they are not known to be names of actual individuals, only the constants introduced by the opponent have this status. Shahid Rahman, in his paper « On Frege’s Nightmare »,  designs a dialogical rule such that the underlying logic would be at the same time intuitionist, free and paraconsistent, which explains for the title of the paper.

It seems that after all, dialogical logic has something genuinely dialogical in itself: rational forms are translated into “positional rules”, rules that break the symmetry between the two players of the dialog-game, or “temporal rules” referring to dialog’s rhythm. But the very possibility of such dissymmetry belongs to dialog in an essential way, at least if we understand it rightly. We are accustomed to understand reciprocity as the major property of dialog. We could be wrong: the first basic rule of dialog, the one which applies to me as well as to my addressee, and whose observance is an imperative condition for dialog to hold, is that I know my position not to be my addressee’s one: that I understand his “mine” not to have the same meaning as mine, for example, or that I don’t recognize myself as designated when he utters “I”.

In that spirit, fictional discourse is understood by dialogical logic as expressing my respect for Nature as an addressee: I do not deal with individuals whose names I freely included in my claims as if Nature had introduced them in its dialog with me. In classical empirical thought, Nature introduces an individual when it gives it to me in sensitive perception. Transcendental philosophies object that this indeed never happens. Then we should probably only distinguish between levels of dialogs, each one being connected with a range of background acknowledged individuals. I do not go further in such an attempt to reformulate in dialogical terms the classical debate of philosophy of knowledge. We have seen at least that dialogical insights may be relevant and useful in order to understand some very deep and fundamental features of rational enterprise.

I now evoke Grice’s conceptions, which are representative of a quite different reflection. What Grice tries to convince us of, indeed, is rather that the finality of dialog is responsible for a kind of “second strata” in the meaning process, which goes beyond the level of conventionalized meaning, and could be the most important one in ordinary speech exchange. We are usually understanding sentences, or more generally linguistic phrases, through what Grice calls implicatures: we are reaching another meaning level by taking into account conversation’s finality, and deducing this second meaning from the first level conventional meaning. In Grice’s words, something is meant via (awaited) implicature which was not said. Let us quote one of Grice’s funny examples. In the dialog

« A: Smith doesn’t seem to have a girlfriend these days.

B: He has been paying a lot of visits to New York lately »[1],

B implicates that A sees a girlfriend in New York, although he does not say it. Well, is that politically correct enough for North America? At least, it suits very well for an European. We may reach this underlying meaning by making use of the conversational maxim “Be relevant”: B would not evoke theses visits of Smith without the intention of saying something about the topic, Smith’s sexual or sentimental life.

Grice enumerates a collection of rules which are supposed to govern conversation as a collective process. All theses rules follow from the Cooperative Principle: « Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged »[2]. Grice particularizes this principle according to each of the four Kantian category titles, coming to more precise rules like « Do not say what you believe to be false », « Avoid obscurity of expression » or « Make your contribution as informative as required ».

When one reads Grice’s various examples, one gets the feeling that he tries to absorb all kind of “contextual” meaning effect with his implicature notion. So his conceptual setting reminds us other distinctions, like the old “denotation/connotation” one. The Cooperative Principle and the conversational maxims it yields, do the job of accounting for the impossibility of defining meaning in a syntactical and semantic univocal way: each time it may be alleged that linguistic expressions signify differently than would be according to some systematic meaning computation, we should explain it at the level of some at least putative conversation, where the resulting meaning becomes deducible from the conversational maxims, granted we now enough from the circumstances.

Such analyzes have the advantage of leaving unchallenged, and in its limited way perfectly valid, the first level of conventional meaning. In the background, there is no doubt that Grice enters an implicit debate with the fundamental contention of analytical philosophy in general: that meaning of sentences resides in their truth conditions. Quite characteristic is the way Grice deals with the meaning of the syntactical pattern “ If …, then …”. It has been often sustained that the logical translation of “If P then Q” by P®Q was in most cases false: usually, when we say “If P then Q”, we do not mean that the truth conditions for the material conditional P®Q obtain, but rather that there is some a priori connection between P and Q which justifies the expectation that Q is the case in case P is. But Grice maintains that at some primary level, “If P then Q” exactly means that the truth conditions of P®Q obtain. We only reach the other interpretation through the maxim « Make your contribution as informative as required »: the utterer cannot now that ĮP or that Q, the two possible truth justifications for P®Q, because if he would, he would have rather uttered them, in application of the maxim. So most likely he utters “If P then Q” because he only knows some a priori connection of the just specified kind. Grice’s analysis, in such case, seems to protect the classical dogmatic logical reading of language. Dialog will be the only culprit for meaning not to be the exact machinery hoped by Frege and Russell, and which people like Montague or Kamp have tried to design.

A second important point, for the present paper, is connected with the proposition of the Cooperative Principle itself. Apparently, to obey Cooperative Principle does not amount to admit of truth of the only relevant goal, it does not condemn every dialog to be a theoretical one. Still, most of Grice’s maxims seem to assume such a theoretical goal (as the ones we quoted above). But in any case, there is a big problem in postulating cooperation as a principle for any dialog: we feel that many dialogs are rather dispute-driven. Could Grice argue that some cooperation is needed even in order to keep the dispute topically going on? I think this would not be a serious escape of the difficulty. We only adopt a restricted notion of dispute if we think of dispute always as some kind of framed and controlled development, calling for cooperative support from each part at each step. Human conversation shows very likely more digressive disputes, where each partner escapes, deceives, shakes or attacks the other, making to that effect great use of topical move. J.F. Lyotard was descriptively more convincing when evoking dispute as a kind of divergence principle for any dialog: both partners, in many cases, conflict about what can count as “win” for the sequence of exchanges phrases, in such a way that they do not refer to the same finality.

This point is of some importance for one who wants to deal with dialog’s foudational significance with respect to ethics. But it already bothers a conception like Grice’s one which identifies to quickly dialog with something like the scientific search for truth.

We also find in Grice a quite different orientation. He seems to be tempted to redefine every meaning in terms of dialog (instead of keeping the opposition between conventional linguistic meaning and implicature meaning). First, he spends a lot of effort in an attempt to define “U meant something by uttering x”, in which x, that U utters, in not necessary a linguistic performance, a phrase. But he then outlines as a sensible program the program of reducing what he calls “timeless meaning” of linguistics performances to some occasional notion of  “meaning by uttering that x”. He goes in that direction as far as trying to account for referential use of nouns. Grice sees very well that in his enterprise he takes psychological attitudes, like intentions, beliefs, and so on, as part of what underlies meaning. And he is aware that this goes beyond classical extensionalist conception of meaning, as we already evoked it. In Grice’s words:

« I will hardly have escaped notice that my account of the cluster of notions connected with the term “meaning” has been studded with expressions for such intensional concepts as those of intending an believing (…).

Second, I said at one point that intensionality seems to be embedded in the very foundations of the theory of language (…) »[3].

But this “intensionalstrata, in Grice’s case, is connected with dialog: intentions are typically intentions to transmit to the addressee some believes or intentions. Propositional attitudes are considered in the context of dialogical game, through whose moves they jump from some dialog-partner to the other one.

So we meet with Grice another ambition concerning dialog: dialog appears not so much as the methodological path towards truth, but as the relevant world for psychological attitudes adventures which ground any possible meaning. Dialog plays the major part in the philosophical grounding of meaning. Meaning has to be analyzed and understood as transmitted within dialog, and in relation with what we could call “dialog intentions”.

This new foundational status for dialog, I guess, stands between the theoretical and the practical. The meaning issue – as always already dialogical – is at the same time theoretical, because any possible knowledge content will have to be uttered and communicated according to the general conditions of meaning, and practical, because meaning’s transmission includes much of what we usually consider as behavior with respect to the other person.

But let us now turn to this “ethical” problematic of dialog.

Dialog as ethical form

I first want to evoke here, in a brief and unspecialized manner, Habermas’s motive of an “ethics of discussion”.

Ethics of discussion

Well, I think Habermas’s basic claim is rather well known. We have to take up, following him, Kant’s view that possible universalization is the right criterion for morality, but Kant was wrong in trying to locate such a criterion in some principle, associated with some explicit sentence or text (of the categorical imperative). Any such principle becomes weak under skeptical suspicion. But we can recover its wisdom at the pragmatic level of unavoidable rules for discussion. Any skeptical attack has to enter the area of debate, and of “fair debate” even. So there are rules governing any possible discussion as far as it is not imprisoned from the beginning inside some restricted moral conceptions or world’s picture, rules to which we always already have committed ourselves. They correspond to a level of shared rationality that we cannot deny or reject. They include the unacceptability of the exclusion of any qualified protagonist in the ongoing discussion, and in that way they entail that a “conclusion” for the debate about what should be kept as social norm will have to be such that any rational subject would be able to want such norm. 

To be more explicit, I enclose here a summary of the “dialog rule”, as formulated by P. Alexy (he calls them “argumentative presuppositions”, which fits to the just outlined conception of these rules):


Group 1

1.1 No speaker is allowed to contradict himself.

1.2 Every speaker who applies predicate F to object a should be ready to also apply F to any object b which in every relevant aspect is like a.

1.3 Two different speaker are not allowed to use the same linguistic expression under two different meanings.


Group 2

2.1 Every speaker may only assert what he himself believes to be true.

2.2 Anyone who challenges some statement outside of the discussion’s scope should give his reasons for that.


Group 3

3.1 Every subject able to speak and to act has to be able to take part to the discussion.

3.2 a. Everyone has to be allowed to question whichever statement he wishes to.

3.2.b. Everyone has to be allowed to import into the discussion whichever statement he wishes.

3.2.c. Everyone should be allowed to express his views, his desires and his needs.

3.3 No speaker should be blocked by any authoritarian pressure to make use of his rights as defined by 3.1and 3.2.


Put together, these “pragmatic rules” are supposed to shape a good dialogical space, securing that truth concerning the facts will be searched in a correct way (first group), that speakers will be authentic and will stick to the point (second group), and that no a priori dissymmetry will alter the possible outcome of discussion (third group).

The question we may raise here, taking for granted that such discussion rules would indeed warrant the ethical content of discussion’s outcome, is whether the imagined scenario for choosing the right norms makes dialog the crucial origin of ethics.

It is very difficult not to think that all these rules witness for the possibility of dialog to violate rationality, authenticity and ethics (depending on which group of rules gets infringed) : their very formulation confess the contingency of their observance. I understand that philosophers like Habermas do not see it in that way: for them, when we disobey such rules, what we are taking part to stops being dialog properly understood. Habermas’s contention, then, is that all our ideal measures concerning truth, good and authenticity are already encapsulated in the ideal measure of dialog. And that we experience this ideal measure as something we continue to pragmatically rely on (to feel as having to be respected within our dialogs) even when we favor statements thematically contradicting them (skeptical statements, for example).

But still, the requirements concerning dialog whose list was just given do not essentially proceed from some deep feature of dialog as such. Or at least, Habermas’s explanation does not seem to me to illuminate them in such a way. We are not explained why dissymmetrical talks, manipulative discussions, or uncoherent discourse strategy in dialogs contradict the core of what dialog should be. Therefore, I have the feeling that Habermas, less radically, only designates dialog as the basic experience locus for any ideal measure. Which indeed attributes a mostly important role to dialog with respect to ethics (and also to rationality), but not as we were imagining.

If we try to dig a little more, maybe we will have to say that dialog provides for such an experience locus because our ideal measures are fundamentally collective. They draw their value from our sharing them: therefore, we meet them with their unescapable meaning and strength when we face the others in our discussions. We become responsible for them and aware of them as soon as we are in position effectively to share them. In Kants’s view (or at least in vulgar Kant’s view) all the normative content concerning possible judgments (which is called transcendental content) comes to be felt and known in reflection, with imagination’s help perhaps. Habermas simply wants us to relate to the same transcendental content in a more external way, in the context of dialogs. But this does not lead him to question dialog as such. Or to put in differently, dialog counts only as a given form of the collective as opposed to the personal-subjective. It is for sure, very important, that dialog appears as the original cell of any collective reality. I ignore if Habermas’s philosophy highlights that point.

Talmudic controversy

Continuing to reflect on dialog’s relevance with respect to ethics, I shall now consider the possible teaching of Talmudic tradition. My analysis will be based on one chapter of Georges Hansel’s recent book De la Bible au Talmud, called « La controverse talmudique : décadence ou progression »[4].

The whole chapter comments on this sentence of the Erouvin treatise which is attributed to a « heavenly voice », and which puts an end to the controversy about Jewish law having opposed during three years the Chammaē and the Hillel school : « les paroles des uns et des autres sont les paroles du Dieu vivant » [the words of each of them are words of the living God].

As it is well known, the law nevertheless is taken to be as Hillel’s school was teaching it. So the Talmud invents here, at the level of the principle, a way of dealing with internal controversy, between masters of the Jewish ethical science of law (hoh’ma): even when such controversies are decided in favor of one or of the other, the position of the minority is kept as part of the truth, at a kind of surprising equal rank with the winning one.

Georges Hansel explains how we should understand this principle, what it means with respect to the controversy itself. It is then a natural question to ask whether the principle also enfolds some conception concerning dialog.

The first way to interpret the principle is to understand it as insisting on a deep unity, underlying the various confronting ideas or positions: each of them expresses some face of reality, or maybe some in itself legitimate subjective approach of the same reality. This understanding of the principle is best explained by the Maharal, whom Georges Hansel quotes. The law has to be decided in some way, because it has to be one: what this decision does is to select some aspect or some perspective who are or should be prevailing under normal circumstances. But it is always possible that in some new circumstances, the judgment about what prevails should change, bestowing effective authority to some until then rejected view (Georges Hansel quotes here Rachi and the Edouiot treatise).

Do we find here some way of valuing dialog (in the specific form of the controversy) in itself? I do not feel sure of this. What shows here essential is that we have at disposal many views, but not, as far as I understand it, that they arise in the context of dialog. For sure, it is mentioned as a possible ground for the arousal of the diverse views that they originate in the diverse personalities of the diverse masters. But would each one work alone on the side of himself, without entering dialog, the result would be the same. We certainly need a judgment taking every proposal into account: but here, the relevant form is the collective democratic debate, ruled by the majority principle, and not dialog as living dual exchange of meaning. Still, we have the memory of the Chammaē-Hillel case, where it seems that such kind of dialog occurred. Or was it only a war, each school sending its conclusion to the other, and no dual dynamic governing the very constitution of each position?

I do not try to resume here all the interpretations which Georges Hansel evokes. I immediately come to the last one, because it definitely concerns dialog.

Georges Hansel tells the story of Rabi Yohanan and Rech Laqich. The second one was a mighty burglar, when Rabi Yohanan met him and convinced him to become a Talmudic master instead. Rech Laqich used to quarrel with Rabi Yohanan his friend about law points. But then Rech Laqich dies, to the effect that Rabi Yohanan is very sad and lacks him. The community tries to give him Rabbi Eleizer ben Pedat as a new sparring partner. But Rabi Eliezer only finds references supporting Rabi Yohanan’s views. Rabi Yohanan therefore complains:

« C’est toi qui remplaces Rech Laqich ? Rech Laqich, quand je disais quelque chose, me faisait 24 objections, je lui faisais 24 réponses et ainsi l’étude était féconde et progressait » [ « Are yo the one who is supposed to take Rech Laqich’s place? Rech Laqich, when I said something, used to object in 24 ways, and I replied by 24 answers, and in that way study was fruitful and making progress »]

Here, we clearly see that dialog is valued for itself, although only in the very specific form of the rational quarrel.

This particular kind of truth which is sought for in Talmudic tradition, a truth at the same time theoretical and ethical, is meant to be easier, or better, or more likely reached if searchers take benefit of the “objection/counter-objection” structure. Which, for sure, is what many people think in a lot of intellectual disciplines, to begin with, in scientific ones.

But the story also tells that such confronting may have a dramatic impact on persons. When your partner attacks your thought, you may suffer deeply, and there is a risk that friendship, and the possibility of working and living together, gets lost. Still, we should undertake dialog, for the sake of the better truth, useful to the whole community.

One could ask why rational war helps? Is it so clear that it helps imagining and formulating the best opinions that each one gets attacked by someone?

The natural answer would be that the best opinion is the one that anticipates and enfolds the richest content. And dialog brings to me, as the content of my adversary’s talk, any content I could have neglected, any apparently bad case for my universal statement I have to cope with in order to make it stronger.

I see a kind of tension, here, between two understandings of the relevance of dialog.

On one hand, it is possible to regard the addressee as necessary because he plays the role of the Opponent in dialogical logic. He is a kind of logical employee who logically verifies my statements by objecting everything that can be objected according to logical rules. That is indeed very useful, but it is not completely absurd to think that I could play the part of the Opponent myself. Or that a machine could play it.

On the other hand, it is possible to interpret our need of a dialog partner as connected to our need of this look into the problem that we would never think of, this view that changes the whole debate by adding new dimensions and new requirements to it. Here the addressee is indispensable as the other person, the one I cannot ever enclose in my thoughts.

Or maybe, the sadness of Rabi Yohanan, realizing that Rech Laqich is not likely to be replaced, relates to both aspects, without feeling any tension between them. Our dialog partner counts at the same time as the co-intellectual who carries with us the burden of logical exploration according to the rules, and as the unmasterable other person, who brings the unpredictable at the semantic level.

Levinas, RicŌur and the conditions for dialog

I now come to what I believe to be a well known debate, connected with a famous objection of RicŌur to Levinas. RicŌur reads Levinas, and understands that for him, the other person is infinite (she is the face, bearing an unlimited requirement towards me). He therefore objects that the Infinite is not likely to be a dialog partner. Our dialog partner should share finiteness with us. Which is more, our dialog partner has to stand in a reciprocal relationship with us (would it only be in order to understand that our I coincides with his Thou, and vice versa): but for Levinas, the other person, remarks RicŌur, occupies the Thou position beyond any possible reciprocity. This point is even something that Levinas often underlines (for example when he comments on Buber).

I have heard that objection a lot of times: it has been, quite evidently, much convincing and successful in the opinion of many readers. Still, I find the objection misconstrued. But more importantly, there is something that we win if we counter-object.

Levinas, indeed, never claims that the other person is infinite, or equates with the Infinite. Such statement would be an attempt to convert the other person’s status in the ontological framework. The other person does not deserve the predication by the infinite, because this would contradict this kind of “experience” of the Infinite that we find in the “ethical plot”. Here we could even remark that, would it be the case that the other person “is” infinite, then the statement, concerning a variable, would have universal value: therefore I would be infinite myself as anyone, and dialog would have to happen “between” two infinites: whether it looks like possible or impossible, I don’t see very clearly. But let us be more serious, and try to come back to what Levinas really means. He means that as far as I learn the original meaning of ethics when facing the other person, she counts as infinite. It is not by knowing the other person, or calculating her as standing in reciprocal formal relationships with me, that I begin to understand ethics as what is incumbent on me. But this is not to be translated as the acknowledgment of some metaphysical equation of the other person with the infinite. Very clearly, the other person stands like me in the finite area of accessible being, and I have to locate myself at such material level in order to help her, as Levinas always underlines. So, the important point is that Infinite only intervenes in Levinas’s construction as some meaning component of the ethical plot, some dimension of how I learn ethics, its stakes and its obligatory character. Not as a positive permanent property of any subject, having then to be coped with in some behavioral economy.

So much for the controversy. But, as I announced, there is more to draw from the point. I now come to it, trying to address more intrinsically the question of dialog at the same time. But this part of the work I will assume as part of my personal philosophical program of etho-analysis. Which has to be explained.

Etho-analysis of Dialog

Etho-analysis is a kind of continuation of the phenomenological program, which aims at describing the various sense regions of human experience, as Husserlian phenomenology was attempting to describe the various objects region coming into consideration for consciousness, each of them correlated with some intentional mode. We recognize that some sense region is going on when we realize that some part of our experience keeps contact with the stakes indicated by some special word, which I call a soliciter (sollicitant in French): such words, while being nouns, cannot be correctly interpreted as designating a class of items in reality, even of unorthodox items (of subjective or linguistic type for example). I characterize them as ideality words, because they stand more for something that should be than for something that is. For example (one of the three examples that I consider in my book Territoires du sens[5]), the word love does not refer to a class of loves (relational episodes) or of being in love objects: we use it in current talk more in order to name what is at stake, which perspective is relevant on what’s going on. Maybe we build a lot of predicative sentences involving love, but the referential content is never the relevant content. What the soliciter points at, is that we, human kind, try to keep sense for love, and we do it at the global level of our lives. There is a whole behavioural, linguistic and subjective network which warrants that we go on trying to have love relationships, and evaluate how far we succeed in satisfying the corresponding requirements. This setting I call the ethos corresponding to the sense region motivated by the soliciter. To describe the sense region amounts to make what I call its sensance (sémance in French) explicit: as Husserl suggests us to find, through the eidetic variation method, the essence which specifies under exactly which conditions some object of some considered region is received and recognized as such, I try to find the prescription’s bundle which governs the truthful continuation of the sense region. There are ways of feeling, speaking and acting that we have to follow as long as we wish to claim to be part to the love tradition, to add one case to it. Sensance simply enumerates these implicit commands.

Well, I think that we have to regard dialog as a soliciter, as more than a technical logical-linguistic term picking out from reality speech sequences with alternate utterers. There are some requirements for us to deserve being considered as going on with dialog’s tradition. But we have to try to be precise with these requirements, looking for dialog’s sensance.

Contrary to what ontologically minded philosophers judge, what makes dialog authentically dialog is not the formal sequence of speech acts, or the principled symmetry of both speech positions. When some partner does not take into account the other one’s speech, when he only says what he anyway wished to say, as we very often witness in talk shows or interviews of personalities, and alas also in philosophy conferences, we feel that dialog is damaged and corrupted, that no genuine dialog any more happens.

We have just identified here, I guess, the most basic requirement for dialog, quite different of Habermas’s rules or RicŌur’s ontological claim concerning reciprocity or symmetry: the requirement that what is said by each partner is “sensitive” to what he has heard. A requirement of “receptive relaunching”, to try to name it with suiting words.

Now at the root of this receptive relaunching requirement, we find Infinity in Levinas’s sense. It is only if I’m able do deal ethically at least with respect to what is said to me (even if not with respect with my dialog partner), that I’m able to relaunch the dialog in a careful and receptive way, at each step. I need here some part of the ethical ability, some dimension of the ethical relationship, the one which makes me listen to the other person’s speech as teaching. I have to feel what the other person says as potentially rich of some meaning that I do not already master in order to properly listen to her or him, and in order to hold a genuine dialog with her or him.

So the perspective which associates Infinity with the other person, involved in the ethical plot, is also needed for what I use to call the “semantic plot”. And I may even add, coming back to RicŌur’s criticism, that “positional” infinity of the other person, concretely expressed as full listening, is also requested for reciprocity. If we want meaning to be reciprocally transmitted, we need each partner to listen: without listening, alternation does not realize dialog’s reciprocity. Positional infinity, grounded in ethical relationship and warranting listening, has therefore to be counted as a first feature of dialog’s sensance, which proves at the same time that Levinas’s setting is better suited for dialog than RicŌur’s ontological one.

This would be dialog’s sensance first clause. But there is more to say, again related to infinity, as we are going to see. What we deeply require for dialog to happen, as a matter of fact, is that every speech act reacts to the previous one, is relative to it, has heard it, manifests a “thought move” modified by what has been heard.

The discussions about the Turing test have made this more familiar to us. We feel reluctant to name dialog what happens when some partner, being a computer, simply computes his answer on the basis of some formal external feature. We have felt deceived when we have been told that the program Elisa was having a conversation with us. The “relativeness” condition was not really satisfied.

How could we express this relativeness condition?

First, it seems to me that such intention was, even if not on purpose, part of Grice’s work. We may understand that the Cooperative Principle, and the various rules it gives rise to, define for him dialog’s sensance: we are not following the dialog tradition, unless we keep what we say inside the frontiers which these rules define. So Grice’s conception chooses to characterize dialog’s sensance by an enfolding finality, which specializes in a bunch of rules. Each of these rules has its own way of being inexact (like “be perspicuous”: we have no easy criterion to decide whether it is obeyed). But after all, this inexactness inherits from the enfolding principle: it is difficult to judge whether someone is perspicuous exactly insofar as it is difficult to judge whether someone is cooperative.

I think we can explore this difficulty by commenting a discussion that Grice meets in one of his papers. I jump directly to the point, by quoting some definition given by Grice. The context, as I said some paragraphs before, is that Grice tries to make clear what “U meant something by x” means, x having not to be a linguistic performance (it could also be a gesture or a face gesture). Grice improves his definition step by step, each time taking into account some new picturesque dialogical case. He reaches in that way following formulation :


« We can now formulate the general form of these suggested conditions, the second redefinition, version A:

“U meant something by x” is true iff U uttered x intending thereby

(1) that A should produce response r

(2) that A should, at least partly on the basis of x, think that U intended (1)

(3) that A should think that U intended (2)

(4) that A's production of r should be based (at least in part) on A 's thought that U intended that (1) (that is, on A's fulfillment of [2])

(5) that A should think that U intended (4). »[6].

We may paraphrase this definition to make it more talkative. That “U meant something by x” is understood to mean that U was hoping some behavioral response r. But A should not offer that response only under the influence of such or such mechanical cause, he should produce r because he read in x U’s intention that he does so. And more, he should not infer such an intention from x as something that U was hiding in x, but rather he should conceive of his reading such an intention as what U himself intended. More, A’s production of r should arise in some sense or in some way from the just described understanding of x. And finally, A should not imagine that the way he came to r reading the intention of U that he does so would escape in any way to U’s general perspective when uttering x. Therefore we have to posit that this understanding transition from A was also part of U’s intention.

Well, Grice remarks that this definition shows a formal feature which opens up for an infinite regression. To quote him again :

« A notable fact about this analysans is that at several points it exhibits the following feature: U's nth "sub-intention" is specified as an inten­tion that A should think that U has his (n-l)th "sub-intention." The presence of this feature has led to the suggestion that the analysis of meaning (on these lines) is infinitely or indefinitely regressive, that further counterexamples could always be found, however complex the suggested analysans, to force the incorporation of further clauses which exhibit this feature »[7].

As a matter of fact, we observe this formal feature, in the above quoted definition, three times, with n=1 the first time, n=2 the second time and n=5 the third time. The idea is that if what A does really comes from x’s working as a message, then it should be considered as incorporated in the message utterer’s original intention. But in that way, the meaning content of what is meant cannot be stopped from indefinitely inflating.

Well Grice discusses the point, wondering whether such regression is harmful, and whether counterexamples forcing to add an additional clause are really to be considered. I will not comment of his discussion of the problem, keeping concentrated on what the very fact of considering this infinite regression’s possibility reveals about meaning and dialog.

And I would express things in following way. What Grice’s point shows is that meaning, on one side, has always to be judged and described as received meaning: what something means corresponds to what can be understood by some addressee. This is a very simple although very important point, which for example Dummett also makes in his famous papers about meaning, if my memory is correct.

But we also have a kind of reverse point: at least in Grice’s view, we cannot receive content as expressed meaningful content without giving credit of that meaning to the utterer. If not, we enter another area: the area of what has been imposed by us, taking the message not as message but as favorable circumstance.

I think Grice discovers, in his analysis and comment, some genuine clause of dialog’s “sensance”. We do not connect ourselves to dialog’s ethos, we do not go on with the tradition of dialog, we do not assume the stakes of dialog if we don’t receive every speech act in a kind of “virtually infinite” way. To take seriously some phonological event as meaning performance means hearing it at the level of what is asked in it and by it. If I switch to an objective attitude and consider the message as objective data on the basis of which I invent a semantic gesture, I do not practice dialog: to practice dialog, as we said, is to say something that we claim to react to the message, to relaunch what was sent. Practicing dialog, we should never utter anything that does not root in some asking haunting the message. So, in dialog, we come to reciprocally credit ourselves of every possible meaning layer. When I construe what I heard as asking something, I construe the utterer as having asked, I construe myself as answering, I construe the message as enfolding my answer as asked by it, therefore I construe in some sense the utterer as having already waited for my transition from his message to answering, and so on, more or less as Grice describes it, but also in a lot of other ways. As subtle as I may be in deciphering words and phrases in the message I receive, I will be “semantically arrogant” if I substitute my construal for what the message was about, making it a closed finite set of semantic features, and I will be considered in such case (by myself before all) as having stopped to listen: the more I enrich the message by grasping asks in it, the more able I become to raise further questions about what was precisely asked and how it was asked beyond any picture of this ask I actually possess. To take a message as addressed by someone in a dialog means that, it means that you are always indebted to what you are been told and that you never stop trying to connect yourself with “something behind”, such attitude being your semantic commitment to the dialog partner.

All this is analogous with infinite responsibility towards the other inside the ethical plot following Levinas, but it does not coincide with it: one may be a wonderful dialog partner, making dialog more dialog than it was possible to hope, without seriously welcoming the other at the ethical level. Because in order to be truthful to the dialog requirement, I only have to construe always more subject behind the message according to my reading and feeling the message as asking: but the mediation of the message, in such context, is enough for allowing me to forget of the other person absolutely taken, as face and urge for help. Or to put it differently, the semantic game of dialog offers me some avenue for escaping ethics by simulating it at the semantic level of construal. Not to say that it is not part of ethical command to react in a dialogical way to what is told to us. It is, and in some sense, we show sensitive to ethical reign by obeying dialogs’s sensance: more, we initiate and favor ethical behavior in that way. But there is more than that in ethical command. And at some level, to take part to ethical move means to be able to discard any construal of the other, in order to help in a simpler and more concrete way.

Our two views of infinite as part of dialog’s sensance meet and partly merge. As we said commenting on RicŌur’s objection, dialog requires that I take the other person’s speech as teaching, and that I bestow to my dialog partner some infinite stature in that sense. But this in turn translates, in a kind of technical way, as the requirement not to feel ever quits with some construal of the other’s speech: and this requirement of dialog’s sensance brings infinity inside the game. It expresses the content of the requirement that what we say counts as answer and not as free manipulation of the message.

Conclusion. Dialog, theory, ethics, and philosophy

I will just try in this brief conclusion to draw some consequences of the just outlined etho-analysis of dialog, which brought to the fore infinity as required for dialog to be dialog in two senses: for the addressee to count as teaching master, and for the meaning content to be received as such without any finiteness limit in construal.

First, this double “infinity condition”, because it grounds dialog as meaning exchange, concerns the search fort truth as well as the search for good or justice.

When you attempt at saying the best possible truth, you need any refinement or deepening of the meaning of sentences or theories which are confronted with reality to be available. In any possible epistemological conception of knowledge, you have to acknowledge that progress in science comes very much from reshaping of theories, of fundamental concepts: scientists have to re-elaborate and sharpen their whole setting all the time, in order to ask better and new questions to experience. But this amounts to working on the meaning of already given theories and concepts, by trying to hear possible distinctions or interpretations which have not been heard until now. And this in turn is what happens if we always put ourselves in dialogical attitude with transmitted knowledge, as we just saw. Which concretely goes through non metaphorical dialog, through dialog between scientists and theorists: it is as meaning addressed by one to the other that the transmitted meaning will get deepened and improved, enlarged and modified.

Similarly, when you attempt as formulating what good or goodness asks from us, or to make explicit just laws for community, you have to go back to what has been traditionally prescribed, and try to hear more in it, in order to satisfy requirements that you meet in new situations connected to the law. You cannot take once for all some finite interpretation of the meaning of the laws for granted. Therefore, again, you need these laws to occur in living dialog, as addressed to you, and to deepen what they say according to the dialog principle, enforcing you to receive their meaning as meaning and not to capture some semantic image of them.

For sure, all this “infinity pattern” will as a matter of fact result in finite construal, as well in the theoretical and in the ethical case. But that “meaning in dialog” is ruled by what I call Infinity Principle is what ensures that we are never quits with the available gloss.

Finally, as a last word: we are allowed to define philosophy as the discipline in charge with this Infinity Principle, as a method for respecting and cultivating meaning as such, a method which therefore systematically attracts meaning into dialog, in order to motivate the ethical gesture of hearing more. This could be, after all, a way of understanding and justifying Plato, many centuries after.



[1]. Cf. Grice, P., Studies in the Way of Words (from now on, SWW), Cambridge, London, Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 32.

[2]. Cf. SWW, p. 26.

[3]. Cf. SWW, p. 137.

[4]. Cf. Hansel, G., De la Bible au Talmud, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2008, p. xxx-xxx.

[5]. Cf. Salanskis, J.-M., Territoires du sens, Paris, Vrin, 2007.

[6]. Cf. SWW, p. 96-97.

[7]. Cf. SWW, p. 96.