Summary of "The Life of Dialogue"

Summary of

The Life of Dialogue

By Abraham Kaplan

This Article Summary written by: Michelle Maiese, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Abraham Kaplan. "The Life of Dialogue" in The Reach of Dialogue: Confirmation, Voice, and Community, Robert Anderson, Kenneth N. Cissna, and Ronald C. Arnett, eds. New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1994.

Kaplan wishes to explore the question of what happens to people when they communicate. He approaches this question in terms of two modalities of human relationship: the "I-Thou" modality and the "I-It" modality. In the first modality, parties accept one another as the human beings that they are. In the second, parties dehumanize and depersonalize the other and, in the process, also themselves. In his view, the aim of all communication is to arrive at communion, or what Kaplan calls the "silence of understanding." (45) There is nothing more that needs to be said. The fact that there is so little silence is a problem. It reveals how little listening goes on.

There are ways in which communication can either bring human beings together or hold them apart. A great deal of communication in modern society is of the "I-It" kind. When people do come together, it is not as human beings but as depersonalized objects. While there is an enormous amount of communication, there is very little that is actually being said. In addition, there is an exaggerated conception of what talk can accomplish. People are eager that the right things be said and extremely anxious about the wrong things being said. However, they have become more concerned with symbols than with reality.

In this culture, it is extremely easy for people to see others as instruments to be used rather than as human beings. Real life involves people coming together in genuine human relationships. One might refer to this as 'communion' in contrast with more typical modes of communication. In communion, the relationship between human beings is direct and unmediated. People are in direct contact with one another.

Kaplan wishes to distinguish between reciprocity and mutuality. There are many relationships that manifest reciprocity. Each person does something for the other. In a mutual relationship, on the other hand, parties do something together that neither one of them could do separately. Rather than depersonalizing them, it allows each to become more fully human. The difference between reciprocity and mutuality is the difference between talking to someone and talking with them.

One sort of communication, which is distinct from both monologue and dialogue, is dualogue. In dualogue, while two people are talking, they are not talking with one another. There is information being transmitted, but there is no mutuality. While one person is talking, the other is only thinking of what he will say when it is his turn to talk. When people are open to one another, on the other hand, the content of what is being communicated does not exist prior to or independently of that particular context. What parties have to say to each other arises as they genuinely relate to one another. Parties in dialogue not only listen to the other person, but also listen to themselves. A certain kind of social structure or pattern of involvement is essential to communication.

People realize their fullest selves in relationships with other human beings. This is what allows them to achieve a true sense of identity. However, there is currently a widespread failure to achieve genuine communication. As a result, the search for identity has become more difficult. More and more people attempt to cope with their problems by adopting negative identities and differentiating themselves from others. People are unable to fully realize all of their human potential. This is because the self comes into existence through acts of genuine dialogue and communication. As a result of talking with one another, parties are changed. They are able to come together in a community rather than a mere collectivity.

But can communion be established between two people with absolutely opposing ideas? No doubt this is difficult. However, people can have very different ideas without opposing each other. Because loving is intrinsic to human nature, it is indeed possible to establish communion between people with opposing ideas. This requires, of course, that individuals abandon an absolute stance and are prepared to really talk with one another. The problems in the Middle East might be thought of as problem of instituting dialogue.