True dialogue

Everybody knows how hard it is to put your experience or your deeper feelings into words. Know what I mean?

But there’s no use complaining about the inadequacies of language. We can learn to live with words, maybe even communicate with them. A mutual misunderstanding can be an occasion of genuine dialogue if the participants are honestly trying to talk through it. Thomas Kuhn gives an apt description of how this can happen in science, when advocates of competing views are in the process of resolving their differences; something like this could just as well happen in matters of conscience.

Briefly put, what the participants in a communication breakdown can do is recognize each other as members of different language communities and then become translators. Taking the differences between their own intra- and inter-group discourse as itself a subject for study, they can first attempt to discover the terms and locutions that, used unproblematically within each community, are nevertheless foci of trouble for inter-group discussions.…
Having isolated such areas of difficulty in scientific communication, they can next resort to their shared everyday vocabularies in an effort further to elucidate their troubles. Each may, that is, try to discover what the other would see and say when presented with a stimulus to which his own verbal response would be different.
If they can sufficiently refrain from explaining anomalous behavior as the consequence of mere error or madness, they may in time become very good predictors of each other’s behavior. Each will have learned to translate the other’s theory and its consequences into his own language and simultaneously to describe in his language the world to which that theory applies. That is what the historian of science regularly does (or should) when dealing with out-of-date scientific theories.

— Kuhn (1969, 202)

This is the sort of thing i have tried to do with ‘out-of-date’ scriptures such as the Gospel of Thomas – though of course when this kind of reading is successful, the text in question no longer seems to be “out of date,” at least not in the same way. What Kuhn says above about dialogue in science applies just as well to dialogue between religions.

In a true dialogue, both sides are willing to change. We have to appreciate that truth can be received from outside of – not only within – our own group. If we do not believe that, entering into dialogue would be a waste of time. If we think we monopolize the truth and we still organize a dialogue, it is not authentic. We have to believe that by engaging in dialogue with the other person, we have the possibility of making a change within ourselves, that we can become deeper.

— Thich Nhat Hanh (1995, 9)

2 thoughts on “True dialogue”

  1. I quite understand this concept. Our experience of living in China without the language (Chinese – Mandarin or Cantonese) made us so sensitive to our own words and how we offered them to people who did not have a strong grasp of the English language. We often asked for clarification when we could – and so did they. But the best was in written form, as in essays, where the students poured out the stories or concepts without the benefit of being asked to explain. This makes for very interesting reading at times.

  2. Thanks J.P.! It’s good to hear from someone who’s had much more practical experience of cross-language and cross-cultural communication than i have.

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