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 That is what the historian of science regularly does (or should) when dealing with out-of-date scientific theories.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This is the sort of thing i have tried to do with ‘out-of-date’ scriptures such as the Gospel of Thomas – though of course when this kind of reading is successful, the text in question no longer seems to be “out of date,” at least not in the same way.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)


The deep and cosmic sense of the word logos has its parallel in the Sanskrit word dharma, which (like the logos of Heraclitus) can refer to the medium, the message, or its object, depending on circumstances.

Buddha-dharma, for instance, is the recorded teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha, or the universal Way of all buddhas, which all things (also called dharmas) are presently expounding to those who have ears to hear. Thus the ‘body’ or ‘system’ of the buddha’s teaching pervades the universe.

The word dharma means many things, but its underlying sense is ‘that which supports,’ from the root dhri, to support, hold up, or bear. Generally Dharma implies support from within: the essence of a thing, its virtue, that which makes it what it is.

— Eknath Easwaran (1985, 15)

But like ‘system’ (or logos), dharma also applies on a larger scale to ‘the essential order of things’ (Easwaran 1985, 15).

Real teaching

According to Hui-neng in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, real teaching (teaching that leads to realization) relies not on delivery of a preformulated message but on the spontaneous growth of meaning. A genuine dialogue flows like a mountain stream, carrying its names and forms forward. When particular symbols are used and deliberately manipulated as if their connections to dynamic objects were permanently fixed rather than continuously renewed with the flow of experience, they become obstacles like a rock in the stream, troubling it with turbulence, and the instead of flow we get ‘fluctuation.’

The Realized One’s speech and silence are both spontaneous; the words he utters are like echoes responding to sounds, occurring naturally without deliberate intent, not the same as the ordinary man preaching with a fluctuating mind. If any say that the Realized One preaches with fluctuation in his mind, they are slandering Buddha. The Sutra of Vimalakirti says, ‘Real teaching involves no preaching, no giving orders; listening to the teaching involves no hearing and no grasping.’ You realize that myriad things are empty, and all names and words are temporary setups; constructed within inherent emptiness, all the verbal expositions explain that all realities are signless and unfabricated, thus guiding deluded people in such a way as to get them to see their original nature and cultivate and realize unsurpassed enlightenment.

— (Cleary 1998, 134)

A ‘fluctuating mind’ here has a preconceived message which it is trying to ‘put over’ on others, rather than giving itself wholly and spontaneously to the flow of the dialogue. In Peircean terms, recognizing the genuine Secondness of ‘all realities’ leads to recognition of one’s original Firstness, or identity with the primal person. The Thirdness of signs is a means to the end of this beginning.

Natural dialogues with nature

Why do we engage in the kind of inquiry represented by Turning Signs? Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One offers this answer:

At least in principle, one can wake up from one’s biological history. One can grow up, define one’s own goals, and become autonomous. And one can start talking back to Mother Nature, elevating her self-conversation to a new level.

— Metzinger (2003, 634)

Your autonomy, your self-control, raises the level of nature’s self-conversation, which is our conversation with nature. ‘Successful research,’ according to Peirce (W6:386), ‘is conversation with nature; the macrocosmic reason, the equally occult microcosmic law, must act together or alternately, till the mind is in tune with nature.’ The ‘occult microcosmic law’ is your internal guidance system.

It was Prigogine who used the phrase ‘dialogue with nature’ in a book title, but the basic idea was already common. Karl Popper, for instance, describes both perception and scientific method in terms of a question-and-answer process:

… our senses can serve us (as Kant himself saw) only with yes-and-no answers to our own questions; questions that we conceive, and ask, a priori; and questions that sometimes are very elaborate. Moreover, even the yes-and-no answers of the senses have to be interpreted by us—interpreted in the light of our a priori preconceived ideas. And, of course, they are often misinterpreted.

— Popper (1990, 47)

In developing his model of science as ‘enlightened common sense,’ as the formal and public equivalent of the perceptual process common to all organisms, Popper believed he had ‘refuted classical empiricism—the bucket theory of the mind that says that we obtain knowledge just by opening our eyes and letting the sense-given or god-given “data” stream into a brain that will digest them’ (Popper 1990, 49-50). He also points out that Kant had already described the dialogue with nature in his preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason: ‘our reason can understand only what it creates according to its own design … we must compel Nature to answer our questions, rather than cling to Nature’s apron strings and allow her to guide us’ (Popper 1968/89, 256).

Merleau-Ponty (1945, especially 370-374) presents perception as a dialogue between body and world—a reciprocal relationship of question and answer:

The passing of sensory givens before our eyes and under our hands is, as it were, a language which teaches itself, and in which the meaning is secreted by the very structure of the signs, and this is why it can literally be said that our senses question things and that things reply to them.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 372)

The relations between things or aspects of things having always our body as their vehicle, the whole of nature is the setting of our own life, or our interlocutor in a sort of dialogue … every perception is a communication or a communion, the taking up or completion by us of some extraneous intention or, on the other hand, the complete expression outside ourselves of our perceptual powers and a coition, so to speak, of our body with things. The fact that this may not have been realized earlier is explained by the fact that any coming to awareness of the perceptual world was hampered by the prejudices arising from objective thinking.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 373)

What Merleau-Ponty means here by ‘objective thinking’ is part of the ‘natural attitude’ arising from the unexamined assumption of a dyadic relation between words and things to which they refer. This kind of ‘objective thinking’ cuts the body out of the semiotic loop by taking at face value the perceived externality of objects, ignoring the body’s involvement in all perception. Semiotic objectivity, on the other hand, always implies a triadic relation among sign, object and interpretant. It also involves three modes or grades of meaning, as Peirce pointed out in the first of his 1903 Lowell Lectures:

A little book by Victoria Lady Welby has lately appeared entitled What is Meaning? The book has sundry merits, among them that of showing that there are three modes of meaning. But the best feature of it is that it presses home the question “What is meaning?” A word has meaning for us in so far as we are able to make use of it in communicating our knowledge to others and in getting at the knowledge that those others seek to communicate to us. That is the lowest grade of meaning. The meaning of a word is more fully the sum total of all the conditional predictions which the person who uses it intends to make himself responsible for or intends to deny. That conscious or quasi­conscious intention in using the word is the second grade of meaning. But besides the consequences to which the person who accepts a word knowingly commits himself, there is a vast ocean of unforeseen consequences which the acceptance of the word is destined to bring about, not merely consequences of knowing but perhaps revolutions of society. One cannot tell what power there may be in a word or a phrase to change the face of the world; and the sum of those consequences makes up the third grade of meaning.


Each ‘grade’ here involves the lower grades. At the second grade, the interpreter or reader of the word is always dealing with a double context and a double meaning: There’s the context in which the author intended his meaning, and there’s the context of the implicit question for which the reader seeks an answer in this text. Even at the first grade, which assumes a common language, the reader has her default meaning for any given word or phrase, and has to take the context supplied by the author into account in order to guess whether (or how much) that default is relevant to the present occasion of reading this text.

For instance, the word ‘objective’ itself refers in Merleau-Ponty’s text to the assumption that the objects of perception are the sole (or dominant) contributors to the experience of perception; ‘objective thinking’ then is a denial of the ‘communication or communion’ that constitutes perception. But if the reader is, say, a Buddhist thinker, then he might habitually use the word ‘objective’ in a very different sense; ‘objectivity’ might point to the absence of attachment or aversion toward phenomena, in which case ‘objective thinking’ is precisely the kind of thinking from which prejudices do not arise. ‘Objectivity’ for a Buddhist could be a word for the practice of interbeing.

In addition to hidden differences of meaning, the careful reader will be aware of the hidden connections working behind words. Merleau-Ponty refers above to the ‘coition, so to speak, of our body with things’. The phrase ‘so to speak’ marks this as a metaphor, but there’s more here than superficial wordplay: in English the idea of coition is linked to verbal as well as sexual ‘communication’ because we can use intercourse as a synonym for either one. The link between communication and communion is even more obvious. Nor is this merely a quirk of English: And Adam knew his wife … the link between knowing and coition in the English of the King James Bible is a faithful translation of the same link implicit in the Hebrew (Scholem 1946, 235). All of this meaning is going on behind the scenes of the text all the time, provided that the reader negotiates the text with care (with compassion, feeling-together, communion, ….. ). Negotiation too is another word for dialogue

Cold War stories

How do you look through a looking glass? We see through the mirror (transparently) when we see self as an other to others and see others as ourselves. A perfected vision, though, would see neither others nor self, but only members of the one body in the mutual part/whole relationship. Such a perfected vision would know the universe as a mirror in which the whole cosmos appears to itself precisely as it is, ‘face to face’ as St. Paul has it (1 Corinthians 12 and 13).

This book is another story. The language of this hypertext has been shaped by the author’s history. Remember the Glory, the humpty dumpty English aircraft carrier of Chapter 2? (Follow that link if you don’t; it will open another windowtab.) The ‘knock-down argument’ of WWII was followed by the standing argument of the Cold War. Some accounts place the beginning of this new kind of conflict on or about that same day in 1945, when a Russian cipher clerk in Ottawa was hiding in a compassionate neighbour’s apartment as his own was being searched by Soviet agents.

Igor Gouzenko
Igor Gouzenko

The day before, Igor Gouzenko had decided to reveal to Canadian authorities the existence of a global spying operation in which he was involved. Incredible as it seems in hindsight, the first authorities he went to didn’t believe him, so he didn’t get the immediate protection due to a whistle-blower (as we now call a revealer of corporate or government secrets). Or perhaps they didn’t understand him due to language barriers; but in any case, his revelations marked the beginning of an era when international relations were dominated by mutual suspicion. American culture was pervaded with paranoia, which was duly spread around the world with the growth of American Empire. (Note added 30 April 2017: it remains a powerful force in politics to this day.)

Growing up in this milieu certainly had an effect on the author’s sensibilities, and thus on the idiom of Turning Signs. But so did the other texts with which he crossed paths from that time to this, and threads from some of them are woven into this one.

When signs cross and stay crossed, we can call it weaving. The texture of an argument is determined by this weaving, but also by the accidents of timing in the history of the author’s reading. Every deep reading creates a context for the next reading, and the next writing.

Attention must be paid

Gospel of Thomas 100:

They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, “Caesar’s people demand taxes from us.” He said to them, “Give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, give God the things that are God’s, and give me what is mine.”


All Jesus asks of you is your full attention. But what greater gift could you offer to anyone? Caesar (the Empire, “the world”) only wants your money or your life – or your vote, if you live in a “democracy.” It has no use for your attention. God, on the other hand, has no need for it, or for anything from His Creatures, and is by all accounts beyond their comprehension. ‘No vision can take Him in, but He takes in all vision’ (Qur’an 6:104, Haleem). That leaves the person you converse with, the Second Person, speaking here as Jesus. Give your attention to that one, and you may expect the unexpected, the turning sign, in return.

The place of great intimacy

A Dharma Hall Discourse of Dogen, EK 3.217:

Yunmen asked Caoshan, ‘Why don’t we know that there is a place of great intimacy?’ Caoshan said, ‘Just because it is greatly intimate, we do not know it is there.’

Suppose this were Eihei and someone asked me, ‘Why don’t we know that there is a place of great intimacy?’ I would just hit his face with my whisk and ask him, ‘Is this knowing or not knowing?’ If he tried to answer, I would hit him again with the whisk.

— (Leighton and Okumura 2004, 225)

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one.

Colossians 4:6 (RSV)

Inner dialogues

Identity is a phenomenon that emerges from the dialectic between individual and society.

Berger and Luckmann (1966, 174)

Learning to mean, or to think or to know, is an intersubjective process, as John Dewey realized.

When the introspectionist thinks he has withdrawn into a wholly private realm of events disparate from other events, made out of mental stuff, he is only turning his attention to his own soliloquy. And soliloquy is the product and reflex of converse with others; social communication not an effect of soliloquy. If we had not talked with others and they with us, we should never talk to and with ourselves.

— Dewey 1929, 141

The Russian psychologist Vygotsky further developed this observation.

The major theme of Vygotsky’s theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygotsky (1978) states: ‘Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.’ … For example, in the learning of language, our first utterances with peers or adults are for the purpose of communication but once mastered they become internalized and allow ‘inner speech’.

—, c.2007

For an intelligence to function there must be another intelligence. Vygotsky was the first to stress: ‘Every higher function is divided between two people, is a mutual psychological process.’ Intelligence is always an interlocutor.

Lotman (1990, 2)

But Lotman also stressed the role of ‘autocommunication’ within cultures. In ‘I-s/he’ communication, information coded in a text or message passes from one person to another or others; the text is a variable while the code is constant and shared between the interlocutors. But in the I-I mode of autocommunication, (including the situation where a culture addresses itself), the content of the text is constant while the code is variable – giving room for polyversity – and actual variation leads to self-discovery or transformation. In this case the message is addressed to one’s future self, as Peirce said, but the change to this new self is triggered by a crossing of ‘codes’ rather than ‘messages’: the object is fixed but the sign forks and the thought moves in a new direction. According to Lotman (1990, Chapter 2), the most viable cultures are those in which these two modes, ‘autocommunication’ and interpresonal dialogue, are in constant tension.

Human consciousness is heterogeneous. A minimal thinking apparatus must include at least two differently constructed systems to exchange information they each have worked out.

— Lotman (1990, 36)

Lotman (Chapter 3) finds a parallel between the organization of culture and that of the brain’s two hemispheres: the difference is between discrete and continuous (digital and analog) coding systems, exchanging information by means of rhetorical tropes (‘turns’) such as metaphor and metonymy.

The interrelationship between cultural memory and its self-reflection is like a constant dialogue: texts from chronologically earlier periods are brought into culture and, interacting with contemporary mechanisms, generate an image of the historical past, which culture transfers into the past and which, like an equal partner in a dialogue, affects the present. But as it transforms the present, the past too changes its shape. This process does not take place in a vacuum: both partners in the dialogue are partners too in other confrontations, both are open to the intrusion of new texts from outside, and the texts, as we have already had cause to stress, always contain in themselves the potentiality for new interpretations. This image of the historical past is not anti-scientific, although it is not scientific either. It exists alongside the scientific image of the past like another reality and interacts with it also on the basis of dialogue.

— Lotman (1990, 272)


The results of a simple algorithm, though regular and predictable if taken one at a time, can take on great complexity if the algorithm is many times reiterated with the result of each iteration becoming a factor in the next. A classic example of such a nonlinear process is the Mandelbrot set, which can produce an infinite variety of ‘fractal’ images, all generated by a relatively simple formula run recursively on an ordinary computer.

‘Nonlinearity means that the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules’ (Gleick 1987). If the rules of life are always changing and always undiscoverable, as Bateson said, it’s probably because life is nonlinear. Semiosis is also nonlinear, especially in the form of dialogue or conversation between two people taking turns as speaker and listener.

As we communicate in language and gesture, we interpret and understand each other dialogically. This dialogic dynamic is not a linear or additive combination of two preexisting, skull-bound minds. It emerges from and reciprocally shapes the nonlinear coupling of oneself and other in perception and action, emotion and imagination, and gesture and speech. In this way, self and other bring forth each other reciprocally through empathy.

— Thompson (2007, 402)