Russ Volckmann

Monologism and Dialogism in Sense-Making and Meaning Making
Per Linell, Rethinking Language, Mind, and World Dialogically.
Charlotte, North Carolina:
Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2009
Russ Volckmann

linnel coverruss volckmannRecently I have been musing a bit about language and meaning making. This has included exploring Otto Laske’s notions of dialectical thinking and the mindset that goes with it, that is, seeing developmental problem solving as a dialectical activity of meaning making ( This meaning making takes place in the context of people and planet which provide feedback about actions taken (or not) and their implications so that another strategic step may be taken to move toward goals and objectives. Laske encourages us to abandon notions of “final solutions” to problems and challenges. By implication we are engaged in an ongoing process of discovery and action. This builds on the notion that every solution has a problem…Furthermore, this is akin to the work of Bill Torbert and others on action inquiry. (Bill Torbert et al. Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2004).

Per Linell has introduced me to a new (to me) lens for understanding what Laske is getting at and, it seems to me, a way of understanding the four quadrant model of Wilber as it relates to more dynamic processes. His discussion draws on perspectives as far back as Plato and Aristotle, through Galileo, Descartes, Hegel and Heidegger, to Sartre, Vygotsky and Bakhtin—to name only a few of the better known thinkers. More to the point he is exploring monologism and dialogism as two competing perspectives in exploring sense making and meaning making. And in dialogical theorizing “’dynamics’…simply refers to change, emergence, adaptation and accommodation, to sensitive attunements and modulations of meaning in contexts and to the emergence of new meanings across contexts” (432).

Essentially, the monological perspective focuses on sense and meaning making within the individual. The dialogical approach sees sense and meaning making as emerging in the dynamic between individual and context. Linell’s exploration is principally in terms of linguistics, psychology and the social sciences in developing a transdisciplinary paradigm for the human sciences based on dialogism. I have thus oversimplified a very erudite and complex discussion of a fascinating topic. By setting the stage in this reductionist fashion, however, I have laid the foundation for linking this work to integral and suggesting a way to build upon the static quality of the four-quadrant map.

I recall some critics of Wilber being concerned that his way of framing integral leads to static ways of looking at human phenomena. (For a particularly interesting treatment of process and integral theory, see Bonnita Roy, “A Process Model of Integral Theory,” Integral Review, December 2006, I do not believe this is Wilber’s error, rather the opportunity his framework provides for exploring more dynamic ways of understanding human development in which sense and meaning making are central or, at least, essential. It is not my intention here to do an essay on these criticisms, but rather to suggest that Linell’s approach to dialogism may be very useful in building our developmental lenses and enhancing more integrally informed analysis, design, and action.

In fact, Linell closes this 400+ page work by focusing on dialogical theory as an integrating framework. Dialogical theory “is therefore about interactive sense-making in context, and the emphasis on other-orientation provides the implied association to ‘dialogue’…dialogical theories are about relationism and dynamics, albeit these must be conceived as operating in a relatively stable world” (432). Other-orientation refers to the idea that sense and meaning making take place in the interaction between self and other and cannot be appropriately conceived in most circumstances as simply a process that occurs within an individual without consideration of context. This connects to the inclusion of self and other in the four-cell matrix of AQAL. In this way the upper quadrants are focused on “self” or the individual and the lower quadrants are focused on “other,” that which is not “self.” We can think of this as collective or as another individual.

Linell points out that sense and meaning making occur through social interactions that are interdependent with other things in the world that include, “human bodies, the physical and social environment, and man-made objects of various kinds…Languages live in the inside of all these things” (432). He asks why dialogism is a powerful meta-theoretical framework and answers:

One reason is of course the development of a number of fruitful notions for accounting for interaction in contexts; examples are communicative projects, communicative activity types, meaning potentials, polyvocality, etc. Another very important reason has to do with it’s a potential to overcome distinctions like agency—system, individual—collectivity, cognition—communication, discourse—world, and many others that have proved to be such notorious difficulties for monolgism (432).

This raises the question of the implications of the labels we are using in integral theory and how sorting into the categories of our mapping activities shapes a monogical orientation to our work. Furthermore, despite our habits of thinking in terms of causal analysis, linear causal relations, dialogism offers attention to conceptual relations “understanding the world conceptually rather than just explaining it causally” (432-433). Linell continues:

Dialogical theory…is a rather loose combination of only partially convergent trends in theorizings[sic] language, communication and thinking. Yet these trends must be seen as integrating or integrational in their ambitions…We are aiming for understandings that could encompass mind, self and society; communication, cognition and action in the world; language, interaction, thinking and content…it is in the spirit of dialogism to adopt as a meta-methodological principle the quest for integrating explanations.

Looking more closely at Linell’s characterization, we see that “common goals and assumptions of monologism include:

  • Autonomy of theorization and science from socioeconomic conditions and personal interests
  • Universal (rather than sociohistorically specific) theories
  • Precision, and freedom from ambiguity
  • Purity, elegance and economy in scientific theories and models
  • The individual subject as the self-evident, absolute point of departure
  • Disconnecting the subject from his world
  • Abstract invariant ideas (concepts, stable linguistic meanings) as mediating in communication, cognition and perception
  • Cartesian dichotomies… (388).

Monolgism and dialogism can also be compared in terms of trends and traditions. Linell offers these as examples:

linnel 1

While monolgism focuses on objects and entities, dialogism talks about aspects and would prioritize relations and processes. Monologically conceived dualisms are dichotomies between entities while dialogism posits dualities that are nondualistic wholes or relations. Further, monological models tend to be deterministic, such as unidirectionality (arrows) as found in systems models and tend to keep things apart. Dialogism sees distinctions as relevant, but the distinctions need to be understood in terms of each other, as in mind and body, cognition and communication, facts and values or knowledge and belief. (391-4) There are interdependencies between dimensions and between the individual and the world. Subject and object are not separate but have meaning in relation to each other. “These relations are primary, rather than merely derived; relationism is basic to dialogism. Meanings…are not either subjective or objective; they are intersubjective, based on people’s participation in culture and communication, that is, in largely public and shared procedures of interpretation and negotiation.”(394)

Also, there is reciprocity of perspectives. This introduces not only commonalities, but differences and the tensions that arise out of these. “These tensions stand in dialectical (‘dialogical’) relations to each other” (88). Thus, we find in Linell’s thinking a correspondence between the dialectical and the dialogical. There is a move away from romanticized notions of dialogue to the inclusion of tension and conflict, differences to be attended to and addressed. It shares with Laske’s dialectical the notion, “We never arrive at a final and entirely conclusive interpretation” (88).

With several chapters of the book, Linell takes us through examples based on verbal exchanges. But it is his account of theory and research that is most intriguing. For example, he cites Ragnar Rommetveit’s discussion of the monological philosophy of epistemology with its dichotomy between subjectivism and objectivism. This involves the psychology of the first person vs. that of the third person with the latter looking at people as objects. “Alternatively, radical objectivism may construct the relation of language to the world as one between two ‘third person’-like entities…” and is thus “objectivism supported by scholasticism” (89). Rommetveit suggests a psychology of the second person that builds on the relationship of I and you/thou as an interdependence. Even this does not go far enough for Linnel’s approach in which he would add the interdependence of all contextual aspects, including artifacts.

I am reminded of Fred Kofmann’s article, “Holons, Heaps and Artifacts (And their corresponding hierarchies)” ( that has received some attention over the years. He states, “In order to understand the meaning of whole/part in Wilber’s model, it is fundamental to distinguish four kinds of entities: individual holons, social holons, artifacts and heaps.” Kofmann continues,

An artifact is an entity created by a holon; its agency is derived from the holon’s. An artifact (whole, system) includes and organizes (in a physical, conceptual or spiritual way) its components (parts, elements). For example, a stereo system includes and organizes the CD player, the tape deck, the radio, the amplifier and the speakers; a geometry includes and organizes its axioms, postulates, theorems and corollaries; a mythology includes and organizes its myths, parables, visions, ethical imperatives, etc. These three categories of inclusion refer to the domains of the flesh, the mind and the spirit. There are physical artifact[s] that can be seen with the eye of the flesh, conceptual artifacts that can be seen with the eye of the mind and spiritual artifacts that can be seen with the eye of spirit.

Kofmann argues that artifacts are not part of holarchies, hierarchies of holons. I would suggest that the dialogical theory and approach offered by Linell and others would see this as a monological conclusion. From a dialogical perspective on sense and meaning making there is a relationship between individual and artifact that is unique to a context. Sense and meaning are generated in that relationship. As context changes that relationship may also change, thus resulting in a change in sense and meaning. Thus, the artifact is as much a part of a developmental process as is an individual.

Linell responds to the notion of artifacts as tools (from monologism) by stating, “A dialogical theory does not regard tools as nothing but external objects. Artifacts are deeply involved in human interaction; many forms of human cognition and communication cannot occur without artifacts. Artifacts are assigned affordances for meaning making, and become parts of an extended mind.” (23) “Affordances” is a concept akin to values that shape our meaning making. They involve relations of possibility between human beings and their environments. Linell notes, “People configure meanings and understandings from arrays of affordances.” (332) Therefore, artifacts are essential in relation to developmental processes for human beings and cannot be separated out from that process for reasons other than reduction for analysis.

Nor can we understand communications and meaning making by separating into distinct entities I-You-It. As Linell points out, “…in a dialogical conceptualization, language is not a mirror of the world. Instead, all three coordinates are mutually interdependent aspects of a communicative act, not simple reflections of parts of an objective world. They form a relational structure within which the speaker positions him- or herself with respect to others and objects in terms of space, time, perceptual salience, and psychological distance.” There is double directionality in meaning making.

In the chapter “Signs and Representations as Dialogic Entities” Linell links dialogism to signs and semiotics, thoughts and intentions, logic, knowledge and social representations, collective memory, language and narrative and a number of other elements. In it he notes that “consciousness has a sociodialogical basis…knowledge has a social nature, and is closely related to communication and action.” (241) He observes that for Voloshinov and Bakhtin “talking about ‘individual consciousness’ would amount to a contradiction in terms. Consciousness is ‘knowing with’ others” (79). He continues that individual consciousness is knowing with someone else. It involves reflecting on oneself “as if from another’s position…There is a social aspect of consciousness that consists in two (or more) voices or perspectives addressing one another in internal dialogue.” (110) I wonder how such a perspectives relates to or informs an integral approach to development.

Finally, a note on attention to the role of narratives. “Narratives seem to play a central role” in how humans create order in life through dialogue and language (243). We seem to have a predisposition for organizing our experiences into a narrative form. Developing the narrative uses a process of employment, which is not a part of the events but the mode of making sense of them. There is an engagement between the events and the storyteller. It seems to me that the meaning we make in exploring ideas, theories and narratives of events involves such an engagement. We engage the panalopy of contexts in generating that meaning. How can we use these learnings, lessons and ideas to enrich the integral enterprise in our meaning making, design processes and action dynamics? I believe that Linell’s dialogic approach offers some important clues to the answers to this question.

About the Author

Russ Volckmann is the Publisher and Editor of Integral Leadership Review.

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