Mikhail Bakhtin’s Critique of the “Human Sciences”

“The exact sciences constitute a monologic form of knowledge: the intellect contemplates a thing and expounds upon it. There is only one subject here–cognizing (contemplating) and speaking (expounding). In opposition to the subject there is only a voiceless thing. Any object of knowledge (including man) can be perceived and cognized as a thing. But a subject as such cannot be perceived and studied as a thing, for as a subject it cannot, while remaining a subject, become voiceless, and consequently, cognition of it can only be dialogic.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 161.

Alan Jacobs explains:

“It is true that the constant emphasis of Bakhtin’s career lies upon dialogism as the form of consciousness: Each human mind is heteroglot, composed of multipole, overlapping, and often contradictory voices of others. Bakhtin notes that we speak of monologues and monological thinking, but in the strict sense they cannot exist. Yet we do speak of monologue, and we do so because monologism is a potential ethical stance, if not a possible epistemological condition.” (A Theology of Reading, 51)

Jacobs is emphasizing the relationship between the descriptive (the what is, the dialogical nature of the human consciousness) and the prescriptive (the what can be willed, the possibility of monologue). Jacobs is trying to highlight the role of the will in hermeneutical choices, opening up the possibility of loving interpretation.

I find Bakhtin’s critique of the human sciences to be illuminating especially as it helps to explain my own discomfort with the “self-reporting” methodology, which strikes me as so problematic. When we recognize the dialogical nature of our own consciousness, we recognize that we very often will to see our situations and ourselves in certain ways. This threatens to make self-reporting merely a reflection of the collective will of the subjects as objects.

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