by Hubert J.M. Hermans

Published in:

Culture & Psychology, (2001). Sage Publications, vol. 7 (3), 243-281

Self and culture are conceived of in terms of a multiplicity of positions among which dialogical relationships can develop. This view, at the core of the present issue, allows for the study of the self as ‘culture inclusive’ and of culture as ‘self-inclusive’. At the same time, this conception avoids the pitfalls of treating the self as individualized and self-contained, and culture as abstract and reified. Presenting a theoretical framework for the mutual inclusion of self and culture is the first aim of this contribution. Another aim is to provide the theoretical foundation for a methodological approach (see Hermans, this issue) that allows for the study of self and culture empirically. {quotes}Conceiving self and culture in terms of a multiplicity of positions with mutual dialogical relationships entails the possibility of studying self and culture as a composite of parts.{/quotes} This enables the researcher to move from theory to detailed empirical evidence and, back, from empirical work to theory. A special feature of this issue is that the proposed version of cultural psychology is not an isolated field of scientific investigation. Rather, it is at the juncture of divergent disciplines and subdisciplines, such as social psychology, personality psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, linguistics and brain sciences. Altogether, these fields contribute to the understanding of the relation between culture and self.

The central concept, the dialogical self, is inspired by two thinkers, James and Bakhtin, who worked in different countries (the USA and Russia, respectively), in different disciplines (psychology and literary sciences), and in different theoretical traditions (pragmatism and dialogism). The dialogical self finds itself, as a composite term, at the intersection of these traditions.

From James’ Self to Bakhtin’s Polyphonic Novel

The Extension of the Self

For understanding the workings of the self, it is necessary to start from some assumptions proposed by James (1890), who provided a fertile basis for the psychology of the self as it flourished during the 20th century. Of particular interest is his distinction between the I and the Me, which, according to Rosenberg (1979), is a classic distinction in the psychology of the self. In James’ view, the I is equated with the self-as-knower and has three features: continuity, distinctness and volition (see also Damon & Hart, 1982). The continuity of the self-as-knower is characterized by a sense of personal identity, that is, a sense of sameness through time. A feeling of distinctness from others, or individuality, also follows from the subjective nature of the self-as-knower. Finally, a sense of personal volition is reflected in the continuous appropriation and rejection of thoughts by which the self-as-knower proves itself as an active processor of experience.

In James’ view, the Me is equated with the self-as-known and is composed of the empirical elements considered as belonging to oneself. Because James (1890) was aware that there is a gradual transition between Me and mine, he concluded that the empirical self is composed of all that the person can call his or her own, ‘not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account’ (p. 291). As this frequently cited quotation suggests, people and things in the environment belong to the self, as far as they are felt as ‘mine’. This means that not only ‘my mother’ belongs to the self but even ‘my enemy’. In James’ view, the self was ‘extended’ to the environment. The extended self can be contrasted with the Cartesian self, which is based on a dualistic conception, not only between self and body but also between self and other (Hermans & Kempen, 1993). Self and other do not exclude one another (self versus other), as if the other is simply ‘outside the skin’.

With his conception of the extended self, James has paved the way for later theoretical developments in which contrasts, oppositions and negotiations are part of a distributed, multivoiced self.

Bakhtin’s Polyphonic Novel

In James’ quotation we see a foreshadowing of several characters whom he sees as belonging to the Me: my wife and children, my ancestors and friends. Such characters are more explicitly elaborated in Bakhtin’s metaphor of the polyphonic novel, which serves as a source of inspiration for later dialogical approaches to the self. The metaphor of the polyphonic novel was proposed by Bakhtin in his book Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929/1973). In this work he draws on the idea that in Dostoevsky’s works there is not a single author at work Dostoevsky himself—but several authors or thinkers, that is, characters such as Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov and the Grand Inquisitor. These characters are not treated as obedient slaves in the service of one author-thinker, Dostoevsky, but are put forward as independent thinkers, each with his or her own view of the world.

Each hero is perceived as the author of his or her own ideology, and not as the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision. There is a plurality of consciousnesses and worlds instead of a multitude of characters and fates within a unified objective world, organized by Dostoevsky’s individual consciousness. As in a polyphonic musical work, multiple voices accompany and oppose one another in dialogical ways. {quotes}As in a polyphonic musical work, multiple voices accompany and oppose one another in dialogical ways. {/quotes}As part of this polyphonic construction, Dostoevsky creates a multiplicity of perspectives, portraying characters conversing with the Devil (Ivan and the Devil), with their alter egos (Ivan and Smerdyakov), and even with caricatures of themselves (Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov).

For Bakhtin, the notion of dialogue opens the possibility of differentiating the inner world of one and the same individual in the form of an interpersonal relationship. The transformation of an ‘inner’ thought of a particular character into an utterance enables dialogical relations to occur between this utterance and the utterance of imaginal others. In Dostoevsky’s novel The Double, for example, the second hero (the double) was introduced as a personification of the interior thought of the first hero (Golyadkin). By externalizing an interior thought in a spatially separated opponent, a fully developed dialogue between two relatively independent parties was created. Not only is such a dialogical narrative structured by space and time, but temporal relations are even translated into spatial relations. As part of his construction, temporally dispersed events are contracted into spatial oppositions that are simultaneously present. In Bakhtin’s terms: This persistent urge to see all things as being coexistent and to perceive and depict all things side by side and simultaneously, as if in space rather than time, leads him [Dostoevsky] to dramatize in space even the inner contradictions and stages of development of a single person. (Bakhtin, 1929/1973, p. 23, emphasis added)

The construction of narratives in terms of a polyphony of spatial oppositions, allows Bakhtin to treat a particular idea in the context of both interior and exterior dialogues, revealing a multiplicity of perspectives:

The intersection, consonance, or interference of speeches in the overt dialog with the speeches in the heroes’ interior dialogs are everywhere present. The specific totality of ideas, thoughts and words is everywhere passed through several unmerged voices, taking on a different sound in each. The object of the author’s aspirations is not at all this totality of ideas in and of itself, as something neutral and identical with itself. No, the object is precisely the act of passing the themes through many and varied voices, it is, so to speak, the fundamental, irrescindable multivoicedness and varivoicedness of the theme. (Bakhtin, 1929/1973, p. 226) In this polyphonic construction, a particular theme (e.g. competition, love, crime) has no fixed, self-contained, unchangeable, continuous meaning. Instead, by leading this feeling through the various voices, and developing it in a field of dialogical relations, not only the potentials and multifacetedness, but also the richness of a particular theme can be brought to expressions.

James’ Rivalry of Different Selves

In James’ work the I (self-as-knower) is portrayed as a unifying principle that is responsible for organizing the different aspects of the Me as parts of a continuous stream of consciousness. As such, James seems to emphasize the continuity of the self more than its discontinuity. In other parts of his foundational work, however, James (1890) speaks explicitly of the ‘rivalry and conflict of the different selves’ (p. 309), dealing with the inherent discontinuity of the self.{quotes}James (1890) speaks explicitly of the ‘rivalry and conflict of the different selves’ (p. 309), dealing with the inherent discontinuity of the self. {/quotes}Elaborating on this phrase he explains: I am often confronted by the necessity of standing by one of my empirical selves and relinquishing the rest. Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a ‘tonepoet’ and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire’s work would run counter to the saint’s; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to man. But to make anyone of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed (pp. 309–310, emphasis added). As this quotation demonstrates, James certainly has an eye for the multiplicity of the self and for the mutual rivalry and domination of its parts. He even used the term ‘character’ to denote the different components of the self and, as such, his reasoning is well in agreement with the multitude of characters implied in Bakhtin’s notion of the polyphonic novel.

At the same time, there are two important differences between James’ and Bakhtin’s views on the multiplicity of the human mind. First, in James’ view the several parts of the self are kept together by a distinct, volitional I, which guarantees the self’s identity through time and its continuity. Bakhtin, on the other hand, was no psychologist and not primarily interested in the psychology of the self. For him as a literary scholar, polyphony represented a multiplicity of divergent or opposite views of the world, and, as such, he emphasized the principle of discontinuity more than the principle of continuity. Second, there are significant differences in the treatment of the social aspects of the mind. James (1890) was very concerned about the social aspects of the individual self, which can be exemplified by his frequently cited quotation: ‘A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him’ (p. 294). Bakhtin, however, was very interested in the notions of ‘voice’ and ‘dialogue’, which enabled him to deal with both internal and external dialogical relationships (Hermans & Kempen, 1993; Holquist, 1990; Morris, 1994; Valsiner, 2000; Wertsch, 1991).

In summary, James, as a theorist of the self, acknowledged not only the unity but also the multiplicity of the self. Bakhtin, on the other hand, as a literary theorist, elaborated on the multiplicity of characters in the polyphonic novel by introducing the notion of multivoicedness. Further, although James acknowledged the intrinsic social nature of the self in terms of competing characters, Bakhtin elaborated more extensively on the voices of the characters and their mutual dialogical relationships. Although James’ thinking on the self certainly admitted the possibility of a multiplicity of characters, Bakhtin’s polyphonic novel, if applied to the self, can be seen as a challenge not only to the notion of individuality (the self as discrete from other selves), but also to the unity and continuity of the self. If the self is considered in terms of a polyphonic novel, the implication is a far-reaching decentralization of the self in terms of a decentralized plurality of characters. It is one of the purposes of this issue to explore the implications of this decentralization.


The Dialogical Self: On the Intersection between James and Bakhtin

Inspired by the original Jamesian notions of the self and by the Bakhtinian polyphonic metaphor, Hermans, Kempen and Van Loon (1992) conceptualized the self in terms of a dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous I-positions. In this conception, the I has the possibility to move from one spatial position to another in accordance with changes in situation and time. The I fluctuates among different and even opposed positions, and has the capacity imaginatively to endow each position with a voice so that dialogical relations between positions can be established. The voices function like interacting characters in a story, involved in a process of question and answer, agreement and disagreement. Each of them has a story to tell about his or her own experiences from his or her own stance. As different voices, these characters exchange information about their respective Me’s, resulting in a complex, narratively structured self. (For a more elaborate discussion of the relationships between I-positions, see Hermans 1996a, 1996b.)

A particular feature of the dialogical self is the combination of continuity and discontinuity. In line with James, there is a continuity between my experience of, for example, my wife, children, ancestors and friends because, as belonging to the ‘Mine’, all of them are extensions of one and the same self. In line with Bakhtin, however, there is a discontinuity between the same characters as far as they represent different and perhaps opposed voices in the spatial realm of the self.

As my wife and my children, they are continuous; as my wife and my children, they are discontinuous. In this conception the existence of unity in the self, as closely related to continuity, does not contradict the existence of multiplicity, as closely related to discontinuity. The combination of unity and multiplicity was already discussed by early 20thcentury critical personalism as represented by the writings of William Stern, who proposed the composite term unitas multiplex (unity-inmultiplicity). (For discussion of Stern’s work, see Hermans, 2000; Lamiell & Deutsch, 2000.)

Anothr feature of the dialogical self is the combination of temporal and spatial characteristics. Sarbin (1986), Bruner (1986), Gergen and Gergen (1988), and McAdams (1993), main advocates of a narrative approach, have emphasized the temporal dimension of narratives. Bruner’s (1986) sentence ‘The king died, and then the queen’ may illustrate this emphasis. Unquestionably, the temporal dimension is a constitutive feature of stories or narratives. Without time, there is no story. However, in the line of Bakhtin’s emphasis on the spatial dimension, time and space are seen as equally important for the narrative structure of the dialogical self. The spatial nature of the self is expressed in the words ‘position’ and ‘positioning’, terms that suggest, moreover, more dynamic and flexible referents than the traditional term ‘role’ (cf. Harré & Van Langenhove, 1991). The spatial nature of narrative is emphasized by Bakhtin’s (1929/1973) term ‘juxtaposition’. This term indicates a narrative spatialization that supposes a plurality of voices that are neither identical nor unified, but rather heterogeneous and even opposed. As part of a narrative juxtaposition, characters are portrayed as conversing with other, often in opposition. Such characters may be part of the world that we define as ‘outside’, but they may also be part of our ‘inside’ world of imagination (Verhofstadt-Denève, 1999).

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