Philosophy of Mikhail Bakhtin: The concept of dialogism and mystical thought[1] Dec14




Philosophy of Mikhail Bakhtin: The concept of dialogism and mystical thought[1]

Aleš Vaupotič

The works of Mikhail Bakhtin are above all focused on the problems concerning literature and therefore tend to belong to the field of literary criticism. But at the same time we have to understand that this particular approach to literature is methodologically a so-called philosophical method or aspect,[2] which means that it uses theoretical constructs that are external to the literary phenomena. On the other hand, these concepts enable us to approach the literary works from a previously inaccessible point of view. Our text will show a complex philosophical background that is in literary criticism usually avoided, although this exact literary criticism at the same time uses Bakhtin’s highly complex and also problematic concepts. It is also important that in our explication of the philosophy of Mikhail Bakhtin we’ll emphasize its fundamental dilemmas and suggest some solutions from the point of view of religious philosophy. In this essay we’ll show that in the very core of dialogism (which is Bakhtin’s most important concept), there is a mystical attempt at thinking something that transcends subject[3]–object relations.


Language is central to most of Bakhtin’s works. In his book (published under the name of V. N. Voloshinov) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language Bakhtin proceeds from basic dualism: on one hand there are natural phenomena, objects of technique and consumer articles, on the other there is a world of signs. He uses two terms: “sign” and “ideology”, which basically mean the same thing – the ideology is more complex.[4] In this text, being explicitly Marxist, Bakhtin takes into account the existence itself before any ideology, but because of the radicalism of the concept of the ideologic-semiotic this layer of reality shrinks almost to nothing. (“The language, a word, it is almost everything in the human life.”[5]) What comes forth is the realm of the ideologic. A sign is something material, a particular material thing, but on the other hand it also carries meaning (thereby overcoming its individuality), which is undividable from its material. Apart from the material substance there is no meaning. It is neither something psychological neither something ideal. Bakhtin’s thought is materialistically monistic.[6] There are three different notions: a sign, a thing and a meaning (znachenie). The meaning is the function of a sign, the relation between the reality of a sign and represented reality.[7]

“The sign doesn’t exist merely as a part of reality, it reflects and diffracts the reality […] To each sign one could apply the criteria of ideological value (a lie, truth, correctness, justice, good etc.)”[8] We stress that the sign doesn’t simply reflect the reality, but twists it, diffracts it. It is also important that the diffraction is actually double: first the base diffracts in the complex system of the superstructure, but particularly important is the second diffraction – of an ideology in contact with other ideologies.[9]

A word is privileged amongst signs. “A word is ideological material par excellence. All the reality of a word is dissolved in its semiotic function.”[10] Further, a word is “a neutral sign”, because it belongs to all the areas of ideological production. Thirdly: it is the most important material of “the communication of life” – the totality of experiences and their outward expressions, a chaotic and ongoing semiotic flow, Marxist “social psychology”. On one end it is connected to the economic base and on the other to fully developed ideologies. Next: a word is (semiotic) material of the consciousness, the inner life. And for the fifth time: all ideological production is surrounded with words, every ideological diffraction of a being in the process of becoming – in any material – is accompanied with the diffraction in words.

One of the main themes of the monograph is the account of the human consciousness as an ideology. Bakhtin is critical towards idealists and claims that every experience is given – also to the one experiencing – in the materiality of the semiotic. Therefore we have “external signs” (social burgeoning of speech acts and more or less complex ideologies) and “inner signs”, the consciousness. The ideological sign is the common field of psyche and ideology; it is a field of materiality, sociality and meaning. A consciousness exists only while being fulfilled with the semiotic-ideologic content, which is determined by the process of social interaction, the great dialogue. The semiotic-ideologic is a social feature and so it is also the individuality of psyche as a diffraction of the external signs in the internal ones.

If we consider the same question from the other end (and in terms of other texts) one would ask, how does Bakhtin understand the language? We have seen that a human as “subject” is actually language. All human “acts” (pustupok), all gestures, … are for Bakhtin “utterances” (vyskazyvanie). This is the central notion of Bakhtin’s philosophy of language. An utterance is an act, a social event of discursive relations (in its broadest sense). “Weltanschauung, a point of view, an opinion are always expressed in words.”[11] Or: “A human act is a potential text and can be understood (as human act, not physical functioning) only in the dialogic context of its time (as a replica, a meaningful position, a system of motives).”[12] Human as subject is “a voice” that confronts other voices. Bakhtin borrowed the concept of language as Weltanschauung (with important changes, of course) from Wilhelm von Humboldt. For Bakhtin the language is the totality of world, the culture, … and could not in any case be construed as something that is added to the alleged actual reality.

Ideological diffraction is the most important theme of Bakhtin’s works (in different terminological expressions). On one hand we have the world of signs (and the sign itself) as the arena of the class struggle and on the other the quiet diffraction of the socially accomplished ideologies in the inner discourse, the consciousness. A living ideological sign has many accents, which originate in social multiplicity of accents, where the sign finds itself on the battlefield of the class ideologies. Bakhtin mentions “inner dialectics of the sign”. This comes from the Marxist “authorial disguise”, as some scholars (Aleksander Skaza) explain the heterogeneous (usually Marxist) elements in Bakhtin’s theories. (Let’s add that we refuse the associations of Bakhtin with Marxist thought.) In Bakhtin’s essay The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences we read of particularities of the dialogic relationships that could not be reduced to “pure logic (dialectic) relations”.[13] The scholars comment that the dialectics represent the monological stage of dialogism.[14] On the other hand the notion of dialectics usually replaces the term dialogism in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. But we can nevertheless find the “dialogism” in the key sentence: “Every understanding is dialogic.”[15]

Bakhtin’s philosophy of language is central to his philosophy and, of course, to his works on literature. In its core there is a division between two ways, how to analyse language (and also more or less everything else). Let us illustrate this opposition with some examples (from Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, The Problem of Speech Genres, The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences and Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences).

linguistics, philology, structuralism Marxist philosophy of language,[16]metalinguistics[17]
grammar stylistics
language (as system)
dead languages
speech communication
social discursive interaction
grammatical (syntactic) forms speech genres
word (less than an utterance)
word (as utterance)
text (only linguistic material)[18] text (as utterance)[19]
monologic dialogic
poetry, drama, epos novel, prose fiction

In different periods Bakhtin used different terms. We could easily add more and more binary oppositions to this table, but this method probably would not gain us any usable results. Let me just emphasize the heterogeneity of the oppositions and particularly the use of the notion “text” that designates two different meanings (within a single essay[20]).

Bakhtin criticises the first column (linguistics in line with Ferdinand de Saussure and structuralism in general) in favour of the second one. The linguistic-structuralistic approach is acceptable only heuristically as a scientific abstraction that has to be detached from the metalinguistic approach to the reality of the language as actual discourse in the living communication. Structuralism with its search for the logical structures might be useful methodological model for the natural sciences, but it cannot be applied to the study of language as an interpersonal event – which could not be reduced to human tool – or for humanities in general.

The basic notion in Bakhtin’s theories is “an utterance”. It is determined by four characteristics:[21] interchange of speaking subjects, consummation (it has to be thematically accomplished through the speakers intention), expressiveness (speaker’s subjective emotional-axiological relation towards the object and meaning of the content of the utterance) and, finally, the utterance has to be addressed to somebody (a particular addressee is being taken in consideration). An utterance is a unit of the speech communication. It is always concrete, undetectable from its context of culture (science, arts, politics etc.) and from the context of a particular individual personal situation of the living speaker. There are no neutral utterances. Next, a larger whole is speech communication as never ending exchange of utterances structured as dialogue. Important terms are also “discourse” as the whole of texts and “language” as system.[22]


The name Mikhail Bakhtin is famous due to the concepts of dialogue and dialogism. Dialogue is primarily the basic model of language as discursive communication. A sequence of utterances is a dialogue of speaking subjects or voices that respond to former utterances and anticipate the future ones. On the other hand the dialogue doesn’t determine the utterance only externally, but reaches also inside. There are three factors determining an utterance. First, there is the content with its objects and meaning (a theme being objective factor and an authorial concept a subjective factor). The second factor – constitutive for an utterance – is the expressiveness, the emotional-axiological relation of the speaker towards the content that could never be neutral – while, of course, always being appropriated form other socially specific utterances. Bakhtin speaks mainly of the intonation and accent. On one hand, there is the expressiveness of an utterance as a function of an individual author that struggles with alien expressions on the same subject; therefore we could speak of a micro-dialogue within a single word (as an utterance). But on the other hand, we have to consider the typical expressions and intonations connected to particular types or groups of utterances (speech genres), which make them social, not individual. It is apparent that the utterance is dialogic, i.e. it is actually a dialogue of different voices confronting one another. It is not important whether an utterance is monologic or polyphonic – it is fundamentally dialogic. An utterance is a point of view, a Weltanschauung, that doesn’t come out of nothing, but is always a response to other utterances by reusing them. The third factor determining an utterance concerns the relationship of the speaker with the other and his utterances, the existing and the anticipated ones. An utterance transgresses its borders into past linguistic (semiotic, ideologic) formulations as their understanding, but also into the future ones by speaking to them; it tries to anticipate them – in a particular form and considering a particular addressee (who is not just an empty form of the structuralist ideal reader). An utterance always attempts to reject the objections already while still anticipating them. The dialogical “context” of an utterance (always an ideology, but not necessarily verbal discourse)[23] transgresses its boundaries (the interchange of speakers) both towards the inside and outside.

To understand an utterance, being itself an understanding answer, it requires at least two speaking subjects. But the Bakhtinian concept of dialogue requires three of them. We find more then one formulation.

Author (the speaker) has the unalienable right to his word, but the rights belong also to the listener and those, whose voices sound in the word that the author previously found (after all, there are no nobody’s words). A word is a drama that features three persons (it is not a duet but trio). It happens outside the author […][24]

In this case we have the voices of the past speakers, the present author and future voices that will form contexts for understanding. But there is another trio – a more interesting one – concerning the dialogical nature of understanding. The understanding (and also the existence of language and consciousness in general) always requires two subjects.

To see something for the first time, to comprehend for the first time, it means to establish a relationship: it doesn’t exist for itself but for the other (two consciousnesses in mutual relationship). […] (the understanding is never a tautology or repetition, because there are always two and a potential third).[25]

To demonstrate more specifically the place of the third we have to consider Bakhtin’s theory of dialogic relationships. They exist only among whole utterances – really or at least potentially whole ones – behind which one can find (or within which are represented) real or potential speaking subjects.[26] (Dialogic relationships are impossible between linguistic unities.) These utterances may be strictly monologic discursive products. Dialogic relationships exist both between temporally distant utterances that never establish actual contacts, but when confronted on the level of meaning they establish dialogic relationships, if there is at least some proximity of meanings; and one can also find dialogic relationships – or so called “zero” dialogic relationships – where there is actual dialogic contact, but there’s no contact of meaning – Bakhtin mentions comical situation of the dialogue between mutes. “Here the point of view of the third is made apparent (the one, that doesn’t participate in the dialogue, but understands it).” For Bakhtin the third in the dialogue is the understanding itself as its possibility. Let us look at the key sentences.

The understanding itself as dialogic element enters the dialogic system and somehow changes its total sense. The one that understands inevitably becomes “the third” in the dialogue (of course not in a literal or arithmetic sense, because the number of participants in the dialogue that is understood can be unlimited, besides “the third”); however, the dialogic position of the “third” is a very particular position. Every utterance has always its addressee (of different characters, different levels of proximity, specificity, awareness etc.), whose responsive understanding is searched for and anticipated by the author of discursive product. This is “the second” (again not in arithmetic sense). But the author presupposes besides this addressee (“the second”) more or less consciously the supreme “super-addressee” (“the third”), whose absolutely righteous responsive act is foreseen either in the metaphysical distance or in distant historic time (addressee as “side or last exit” for the thought and word of the addresser). In the different ages and within different understanding of the world this super-addressee and his ideal, actually responsive understanding gets different ideological expressions (god/God, absolute truth, the court of impartial human consciousness, people, the court of history, science etc.).[27]

Because it is impossible to think of the relationships between the utterances from a point external to the field of utterances, i.e. from a transcendental position, Bakhtin places the possibility of understanding into the dialogue itself as possibility of its infinite continuation towards the perfect understanding. Let us add that it could establish a religious element of Bakhtin’s thought, but this is not as simple as that.

The third party that we mentioned does not appear as something mystical or metaphysical (even though it might, in particular understanding of the world, acquire similar expression); “the third” is component part of an utterance as a whole, which can be revealed in it through in-depth analysis.[28]

Bakhtin is mentioning something similar in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics with the concept of the “word with a loophole”, emphasizing the need to reserve a “way out” for the word (and consciousness). Despite apparent finality of the word there is always a way out that prevents its dogmatisation.[29] Bakhtin uses the expression “lazejka” – a narrow hole, exit (from an awkward situation), a trick etc. The most famous instance of this feature is the hero from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.[30] Let’s mention another segment:

»To be heard” is itself a dialogic relationship. The word wants to be heard, understood, it wants to be an answer and again to reply a question and so on ad infinitum.[31]

Let’s add that the basic form of dialogic relationship is also agreement.

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into boundless past and boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stabile (finalized, ended once and for all) – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. […] There’s nothing absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.[32]

From what has been said, we can conclude that every utterance – or a word, which can be compared to an utterance as a whole[33] – is an active element in an endless dialogue and, as such, a complex web of voices. The dialogism determines words intrinsically and their relationships to other words. Linguistic concepts, such as grammar, could never reach real relationships in a language. These are only heuristic tools useful for the analysis of dead (Classical) languages (where they were also developed) and for synchronic aspects of language. The diachronic aspect of language as dialogue of personalities (for example heroes as ideologists in the polyphonic novel) is from the linguistical point of view nonexistent. Thus we stumble upon a new problem, how to study language in its generic aspect. Bakhtin supplies his own answer – metalinguistics and the speech genres.


[…] linguistic mind as monologic mind should be overcome by means of dialogic one, the metalinguistic mind […][34]

The term metalinguistics existed before Bakhtin and meant the study of relations between language and society or culture. Radovan Matjašević links this term to macrolinguistics, which for Bakhtin is still linguistics, of course.[35] Contrary to linguistics his metalinguistics studies non-systematic aspect of language therefore being outside the field of exact sciences. The foundational scheme of a metalinguistic relation is dialogism. Bakhtin’s metalinguistics as philosophy of language is “the metalanguage of all the sciences (and all the aspects of cognition and consciousness)”.[36] (The notion was actually first used in the essay The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences around 1960.[37]) Metalinguistics attempts to, on one hand, reject the monolithic system of structuralisms, but on the other hand, it still attempts to find repeating features of reality (as speech communication) and relations among them while being a part of the great dialogue as an instable structure. (Scholars emphasize the similarities between Bakhtin’s thought and poststructuralisms.)[38]

It is expected for a theory to try to find different types of its basic elements, in this case the basic element being an utterance it is not surprising that Bakhtin attempts to discover more or less stabile types of utterances. He names them speech genres; also (ideological or life-) genres. They are first mentioned in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. »Every particular utterance is, of course, individual [according to Saussure], but every sphere of use of language produces its relatively steady types of utterances, which we call speech genres.”[39] Speech genre[40] is a unity of theme, style and compositional principles of a group of individual utterances. They are closely linked with particular areas of communication. It is important to mention constant expressions (being typical relationships of speakers towards the content of an utterance). Bakhtin speaks of typical addressees (e.g. conventional addressees in the history of literature) and all the factors of an utterance that we already mentioned.

Utterances and their types are transmitting belts that connect the history of society with history of language. It is impossible for a new phenomenon (phonetic, lexical, grammatical) to enter the system of language without passing a long and complex way of generic and stylistic testing and transformation.[41]

To be clear, the notion speech genre covers everything from a single word utterance (or a mere gesture) from everyday life to a novel in many volumes. The criterion is unambiguously the interchange of speakers. Bakhtin defines two types of speech genres – the simple or primary ones and secondary or composite speech genres, that are composed of primary ones. Every utterance relates to reality and the other utterances in the speech communication only as a whole. Consequently, a replica in a dialogue in a novel is a part of ideological reality only as a segment of a secondary genre. Here we encounter a problem, what are the relations between particular primary utterances within a secondary one and what are the relations between primary and secondary utterances. The problem gets even more complex concerning a somehow vague distinction between primary and secondary types of utterances. The primary ones emerge in everyday communication. The secondary ones are composite. It is possible that Bakhtin’s distinction between the two types of utterances actually emphasizes the mediated relationship between reality and individual parts (primary utterances) of secondary utterances. What is stressed is the interaction of different genres that inhibits the vulgar understanding of literature as mechanical representation of the world. The hero doesn’t speak the words of the author – his words are diffracted in the totality of the secondary speech genre, in the authorial intention as formative principle of the utterance (a novel). The author is always outside the work of art that belongs to him only as a whole. In the novel all primary utterances are more or less reified (objectified). This explanation doesn’t work the other way around – the concept of primary speech genre remains confused since it seams clearly possible that the primary utterances can grow out of secondary ones.

The relationships between speech genres inside secondary genres are dialogic. What remains unclear, are the borders between primary speech genres inside secondary ones that are not actual borders between utterances – there is no interchange of speakers. Bakhtin mentions the so-called “border ‘scars’” inside the secondary genres.[42] When a (more or less) primary speech genre enters a secondary one the “dialogization of secondary genres” occurs.[43] Another problem arises, because the relations between speech genres remind us of syntactic relations.

But in these phenomena the relations between the primary genres that are reproduced cannot be grammaticalised and retain their original nature within the utterance that is categorically different from the relations between words and sentences (and others linguistic units […]), even thou they appear within the borders if a single utterance.[44]

Similar to the above mentioned is the distinction between grammatical pauses between linguistic elements and real pauses between utterances and the stylistic pauses between the utterances within a single secondary utterance.

To study the questions we mentioned above Bakhtin suggests stylistics, but not in its traditional form. Stylistics should not explore the individual style, which actually appears only within some genres, for instance literary ones; in a military order it is absent. For Bakhtin the style is fundamentally connected to the speech genre. Aleksander Skaza comments that in the text Discourse in the Novel Bakhtin emphasizes the intentional aspect of the style that reflects a worldview – this corresponds with current generic emphasis, because for Bakhtin the genre is also a universal category, a possible relation to reality that surrounds us.[45]


The theory of utterance and speech genres is the foundation for Mikhail Bakhtin’s works on literature. Since all the utterances in general are dialogic the questions of the self-conscious dialogism arises. For our purposes let’s note only two most important issues out of an almost limitless field.

First, crucial for Bakhtin concerning different literary phenomena are the relationships between voices within literary genres as secondary utterances. This leads us to the study of different types of novels where there are always at least two voices, the voice of the narrator and the hero’s voice. In his study Discourse in the Novel (and other texts) Bakhtin defines the concept of “an image” of language (or style or voice), which emphasizes that the hero’s voice is not as autonomous as the authors, it is only a more or less typical image of a voice. (Let us recall that also an idea and a human consciousness consist of the same substance – the ideology.) An image of hero is therefore – because it is a part of a novel, i.e. a single secondary utterance – always overcast by a more or less intense “objective shadow”. If the authorial overshadowing is very intense, the word of the other loses its individual meaning and becomes a thing, a characteristic of a reified hero. On the other extreme there is the weakening of the objective shadow, which enables the hero’s own (more or less) autonomous voice to dialogically interact with the author. Let’s stress once again Bakhtin’s emphasis that at least some overshadowing is unavoidable.

Secondly, what we’ve last said is (kind of) not true for the so-called polyphonic novel that is discussed in the two versions of the monograph on Dostoevsky Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art (1929) and Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963). The main criteria defining polyphony are the image of man and of his idea.[46]

The hero of polyphonic novel is a subject and therefore (relatively) independent from the author and authorial language. All his reality is his relation to the world and to himself. The image of hero is actually the meaning of the world and himself for himself. Author creates multiple self-conscious entities – voices – in their totalities. The world being represented in the novel is not a function of the author’s voice but of the hero’s self-consciousness. All characteristics of the hero and the totality of his world are an element of his subjectivism and an object of his reflexive thinking. The hero is not stabile, autoidentical; he is not finished. It is important only, what the world means for the hero and not, what is he from the point of view of the world. If the world is just a hero’s projection the world can never causally determine the hero. All that the hero is faced with are other consciousnesses with equal statuses, which include the author’s consciousness. The event of coexistence and dialogic interaction occurs outside real time and space. The styles (as languages that the author uses) are not images but functions in dialogue.[47] The novels of Dostoevsky are endless dialogues between the author and heroes.

The hero’s self-consciousness as the dominant element in the creation of his image is sufficient to break down the monologism. It has to be emphasized that the hero must not be the authorial “mouthpiece” – the distance between the author and hero is essential; the objectivation concerns his self-consciousness (but not the hero himself as an object). The hero is pure voice, unfinished and, accordingly, active in the dialogue. The heroes are more or less aggressive “ideologists” struggling for their usually monologic truths. The concept of the coexisting voices belongs to the author, but at the same time it is not a part of his own voice, i.e. ideology. This could be partially explained with the fact that the self-consciousness isn’t a hero’s characteristic in the same way as his objective determinants. Contrarily to the characteristics that determine and enclose him the self-consciousness, on the other hand, opens the possibilities of the hero as person, who is all in his ideology, i.e. words. The author created the freedom of the hero and his word so that the hero himself can develop his own ideology with its own logic.

On the other side we have the image of idea being the hero’s mode of existence. The idea on one hand strengthens the hero’s self-consciousness and on the other the self-consciousness enables the meaningful value of an idea. Within the monological world there are no ideas, there can be only characteristics. In a monologic horizon the idea is always one, belonging to the author or to his literary “mouthpiece” – the hero fused with the author. Monologically the ideas are either affirmed or negated. In the polyphonic novel the idea is “performed”. One explores its possibilities. The author’s task is to bring all the points of view in the novel to their extremities, to unfold their inner persuasiveness and to confront them with one another. (This is neither the relativistic position, where there’s no need for dialogue – socially and historically embedded ideas in their actuality do relate to the reality of our life! -, nor it is the dogmatic position, in which case the dialogue isn’t even possible.) The image of idea is bound together with the image of man – one person is confronted with multiple ideas and each idea lives only as an event of two of multiple consciousnesses. There are no isolated thoughts as elements of an abstract system.

The foundation of both, the image of idea and the image of hero, is dialogic relationship. The author’s relation to the hero should be as dialogised as possible because otherwise the “monologically structured blocks of life” appear in a novel – they appear in all Dostoevsky’s novels (but don’t define them as a whole, of course). The same can be said about the idea that gets its full meaning only in the dialogic relation with other ideas and particular contexts. Bakhtin stresses that the author speaks with the hero in a kind of extemporal present. Also the reader participates in this dialogue.

Before we divert our attention to these problems, let us consider the dialogue in the polyphonic novel (Dostoevsky’s novels and after). Bakhtin finds in the analysis of the novel The Double a particular situation half way between homophony and polyphony – a single consciousness is divided into three voices. In the novel Notes from Underground we find the polyphony for the first time. The hero’s word confronts other voices while trying to protect his own openness, subjectivity. (We have already mentioned “the word with a loophole” as “a way out” for the consciousness.)

Dialogue in the novels does not describe the heroes and their relationships. On the contrary, in the external dialogue, which is a part of composition, we can distinguish two closely connected layers: the inner microdialogue within the consciousness of hero is split into multiple voices and as such it is the substance for the external dialogue. Some heroes relate to one group of voices other to the other group. For instance, Ivan Karamazov wants and at the same time doesn’t want to kill his father; Smerdyakov hears one group of voices, Alyosha is more focused on the other group. In this situation the other in the dialogue (and the dialogue itself) exits his position in the plot (exits authorial unity of the novel) into “the abstract sphere of the pure relationship between human beings”.[48] Polyglossia is in this case an extra-temporal and extra-spatial event in the carnivalesque space.[49] (And therefore isn’t an autoidentic situation firmly placed in a pre-existent world.)

The polyphonic novel realizes all the possibilities of the dialogic understanding of the world. These novels are word (literature, understanding) about word (human and his consciousness as ideology) confronting word (the consciousness of the other). What is important is the struggle against the reification of a human being.[50] According to Bakhtin the polyphony is a new way of artistic thinking that transcends the novel. It is the only way to grasp the dialogic existence of human consciousness in its freedom. All that is left of the so-called reality – in the horizon of polyphony – is the multiplicity of consciousnesses and their worlds (in dialogue).

The dialogism therefore makes possible a curious procedure: objectification or the other as a subject, or, we could say, his subjectivation. The troubles with the terminology suggest complications.


The problem isn’t just a false interpretation of Dostoevsky’s novels. The novel, according to Bakhtin’s theory is a secondary genre, a single utterance with a single author and his final meaning. The theory of polyphony therefore analyses the inner scars within an utterance between the utterances (or their parts) that entered it. Bakhtin enabled us to distinguish the relations within utterances that are not linguistic (logic), but dialogic. To understand the concept of voice of the other it requires Bakhtin’s metalinguistics, the theory of the (polyphonic) novel, which enables us to see the real burgeoning of voices.

The most important objections to Bakhtin’s polyphony emphasize his rejection of the difference between fiction and life. It is hard to imagine the author to speak to his heroes that are completely autonomous. What he’s looking for is the ideal voice that would be freed from its objective shadow. This is, of course, impossible, Bakhtin adds. The word of the other is necessarily to some extent objectified. Anyway, it is important to make this objectification as slight as possible. We are confronted with the ethical-hermeneutical task to let the voice of the other remain other and free. It should not become an object or enter the immanence of the I. Let us quote the position of Aleksander Skaza.

[…] Bakhtin restrains the influence of purely communicative (only informative) aspects of the language and doesn’t allow the changing of the personal meaning (the voice) into a thing, a mere message (it is the main idea of his theory of polyphonic novel and the philosophy of the language as a whole) […][51]

We shall see, that the key question about these problems is the question concerning dialogic relationship.

We have already mentioned the theory of the utterance and metalinguistics as the theory of speech genres. What remains unclear is the dialogical relationship. Dialogism is a fundamental relation in Bakhtin’s, we could say, metaphysics – even a human is no more nor less than a series of utterances in speech communication. In this part of the essay we’ll show that in the very core of dialogism there is a mystical attempt of thinking something that transcends subject–object relations.

Bakhtin’s dialogue is not a dialogue of two existing consciousnesses in real world attempting to understand each other. In this case we presuppose an objectively existing world, not only existing but also potentially explained. The truth about me and the other is a given. For these two truths to be objective, with Bakhtin’s words “consummated”[52] (e.g. finished), one requires a transcending consciousness. We of course could speak about transcendence in Bakhtin, but it could not be grasped in such vulgar technical terms. Let’s try something else. There are two consciousnesses in the dialogue, but these are two categorically different entities: I and the other (as you). Between them there is a particular relation – that is the fundament for the concept of dialogism – called extra-location or exotopy or extopy or simply position outside[53]. We are confronted with a problem how to think oneself and the other within the limits of a consciousness (as semiotic or ideology), outside of which nothing is accessible. In Bakhtin’s case the emphasis is on literature and the relation between the author and hero, which suggests us to consider his first major study[54] Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity.[55]

The extra-location of the author as I in relation to the other – hero – is the very essence of the dialogic relation being always relationship to the other that is a subject and not my intentional object. The early notion of extra-location was connected with the concept of dialogism in Bakhtin’s late essays[56], but the extra-location itself is the most elaborated in the early works, particularly the phenomenological study Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity that we mentioned. (The notion of dialogue is still absent.) In this text Bakhtin uses the phenomenological description to show the differences between human self-experience – I-for-myself – and his experience of the other. It is a complex analysis – we’ll illuminate it from a particular point of view.

The extra-location of the I, and his transgredience (being outside of the other) that derives from it, is evident for Bakhtin, a result of intuition. He elaborates it on three levels: space, time and meaning. Space first. I myself cannot experience my outward image, the outward boundaries of the body. That is to say, my appearance, beauty or ugliness for instance. To imagine myself as a consummated whole in the world as “environment” I need another consciousness. I experience myself from inside and the world around me is ever expanding “horizon”, which is not clearly detached from my body. It is not the case that I could not discursively think myself as a part of the outside world, the important thing is that I can not axiologically approach myself with emotional-volitional reaction, that is to say, I can not experience my true self. All my emotional reactions are appropriations of other people’s emotional reactions. (One can see the inadequacy of self-experience in his experience of others.) It is similar with time. As in space I also transgress my boundaries in time. In a form of “spirit” I am detached from time and a part of a meaning-governed sequence that could never be consummated. There is nothing “given” in I, everything is “still to be achieved” (in responsible task and possibility of the personality). Only the other can experience myself in time “rhythm” as “soul”, the “inner life” delimited in temporal and spatial environment. For instance, I can not experience myself in time because I am always with me and at the same time I can not experience my birth nor death. I as a “spirit” do not coincide with me myself, which is for the other a feature of a “given” delimited “soul”. The third level – the meaning – is one of consummation of the hero as an axiological position in the event of being – how to delimit and consummate him.

Neither I nor other can be reduced, but the importance of either of them varies in particular “events”.[57] The cognitive event (treatise, article, lecture) reduces the other consciousness, the hero. What is left is the author with his objects. In the ethical event the author and hero coincide while standing in the face of a value that they agree or disagree upon (polemical tract, manifesto etc.). The aesthetic event is different. There are two non-coinciding consciousnesses. The aesthetic event consists of two phases: first I as the author actively abandon my extra-location and enter the other – this is the case of the ethical event of standing (together with the other) in a meaning-governed sequence, a part of an act that transgresses its boundaries. But the aesthetic event requires the reestablishment of transgredient position of “the excess of seeing and knowing”. (We’ll return to the religious event later on.)

Let’s consider the relations between ethical, aesthetic and cognitive event. There are similarities with later theories of Emmanuel Lévinas especially his early work Time and the Other[58]. (The scholars don’t speak of influence.) Also for Lévinas the immanence could not be overcome by cognitive means, the science is for both authors inside the I. For Lévinas the transgression of immanence is possible through ethics, but it seems that in Time and the Other the ethics is closer to hermeneutics than in his later more purely ethical texts. It is interesting that authors demonstrate the self-overcoming of the I in love, also in the form of sexuality, when the relation tends to fuse I and the other but nevertheless they remain apart. Bakhtin writes: “[…] the sexual features […] cloud the aesthetic purity of these […] actions”.[59] »In the sexual approach, the other’s outer body disintegrates and becomes merely a constituent of my own inner body […]” Therefore the other is reduced and fused in the immanence of the I, but nevertheless: “To be sure, this merging into one inner flesh is an ultimate limit toward which my sexual attitude tends in its purest form.”[60] On the contrary, the essence of aesthetic activity, the author’s extra-location, is love as ethical (in Lévinas’ terminology) relationship with the other. It is important that both authors distinguish eroticism as immanence from its more adequate interpretation as ethical relation to the other. We have also seen that Lévinas’ ethics is actually Bakhtin aesthetics. (We shall avoid the problems concerning the term aesthetics.)

Bakhtin’s aesthetically creative relationship is “aesthetic love”, “transgredient gift” that is otherwise inaccessible. The author’s extra-location has to be “intensive” and “loving”, it should not interfere with other person’s freedom. The understanding is always a part of immanence, but love “brings forth an aesthetic form for the co-experienced life that is transgradient to that life”.[61] Its consummated image, a “given” – being the opposite of existentially intentional “still to be achieved” – must not annihilate the other in his unconsummated I. The fusion of the I and the other would only increase the hopelessness of immanence, the other has to stay outside to preserve what is inaccessible from the point of view of the I.

Only on aesthetic level one finds a true ethical dimension of I and the other. The author consummates the other, but on the other hand, this process is the very foundation of the author as I himself that transgresses his boundaries. (This is a signal of the crisis of extra-location, which we’ll demonstrate together with the religious event.) The principle of non-finalizability is a feature or I that the other could grasp only through ethics. In both cases, Lévinas’ and Bakhtin’s, we see that ethics (Bakhtin’s aesthetics) is actually a hermeneutic principle that guides the lonely I out of his immanence. If the author’s extra-location is impaired, the hero is reified; the event is reduced from aesthetic (ethic) to cognitive level of immanence (later called monological). Hermeneutic feature of ethics is especially emphasized in Bakhtin’s late essays, for instance Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences. In Lévinas the hermeneutics is hidden behind ethics, but we are nevertheless confronted with the mysterious, the other, the self-transgressing through ethics – with philosophical glance towards absolute other.

Bakhtin and Lévinas speak of transcendental, often in the form of God. Lévinas’ ethical relationship with another human is a way towards infinite, mysterious, absolute other. Bakhtin in later works speaks of the third party in the dialogue, the one that understands it as a general possibility of dialogue. When we had been speaking of cognitive, ethical and aesthetic event we left out the religious one. It is a relationship between I and the other consciousness that is “the encompassing consciousness of God”.[62] Godly extra-location toward myself is absolute. God’s pure gift, unmerited one, forgiveness and redemption are ideal schemes of the extra-location.

[…] trust in God is an immanent constitutive moment of pure self-consciousness and self-expression. (Where I overcome in myself the axiological self-contentment of present-on-hand being, I overcome precisely that which concealed God, and where I absolutely do not coincide with myself, a place for God is opened up.)[63]

In my non-coinciding with myself there is a place for God, it’s hidden in an endless dialogue, let’s recall, Bakhtin’s fundamental concept. In the pure religious event the other (God) is principally non-guaranteed.

[…] this moment of otherness is axiologically transcendent to self-consciousness and is in principal not guaranteed, for a guarantee would reduce it to the level of present-on-hand being (at best, aestheticized being, as in metaphysics). One can live and gain consciousness of oneself neither under a guarantee nor in a void (an axiological guarantee and an axiological void), but only in faith.[64]

Bakhtin mentions “religious naiveté” where I become “from an I-for myself into the other for God”, that has to be, as we have quoted, not guaranteed. I must not be passive for the transgredient other, who is not guaranteed. Bakhtin’s radical position is trying to maintain the openness of an event (that becomes later a part of the great dialogue).

Bakhtin has written about God on many occasions, but none of them was published during his life (except in the special context in the book on Dostoevsky). One has found a fragment Towards the Philosophical Bases of the Human Sciences (1940-43)[65] that was later developed into Bakhtin’s last text Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences. In this fragment we find a dichotomy between the reification process in the practical interest and the other extreme: “[…] thought of God in the presence of God, a dialogue, petition, prayer. Necessity of free self-exposure of the personality.” Here we finally find the concept of dialogue that implicates two consciousnesses that are radically non-fused. Their relationship tends to affirm the other as the absolute other. The dialogue is founded in the extra-location if the I toward the other, and is an ethical and hermeneutic feature. Bakhtin’s thought is through the absoluteness of the other therefore close to the mystical tradition, which we could illustrate with Nicolaus von Kues dialogue De Deo Abscondito.[66] In the core of mysticism there is a thought that opens up to the transcendental which could never be adequately described or named. All what is left are cognitive attempts to grasp the transcendental, which not being accessible to logic opens up through play, imagery, symbols, and particularly in Bakhtin’s case through dialogue as an ethical and hermeneutic task driven to the pitch of religious experience.[67]

From what we have said till now it remains unclear how come Bakhtin foregrounds “the character” as the most interesting form of the aesthetic relationship between the author and the hero. The character is a part of epic, i.e. monologic world. This is unusual since we would expect, according to the radicality of the dialogic position (and the extra-location in its core), that it is the image of the hero from the polyphonic novel that who is the most eminent. Bakhtin actually mentions the limits of the epic hero and his (monologic) “dogmatism”.

Author and hero still belong to one and the same world, in which the value of one’s kin or kind is still dominant (in its various forms: nation, tradition, etc.). It is in this constitutive moment that the author’s position of being outside the hero finds its limitation: it does not extend to the point of being outside the bounds of the hero’s world view and sense of the world. Author and hero have nothing to dispute about, although, on the other hand, the author’s position outside the hero is particularly firm and stable in this case (disputes render it unstable).[68]

The character as the firmest form of extra-location has its limits, which suggests problems in the concept of extra-location itself. It, on one hand, enables the objectification of the other as a thing in the world, but on the other, the non-finalizability of the consciousness demands the openness also in its aesthetic image. The extra-location is therefore two-fold: its ethical dimension, giving the other his radical freedom, confronts the cognitive attempt to consummate the other.

The human consciousness as ideology steps into the centre of Bakhtin’s studies in his works from the second half of the twenties. If the consciousness is heteronomous, external to man, the foundations for extra-location start to disintegrate. Bakhtin finds “the crisis of extra-location”[69] in the works of Dostoevsky, as the authorial position loses its authority (because it is not absolutely external). (The other two expressions of the crisis of extra-location and the Classical character are sentimentality, when the works become tendentious, and the strengthening of the cognitive component, when the realistic novel becomes a mere illustration of a social theory.) Nevertheless the continuity between Bakhtin’s early works and the philosophy of language remains – the necessity of the other to axiologically approach my own self, that is based on the phenomenological description of the two modes of existence (I and the other), is the foundation of the heteronomous concept of consciousness as ideology. The philosophy of language was derived from the theory of axiological extra-location of the other in time, space and intentional position in an event (meaning).

Here we return to the polyphonic novel. In the crisis of extra-location the author is confronted with a difficult task, how to create an image of hero and at the same time not turning the other consciousness into a dead object. This situation remains a problem. The most important thing is that the author lets the other consciousness enough space to develop its possibilities, but the absolute tolerance is of course categorically impossible, because the image of voice is a part of a single utterance belonging to a single author. The word of the other is always a part of an image of idea and its carrier, i.e. the ideologist. On the other hand, it is impossible for the author to become an image among others. He inhabits the grand dialogue of life that can be transposed into literature only in a mediated form, overcast by an objective shadow. (In the study Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity – differently than in the later works – the overshadowing relates to the Godly mercy, protection … the transgredient gift of the other.)[70] It is possible for different images of languages to enter a novel (or be understood in general, because the dialogism isn’t a particularly literary feature but a universal one) but these languages can never reach the same level with the author (or the subject trying to understand in general). The polyphony as an attitude remains on a border between polemical position and non-transgredient consummation – because the real transgredience belongs to God. The polyphony therefore represents an ideal scheme that is in principle out of reach. What is left is dialogic relationship towards the other – the key to it is ethics (according to Lévinas) or in Bakhtin’s words radicalization of the aesthetic relation to the limits of religious experience.


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[1] This text is a part of a larger study (in Slovene). See Hard Times Charlesa Dickensa in Mihail (an interpretation of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times) and Novi historizem, Michel Foucault in Mihail Bahtin (a methodological study on the new historicism, Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin).

[2] See Kos: Uvod v metodologijo literarne vede.

[3] We do not use this word in the meaning »to be subjected to«.

[4] See Skaza: Mihail Mihajlovič Bahtin, 391. Škulj tries to find differences in her essay Poststrukturalizem in Bahtinov pojem dialogizma (23-4).

[5] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences in: Estetika in humanistične vede (E. i. h. v.), 308. We have used official English translations, if they were available. Otherwise we have verified the technical terms in different English studies on Bakhtin.

[6] Marksizam i filozofija jezika (M. i f. j.), 45.

[7] Same, 30.

[8] Same, 10-1.

[9] See A. A. H.-L: Der Rusische Formalismus: Metodologische Rekonstruktion seiner Entwicklung aus dem Prinzip der Verfremdung. Wien, 1978, p. 182-3. In Skaza: Mihail Mihajlovič Bahtin, 421-2.

[10] M. i f. j., 14.

[11] The Problem of Speech Genres in: E. i. h. v., 275.

[12] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences in: E. i. h. v., 292.

[13] E. i. h. v., 306.

[14] Same, 289.

[15] M. i f. j., 115. Emphasis is Bakhtin’s.

[16] M. i f. j., Matjaševič, XXXV.

[17] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences and Skaza in: E. i. h. v., 301. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

[18] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences, second chapter.

[19] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences, first chapter.

[20] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences.

[21] The Problem of Speech Genres in: E. i. h. v.

[22] Same, 243.

[23] Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences in: E. i. h. v., 339. Teorija romana (T. r.), 112.

[24] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences in: E. i. h. v., 313.

[25] Same, 305.

[26] Same, 316.

[27] Same, 318.

[28] Same, 319.

[29] Problemi poetike Dostojevskog (P. p. D.), 311.

[30] E. i. h. v., 52.

[31] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences in: E. i. h. v., 319.

[32] Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences in Makaryk, 32.

[33] The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences in: E. i. h. v., 317.

[34] Matjašević, XXXVIII.

[35] Same, XXXV.

[36] Same.

[37] E. i. h. v., 301.

[38] See Vaupotič: Novi historizem, Michel Foucault in Mihail Bahtin

[39] Matjašević, XXXI.

[40] The Problem of Speech Genres in: E. i. h. v.

[41] Same, 240-1.

[42] Same, 250 (also 310).

[43] Same, 241.

[44] Same, 250-1.

[45] The Problem of Speech Genres in E. i. h. v. 239.

[46] Chapters 2 and 3 in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

[47] E. i. h. v., 298.

[48] P. p. D., 351.

[49] Same.

[50] Same, 120.

[51] Skaza’s notes in: E. i. h. v., 303.

[52] See Bakhtin: Art and Answerability (A. a. A.).

[53] Russian: vnenahodimost, Slovene: zunajbivanje. Also see Goranka Lozanović in: Javornik: Bakhtin and the Humanities.

[54] 1920-24, published posthumously.

[55] In: A. a. A. See also Skaza: Estetski humanizem Mihaila Bahtina.

[56] In: Response to a Question from the Novyi mir Editorial Staff (1970) and Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences (1974).

[57] See particularly A. a. A., 22.

[58] Lectures 1946-47.

[59] A. a. A., 42.

[60] Same, 51.

[61] Same, 86.

[62] Same, 22.

[63] Same, 144.

[64] Same.

[65] E. i. H. v., 352-3.

[66] Kuzanski, 28-9.

[67] On religious in Bakhtin see Skaza: Estetski humanizem Mihaila Bahtina, Chapter 4.

[68] A. a. A., 179.

[69] A. a. A., 202. E. i. H. v., 304 (Skaza’s note).

[70] A. a. A., 41, 66-7.