Sunday, November 05, 2023

Bakhtin (1895-1975) dialogics, learning and AI

Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic, developed a theory of language which saw dialogue as primary. He took this idea and applied it to learning. By dialogue he mean social interaction between people, teachers and learners, learners and learners, learners and others but also dialogue with the past. He was persecuted during the Soviet era but his work was rediscovered in the 1980s, and he has since become an important theorists in the philosophy of language and even learning through AI.


Bakhtin criticises the 'monologic' tradition in Western thought, where individuals are defined by religion a concept of the finite, the soul, religious and establishment belief. Individuals for him, are open and must engage in dialogue with the world and others. Dialogism is his foundational idea that all language and thought are inherently dialogic. We lean language and come to understand language through the practice of dialogue. Learning means dialogue in many forms with different people, tools, perspectives in many different contexts. It was introduced in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics(1929). This dialogue is in stark contrast with the teacher norm, direct instruction or monologue. Learning emerges from dialogue, external and internal.

In his incomplete essay Toward a Philosophy of the Act (1986), written in the 1920s, he outlines a theory of human identity or mind based on dialogic development. There are three forms of identity:




The I-for-myself is untrustworthy. The ‘I-for-the-Other’ on the other hand, allows one to develop one’s identity as a se of perspectives others have about you. Th ‘Other-for-Me’ is the incorporation by others of their perception of you into their own identities. This is an expansive and interesting form of identity in an age of dialogue with others through social media and messaging technology, as well as dialogue with technology which now plays a similar role.

Dialogism manifests itself in ‘heteroglossia’, with exposure to a multiplicity of voices and perspectives in a language. These can be parents, teachers, friends and those on social media. A heterogeneous group of voices that one can learn from.

Authoritative vs. Internally Persuasive Discourse

Authoritative Discourse is discourse that is embedded in a culture, enshrined in tradition. It is unnegotiable and taught as truth. It may be religious beliefs, science, the canon, parental beliefs and other assumed forms of knowledge and practice. It is often enshrined in an official curriculum or syllabus, which learners must memorise and regurgitate in exams.

Internally Persuasive Discourse is more personal, related to the learner’s experiences and views. The learner has to engage in dialogue with the established views to relate it to their own prior knowledge, adapt to it, assimilate it and create their own sense of meaning.

Although we learn through both these forms of discourse, learning is to move from the authoritative to the internally persuasive to find our own deeper forms of meaning.


Bakhtin also wrote about the concept of the "carnivalesque" in literature, which subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. In education, this can be pedagogical strategies that disrupt traditional hierarchies and empower students to challenge and question. 

Dialogism and AI

AI technology has now produced dialogic systems that may also fulfil Bakhtin’s needs. We can now communicate, in dialogue form with a new form of ‘other’ that lifts us out of our I-for-Myself, allowing technology to play a role in I-for-the-Other and Other-for-Me.

Interestingly traditional educators demand of the technology that it be a truth machine, when language is no such thing. Language is multi-perspective, at times messy, even carnivalesque. It points not just towards learning as dialogue but learning emerging from dialogue, in many different forms. LLMs and chatbots seem to be delivering this new form of learning.

Bakhtin would have loves the carnivalesque uses, such as be a pirate, the odd poems. I rather like the fact that Musk's GROK chatbot is quite snarky! AI satisfied both authoritative and personal learning and language allows for both. This is why I think Generative AI will have a profound effect on learning through dialogue, which is how most good teaching is done, both direct instruction and looser learner-centric dialogue.


He recognised the multifarious, and messy nature of human communication and therefore learning. For this he should be applauded, where theory is so often formulated in rigid and simplistic models. Bakhtin’s work has influenced educational theorists who view learning as a social, dialogical process and who advocate for more participatory, student-centered approaches. Educators who draw on Bakhtin’s ideas might focus on the role of discussion, debate, and dialogue in learning, and they might seek to create learning environments in which students’ voices are heard and valued as part of the collective construction of knowledge. 


Bakhtin, M.M. (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1993) Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Ed. Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.




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