Commonplace Book #167

The general feature of human life I want to invoke is its fundamentally dialogical character. We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining an identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression. For purposes of this discussion, I want to take “language” in a broad sense, covering not only the words we speak but also other modes of expression whereby we define ourselves, including the “languages” of art, of gesture, of live, and the like. But we are inducted into these in exchange with others. No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own. We are introduced to them through exchanges with others who matter to us–what George Herbert Mead called “significant others.” The genesis of the human mind is in this sense not “monological,” not something each accomplishes on his or her own, but dialogical.

Moreover, this is not just a fact about genesis, which can be ignored later on. It’s not just that we learn languages in dialogue and then can go on to use them for our own purposes on our own. This describes our situation to some extent in our culture. We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. And even when we outgrow some of the latter–our parents, for instance–and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, in Schwehn and Bass, Leading Lives That Matter, 63-64.