On Open Dialogue Part 5: Human Potential

(Click here for an overview of all my Open Dialogue posts)

“Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness”

– Henry James

The archetypal self

After his relationship with Freud broke down, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung spent several years in a troubled, possibly psychotic, state of mind. During this period, Jung experienced a “confrontation with the unconscious” and encountered a “matrix of mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age”, including Philemon, the archetypal wise old man. Psychiatrist Neel Burton notes that in Philemon, Jung had found the father-figure he had failed to find in both Freud and his own father. Even more than that, Jung glimpsed a projection of what he himself was later to become: the “wise old man of Zürich”. He believed that it was his madness (or creative illness) that allowed him to achieve this, by providing him with “the prima materia for a lifetime’s work”.

Another famous Jungian archetype was the Self, an integration of the unconscious and conscious achieved through individuation (and symbolised by the Mandala). Within the Self lies the full archetypal potential of the human being. This idea influenced the field of humanistic psychology, which stresses the human issues of free will, creativity and human wholeness.

Two of humanistic psychology’s most famous exponents were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Both believed in the importance of ‘self-actualisation’, the fulfilling of one’s personal potential, the discovery of self, the finding of hope, and love. Maslow placed self-actualisation atop his hierarchy of needs (below), whilst Rogers deemed it to be “the curative force in psychotherapy”.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Achieving potential through dialogue

Bakhtin also believed in the potential of human beings. In ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics’, he points out how Dostoevsky painted strong individual characters who are, nonetheless, inevitably affected by others. From this, Bakhtin describes humans as ‘unfinalised’ – as having room for infinite further creation. This creation arises from a genuine dialogue between two or more people, in which all voices are heard and given equal weight, allowing conventions to be broken and the novel to emerge – this he terms ‘polyphony’. For Bakhtin, truth is not held by one individual, but is composed of a ‘carnival’ of voices.

“… authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue….to live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium”

– Bakhtin

Carnival Scene, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

Creation from conversation

The idea of change and creation arising from dialogue is an ancient one, from the Socratic dialogues to the Upanishads and Analects of Confucius. There are also the interesting examples of inner dialogues, such as Socrates’s conversations with his ‘Daemon’, and Jung’s encounters with his archetypal figures.

Returning to Bakhtin, we are presented with the idea that with dialogue there is created an ‘intersubjective consciousness’. He distinguishes between two components of the psyche – ‘I-for-myself’ and ‘I-for-the-other’, with the latter responsible for how humans develop a sense of identity. In other words, our identity does not belong to us as individuals, but rather it is shared by all – it is intersubjective.

“Mind is intersubjectively open, since it is partially constituted through its interaction with other minds”

– Stern

As our social identities are constructed in relation to others, it is the conversation that creates the reality. The meaning is in the space between people, not in the heads of individuals, and is derived from the listener as much as from the speaker. The response of the listener is a crucial part of the dialogue.

Trauma, emotion and creation

Emotional trauma often resists conversation. When a person is sufficiently traumatised (perhaps by a single major event, several less severe events, or somewhere in between), her emotions are unbearable. It may be impossible to put the experience into words, rendering it difficult for her to understand herself and to communicate to and be understood by others. Instead, observers may only perceive seemingly incomprehensible symptoms of mental illness.

Bion looked at creation from emotion. As Glover notes, Bion was struck by similarities between Henri Poincaré’s description of the process of the creation of a mathematical formula and the theories of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Bion suggested that, just as in mathematics the process of ‘seemingly disparate, chaotic elements accumulating around a selected fact’ brings new meaning to both the chaotic elements and the fact, the same process occurs around a named emotional experience. Putting words to emotions can lead to the confusion and distress around them to be seen from a new, more manageable perspective.

In Open Dialogue, the aim is to replace symptoms observed within a social network with a shared language, and so a new, shared understanding.

Click for Part 6: Healing in Open Dialogue

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2 thoughts on “On Open Dialogue Part 5: Human Potential

  1. Pingback: On Open Dialogue Part 4: Our origins in dialogue | Mandala

  2. Pingback: On Open Dialogue Part 1: Introduction | Mandala

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