Dialogue and Culture of Cognition


All real living is meeting. Martin Buber

David Rolfe Graeber died aged fifty-nine on 2 September 2020, just over three weeks after we finished writing this book, which had absorbed us for more than ten years. It began as a diversion from our more 'serious' academic duties: an experiment, a game almost, in which an anthropologist and an archaeologist tried to reconstruct the sort of grand dialogue about human history that was once quite common in our fields, but this time with modern evidence. There were no rules or deadlines. We wrote as and when we felt like it, which increasingly became a daily occurrence. In the final years before its completion, as the project gained momentum, it was not uncommon for us to talk two or three times a day. We would often lose track of who came up with what idea or which new set of facts and examples; it all went into 'the archive', which quickly outgrew the scope of a single book. The result is not a patchwork but a true synthesis. We could sense our styles of writing and thought converging by increments into what eventually became a single stream.

This is how archaeologist David Wengrow remembered anthropologist David Graeber and their intellectual journey together, which resulted in the book The Dawn of Everything. The remembrance of a scientific colleague can be taken as an unremarkable excerpt from the preface of a new publication, or as a silent invitation to the reader to pay attention to the book. Indeed, what is striking about this remembrance is the characterization of the method by which the two academics arrived at the remarkable authorial result. That method became dialogue - initially conducted as a release, a game without rules or a communicative experiment, later as the main means of inquiry, which generated both the need to meet regularly and the need to creatively process these meetings.

It's not something unusual - we could say. After all, it has long been commonplace for scientists not to work like robinsons in secluded islands of thought, but to collaborate, to have many conversations - often futile, sometimes promising, but always necessary. Admittedly, conversation between scientists on scientific topics is in some sense an extreme (perhaps even marginal) version of dialogue, even though science originated as dialogue - in the days when Socrates asked youth original questions to improve their thinking and cognition.

We are born into dialogue, from the very first moments someone speaks to us, even if at first we only respond with an involuntary grimace or a loud cry. In dialogue we live and grow up, conversation is a fundamental way of connecting with another person, through the other person's speech we know that we are not robinsons, dependent on the incompleteness of individual knowledge or on the completeness of yet undiscovered mistakes. Of course, mistakes or misunderstandings cannot be avoided even in dialogue, and it can be said that dialogue is at the same time a great opportunity for misunderstanding. Natural dialogue is full of uncertainty - the meaning of what is said is not identical with the meaning of what is heard, and so we develop the dialogue further in order to clarify the meaning of what is meant in the common interest. Thus, in rough outline, the contact of two persons can be called dialogical understanding.

Dialogue is our natural communication environment. We might think that we are therefore able to move around in it automatically and well. At the same time, we might assume that we do not need to learn dialogue in the same way that we do not need to learn to breathe. If we mean automatic and good communicative movement in dialogue, then we must recall the essential attributes that make interpersonal contact both free and responsible dialogue. These certainly include concentrated perception and listening, showing interest in the topic of speech and the interlocutor, logical follow-up to what is said, ethically acceptable reactions, and interestingly asked questions, which are perhaps the most valuable fruits of a dialogical encounter.

There are many factors that influence both the quality and the outcomes of real dialogues. They have been described in detail by many sciences ranging from linguistics and social psychology onwards. Scientific knowledge, however revealing or accurate, is far from guaranteeing that we as individuals and as a society will be equipped to stimulate or even usefully participate in dialogues. And they certainly do not guarantee that Slovak schools will produce graduates who will be able to hold conversations in a variety of social roles and life circumstances.

It is certainly good that we are imparting knowledge about forms of communication to pupils. It is certainly not a waste if pupils are able to find their way around a dramatic text or epic dialogue and distinguish between the characters' lines. It certainly makes sense to want young people to be able to interpret correctly the difference between spoken dialogue and dramatic monologue. But what communicative value is there in a factually correct interpretation of dialogue by a high school student who is neither able nor willing to speak written Slovak in front of a graduation committee? What value, then, does he attribute to his memory traces of dialogue if he fails in dialogic action? Admittedly, the construction and communication of knowledge is not primarily about spelling or formality. It is about a culture of dialogue in general, which we do not develop in pupils programmatically. We thus indirectly encourage the flourishing of ways that devalue interpersonal contacts and exchanges: interrupting the speech, half-hearted or no listening to the speaker, blatant displays of disinterest in the other, insensitive diversions from topics important to the other, subordinating communicative inputs to the need to demonstrate personal importance, pursuing personal interests before seeking compromise solutions, and so on. One would be hard-pressed to find another communication unit that so obviously marks the difference between the theory and practice of communication - hard-pressed to find a more striking learning distinction than that which separates the theoretical account of dialogue from the practical experience of dialogue. Yet dialogue is communicatively present from the first breath of man; throughout life we learn everything essential about ourselves and about communication itself primarily through conversations. The experience of dialogue helps us to form an idea of who we are, what we should not be, and what we could be. Developing pupils' ability to dialogue, to learn something, to discover something communicatively, is then not only a matter of teaching the mother tongue, but a matter of a culture of cognition and a matter for all teachers who influence pupils communicatively.

There is a problem in the world, it is not small and it did not arise yesterday. The consequences of the traditional culture of teacher monologue can be felt across the breadth of our education. And not just there. Pupils are more likely to encounter instances of parallel monologues that merely simulate dialogue, rather than conversations in which the actors acknowledge each other and are therefore willing - say, for the sake of identifying and solving a real problem - to adopt a better position or a more cogent explanation. The dialogues that we and our pupils may encounter are often examples of destructive encounter rather than examples of polite exchange of views, explanations, reasons and arguments. It is clear that the dialogue should not and cannot be about triumphing in a battle for the only correct insight or the only correct explanation, but about learning together and sharing the best of what we are capable of proposing and creating. After all, where else are children and young people to gain practical experience of dialogue as a cultivated method of knowledge if not at school? When else are pupils to develop the skill of communicative cognition if not at the time when their cognitive capacities are most readily developed? How else can they be taught to balance mentally and communicatively between their own thoughts and those of another person, if not through well-thought-out learning situations that lead to dynamic switching between attentive listening and connected speaking?

David Graeber and David Wengrow have been in dialogue for more than a decade. They have conducted it to relax, to experiment, to have fun with communication. Their conversation cannot be reconstructed in detail, it is impossible to know which of them said this or that. But we have an original book archive that records their intellectual movement together in pursuit of knowledge. Certainly, the learning paths on which we are asked to accompany pupils do not have to lead immediately to publishing houses or bookstore counters. More importantly, we should practically encourage dialogue both as a communicative game in which useful rules apply and as a communicative experiment that can lead to unusual discoveries, original questions and surprising solutions. The benefits of dialogical movement on learning journeys can arise not only in developing a culture of knowledge among pupils. In a dialogical way, their communicative receptivity, communicative action and linguistic sensitivity can be strengthened. By purposefully introducing dialogue into the classroom, it is possible to co-create both their healthy self-esteem and their knowledge that communication is a value. At the same time, it is certain that the experience of creative conversations can diminish pupils' feelings of being school robinsons who don't like to talk because no one is listening carefully anyway.

Karel Dvořák - DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


BOHM, David. On Dialogue. London : Routledge 2004

BUBER, Martin. I and Thou. New York : Touchstone 1996

GRAEBER, David – WENGROW, David. The Dawn of Everything. New History of Humanity. New York : Picador 2023

NICHOLS, Michael. Zapomenuté umění naslouchat. Praha : Návrat domů 2005

SOKOL, Jan. Malá filosofie člověka a Slovník filosofických pojmů. Praha : Vyšehrad 1998