Bakhtin’s ideas of polyphony and dialogism are explored as ways of organising our own human affairs. Traditionally, language has been thought of as an already established, self-contained system of linguistic communication that sets out a set of rules or social conventions that people make use of in expressing themselves. In this account, what I will call the intellectualist, Cartesian account of language, people understand the linguistic representations contained or encoded in each other’s sentences. However, another account – an emotional-volitional account articulated by Bakhtin, along with a number of others, such as Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty – is of a much more dynamic, participatory, relational kind. In it, language and the world are intertwined in a chiasmic relation with each other, in which we are shaped just as much, if not more, by the world, as the world by us. Thus, to switch to this very different view of language is also to switch to a very different view of the world in which we live: it is to see it as a living, dynamic, indivisible world of events that is also still coming into being. In this view, we understand another person’s utterances in terms of the bodily responses, the felt tendencies, they spontaneously arouse in us, responses that relate or orient us both toward them and toward events occurring in our shared surroundings.
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