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Dialogues in Past and Present: Human interaction and the construction of meaning


Deze informatie is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Disclaimer: due to the coronavirus pandemic, this course description might be subject to changes.

Topics: Dialogues, communication, rhetorics, stylistic characteristics of different types of dialogues.
Disciplines: Linguistics, literary studies, cultural studies, communication and cognition.
Skills: Analysis of literary texts from various periods, multi- and interdisciplinary research methods, application and understanding of rhetorical tools for argument, debate, thought processes and communication.

Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Third year students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.


People talk, always and everywhere. The ability to enter into dialogue with other human beings to exchange ideas, create forms of understanding and agreement, acquire information and argue is a necessary instrument for any social interaction. There are conventional linguistic devices for evoking dialogic structure, such as rhetorical questions, and grammatical constructions such as English "be like" or Dutch "zoiets hebben van" (“She was like who do you think you are?”, “Ik had zoiets van ja laat maar”). Your reasoning, thinking and contemplating is shaped within a conversation frame when you ‘follow’ your heart or ‘listen to’ your conscience, which is interior dialogue, rather than interior monologue. Even in artificial intelligence: we engage in a dialogue with Siri on our iPhones.

Forms of dialogue are everywhere nowadays, from television interviews to the FAQ’s on websites, in education and advertisement, in politics and in shared decision making by doctors and patients. Once dialogue also was an extremely influential form of literary production, especially in the Medieval and Early Modern Period. Cultures of courtly conversation, academic disputation and humanist dialogue shaped personalities, offered patterns of civilized human interaction and generated knowledge. The first grammar of Dutch was written in the form of a dialogue; Galilei could find no other acceptable way to publish his views on the Chief World Systems than as the ‘natural’ outcome of a conversation.
Its omnipresence in modern media and the long literary and scientific traditions of dialogue writing, contrast sharply with the small amount of shared knowledge in the various disciplines studying fictive and spontaneous conversation. Literary studies, linguistics and cognitive sciences have their own research interests in dialogue, but apparently fail to communicate with each other. Moreover, the experience of communication professionals in the use of dialogue hardly informs academic research.

We will explore universal features as well as the historical development of a variety of dialogic structures, the ways these relate to their communicative and cognitive effectiveness (or lack thereof). From a historical perspective, dialogue was instrumental in shaping monastic teaching, academic disputation, courtly conversation, self-formation, intercultural debate, and judicial argumentation. All of these have left their mark on modern forms of dialogue, offering models for education and meditation, for inclusion and exclusion, in creative and mundane language use, in judgment and consensus, inquiry and consolation – mostly, however, without present-day users being aware of the historical and cultural roots of their practices of intellectual interactive engagement. An influential present day theory of human thinking postulates dialogic interaction as a developmental and evolutionary source of higher levels of cognition; we will explore the empirical and conceptual arguments for this approach, while (again) adding a historical dimension, i.e. one of cultural evolution.
But we will also turn to present day problems. If we want to develop apps that help users in changing their lifestyle, can we learn something from the dialogues that taught readers how to let reason guide their inner life? When we see that cultural uses of dialogue in the past include rearrangements of institutional hierarchies such as master and pupil, can we build on these to overcome authority barriers in the interaction between doctor and patient?

Course objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course, students:

  • have investigated the use of dialogue as a tool for communication and for thinking in various historical periods, cultures, and media;

  • are trained in analysing dialogic dimensions of various types of discourse and genres;

  • are trained to relate stylistic (different linguistic and structural) characteristics of different types of dialogues to the construction of meaning;

  • have developed their capacity to use dialogic structures to convey complex networks of interconnected ideas.

Programme and timetable:

The sessions will take place online on Mondays (17.30-19.30), starting on February 8.

  • 8 February: Introduction: Fictive interaction;

  • 15 February: Dialogue, Interaction and Commitment;

  • 22 February: Dialogue as a literary genre;

  • 1 March: Galileo Galilei;

  • 8 March: Depiction and Description;

  • 15 March: Interviews;

  • 22 March: Self talk;

  • 29 March: Dialogue in practice;

  • 5 April: Students’work.


(Mostly) online

Reading list:

  • Peter Womack, Dialogue (London, 2011);

  • E. Pascual & S. Sandler, ‘Fictive Interaction and the Conversation Frame’ , in E. Pascual & S. Sandler (eds.):The Conversation Frame. Forms and Functions of Fictive Interaction. Amsterdam, 2016, 3-22;

  • H.H. Clark, ‘Social actions, social commitments’, in S. C. Levinson & N. J. Enfield (eds.) Roots of human sociality: Culture, cognition, and human interaction. Oxford, 2006,126-150;

  • Stephen Clucas, 'Galileo, Bruno and the Rhetoric of Dialogue in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy', in: History of Science 46 (2008), 405-

Other literature will be announced on Brightspace.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Lectures and seminars - 30 hours (attendance is mandatory);

  • Readings, related assignments - 70 hours;

  • Final project - 40 hours.

Assessment methods:

The assessment methods will look as follows:

  • 30% weekly participation and assignments;

  • 70% final project: writing a dialogue.

Please note: Attendance is mandatory.

Students can only pass this course after successful completion of all partial exams.

Brightspace and uSis:

Brightspace will be used in this course. Students can register for the Brightspace page one week prior to the start of the course.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Registration process:

UPDATE 29-10
Registration will be possible from Monday 9 November 2020 up to and including Thursday 19 November 2020. The registration link will be posted on the student website of the Honours Academy.

Dr. Geert Warnar: