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


Deze informatie is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Admission requirements

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an honours elective in the Honours College programme. There are limited spots available for non honours students. Admission will be based on motivation.


Dialogue is everywhere in life: in television talk shows, newspaper interviews, public debate and in the prefabricated question-and-answer sequences that help us navigate through websites. We are encouraged to engage in dialogue with others to bridge cultural, political and religious divides, but also with our inner selves to reach understanding, find comfort, and so on. Dialogic structures are present in apparent monologic texts when a lawyer presents evidence as providing an ‘answer’ to a ‘question’, just like a physicist does with laboratory experiments or (Mother) Nature itself. There are even 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).

Since the Enlightenment, the dominant view on the sources of human culture and human cognition has been an individualistic one based on the assumption of special properties of the mind/brain. In this course, we will study dialogue, as a cultural practice consisting in (the performance of) interaction between human beings (plural), as at least a complementary and possibly even an alternative perspective.

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). While omnipresent in 21st century media culture, dialogue – and reflection on dialogue – actually has a very long history. This history has been traced back to the elite culture of Humanism that rediscovered the rhetorical and philosophical dialogues of the ancient philosophers in classical civilization, but the actual formative period for the dialogue as a literary genre in the Western world were the Middle Ages. Then 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.

Course objectives

1) Investigate the use of dialogue as a tool for communication and for thinking in various historical periods, cultures, and media.
2) Train students in analysing dialogic dimensions of various types of discourse and genres.
3) Train students to relate stylistic (different linguistic and structural) characteristics of different types of dialogues to the construction of meaning.
3) Develop the capacity of students to use dialogic structures to convey complex networks of interconnected ideas.


Wednesdays 17-19 hrs.

7 February up to and including 14 March and 28 March up to and including 18 April.


Oude Sterrewacht, room c005.


Preliminary overview of 10 sessions, including specific historical components (where applicable)

1) Introduction; the concept and its history – Jacob van Maerlant
2) Direct Speech – 16th century morality plays
3) Fictive Interaction (guest lecturer Esther Pascual) – the “God as Taoïst” dialogue
4) Dialogue in literary studies – Plato
5) Reasoning and argumentation (guest lecturer Catarina Dutilh Novaes) – St. Augustine
6) Language and thought: Thinking as internal dialogue (guest lecturer Bart Geurts)
7) Dialogue as medium in past and present – More (Utopia) and Erasmus
8) Interviews (including excursion)
9) Reading Dialogues – Galileï
10) Dialogues and the origins of first-person narratives – Roman de la Rose

Most sessions combine two forms of instruction:
a) lecture with discussion;
b) presentation by students of an assignment related to that week’s reading, with discussion;
In some cases the assignment consists of a practical exercise in designing (a part of) a dialogue, including, on one occasion, preparing an interview.

Course Load

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

Lectures and seminars 30 hours
Readings, related assignments 70
Final project 40
Total course load = 140

Assessment method

Weekly participation and assignments (30%)
Final project: writing a dialogue (70%)

Blackboard and uSis

Blackboard will be used in this course. Students can register for the Blackboard site two weeks prior to the start of the course.

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

Reading list

Pascual, Esther (2014). Fictive Interaction: The Conversation Frame in Thought, Language, and Discourse. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Womack, Peter (2011). Dialogue. London etc.: Routledge.

Various articles.


Enrolling in this course is possible from Monday November 6th until Thursday November 16th 23.59 hrs through the Honours Academy, via this link. It is not necessary to register in uSis.


Dr. Geert Warnar