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Norms of Answerability, The

Social Theory Between Bakhtin and Habermas

Greg M. Nielsen, Caryl Emerson

Publication Year: 2002

Greg M. Nielsen brings Mikhail Bakhtin’s ethics and aesthetics into a dialogue with social theory that responds to the sense of ambivalence and uncertainty at the core of modern societies. Nielsen situates a social theory between Bakhtin’s norms of answerability and Jürgen Habermas’s sociology, ethics, and discourse theory of democracy in a way that emphasizes the creative dimension in social action without reducing explanation to the emotional and volitional impulse of the individual or collective actor. Some of the classical sources that support this mediated position are traced to Alexander Vvedenskij’s and Georg Simmel’s critiques of Kant’s ethics, Hermann Cohen’s philosophy of fellowship, and Max Weber’s and George Herbert Mead’s theories of action. In the shift from Bakhtin’s theory of interpersonal relations to a dialogic theory of societal events that defends the bold claim that law and politics should not be completely separated from the specificity of ethical and cultural communities, a study of citizenship and national identity is developed.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vii

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pp. ix-xvii

In his early ruminations on moral philosophy, published only posthumously, Bakhtin announced as part of his work plan for the 1920s an ambitious four-part project.¹ It would begin with the architectonic of the answerable act, that is, with “the world actually experienced, and not merely the thinkable world”; its subsequent parts would discuss aesthetic activity as a performed...

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pp. xix-xxi

The idea for this book began several years ago in conversations about Bakhtin and critical theory with graduate students at York University in Toronto. It travelled to Mexico, Europe and the United States before finally settling in Montreal. Along the way I picked up a long list of debts. First, I would like to thank my friend Brian Singer for sharing his considerable...

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INTRODUCTION: Theory on the Borders of Sociology

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pp. 1-22

The work of Mikhail Bakhtin has been received and made known across the Western world largely through literary studies and the humanities. This book seeks to introduce the young Bakhtin’s ideas on an ethics and aesthetics of action into a dialogue with classical and contemporary social theory. Although several theorists are discussed across the book, Jürgen Habermas,...

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pp. 23-48

No matter how widely Bakhtin and Habermas might be recognized as key figures of twentieth-century social philosophy, they are rarely considered together.¹ Obviously Bakhtin was not aware of Habermas’s work. Although Habermas does cite Rabelais and his World as an important source for his own thinking on how to revise his study on the public sphere, it is clear that he has not made any systematic inquiry...

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pp. 49-65

This chapter continues to compare Bakhtin’s and Habermas’s approaches in terms of their core concepts of dialogism and communicative action. Habermas’ s argument that the philosophy of the subject develops through Fichte, Humbolt, and Kierkegaard to Mead’s theory of symbolically mediated communication is reviewed in the first section. I discuss his defense of universal...

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pp. 67-87

Both Bakhtin and Habermas search for solutions to problems posed on multiple levels: the one, the particular, the unique, the many, the general, the universal. Each thinker makes conceptual shifts that break away from their previous attempts to explain problems and yet each carries forward part of their already achieved understanding into new concepts. In order to better link his...

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pp. 89-108

A series of questions guide the following discussion of some of the sources of Bakhtins’ earliest work. What are the origins of his concepts? What is his unique contribution? What did he mean by mixing this or that concept? How did he get to this or that proposition from the place he began? Why and what conceptual shifts does he engage in from one text to the other? How...

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pp. 109-123

This chapter continues to explain Bakhtin’s deep affiliation and difference with Kant’s ethics and introduces a comparison with Max Weber’s sociology of action. The similarities and differences among the three approaches are reviewed by contrasting separate discussions of their general approaches. In order to economize on the presentation, discussion is directed...

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pp. 125-141

Interest in a systematic and comparative discussion of Bakhtin and George Herbert Mead has been growing in recent years as Bakhtin’s elaborate interdisciplinary scholarship and special place in Russian intellectual history becomes better known and as Mead’s place in American philosophy and sociology continues to be better understood (Koczanowicz 2000; Joas 1997). As we have seen...

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pp. 143-165

In these final chapters I want to move into questioning the way a social theory situated between Bakhtin and Habermas might theorize an ethics of citizenship and national identity in the contemporary era of postnational democracy.Whereas Habermas has written extensively in this field, Bakhtin has left us neither a text on political theory nor a definition that would clearly demarcate...

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pp. 167-199

Nations and nationalism are not going to disappear with globalization, nor are the conflicts they engender. If this is the case then we need to know more about what kind of nations and nationalism might be imagined dialogically and democratically in the context of an emerging “postnational constellation.” To explore this question this chapter employs a version of the...

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9. CONCLUSION: On Culture and the Political

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pp. 201-207

Citizenship and the nation need to be understood as open-ended, unfinalized, reflexive projects that, on a higher level of abstraction, encompass the dialogic and communicative definition of self-other relations and transcultural exchange. This argument is derived from Bakhtin’s definition of two-sided answerability that I extend to a normative theory of the creative dimension of...


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pp. 209-223


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pp. 225-239


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pp. 241-250

E-ISBN-13: 9780791489321
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791452271
Print-ISBN-10: 0791452271

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sociology -- History.
  • Social norms.
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