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On Dialogue: An Essay in Free Thought (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 181-184 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0017

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 181-184

Book Review

On Dialogue: An Essay in Free Thought

On Dialogue: An Essay in Free Thought, by Robert Grudin; ix & 228 pp. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996, $23.95.

In the fifth chapter of his recent book Robert Grudin touched on a question that had been vexing me since I began reading On Dialogue: An Essay in Free Thought. There, amongst his ruminations on the "Social Channels of Free Thought," Grudin recalls a luncheon celebration for his first trade book during which one of the executives asked him: "Where in the bookstore would you display this book for sale?" In the four years it had taken him to write the book, Grudin had not given that question a moment's thought. But it startled him into the realization that books are commodities that must be marketed; as a result he found himself confronting a powerful truth, "that money, like water, flows in channels, and that projects that ignore these channels are likely to come up dry." More to the point: "These market channels give the American book industry, and hence current American literature, their overall shape. They largely dictate what will be written and read and what will not" (pp. 82-83).

Grudin had not only anticipated my question, his response was a practical demonstration of the need for dialogic thinking, for a greater array of choices, questions and answers. I had been looking at On Dialogue from a kind of market perspective, or worse, an academic market perspective. Was it philosophy? Was it literature? Was it both, or neither? I was following the same familiar channels, but Grudin was telling me, quite explicitly, that my approach was unnecessarily limiting. Were I to employ, instead, the method of Renaissance copia that Grudin recommends as a propaedeutic to dialogic thinking, I would quickly discover that On Dialogue is certainly philosophy, and literary criticism, and that it partakes of the history of ideas, dabbles in personal memoir, and takes up theories of interpretation, and education, and creative writing, as well as various forms of psychotherapy, journalism, political theory, and economics.

Grudin is obviously at home in the realm of literary criticism. His deft uses of Shakespeare's Hamlet and of Henry James's Daisy Miller advance his discussion of dialogic thinking, while at the same time offering focused interpretations of these works. And his examination of the Renaissance rhetorical practice of copia provides a stunning example of the way Grudin grounds his presentations in history and makes connections to other disciplines, thus extending the reach of his arguments. For instance, his reading of Plato's Parmenides as a "Dialogue of the One and the Many" transforms Plato from an advocate of dialectic to a practitioner of dialogue: "The deep message of Plato's Parmenides is that wholeness and fragmentation -- the One and the Many -- are valuable only as joint parameters. They cannot be objects of choice, because they are the nature of choice: they establish the playing field on which choices can be made" (p. 191).

If all this makes On Dialogue sound like a congeries, in some respects it is, except that the force of Grudin's discussion of "dialogic thinking" carries through the entire book and makes the whole cohere in a way that satisfies even when some of the parts occasionally begin to bewilder. His title may call to mind the 1980s literary critical trend spun off by the English translation of Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination (1981), but Grudin's notions about dialogue are grounded more in Plato, Martin Buber and Hans-Georg Gadamer than in Bakhtin. His sense of dialogue is personal and transformative as much as it is critical and interpretive. In fact, Grudin's subtitle is no throwaway. His dialogic demonstrations, as they find their literary form, are the offspring of Michel de Montaigne's Essays, as well as being firmly grounded in the writing of other Renaissance humanists such as Erasmus and Rabelais. In a book as multifarious as this, there will be many interesting (and a few not so interesting) loose ends. Grudin acknowledges this in chapters that sometimes end with a series...


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