The Quest for Common Meaning

it is strange to begin a reflection about dialogue with the language of mysticism which includes silence, deep listening and a willingness to enter the unknown. However, dialogue invites us to suspend our assumptions, to be willing to give up the need to know, to relinquish our certainty, to listen to the other with curiosity and to be in the creative space between our words.

Dialogue is not easy. It requires of us attentiveness to how we think, what worldview shapes our thinking and how our language structures our thought. In dialogue we are invited to go deep, to go under our usual exchanges of communication. It is to explore our common experiences and underlying assumptions. It is a discipline that evokes the possibility of creating entirely new ways of thinking and acting together. William Isaacs explains in “Dialogue: Listening for Collective Intelligence,” that “dialogue is not specifically task focused but seeks to establish a new collective relationship among people, and to the fundamental ground of experience.”

Such communication is urgently needed today. The paradigms that have shaped Western thinking and its language from the time of the ancient Greeks conceived reality in terms of substantial and enduring objects. This leads to what is called substance thinking and fits very well with the mechanistic view of reality developed during the Enlightenment. Within this framework a substance exists first and then enters into relations with other substances. The entity remains itself. Its interaction is external to it.

This is exacerbated by the grammatical structure of English. Ronald L. Farmer in his book, Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic, writes, “Any given language orders the world in a particular way for those who use that language, and it conceals the aspects of the world that do not fit that order. …The grammar of the Indo-European languages, which emphasizes nouns, encourages substance thinking. As a result, people in the West tend to think of reality in terms of substantial entities and therefore view events as the interaction of these entities. These languages imply that first there are substantial entities which then incidentally interact. Thus, events tend to be explained in terms of substances instead of the reverse.”

This bias toward substance thinking has been challenged since the philosophy of Kant as more emphasis is on the human knower rather than the objective world. It is further challenged with the insights from quantum physics that sees reality as a web of relationships in which matter is affected by its interactions and environment. This different way of thinking is sometimes called “event thinking”. Farmer writes “event thinking view relations differently. An event does not first occur and then enter into relations with other events. On the contrary, the event is a synthesis of its relations with other events. And because these relations constitute the event they are considered internal to the event.” This new way of thinking is very difficult to express as we try to explain it using English which is grammatically structured to be more compatible with substance thinking.

I offer this reflection on language and paradigms of thinking because I believe that dialogue as a discipline can assist us in trying to find new ways of expressing our reality and in discussing the critical issues facing us as a planet. Dialogue emphasizes the synthesis that emerges from the exploration of common meaning. It is the relationships created and what emerges from it that is important. Dialogue invites us into an event mode of thinking. Isaacs believes that dialogue activates an elemental and natural form of collective intelligence inherent in human beings. He further states that “dialogue starts with the whole and moves to the parts. Dialogue begins with the premise that there is an underlying implied wholeness that can be made explicit. It also proposes that there is a level of learning and communication that may take place in a collective setting that cannot occur through individuals alone.”

Choosing to dialogue is to give up our comfortable ways of knowing. It is to give up the need to be right and to prove oneself. I believe to enter dialogue one needs a contemplative heart. We need the capacity for deep listening and a willingness to enter the unknown.  We are trying to see in new ways and to find common meaning that emerges from our engagement with one another. Perhaps the language of mysticism may hold some of the new ways of expressing that reality and be a source of healing for our fragmentation and isolation from each other and from nature.

Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

©2003-2019 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue
Reprint with permission

Further Reading:
Farmer, Ronald L. Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1997.
In this book about biblical hermeneutics, Farmer does an excellent job of presenting the “constructive postmodern” perspective of process philosophy. He explains Alfred North Whitehead’s process categories and offers that public discourse is possible because of the relational character of reality. He explores the role of language in terms of moving from “substance thinking” to more “event thinking.”

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