Ken Hirschkop suggests Bakhtin’s conceptual framework for a discussion with cognitivists

Maria Helena Cruz Pistori, Executive Editor of Bakhtiniana, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Sao Paulo (PUC-SP), Sao Paulo, SP, Brazil

bak_logoKen Hirschkop knows Bakhtin’s oeuvre in depth. He is a researcher and a professor of English Language and Literature (Waterloo University, Ontario, Canada), Cultural Criticism, and History and Theory of Communication. Few of his articles have been translated into Portuguese, and maybe his most renowned book is still Mikhaïl Bakhtin: an Aesthetic for Democracy, which, largely based on his PhD dissertation, focuses on Bakhtin’s theory of language. In the article Bakhtin against the Darwinists and cognitivists [Bakhtiniana, 11(1)], he points to a possible conflict between structuralist linguistics, which attains the level of positive science, and discourse studies.

In his article, which is at times ironic and, in many ways, almost informal (and combative), Ken Hirschkop uses, for the most part, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct to analyze and confront the Bakhtinian perspective. Firstly, he defends a stance about cognitive science: if it advances to areas that were previously explored by human sciences – linguistics, sociology, psychology, philosophy -, it is necessary to understand it in depth and, above all, to point to the limits of its reach. And, in contrast to it, he provides the reader with bits of Bakhtin’s theory of language. In other words, discussing with propriety and presenting meticulous arguments, he problematizes the limits of a cognitivist conception of language and uses Bakhtin’s dialogic-polyphonic perspective as its counterpoint.

Here I present two of his arguments. As to a possible idealism of the cognitivist perspective, he declares that “[…] however much it trumpets its scientific credentials, cognitive science remains stubbornly idealistic when it comes to language. It cannot imagine speech as anything but a conversation between two bodiless computing machines, which register elements of the earthly physical world by turning them into information for processing” (p. 160).

Moreover, as to the Bakhtinian materialism, he finds it more convincing than the cognitivist perspective. For him, “[…] if one is willing to pin one’s colours to the ‘Bakhtinian mast yet one more time, it will have to be because our lonely philosopher – the one who talks unashamedly of the irrevocable difference Christ has made to the world – is in some way more materialist, or at least materialist in a better way, than the Pinkers and Dawkinses of this world” (p. 154).

Undoubtedly, for us to better know and understand Ken Hirschkop’s position, we need to read his article. Only then can we dialogue with him, questioning if – as he states elsewhere – Bakhtin can still speak to us if we ask him the right questions.

To read the article, access

HIRSCHKOP, K. Bakhtin Against the Darwinists and Cognitivists. Bakhtiniana, Rev. Estud. Discurso[online]. 2016, vol.11, n.1, pp.173-186. [viewed 31th March 2016]. ISSN 2176-4573. DOI: 10.1590/2176-457324722. Available from:

External link

Bakhtiniana – BAK:


Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

PISTORI, M. H. C. Ken Hirschkop suggests Bakhtin’s conceptual framework for a discussion with cognitivists [online]. SciELO em Perspectiva: Humanas, 2016 [viewed ]. Available from:


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