What is Dialectical Storytelling Theory?

By David M. Boje, Ph.D.

May 16 2016

I take a Hegelian approach to Dialectical Storytelling Theory. There are four aspects of Dialectical Storytelling Theory, that last three of which move beyond simple retrospective sensemaking narrative, and its empirical reliance on the five senses.

Boje's Dialectical Storytelling Model

Dialectical Storytelling Model (Drawing by Boje, used by Permission)

Let's try it on the side as was suggested in the workshop


Dialectical Storytelling is a methodology for tracing the movement of many contradictions. It has four phases: Sensemaking Fluidity, Self-Other Elasticity, Reproduction, and Search for Wisdom.

  1. Sensemaking Fluidity Dialectic (aka Sense-Certainty) This is what Weick calls retrospective sensemaking and Hegel calls sense-certainty, but stresses its universal fluidity (Hegel, 1807: 3266). Both Weick and Hegel are about the five senses as they sort out a Here, in relation to other Heres, this Now in relation to other Nows, this 'I' an observing consciousness in relation to other 'I's' also observing. Hegel is much more about the ontology of 'movement' as the observing consciousness of the sensemaker enacts a process of selective remembering and forgetting. These multiplicities of relationships of 'movement' in the 'dialectic of sensemaking' of Heres, Nows, and I's has a fluidity of movement that is core to the sensemaking dialectic of storytelling. The fluidity involved is that a particular Here, Now, and 'I' are in dialectic relation to the context of others Heres, Nows, and other I's. Some Here-Now-I is experienced first-hand, or directly. However, in storytelling, a plurality of Heres, Nows, and I's are second-hand, or even third-hand, yet blend in with what one directly experiences. In addition the sensemaker is forgetting (Hegel, 1807: #109) what was directly experienced, and what others related as their own experience, which in turn is the negation of negation, the forgetting of experience, as more experience occurs. Hegel's purpose is to go beyond sensemaking, to deeper and wider kinds of awareness. In the case of Human-Hawk-Habitat (3H), the Human is dimly aware of the Hawk, as a nuisance, as dive-bombing the unaware student walking blindly about Nature staring at their cell-phone screen (or at the ground), or with ear-buds listening to music, rather than hearing the 'Kearrrr' Hawk's alarm sound when Human gets too close to prey (food source), or to (egg), or to hatched (fledgling). Ironically, the Swainson's Hawk never seems to dive-bomb or 'swoop' at the workers deconstructing the nest, destroying the heart of the nest (see above photos). Heidegger (1962) does have 148 references to 'Hegel' and objects to hisdialectical account, and ends his book with pronouncements about the dialectic, and is stunned by 'spirit' Being-in-time, in Hegel. Heideeger, like Marx, cannot abid 'spirit' in the dialectic. Heidegger (1962: #405-6, p. 467, online version):
    "In Hegel's Interpretation of time both possibilities are brought to the point where, in a certain manner, they cancel each other out. Hegel tries to define the connection between 'time' and 'spirit' in such a manner as to make intelligible why the spirit, as history, 'falls into time'. We seem to be in accord with Hegel in the results of the Interpretation we have given for Dasein's temporality and for the way world-time belongs to it. But because our analysis differs in principle from his in its approach, and because its orientation is precisely the opposite of his in that it aims at fundamental ontology, a short presentation of Hegel's way of taking the relationship between time and spirit may serve to make plain our existential-ontological Interpretation of Dasein's temporality, of world-time. and of the source of the ordinary conception of time, and may settle this in a provisional manner."
  2. Self-Other Elasticity Dialectic Hegel's key concept is organic elasticity, the return of variations to a selfsameness pattern. In storytelling, the being-for-self and the being-for-other come into a dialectic, and more negation of negations. Hegel (# 266) terms this phase, Irritability, the reaction of I and Other to one another, or being-for-self in dialectic to being-for-another. There are two wider domains of awareness beyond sensemaking, and beyond the Self-Other Elasticity Dialectic. Students on cell-phones walking blindly about Nature, and faculty seen swinging a broom handle at fledgling, is all about being-for-self, and is dialectically opposed to being-for-another, in this case the Hawks, and their Fledglings. The University is being-for-self, in its narrative about avoiding the possibility of a lawsuit, brought by student (or parents), and is therefore, having the grounds crew deconstruct the nest. Meanwhile at University of Pittsburgh, Cornell University, and other universities, there is no war between Humans and Hawks, no deconstruction of nests, but rather anticipation over the newly laid eggs, the birth of fledgling greeting by positive regard, or being-for-another-species. It is the difference between Humanist, and Posthumanist ontology. There are two even wider awarenesses.
  3. Reproduction Introflected Dialectic Introflected, is a wider aspect of sensemaking awareness, of the whole, of self-preservations of the species, of ones dialectical role in bringing forth individual that keep the species in its movement.
  4. "Reproduction, however, is the action of the whole individual. Reproduction, taken in the sense of self-preservation in general, expresses the formal Notion of the organism, or sensibility [aka sensemaking]; but it is, strictly speaking, the real organic Notion or the whole, which returns into itself, either qua individual by producing single parts of itself, or qua individual by producing single parts of itself, or qua genus, by bringing forth individuals" (Hegel, 1807: #266, bracketed addition, mine). In our case study of NMSU and Hawk co-existence, the Swainson's Hawk pair are attempting to bring forth individual fledglings, producing eggs in a carefully constructed nest, in a tree in which they were born, and this is an act of self-preservation, in general of its species.

    Friday May 6th, 2016, a Swainson's Hawk couple moved their nest site from Renfrow Gym to a tree much closer to the heart of New Mexico State University Campus, at Regents Row/Frenger site. NMSU had to bring in special work crew (with Arborist license & taller crane) to deconstruct the newest nest, built from Friday to Monday morning. 70% done, there is a shot of the nest at the end. What are the Hawk pair telling NMSU? Its about their instinct to Reproduce, to preserve this Endangered species. While Cornell University has 3 million web views of its Hawks, and welcomes each new birth, NMSU has a strategy of removing each nest. Can the strategy be to move the pair to the Golf Course, or atop a Light Tower of the Football Stadium (like Crnoell does), or to the edge of campus to 'A' Moutanin (which is actually the ancient Aztec's Tortugas Mountain, before a Fraternity renamed it, and put an "A" in white painted boulders there; bfore that the Catholics colonized and converted the tribe), but this is still a 'Here' a place where there is more peace for the Swainson's pair? I would like to see a webcam installed like the research universities in other 'Heres' do.

4. The School of Wisdom Wisdom is mentioned 24 times in Hegel's (1807) Phenomenology of Spirit. Spirit means Reason, and this phase of Reasoning Spirit, is something Humans can learn in a School of Wisdom. Hegel gives the example of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus:

“In this respect we can tell those who assert the truth and certainty of the reality of sense-objects that they should go back to the most elementary school of wisdom, viz. the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus, and that they have still to learn the secret meaning of “the eating of bread and the drinking of wine. For he who is initiated into these Mysteries not only comes to doubt the being of sensuous things, but to despair of it; in part he brings about the nothingness of such things himself in his dealings with them, and in part he sees them reduce themselves to nothingness. Even the animals are not shut out from this wisdom but, on the contrary, show themselves to be most profoundly initiated into it; for they do not just stand idly in front of sensuous things as if these possessed intrinsic being, but, despairing of their reality, and completely assured of their nothingness, they fall to without ceremony and eat them up. And all Nature, like the animals, celebrates these open Mysteries which teach the truth about sensuous things” (Hegel, 1807: #109).

Initiations into the School of Wisdom was held in the city Eleusis, in old Aggie culture of ancient Greece, dating back to the Mycenean period (c. 1600 – 1100 BC). The Mysteries of the School of Wisdom, were to honor Ceres (Demeter, Rhea, or Isis), her daughter (Persephone), and Dionysis. It includes the myth concerning Demeter, a goddess of agriculture and fertility, and was recounted in one of the Homeric Hymns (c. 650 BC). The initiates learned Nature's most sacred secrets. For Hegel, animals are not shut out form wisdom, and celebrate these open Mysteries of what lies beyond sensemaking and Self-Other dialectics, and beyond Introflected dialectic. Of course, Las Cruces New Mexico has its own School of Wisdom, a top 'A' Mountain, once known by the Aztecs as Tortugas Mountain, but the ancient wisdom was colonized in Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta by the missionaries, then by our University (see Tortugas Mountain article).

More on Dialectical Storytelling Theory

Instead of simple retrospective sensemaking narrative, and its formula of social constructivism, or its empirical sensemaking, I prefer to look at ways to develop theory, including principles, from dialectical storytelling inquiry (See Hegel, 1807: #51).

“Instead of the inner life and self-movement of its existence, this kind of simple determinateness of intuition—which means here sense-knowledge—is predicated in accordance with a superficial analogy, and this external, empty application of the formula is called a ‘construction’. This formalism is just like any other. What a dullard a man must be who could not be taught in a quarter of an hour the theory that there are asthenic, sthenic, and indirectly asthenic diseases, and as many modes of treatment; and, since till quite recently such instruction sufficed, who could not hope to be transformed in this short space of time from an empirical into a theoretical physician?” (Hegel, 1807: #51)

Dialectical Storytelling Theory is about the opposition of individuality (its sensemaking) with universal Spirit (defined as Reason). In our own living story, that particular aliveness is nto the abstract (schemata) of narrative. And above, beneath, before, and in bets on the future, the antenarrative connects the living story experience to the abstract narrative rendition, and is in dialectic opposition to them both (see Hegel, 1807: #355).

Dialectical Storytelling Theory, by its antenarrative inquiry has ethical Substance in the opposition of being-for-self (individuality) and being-for-another (which can be a kind of Enlightenment or become bondage). For Hegel (1807: # 360), "knowledge acquired throy observation, and theory" can pass out of sight into being-for-self, or become "Spirit of the earth" of one individual consciousness versus another one, that does despise intellect and science. Hegel (1807: # 360) puts it this way:

360. “In so far as it has lifted itself out of the ethical Substance and the tranquil being of thought to its being-for-self, it has left behind the law of custom and existence, the knowledge acquired through observation, and theory, as a grey shadow which is in the act of passing out of sight. For the latter is rather a knowledge of something whose being-for-self and actuality are other than those of this self-consciousness. Instead of the heavenly-seeming Spirit of the universality of knowledge and action in which the feeling and enjoyment of individuality are stilled, there has entered into it the Spirit of the earth, for which true actuality is merely that being which is the actuality of the individual consciousness.

It despises intellect and science
The supreme gifts of man
It has given itself to the devil
And must perish

--- [16] Faust, Part I (adapted).”

Dialectical Storytelling Theory can begin in sensemaking (retrospective narrative) and the direct expereince of living story community, then go thorugh the dialectical process of movement of both the Notion of Reason and the Instinct of Reason, and emerge from dead Theory into Life, as well # 363).

363. “The merely single individuality which, in the first instance, has only the pure Notion of Reason for its content, instead of having taken the plunge from dead Theory into Life, has therefore really only plunged into the consciousness of its own lifelessness and has as its lot only empty and alien necessity, a dead actuality.”

Storytelling Dialectical Theory addresses the gap (separation) of individuality from the "universal as a theory and that with which practice is concerned" and thereby expose a more universal order, and "the contempt of such an individuality for that order" (Hegel, 1807: # 745).

There are many philosophical roots of Dialectical Storytelling Theory, and some of the roots are in this figure from Boje (2014).