Agree to Disagree? Let’s not

Recently a colleague offered in conversation that we should agree to disagree.  This led me to some observations about the role of agreement and disagreement in dialogue.  Some conversations involve a sort of perpetual agreement or mutual affirmation.  These are instances where we’re really just ‘shooting the breeze’, and there’s nothing much at issue between us.  We exchange the gnomes of accepted wisdom and nod.  Other exchanges are characterised pretty much by disagreement.  These are the situations where we talk at cross purposes, or talk past each other – we can’t even seem to get started on the way in which the matter at hand needs to be interrogated. 

In other dialogues there is more of an interplay of agreement and disagreement.  There is a sense in which we must agree to disagree – that is, we must agree in order to disagree.  We need to converge sufficiently in our understanding of some matter of importance for an interesting sort of disagreement to emerge, and we each need to have some interest or motivation to get to the truth of things.  On the other hand, we each need to disagree in order for the dialogue to continue.  If we no longer have an interestingly different perspective on the matter, the dialogue has run its course.  It might come to a satisfying conclusion, or we might drift on to other matters.

These kinds of dialogues are characterised by an openness of each interlocutor to the claims of the other.  Each risks being transformed by the other’s perspective on the truth of the matter.  In other words, each entertains the possibility of learning something from the other.  In these kinds of conversations, what would it mean to agree to disagree?  It is possible that we each might have exhausted our justifications for our differing perspectives. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this situation.  On one hand, it might mean a temporary cessation in dialogue. We pause, move on to other matters, but return to the dialogue once we have marshalled our arguments or had a chance to think more deeply about a particular question that has emerged.

Another way of looking at this is to think of our differing views as incommensurable perspectives.  In this case, agreeing to disagree marks the arrival at some sort of bedrock beyond which our dialogue cannot continue.  This has a finality: the conversation is over.  I agree with the hermeneutic thinker Hans-Georg Gadamer here.  There are no ‘undiscussable’ assumptions (1991: 40).  In Gadamer’s view, agreeing to disagree here ends the dialogue at precisely the point where what is really at issue is beginning to emerge.  The assumptions revealed at this point are often deeply held beliefs that are central to our identity.  Things become raw and exposed.  But this is precisely why dialogue must continue.  We do our interlocutor no favours by avoiding conversation because we have begun to talk about the very things that we care deeply about.  At this point, Gadamer argues, to suggest that we agree to disagree ‘excludes the other person in his positive function’ (ibid).  It is to assert that we are no longer prepared to be transformed by our interlocutor’s differing view on the truth, and that we are no longer therefore prepared to learn from their difference.  We should think very carefully about what might motivate a move to be the first interlocutor in a dialogue to offer, or even impose, the possibility of agreeing to disagree.

Gadamer, H-G (1991) Plato’s Dialectical Ethics, trans Wallace, R M, Yale University Press [original German publication 1931]

I originally posted this on Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog

What I nearly wrote…

I was sorting my office out today and found the proposal for the PhD I was writing at SOAS before I switched quite drastically to Philosophy of Education.  I thought it might be interesting to see the way I nearly went!

Rethinking the Qur’an in textual dialogue:

A study of Qur’anic intertextuality and its implications for the Christian-Muslim Encounter

In my MA dissertation, “Rethinking the Christian-Muslim Encounter”, I investigated the implications of Mohammed Arkoun’s deconstructionist approach to Islam for Christian-Muslim dialogue.  I identified that Arkoun applies techniques derived from Derrida and other deconstructionist thinkers both to the concept of Muslim/muslim identity and also to the Qur’an;  it is particularly this application of postmodern thought to the Qur’an in dialogue that I would like to investigate further in doctoral research.

Taking leave of Arkoun, whose application of Derrida to the Qur’an is more explicitly historical, I would like to focus on the Qur’an in textual dialogue with Christianity, and specifically apply the literary concept of intertextuality to the process of “rethinking” the Qur’an and the Bible together.  Rather than the more global deconstructions and (re)constructions of the whole notion of revelation attempted by Arkoun, I would use as a starting point and a model for my approach some of the very recent work which has been undertaken to apply Derrida’s thought (I would hesitate to say method) to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, most notably that undertaken by Yvonne Sherwood et al in “Derrida’s Bible” (2004) and “Derrida and Religion:  New testaments” (2005).

These types of study are characterised by close reading of particular portions of scripture, sometimes holding them in relation to other texts to which they are not connected historically, by genre or by author’s intention, but with which (such is the path opened up by Derrida and his theoretical predecessors) they are nevertheless in dialogue. Such an approach therefore differs greatly from a traditionally comparative or historical approach to the study of religious texts.


By investigating such textual dialogues, I hope to draw some more detailed conclusions about the Qur’an itself – and by extension, Islam – in dialogue. I shall not necessarily restrict this dialogue to the dialogue with Christianity, but also to the relation of Islam to secular and political texts.

The limitations of this study should be acknowledged.  I would be writing as one of many outsiders who are trying in one way or another to relate to the Muslims around them, and the dialogue I would be thinking through would not be an interreligious, but an intertextual, discourse, although – of course – these texts need not be written texts.  But I see that Derrida’s thought is at the present moment being applied with some popularity to Christian scripture, in some places and with limited acceptance to Muslim scripture, but there is not much work which has successfully focused – despite the pressing need in the present climate – specifically on the Qur’an in intertextual dialogue. Arkoun points to the need for his work on the Qur’an to be continued in relation to other scripture, but he does not undertake this work himself.  Furthermore, although his work on understanding the Qur’an draws extensively on the traditions of deconstruction and semiotics, the concept of intertextuality is not one to which he gives a great deal of attention.  This is a literary tool which may prove to be of great use to those engaged in dialogue with Islam.

The study would begin with an exploration of the notion of intertextuality and an initial investigation of the radical possibilities it might open up for rethinking the Qur’an in dialogue, setting clear parameters for what will constitute an “intertextual” study of the Qur’an.  This would involve defining the limits or extent of which texts can be read in relation and what reading texts in relation might mean.  Intertextuality does not mean, as seems to be the prevailing thought in John C. Reeves, ed. “Bible and Qur’an: Essays in Scriptural Intertextuality” (2003), the identification of scriptural influences from the Bible on the Qur’an and the “spotting” of deliberate allusions or shared material (this is all a part of conventional textual criticism) but rather the mutual transformation of texts when they are considered together – or, in this instance, in dialogue.  In many ways, this understanding of intertextuality might be more theologically productive, and is certainly more fruitful for the conduct of interreligious dialogue.

I would also undertake a survey of the uses that have already been made of this sort of intertextual study in Christian-Muslim dialogue to date, and identify further points of departure from here.  Loren Lybarger, for example, in “Gender and Prophetic Authority in the Qur’anic Story of Maryam:  A Literary Approach” (2000) claims to be making a distinctly intertextual approach, modelled on the work of Sternberg and Alter in relation to Biblical narrative:  “Consequently, questions of genesis and the historical ‘influence’ of Judaism and Christianity on the narrative are of relatively less importance – though, as will be seen, Jews and Christians, as rhetorical foils, are essential in forming the dramatic field of tension in the Maryam cycle.”[1]

I would then undertake some close readings of portions of the Qur’an in relation to Biblical texts which would perhaps not have been permitted ouside of the parameters of this study, drawing out their conclusions and implications.  Lybarger’s “gynocentric subtext”, for example, certainly opens a rich vein of further intertextual enquiry.

I should add that intertextuality must not be used as an opportunity to abandon traditional Christian or Islamic scholarship.  In this respect postmodern textual criticism is often misunderstood.  Derrida himself calls traditional criticism an “indispensible guardrail” and it must provide the background knowledge of any exploration into intertext.  Barthes’ “death of the author” did not mean the death of appropriate contextual or historical study, but rather the birth of a new critical form which is constantly nurtured and informed by that study.  To return to where I started, Arkoun would agree that the play of signs across texts which are only connected in the intertextual experience of a reader or readers must not be closed off from critical study by the presuppositions of traditional Qur’anic scholarship, even if that means (and it does) “rethinking” these presuppositions.  This study would therefore be grounded in an understanding of the importance of Muslim theology and traditional study of the Qur’an, but would not accept the hegemonising tendencies of such tradition.

D Aldridge February 07

[1] Footnote 3, p. 241