Nathalie Beekman

In today’s (arts-) educational discourse a much-heard notion is that of ‘polyphony’ (in old Greek- polus -much and phone- tone, sound, voice), something that was relevant for the PIMDI project where polyphony became a key term during the project The term denotes a specific form of multi-voicedness. Stemming from the 13th century as a musical composition technique in which 2 or more melodic lines sound at the same time, it became an influential notion in the wider world starting in the 1980s, when literary scholar Bakhtin carried it into the domain of literature. Bakhtin proposed that polyphony involves “a plurality of independent voices and consciousnesses, all voices are considered valid and of value” (Bakhtin, 1984).  He assumes there is no objective world that is determined or controlled by a single, all-determining voice. 

His interpretation of the notion of polyphony has been inspiring others beyond the field of literature, as it seems to work well as a translation of the more abstract term ‘plurality’ in the sense of variety and difference; a condition we’re living in/with nowadays. Plurality can be found both in the self as in the world, as Hermans & Hermans-Konopka (2010)- building further on Bakhtin- argued in their ‘Dialogical Self theory’. Herein, the self is seen as a community populated by a multitude of voices, referred to as ‘self-positions’ which are in a dialogical relationship to each other. This internal dialogue instigates questioning the other in the self, “the imaginative other rooted (in us) as the other-in-the-self” (Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010, p. 7). The inner choir of voices is also in dialogue with a much bigger choir, that of the world that they refer to as “..a global situation of multi-voicedness (complexity) that does not allow a fixation of meaning (ambiguity) that has no super-ordinate voice for resolving contradictions and conflicting information (deficit knowledge), and that is to a great extent unpredictable” (Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010, p.3).


In the Ph.D. research ‘Room for Polyphony’ (Beekman, 2012) the notion of polyphony was used as a point of departure. The guiding question was how an art-& philosophy lab can offer children of a multicultural primary school possibilities for ‘free action’ by making room for polyphony. 

 In this research, every child is metaphorically considered as a ‘choir of voices’, involving different, unseen perspectives and positions towards the world. In taking this stance, the children of this school were seen as dynamic beings, changeable, and ‘unfinished’, and as such: full of ‘endless’, unforeseen possibilities that go beyond existing assumptions. The unexpected was expected from them. The underlying assumption behind this was that children, as ‘newcomers’, must be given space to relate to the complex world in their own, different ways; specifically to the unanswerable, the unforeseen and the absurd.

Furthermore, in the research we linked polyphony to Biesta’s concept of subjectification (Biesta, 2013, 2017, 2018). This educational uptake of ‘formation of the person’ has an orientation towards freedom and plurality as encountered in the world. Two notions that inform this concept were under scrutiny: Hannah Arendts’ ‘action’ and Levinas’ ‘unicity’. Action involves the human potential to act as a free subject who is able to bring something new to the world, while being subjected to the consequences of the response of the other. The notion of unicity in this context means being singled out by the appeal that the other makes on us.

These concepts allowed us to identify 3 ‘free’ voices in polyphony, an authentic, a creative and a responsible voice, which are expressed as 3 different qualities of thinking, speech and actions. The quality of the authentic voice can be described as raw, partially unformed, spontaneous, passionate and unpredictable. This voice represents, as it were, the first sprouting of a free movement as it is brought into the world. The quality of the creative voice can be considered as a manifestation of the ‘unpredictable new’ that is brought into the world; it involves new, disparate connections between ideas, events, actions and/or objects through associative thinking and evocative expression. The quality of the responsible voice is seen as a manifestation of unicity, as being responsive to the appeal of the other, and is characterized by an interest in, a care for, and a relationship with the other.

In the lab, art and philosophy for children have specific qualities that, when combined in an interdisciplinary process, appear to give much room to the manifestation and expression of polyphony. In broad strokes this can be attributed to art’s ambiguous nature and to the inherent multi-perspectivity of children’s philosophy. 

Furthermore, in both activities we find a heightened perception, imagination and a tilted perspective that involves a play with a certain disorientation, ‘disunderstanding’ and conflicting perspectives, such that awareness of one’s position in the world can change and thus remain dynamic, and different ways of relating to others and to otherness are possible. 

Relevance for the pedagogy of imaginative dialogue

The focus in the PIMDI project is on how arts education can contribute to living together in plurality, with a specific interest in how the act of valuing relates to ‘being in difference’. The aforementioned translation of plurality into the more sensorial notion of polyphony is interesting for the PIMDI project as it makes the theme of plurality more experienceable, thus giving way to an imaginative exploration of difference through the arts. 

In the project, polyphony was present in imaginative dialogues and during creative processes, evoking a multitude of perspectives, as well as sometimes disorientation or conflicting positions. The choir of voices, “all valid and of value”(Bakhtin, 1984) gave way to the emergence of the notion of paradox in the sense of a simultaneous presence of two or more contradictory voices, perspectives, opinions or ways of learning, inviting us to reflect on acts of valuing while ‘being in difference’. This made us experiment with a reflective tool during the creative process, a tool that could represent the notion of paradox (of being in difference, of politics, of education). It had to be multi-faceted, giving way to the appearance of simultaneous voices and contradictions and became a diamond-shaped reflective tool.

A student’s interpretation of the Diamond-shaped reflective tool at the PIMDI intensive week in Kristiansand, Norway, April 2022


Arendt, H. (1998 [1958]). The Human Condition (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. University of Minnesota Press.

Beekman, N. (2021). Ruimte voor polyfonie: een actieonderzoek naar de betekenis van een kunst- & filosofielab voor de vrije handeling in het onderwijs. [Thesis fully internal (DIV), University of Groningen]. University of Groningen.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2013). The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2017). The Rediscovery of Teaching. Routledge.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2018). Tijd voor pedagogiek. Over de pedagogische paragraaf in onderwijs, opleiding en vorming. Oratie. Uitgeverij Net aan Zet.

Hermans, H., & Hermans-Konopka, A. (2010). Dialogical Self Theory. Positioning and Counter-Positioning in a Globalizing Society. Cambridge University Press.