First, is the concept of the unfinalizable self: individual people cannot be finalized, completely understood, known, or labeled. Though it is possible to understand people and to treat them as if they are completely known, Bakhtin’s conception of unfinalizability respects the possibility that a person can change, and that a person is never fully revealed or fully known in the world. Readers may find that this conception reflects the idea of the “soul”; Bakhtin had strong roots in Christianity and in the Neo-Kantian school led by Hermann Cohen, both of which emphasized the importance of an individual’s potentially infinite capability, worth, and the hidden soul.
Second, is the idea of the relationship between the self and others, or other groups. According to Bakhtin, every person is influenced by others in an inescapably intertwined way, and consequently no voice can be said to be isolated. In an interview, Bakhtin once explained that,
In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space, and because they are others. ~New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993.
As such, Bakhtin’s philosophy greatly respected the influences of others on the self, not merely in terms of how a person comes to be, but also in how a person thinks and how a person sees him- or herself truthfully.
Third, Bakhtin found in Dostoevsky’s work a true representation of “polyphony”, that is, many voices. Each character in Dostoevsky’s work represents a voice that speaks for an individual self, distinct from others. This idea of polyphony is related to the concepts of unfinalizability and self-and-others, since it is the unfinalizability of individuals that creates true polyphony.
Bakhtin briefly outlined the polyphonic concept of truth. He criticized the assumption that, if two people disagree, at least one of them must be in error. He challenged philosophers for whom plurality of minds is accidental and superfluous. For Bakhtin, truth is not a statement, a sentence or a phrase. Instead, truth is a number of mutually addressed, albeit contradictory and logically inconsistent, statements. Truth needs a multitude of carrying voices. It cannot be held within a single mind, it also cannot be expressed by “a single mouth”. The polyphonic truth requires many simultaneous voices. Bakhtin does not mean to say that many voices carry partial truths that complement each other. A number of different voices do not make the truth if simply “averaged” or “synthesized”. It is the fact of mutual addressivity, of engagement, and of commitment to the context of a real-life event, that distinguishes truth from untruth.
When, in subsequent years, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Art was translated into English and published in the West, Bakhtin added a chapter on the concept of “carnival” and the book was published with the slightly different title, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. According to Bakhtin, carnival is the context in which distinct individual voices are heard, flourish and interact together. The carnival creates the “threshold” situations where regular conventions are broken or reversed and genuine dialogue becomes possible. The notion of a carnival was Bakhtin’s way of describing Dostoevsky’s polyphonic style: each individual character is strongly defined, and at the same time the reader witnesses the critical influence of each character upon the other. That is to say, the voices of others are heard by each individual, and each inescapably shapes the character of the other.