One of the biggest challenges in examining ideas is talking/conversing with other people (so much so that I’m surprised that when I google ‘philosophy of conversation’, nothing really pops out.) The main challenge often isn’t wrestling with the ideas, it’s not killing your discussion partner (I exaggerate, but only a little). Conversations have a way of running away, many a friendship has been ruined by a conversation gone wrong, and it is a fixture of internet culture expectation that any conversation on anything meaningful will likely go spectacularly wrong. I’ve unfortunately had both happen to me in the past. I think an enormous part of the issue is that conversation is almost never just about the subject under discussion – it is also about the people having the discussion. We are heavily invested in our ideas, and so we can feel incredibly vulnerable. When someone attacks our points, we often take the attack personally. We feel we are not just having a conversation, but also a kind of competition.
There are a number of different loosely related topics I’d like to examine: talking with ignorant people, conversation tag, and arguing facts vs. arguing ethics.
A common reflection that I have heard on dialogue is that one should not engage an ignorant person in dialogue. I would make an addendum to this concept, because I am very hesitant to condone the concept of the other as ‘ignorant’. The notion is a kind of superiority trap, I think. However, the core notion is still a very important one – knowing when to get out of a conversation. I just think the focus should be inward, as opposed to on the other. Know your limits, pay attention to your anger, pay attention to when you think the other is beginning to anger. If you’re priority is really the idea, leave when the idea stops being the subject.
Conversation tag is an interesting phenomena of conversation. I often find that the actual subject of a conversation can run away from us – discussions can often become a litany of facts and ideas which just rush by unexamined. Facts, figures, and arguments rush by, and nothing ever seems to be pinned down. I tend to think that this kind of rush inhibits meaningful conversation – if the goal is real reflection and examination, slow things down. Try to give the conversation some structure. Make sure you understand what the other person said.
Arguing facts vs. arguing ethics is a challenging notion. This is a much more philosophical point then my other two. There are many different takes on the matter. Some think that arguing ethics is arguing facts – if two people agree on the facts then they will agree on the ethics (or the meaning) of of the facts. Others would propose the is/ought gap – that facts are irrelevant to ethics. One notion I’ve been nursing is that ethics is a matter of metaphysics – to argue ethics is to argue the nature of reality. My proposal would be that ones ethics are already built in to ones world structure – a good case study being the Christian vs. the Relativist. God is fundamental to a Christian’s metaphysics, while I think many relativists have a scientific realism metaphysics.
Let me know what you think,