“Philosophy should be conversation, not dogma – face-to-face talk about our place in the cosmos and how we should live”
Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. It began with a sense of mystery, wonder, and confusion, and the powerful desire to get beyond mere appearances to find truth or, if not that, at least some kind of wisdom or balance.
Socrates started the conversation about philosophical conversation. This shabby eccentric who wandered the marketplace in fifth-century Athens accosting passersby and cross-questioning them in his celebrated style set the pattern for philosophical discussion and teaching. His pupil Plato crafted eloquent Socratic dialogues that, we assume, capture something of what it was like to be harangued and goaded by his mentor, though perhaps they’re more of a ventriloquist act. Socrates himself, if we believe Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, had no great respect for the written word. He argued that it was inferior to the spoken. A page of writing might seem intelligent, but whatever question you ask of it, it responds in precisely the same way each time you read it — as this sentence will, no matter how many times you return to it.
Besides, why would a thinker cast seeds on barren soil? Surely it is better to sow then where they’re likely to grow, to share your ideas in the way most suited to the audience, to adapt what you say to whoever is in front of you. Wittgenstein made a similar point in his notebooks when he wrote: ‘Telling someone something he will not understand is pointless, even if you add he will not understand it.’ The inflections of speech allowed Socrates to exercise his famous irony, to lay emphasis, to tease, cajole, and play, all of which is liable to be misunderstood on the page. A philosopher might jot down a few notes as a reminder of passing thoughts, Socrates suggested, but, for philosophical communication, conversation was king.
New technology is changing the landscape in which philosophical conversations — and arguably all conversations – take place. It has allowed contemporary philosophers to reach global audiences with their ideas, and to take philosophy beyond the lecture halls. But there is more to this ‘spoken philosophy’ than simply the words uttered, and the ideas discussed. Audible non-verbal aspects of the interaction, such as hearing the smile in someone’s voice, a moment of impatience, a pause (of doubt perhaps?), or insight — these factors humanise philosophy. They make it impossible to think of it as just a mechanical application of rigorous logic, and reveal something about the thinker as well as the position taken. Enthusiasm expressed through the voice can be contagious and inspirational.
However, it was John Stuart Mill who crystallised the importance of having your ideas challenged through engagement with others who disagree with you. In the second chapter of On Liberty (1859), he argued for the immense value of dissenting voices. It is the dissenters who force us to think, who challenge received opinion, who nudge us away from dead dogma to beliefs that have survived critical challenge, the best that we can hope for. Dissenters are of great value even when they are largely or even totally mistaken in their beliefs. As he put it: ‘Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.’
Whenever philosophical education lapses into learning facts about history and texts, regurgitating an instructor’s views, or learning from a textbook, it moves away from its Socratic roots in conversation. Then it becomes so much the worse for philosophy and for the students on the receiving end of what the radical educationalist Paolo Freire referred to pejoratively in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) as the ‘banking’ of knowledge. The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’Advertisements