75 Two kinds of conversation

Posted on March 18, 2012 by

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Ancient Greece developed a unique way of settling disagreements among cities: hoplites met in a plain, fought for a day and abided by the outcome. “For those men, the purpose was now to settle the entire business, if not fairly, then at least decisively.”[1] The winner wins, the loser accommodates, and both can move on with their main task, which is to live productive lives.

This quest for decisiveness carried over into political and judicial discourse of ancient Greece. Citizens (often only 5% at best of the overall population, which included women and slaves en masse) met in the agora and listened to public men arguing political and judicial cases. It was a “winner takes all” situation, which sidestepped the lingering and festering of an issue. It also happened to be theatrical and entertaining. It was a pragmatic compromise between truth and expedience. Not surprisingly, experts at “winning” such public arguments – sophists – debased public discourse. Persuasiveness (and demagogy) won out.

This tradition has persisted in the West in romanticized form: open debate is supposed to yield “truth”. We are obsessed with “truth” – every exchange aims at winning the argument. We have all become declarative in the process – to the detriment of conversation. “Listening skills don’t figure much in this kind of verbal joust; the interlocutor is meant to admire and so to agree, or to counter with equal assertiveness”[2].

Verbal jousts lead to conformity, rather than balance between diversities within commonality of purpose. Verbal jousts are reductive – they yield a “winner takes all” outcome, with one truth against infinite number of untruths (or lesser truths). Verbal jousts also create a vertical society: the “truth-holding” elite and the “truth-accepting” mass. I find the inherent contradiction between the search for “truth” and for “liberty” amusing – and telling. A wolf in sheep’s clothing – as the strident US electoral campaign proves.

A truly “freedom-loving” society must accept multiple truths. Verbal jousts are no replacement for conversation – the way a society of unique individuals must operate in order to coexist in the same social structure. This process of accommodation is obtained through conversation.

There are two kinds of conversation – argues Richard SENNETT[3]:

  • Dialectic conversation is a verbal play of opposites, which should build up to a synthesis – a resolution of differences. This is obtained by discovering common ground by listening to each other, and rephrasing the opposition so as to evidence commonalities. The Platonic dialogue is a masterful example of such dialectic conversation. Unity of mind comes at the end – and “truth”.
  • Dialogic conversation: the discussion does not discover common ground; rather it expands reciprocal understanding. Opposite “truths” face each other off – dialogic conversation is meant to find room for reciprocal accommodation, not resolution.

Theodore ZELDIN puts it in more general terms: “Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.”[4]

Just as on Greek battlefields, struggles for “truth” are never “fair” in the end. Truth is a lie waiting to come out, and forever subject to the whim of context and circumstance. While dialectic conversation is our ambition and our (Western) dream, we’ll remain forever firmly rooted in dialogic.

As I explore some topics in future blogs, it will all be in a dialogic setting. I’ll be keen to show opposite “truths” that cannot be reconciled. Occasionally I may use faulty logic – these will be the easy instances where reconciliation of points of view can be obtained. The rest is trying to achieve better understanding – not propose solutions.

In most other cases intractable opposition of points of view and interests will force us to find accommodation, not resolution. This is, of course, very much a consequentialist position. It is a position that comes from realism, and observation, and recognition that only experience can lead us further, and experience is transformative.

It has not escaped my attention that our brain is an “emergent”, hence unpredictable structure, nor that our conscious understanding of it is woefully inadequate.


[1]           Victor Davis HANSON (1989): The Western way of war. Infantry battle in classical Greece. Hodder & Stoughton, London; (p. 225)

[2]           Richard SENNETT (2012): Together. The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation. Yale University Press, New Haven. p. 18

[3]           Richard SENNETT (2012): op. cit. p. 14 ff.

[4]           See Theodore ZELDIN (1998): Conversation. How talk can change your life. Harvill, Lodon; p. 14.

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