The Conversational Path

I have a friend who wants to design a “cat ladder,” so her cat can freely travel between her second-floor apartment to the ground.  The problem, though, is that the same ladder that lets her cat out will also let other cats in.  Hussein Hoff on cat ladderThis, of course, is not something unique to the cat ladder: it is the nature of any road.  Establishing a road is establishing a universal means of transit, and the very thing that empowers me to go in my direction also allows others to go in other directions.  In this respect, a road is very much like language.

Language is the incredibly powerful medium by which ideas are allowed to flow: it is the means of transit by which my experience can be communicated to you.  This sharing of experience depends on the sharing of language though–the communication would never happen if you and I did not have the same sense of what our words and gestures mean.  A language that allows me to articulate my ideas must necessarily and simultaneously be a language that equally allows you to express yourself.

Our language allows us to articulate our personal experiences, but, because of its shared nature, that language is not itself a “personal possession.”  It is true that I am expressing “my meaning,” but it is not simply up to me to determine how that meaning can be expressed: the language itself, that shared medium of expression, sets the terms (literally!) for how we can express.  In other words, expressing my meaning requires I answer to its rules and norms.  Said the other way around, the strict and “impersonal” rules of grammar, spelling, and so on are not inhibitors of personal expression but are instead precisely what enable self-expression.  If you can’t operate within the rules of shared language, you can’t express yourself.

There is a second way, too, in which language is like a road.  Precisely because the road is necessarily a shared medium and thus necessarily not a “personal possession,” travelling along the road is necessarily always a social experience.  By saying social, I don’t mean we can never travel on our own; on the contrary, my point is rather that, even when we travel alone, we are also doing so “with others,” in the sense that we are drawing upon a power that is available to us only because others allow it: it is available to me only insofar as it is also available to you (and her and him) and so my action draws upon what can only be a shared possession.  In an analogous way, whenever we speak we draw on the resources of our language community–indeed, on the whole history of communal human practices of language use by which our language was formed–and speaking is thus always a social act, always an act of communal participation.

This notion that language itself–the very words in which we articulate our ideas–is a matter of sharing can teach us an important life-lesson.  When we talk with another person, we can often act as if our meaning were our own, existing autonomously in our own minds, and as if words were independently existing bits of the world that simply “clothe” those meanings.  If that were true, then communication would simply be the process of using a fixed tool to hand over to you something that I already possess.  In fact, the truth is quite the opposite of this.  First and foremost, communication is always a matter of two (or more) people undertaking something jointly.  Without that shared undertaking, the words don’t work as words, and, without the words, I don’t even possess my own ideas.  Talking is not a “one-way street” in which I mechanically impose the contents of my mind on you; it is, rather, the practice of coming to share an experience with another person, a “two-way street” (which all streets are, in principle) in which it is the other’s participation that allows me to have the experience being communicated as much as it is my experience that is communicated to the other.

The lesson, then, is that talking is not a matter of transferring information or ideas through sound, but is a matter of joining with another in shared experience of something.

This is an important lesson for teachers, for example.  A good class is not a lecture in which students are bombarded with sound, but is a situation of cooperative inquiry.  The talking initiated by the teacher should be an invitation to the students to share in an investigation, not a forceful gesture denying the need for their participation.

It is also an important lesson for personal life.  We should remember that in our conversations we are always implicitly shaping the terms of our shared experience.  Typically, that is not the topic we are explicitly talking about, but that is what our conversation is implicitly doing in the way that we talk.  This is what we should remember: we should remember that words, first and foremost, are our way of saying to the other how we recognize their participation.  Generally, we should be much more careful about this implicit side of our communication than about the explicit subject we are discussing.  We should remember that our conversation is a path, and we should practice what the Greeks call “sugchorein“: “making way” together.

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2 Comments

  1. Golnar Rasouli
    Posted September 3, 2011 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    I liked this one the most.

  2. Posted September 4, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    The following passage stirs many thoughts for me:

    “We should remember that in our conversations we are always implicitly shaping the terms of our shared experience. Typically, that is not the topic we are explicitly talking about, but that is what our conversation is implicitly doing in the way that we talk. This is what we should remember: we should remember that words, first and foremost, are our way of saying to the other how we recognize their participation. Generally, we should be much more careful about this implicit side of our communication than about the explicit subject we are discussing. We should remember that our conversation is a path, and we should practice what the Greeks call “sugchorein“: “making way” together.”

    The art of communication, with its implicit and explicit channels, reveals the source of human meaning creation. That is, conscious beings interpreting, sharing, negotiating, and communicating a conglomerate of thoughts, desires, and experiences (both inherited and created). A fascinating aspect of the meaning-creation process is the phenomenon of miscommunication, misinterpretation, and negotiation. Individuals, who abide by the same language rules, yet exist in quite disparate contexts, run a higher risk of miscommunication and misinterpretation between one another. Such individuals need to exercise a high degree of awareness of implicit messages. Paradoxically, miscommunication, misinterpretation, and negotiation—that is, if individuals exhibit willingness to negotiate with “the other”–plays a crucial role in the practice of inquiry (e.g. asking what someone means by a statement and/or term) and meaning-generation. At first, miscommunication seems to disconfirm “the other,” yet if individuals practice the process of inquiry, this potentially confirms conscious existence, advances understanding, instills constructive feedback, and facilitates healing. But without the practice of inquiry and negotiation, conscious beings alienate one another.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.
Music

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.
Community

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).