Miscellany: “debate and/or dialogue”

Plato’s Good is the Good beyond Being. This means that it is not juxtaposed and defined against its opposite. Think of this original and ultimate Good as that which allows us to discriminate between good and bad in any particular instance. No round thing is circularity as such, or the form of the circle itself. But some things are rounder than others and in this way they more fully approach the ideal of circularity and are thus better circles. Similarly, no spoon is the form of Spoon, and yet each spoon is a better or worse one. A worse spoon, for instance, has a belly that is too shallow, or is runcible. The scale of value to which the comparative in the last sentences refers is compassed in the Good. In the Parable of the Cave, the symbol is the Sun stand for the Good. As the Sun allows us to discriminate form and colour with our eyes, the Good provides the conditions of intelligibility for things by relating them to their perfection.


A question I always pose to my ethics students is can a rock be moral? What about a paramecium? A tulip? A lion? It is clear that there is some sort of progressive inwardization of the capacity for free rational evaluation of prospective actions but this does not come to its own except in humans. Think about how a rock “enfolds” or “inwardizes” matter, a plant life, a lion does the same with sensitivity and locomotive will, but only the human being has internalized moral freedom. All other creatures participate in the harmony of the universe according to God’s plan, but man is free to choose between consent and dissent. This inner decision out of freedom is a new creation in the world.


I thought you made several important points in respect to the conditions for fostering a productive dialogue, but the one that really stood out to me was “listening.” How often have we found ourselves in a “dialogue” that was really just a composition of monologues? I think this relates to another condition that you mentioned, since we can actually allow ourselves to be informed in real time if we are willing to listen. The possibility that we could learn something from every conversation is inspiring to me but I also know that it depends on my own disposition towards it whether I am able to realise this possibility. As is so often the case in questions like this, I find myself very soon traversing the boundary into ethics, since I think it will be clear that the wish to listen or to learn or to be a conscientious interlocutor depends, in the first place, on the moral inclination to be this way. In other words, it is never merely a question of knowledge but also of character. What do you think of this? I expect the theme of technology will lead us into a confrontation with this boundary in an interesting way.


I appreciate the way you distinguished between responsibilities that befall the individual and those which pertain to the formal structure of the discussion and are therefore befall the collective. In some ways I also think these are very similar, since the individual responsibilities are carried out in order that the individual can integrate into and serve the interest of the community while the collective responsibilities are respected for the sake of ensuring that each individual is able to contribute to the community in the best way he is capable of doing.


This picture made me think of something and I will be curious to hear your response. We often use the turn of phrase “part of me wants to…” or alternatively, “I am of half a mind to…” and I imagine there are a number of other expressions that suggest a similar notion of internal pluralism, as it were. A somewhat hyperbolic example is when the patient only agrees with the doctor who advises him not to smoke as long as he does not feel in the mood for a cigarette. Clearly there are internal factions that are vying for supremacy. It occurs to me that healthy psychology consists in something like an internal congress that is able to abide by certain rules of “dialogue” in spite of the discrete inclinations of its members. Whenever we depart from these inner ordering principles, we risk becoming fragmented or schizophrenic or psychotic. In a similar way, I think a community that fails to organize around a shared orientation is not really a community at all, but rather an aggregation of members. What do you think of this?

Sometimes we use phrases like “he is possessed” to indicate a condition like you described. For ancient peoples, these impetuous “members” were thought of as gods. So Homer in The Iliad describes how Ares (the Greek god of war, “Mars” in Latin) “grabbed [Achilles’] golden hair,” and “screamed in his throat” to kindle the wrath of the Greek hero as he waged war against the Trojans. This sounds crazy until we reflect a little on our own “internal congress,” especially during moments of crisis, and we realize that its members are not so docile as we might, in our more collected moments, flatter ourselves that they are. Then I think it is not at all a difficult leap to conceive how ancient people would have felt themselves to be possessed by intelligences external to their own consciousness.


I appreciated your comparison of dialogue to a game because I think it serves to illustrate how rules are actually conditions for positive interaction rather than limitations to it. Nobody imagines that it improves the game of chess to do away with the rules. 


I think both writing and speaking, in similar ways, though with slightly different emphases, are among the best activities to foster and train critical thinking because both of them demand ordering our thoughts for the sake of rendering them intelligible to other people and a condition for ordering them properly is to have inspected them. This kind of reflection on our own thoughts is perhaps the fundamental gesture of critical thinking and it is what differentiates it from naïve thinking, which does not reflect in this way. My only comment is to encourage you to develop your strengths (as a writer) and also your perceived weaknesses (as a speaker) because both a very essential elements of life and because no one other than me is keeping score and because I have explicitly encouraged you, there is no reason to be afraid of making mistakes. In fact, an error is not really an error once you have caught it because recognizing something for what it is is truth and not error. 


I think you made an important observation when you noted that agreeing to disagree is, in some ways, a form of agreement. At the same time, I wonder if it is also an expression of capitulation. Here is what I mean: suppose, by analogy, the blind men had, rather than arguing over the nature of the elephant, conceded that they each had their own view, that these views were contrary to one to the other, and, therefore, that they should merely “agree to disagree.” Undoubtedly this would prevent conflict but I fear that by the same token it would also prevent them from apprehending the truth of the matter at hand. What do you think of this?


I appreciated the way that you distinguished debate from dialogue by noting their contrasting aims. It occurred to me as I was reading your reflection that in a debate, one person wins by defeating the other person, or making him lose. In a dialogue by contrast, the participants stand or fall together according to whether they succeed in fostering positive conditions or no. Everyone can win if people have achieved some insight into the topic at hand by the time the dialogue ends. 


It again reminds me that every aspect of human life, including gaining knowledge, is ineluctably ethical and that ethics, in turn, is inseparable from our state of consciousness. You emphasized the importance of being aware of our motives, and I would only note what an uncommonly lucid state of consciousness you are describing. I think self-examination will reveal that our attention is often so fixated on the means to achieve a given outcome that little remains to reflect on the quality of the motives that are driving us to seek that outcome in the first place. But I take this act of critical reflection as perhaps the fundamental philosophical gesture. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as you no doubt remember Socrates affirming in The Apology. What do you think of this?


It reminds me how important it is to create an environment in our discussions that makes people feel safe enough to take risks. What I mean is that if the environment is not safe, people will not be inclined to speak their minds or explore unconventional views, and it is only at this edge that a discussion can be truly fruitful. Otherwise we are just rehashing things people have already thought.

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