Michael Oakeshott on Conversation

The word “conversation” combines the Latin con- or com- meaning “with, together” with versare or vertere meaning “to turn, bend” to form conversation, meaning literally “to turn together” or cooperate and more specifically “to live, dwell with, keep company with,” and from the 14th century “general course of actions or habits, way of conducting oneself in the world.” In the mid-16th century, the English conversation is used to mean “informal exchange of thoughts and sentiments by spoken words,” but Cicero already used conversatio to indicate private conversation among friends as opposed to public oratory. Oratory was formal and rule-governed whereas conversation obeyed conventions of politeness but not strict rules. Conversation was important in ancient Athens and Rome and was revived by Renaissance humanism because the ability to speak well with anyone was a mark of worldliness and sophistication. Politely exploring differences such that the conversation itself was more important than any of its participants was a model for moderate political life as the alternative to revolution and anarchy. This idea was central to civic humanism and civic republicanism.

Michael Oakeshott’s view of conversation is in line with this tradition. (See his “The Place of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”) Conversation, he says, is what “distinguishes the civilized man from the barbarian.” The barbarian promotes his point of view and only his point of view, which is narrowly practical and concerned with survival and power. The civilized person is interested in the good things life has to offer beyond mere survival and other purely practical matters. He or she also understands that the search for good things shouldn’t depend on radically changing our conditions of existence. Carried too far, that would force one to live exclusively for the future and make it impossible to enjoy the present. A civilized person, Oakeshott says, “[a]ccepts the unavoidable conditions of life and makes the best of them.” One way of making the best of them is learning from one another about the good things life has to offer beyond mere survival. Conversation is the form this takes.

The qualities of conversation and the virtues of the conversationalist flow from its purpose. You mustn’t be exclusively or overly concerned with practical matters, and in particular you mustn’t insist that your personal practical concerns dominate the conversation (these are sure signs of barbarism). A conversation is personal: the words spoken are those of a speaker who takes personal responsibility for them and what they imply. The partners to a conversation must trust and respect one another (or at least act as if they do). They approach a theme in a variety of ways, informally trying out illustrations and hypotheses. They have no expectation that they will fully express themselves and come to a complete understanding of the topic or of one another, much less agree with one another. They don’t expect others to endorse their views and are prepared to fail to persuade, but they must also be willing to change their minds when it is reasonable to do so.

Oakeshott thinks that the various practices of a civilization – art, science, technology, philosophy – are ways of imagining the world. These are related to personal identity, because who we are depends on how we imagine the world. The different ways of imagining the world need to be related to one another in ways that prevent any one of them from overwhelming the others. This is done in and through conversation, the practice whereby we discuss the meaning and value of everything we do (including our conversations).

Acquiring the abilities that enable you to converse in this sense is the true purpose of education. A university houses all the “voices,” i.e. all the ways that different sorts of human beings imagine the world as they pursue the satisfaction of their desires, in such a way as to shelter the conversation among and between them. Education is an initiation or apprenticeship to the conversation; it’s not primarily acquiring knowledge of a subject. However, it cannot be formally or explicitly taught. While we are explicitly and formally mastering a subject, we are also tacitly and informally acquiring the manners, dispositions, discriminations, and other abilities required to be a good conversationalist – that is, to be a good person. Civilization, education, and conversation are ways of organizing freedom, understood as liberation from practical necessities.

To have a conversation, each partner must take the other seriously. That means not regarding the other’s views as being purely the result of ideology, history, biology, class, race, gender, etc. For a philosophical conversation at least, you must assume that your interlocutor has what he or she takes to be good reasons for believing that what he or she asserts is true. If the question were what have people thought was good, that might not be so. Empirical sciences such as history, sociology, and biology would be better. But if the question is what is good – what do we have reason to find good, which considerations count in favor of assessing something as good or right – then dialogue is the only way. It might be objected that we are able to think these things through on our own, but the plurality of possible goods counts against it. It’s unlikely that a single individual could imagine all the things that might possibly be good and all the considerations that count for and against finding them to be good. Moreover, each of us enters into a conversation with some fairly settled opinions on whatever is at issue. These opinions establish what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a “horizon” beyond which we can’t see. As rational agents, however – as persons who can converse with each other – we’re not locked into our horizon. We can listen to others describe their horizons and in that way extend our own, accomplishing what Gadamer calls the “fusion of horizons.”

Giving an account of conversation requires idealization: a statement of the ideal conditions for conversation. These conditions include the equal right and opportunity of all to introduce or criticize any proposition, and the responsibility of all to support the propositions they endorse with reasons and to make their contributions truthful, sincere, relevant, and clear. But all actual conversations take place under conditions that are less than ideal. Part of the art of conversation, therefore, is the ability to acknowledge what is less than ideal and to turn it, if possible, to conversational advantage. In actual conversation there is always the pressure of time, the imbalance of authority, and differences in manners corresponding to differences in education, class, wealth, gender, age, race, and so on. Good conversation doesn’t attempt to eliminate these differences; instead it tries to make use of them in ways that draw the participants more deeply into the conversation and commit them more fully to it. The ultimate pragmatic consideration in any actual conversation is what is most likely to keep the conversation going – or if it must be brought to an end, how to accomplish that in the most appropriate and least arbitrary way.

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