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. Continue reading