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Culture as ongoing conversation

The idea that disciplinary disagreement can be conceptualized as an ongoing conversation was most vividly brought to life for me by a passage in Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form (pgs. 110-111):

Imagine that you enter a parlor.  You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about.  In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.  You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.  Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, dependent upon the quality of your ally’s assistance.  However, the discussion is interminable.  The hour grows late, you must depart,  And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

I like the image Burke creates – the conversation is heated and the participants care deeply about what they say, the participants are all working as hard as they can to figure things out but none finally sees the whole history or context, the conversation goes on even after individuals leave the scene – though it is also naive.  Some participants who assert themselves will never be taken seriously.  Others will be afforded too much deference because the parlor is in their big house or because they bully the agenda.  And of course the persuasiveness of the metaphor is itself rigged to appeal to academics who thrived in the university seminar room, the intellectually curious and assertive who will naturally gravitate to the finer points of comparison between this after dinner conversation and their own work in the classroom.

All this came back to mind as I read recently the lectures given by the Oxford philosopher Stephen Mulhall in 2004 at the University of Virginia, which work to broaden again the metaphor of conversation as suitable both to a conceptualization of philosophy as a discipline and to the functioning of the broader culture.  The lectures were published as The Conversation of Humanity (Charlottesville:  U Virginia P, 2007).  Mulhall rightly notes that metaphorizing philosophy as conversation, as essentially dialogic (or, more contentiously, dialectical), goes all the way back to Plato.

This move is not simply mundane (of course, one might agree, academic disciplines and culture itself proceeds conversationally) but illuminates more complex questions about the nature of language itself.  As Mulhall lays it out, the conversational metaphor sheds light on everything from Wittgenstein’s elaboration of language (the starting point of his Philosophical Investigations) and language games to Heidegger’s account of processes of inquiry.  Thinking culture as conversation invites consideration of the subject position of interlocutors (are they humbly slipping in and out of Burke’s parlor or is their speaking inevitably an act of hubris?) and of philosophers (does thinking philosophy as dialogue reduce it to sophistry or overcome the sophistical alternatives?).  And in Mulhall’s rendition it forms a matrix that brings into productive collaboration the often opposed Anglo-American and Franco-German philosophical traditions.


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