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The Art of Conversation At the End of a Common World

Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.

My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached.

The Acropolis Museum

In the afternoon, we went out to the American College of Greece to present our work. I talked about my current book project on Aristotle’s biology and the effort to rethink Aristotle’s metaphysics through reconsidering his account of generation. My colleagues all talked about the pedagogical insights we reach from studying Plato and Plato’s Socrates. Kevin talked about how the work we are doing in the liberal arts is to produce students capable of having conversation. Lew talked about the need to put the dialogical approaches to reading Plato in conversation with the readings that find articulated claims in Plato’s work. I find myself in my own work thinking about having a conversation with an ancient text and with a reception history in the hopes of coming to new and contemporarily relevant insights. Our colleague at Deree ACG Elly Pirocacos referenced the many Socrates of the reception history–from Hume to Mill to Nietzsche to Kierkegaard. Putting those Socrates in conversation is a great example of teasing out some insight about who Socrates was.

If what we are trying to do in teaching philosophy and more widely in liberal arts education is to produce students capable of having conversation, I think it is important to think about how truly difficult it is to have conversation. For one, it requires sticking it out rather than walking away when things get uncomfortable as so many of Socrates’ interlocutors do; it takes perseverance, it requires staying in common. For another, it requires facing the moment of lack of understanding without jumping to the conclusion that the other person is stupid or of a certain camp with whom you could never agree or from whom you could never learn. Also, it takes a whole lot of time.

Modern Greeks seem to be good at conversation. The old men sitting in the cafes seem to have something that’s becoming rare in the US–a place to sit and talk with their peers. At the end of the night, we were having a nightcap on the terrace, where we have an amazing view of the Acropolis. Our host came up with a bottle of homemade raki to share with us. He told us his family’s story, about time he spent in the US, how his family built the house we are staying in and his brother works for Doctors Without Borders.

But this morning at breakfast, we started talking about conversation again and I started to wonder. The conversation started because Kevin was saying that his students often haven’t read the same books as one another by the time they get to college and it is difficult to have a shared starting point. I suggested that popular culture as distributed through social media was the way that students had something in common. We went back and forth about whether that was a sufficient common to make conversation possible.

The discussion reminded me of the last time I went to the Collegium in Italy and the discussion of Derrida there. In The Beast and the Sovereign Vol. II, Derrida wonders whether we even have a shared world. He quotes Celan, “Die Welt ist fort; ich muss dich tragen.” The world is gone; I must carry you. The world is gone: no common world is exists between us anymore. Referencing Arendt, I suggested that we can only act as if there is a common world, and it is this as if that makes conversation possible. But Kevin wondered whether the acting as if was also gone.

Meropes depicting fighting.

If what we are trying to do is teach our students to have conversation, then this conversation suggests a new criterion for conversation – acting as if we share a world in common. This acting as if would seem to require empathy for another–the feeling that they might in fact share my world–and imagination–the capacity to share another’s world by considering it from their position. Conversation seems to put us into one another’s world even if we never really do share worlds.

Today we went to the Acropolis Museum, where the meropes all depict that beloved pastime of the Greeks — the contest. One danger of the conversation is that it becomes a contest, an effort to defeat the other instead of learning together. Callicles accuses Socrates of only caring about winning in Plato’s Gorgias. I find that students often think the point of discussion in class is to win, and so they don’t really empathize and imagine as they engage one another. But interestingly, the contest too seems to suppose a shared world. At least the contest is shared.

Maybe the contest too elucidates what we didn’t even realize we didn’t know in the process. I wonder if our conversations become contests precisely because of our anxiety about not sharing a world — we do not see ourselves recognized and heard in the conversation and become combative; we use the conversation as a chance to prove ourselves lacking the confirmation that others see us as we do. If the world is gone and we cease to act as if it is shared, we seem doomed to bad conversations, doomed to fights. I think this is why I don’t want to allow the view that I don’t share the world with those with whom I feel as if I share nothing in common or that they don’t share a world with me. The world is gone. And yet.

This afternoon we went to Aristotle’s Lyceum (see first photo above), a world that is both gone and yet one with which I feel a commonality. That world is gone. And yet, it carries me. I don’t know if it is enough to carry us together, though.

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