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Conversation, The Real Home of Persons

To see keeping a conversation going as a sufficient aim of philosophy, to see wisdom as consisting in the ability to sustain a conversation, is to see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately. (Richard Rorty, 1979, p. 378)
Conversation is the real home of persons: each man, woman, child. Our "roots" are not in the soil of a native land, as even so sophisticated a philosopher as Martin Heidegger urged (e.g., 1966, pp. 47-9; 1971, pp. 32-4, 147).[1] Neither do those roots reach back into consanguinity -- a principle clearly not exemplified by the goslings which bond to Konrad Lorenz and others. Rather, the very notions of ties to a native land and to ancestors -- "soil and blood" (Heidegger, 1933/1993b, p. 34) --, whatever roles they may come to play in social life, can exist only through conversation. They (and everything else with which we may concern ourselves) are, as Kenneth Boulding (1956) well described, components of our conversationally centered representational (symbolic) image of the world. [This should have been stated in a more nuanced way, distinguishing, e.g., a mother and infant animal's recognition of each other by scent, from an adult human's symbol-based identification with members of a socially constituted "clan", "Mother/Father-land", etc., where the bond may even be based precisely on absence of real physical connection, such as persons who never were near their forebears' territory / polity of origin, interpreting themselves as "exiled", etc.]

A green plant, the paradigm for rootedness, has no attachment to a particular place (in either relative or absolute coordinates); it flourishes in congenial climate and even alien but nonetheless nutrient medium, as in hydroponics, no matter where transplanted. A dog, a traditional symbol of loyalty, does not die of a broken heart because "it" (i.e., he or she) is moved to a foreign land, but, even if the animal does not leave its home, because its "owner" -- the person with whom it has bonded in a less than fully linguistic but nonetheless vital conversation -- is gone.

The power of conversations anent God, country, Yale [and whatever], not just to orient individuals in immediate living, but also to sustain mass institutions over many generations, it seems evident, is largely independent of the ontological status of the entities around which the affected conversations thematically organize themselves. "[M]an," as Gregory Bateson wrote, "lives by those propositions whose validity is a function of his belief in them" (Ruesch & Bateson, 1951, p. 212).

I do not think it is to disagree but rather to further elaborate Bateson's point to understand here by "belief" not mere agreement with propositions, but the rich elaboration of social praxis in regard to which a propositional truth claim may be little more than a label applied by an observer outside the awareness of the believers themselves. Conversation is always conversational form of life, in a behaviorally inclusive sense (Wittgenstein, 1953, p. 11). Indeed, the existential act of affirming a "naked" propositional truth presupposes as supportive setting a vastly complex social world (for instance, that of the classical Athenian polis for Socratic dialog about moral truths, or the city states of Renaissance Italy for Galilean discourse about the natural world).

Our age has produced (and continues to elaborate) a vast, heterogeneous, and, it seems to me, largely confusing mass of theory about language, meaning, and other aspects of our communicative life. Kenneth Boulding (1956), for one, however, sets forth some basic notions simply and clearly. His primary concept, which is also the title of his book, is: "the image," by which he refers not just to the linguistic-conversationally grounded representation of the world which mediates persons' living in all its forms and aspects, but also something similar-but-less, which the higher animals seem to possess in a form which, in truth, we do not clearly understand (although Heidegger has an evocative image here: he says that man is world-creating [world-open], the higher animals are world-poor, and inanimate things are worldless (Borgmann, 1989)) ["the image" is Boulding's name for an organism's self-understanding of its situation: what the organism imagines is going on and reacts to]:

From the point of view of their effect on the image the messages which constitute the stream of incoming information to an organism may be classified into signs and symbols. A sign is a message which alters the image of the immediate universe around the organism.... [Perceptual experiences -- for instance, a hungry, meowing cat seeing his master reach into the cupboard for a can of catfood -- are examples.] A symbol, [however], may have no effect and indeed ordinarily will have no effect on the images of the immediate universe around one. It does produce an effect, however, of[2] what might be called the image of the image, on the image of the future, on the image of the past, on the image of the potential or even the image of the impossible. It is this ability to proliferate and elaborate the image into a symbolic universe that is the peculiarity and the glory of man. (Boulding, 1956, pp. 43-4)
Boulding, along with others such as Susanne Langer (1957), thinks that mankind's development of a symbolic world was not just a result of increased brain power, but also of the human anatomy's elaborate speech and hearing centers. In ordinary social life, the voice is usually not bound to immediate practical activities, unlike the other potentially expressive parts of the body, especially the hands, and therefore is dramatically more open to autonomous elaboration. Langer proposes that "one reason for the lack of language in apes is their lack of any tendency to babble" (1957, p. 105). Ong (1967, pp. 140-2) argues that the only way the deaf can have their so-called "sign language" (which, however, is as genuinely symbolic as spoken language!), is by the speaking community providing special training for them, i.e., through the speech they cannot hear; this seems also to be the case with certain higher primates "who," although they never developed language for themselves, and could not be taught to speak (due to limitations of their vocal apparatus), seem to have been able to be brought into the conversational world through persons teaching them sign language or developing computerized symbol management protocols tailored to the animals' bodily insertion in the world.

Animals communicate only by signals.[3] In this way they are able to share the world ("Umwelt") with each other (e.g., a screech from one monkey alerts the others in the monkey's group of a predator's approach). But they cannot share their images of the world with each other, so that, even if an individual animal's image is very rich, that richness is merely private. "It is discourse or conversation which makes the human image public in a way that the image of no lower animal can possibly be" (Boulding, 1956, p. 15). Boulding concludes, and this is a highly pertinent position for my purposes in this dissertation,

Nevertheless, however we got this way [i.e., to symbolize the world in conversation], here we are. The study of man is the study of talk. Human society is an edifice spun out of the tenuous webs of conversation. (p. 45)
My aspiration here is not primarily to attempt to plumb the depths of the constitution of human existence, but rather to explore existentially important aspects of the life-situation persons find themselves "in" due to having that constitution (whatever its underlying structure may be (see, e.g., Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, passim)). I am concerned here with [philosophical] carpentry only insofar as persons need it for [existential] dwelling. It cannot be ruled out that even the most "air tight" arguments might some day be proven wrong or at least shown to be restricted cases. For better or worse, whatever its genesis and its "real" nature, conversation, as Boulding states, seems to be the home of persons, i.e., of me, and, I am proposing, thee (trying to talk oneself, or, a fortiori, an other, out of this conclusion would, it seems, merely reinforce it). That we may not understand (e.g.) "how meaning means" is not an impediment to trying to clarify the meanings we nonetheless "have to do with" (any more than lack of engineering expertise precludes one from driving a car or even enhancing one's driving skill, or ignorance of organic chemistry precludes a carpenter advancing the art of furniture-making).

Conversation itself is a central organizing force of human life, and it avails itself of whatever content presents itself, as material by considering which to sustain itself (the content of conversation is in a way "opportunistic"; conversation assimilates everything by turning it into "subject matter," i.e., something to talk about). This is not to say that human life consists only of conversation, which is obviously untrue (or at least would entail a strained, "perverse" use of the word). That there is human life in its many different dimensions, at all, i.e., that there is a socially shared and elaborated representational (symbolic) world in which beliefs are asserted and disputed, plans are made and changed, etc., is possible only through the sustaining mediation of conversation.

One relation between conversation and "everything else" is that if conversation does not attend to those other things (esp. provision of conditions necessary for the preservation and reproduction of bodily life), then, soon enough, the only topic left to talk about will be the imminent end of conversation through anticipated extinction of the animals ("human beings") whose bodily life is the material substrate upon which alone conversation can occur (conversation and creaturely survival are mutually dependent). But I strongly disagree with the contention that the human world as a whole or particular individuals need "problems" in order to survive or grow. I think conversation can quite well "live off itself" and be open-endedly productive and constructive, even if there is nothing which "has to be done." (For instance, as George Steiner observed: "most books are about previous books" (1978, p. 190).) On the other hand, where environmental factors do impinge on human life, conversation not only has the practical use of helping us deal with and hopefully resolve the problems, but also conversation uses the problems as material to sustain itself (something to talk about). An example here would be that, while nobody wants to have cancer, persons suffering from cancer can get at least some relief by talking about their condition in conversation, and the conversation of scientists researching cancer may be more lively than their talk about the straightforwardly positive things in their lives.

When I speak of conversation as the true "home" of persons, I do not merely mean that it is the "edifice" in which, in fact, persons reside. I do not mean only that conversation is a factual matrix (like care, time and space) in which persons are condemned by the transcendental constitution of experience to live out their days on earth (or in a spaceship, or wherever they may be). I am making not just a "factual" claim, but also a claim about what makes life meaningful.

According to Hannah Arendt (1958), for the classical Greeks,

[t]he polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be. "Wherever you go, you will be a polis": these famous words became not merely the watchword of Greek colonization, they expressed the conviction that action and speech create a space between the participants which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere. (p. 198).
This seems to me very similar to the Christian notion that Christ -- who is specifically described as the Word of God (Ong, 1967, p. 324) -- shall be present whenever two or three are gathered together in His name. As a nonbeliever, the constructive value I find in the latter notion is that, for persons, conversation is, per se, ultimate reality, both ontologically and eschatologically:

Ontologically, we cannot "get behind" conversation to some more real reality, because any attempt to do that remains embodied in conversation:

We can never examine the correspondence of the image with reality, whether in the field of value or the field of fact.... [T]he image can [however] investigate the image. (Boulding, 1956, pp. 174-5)
[Also, as Heraclitus said:
You would not find out the boundaries of soul, even by travelling along every path: so deep a measure does it have. (Kirk & Raven, 1957, p. 205)]
Transcendent metaphysics remains as dead as when Emmanuel Kant killed it at the end of the eighteenth century, in his Critique of Pure Reason; the transcendental method, however, which Kant there inaugurated, continues to develop, especially as, starting with Husserl, it has expanded its object from scientific knowledge to the world of life -- what Boulding calls the conversationally mediated image -- in all its aspects (what Husserl called the "Lifeworld," or "Lebenswelt").

Eschatologically, we find fulfillment and, insofar as we cannot avoid suffering, our pain is made more bearable, in the social interaction of genuine conversation. If, for instance, one has a toothache (or other distracting affliction), I propose the best prospect for not just "forgetting about it" but even being able to keep it in awareness in such a way as to help cope with it and not just be oppressed by it, is to be actively engaged in conversation about it in which one feels deeply understood. (I would note that the prime alternate candidate here, engagement in meaningful work and creative activity, while it may effectively enable one temporarily to distract oneself from problems, is less efficacious in helping hold the problems constructively in awareness.)[4] My image of conversation as "home for persons" spans from lying-in through death bed (the rites ministers of various religions perform for the dying, which are conversations with the dying person, are examples of the latter).

Emmanuel Levinas' work, Totality and Infinity (1961/1969), is a paean to conversation as the home of persons. It is a carefully elaborated phenomenological exposition of this position which accords conversation priority over Being (capitalized or otherwise). In the following passage, Levinas summarizes some of his central ideas:

To recognize the Other [person] is... to come to him across the world of possessed things, but at the same time to establish, by gift, community and universality. Language is universal because it is the very passage from the individual to the general, because it offers things which are mine to the Other. To speak is to make the world common, to create commonplaces. Language does not refer to the generality of concepts, but lays the foundations for a possession in common. It abolishes the inalienable property of enjoyment. The world in discourse is no longer what it is in separation, in the being at home with oneself where everything is given to me; it is what I give: the communicable, the thought, the universal.

Thus conversation is not a pathetic confrontation of two beings absenting themselves from the things and from the others. Discourse is not love. The transcendence of the Other, which is his eminence, his height, his lordship, in its concrete meaning includes his destitution, his exile, and his rights as a stranger. I can recognize the gaze of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, only in giving or in refusing; I am free to give or to refuse, but my recognition passes necessarily through the interposition of things. Things are not, as in Heidegger, the foundation of the site, the quintessence of all the relations that constitute our presence on earth (and "under the heavens, in company with men, and in the expectation of the gods"). The relationship between the same and the other, my welcoming of the other, is the ultimate fact, and in it the things figure not as what one builds but as what one gives. (pp. 76-7)

(In the body of this dissertation, where the subject matter of my conversation is conversation about learning how to help persons with problems of living which are often called "mental illnesses," Levinas's evocation of the person's "height" even in his or her destitution will play an important role.)

Let us unpack some of the themes in the above quote. To return to the relation between meaningful and creative work, and human existence, Levinas proposes that the things persons produce ultimately serve as gifts to bring into conversation to share with those with whom they converse. This suggests how to overcome a serious problem in the classical Greek notion of community: that the citizens -- those who converse together -- do not produce anything, do not engage in those productive activities which are required to sustain their animal life, apart from which no conversation is possible.

It seems likely that the ancient Greeks' aversion to constructive work was closely connected with their relatively primitive conditions of production which entailed allocating a large proportion of available person-hours to infra-conversational activities. Farming, for example, like everything else in the human world, must be anchored in conversation: in this case, the conversation of the farmers about what to plant where when, etc. But the proportion of time a farm worker spends in conversation may be vanishingly small, and the part he or she spends in "dumb toil" overwhelming. Such [pre-]occupation effectively denies a person opportunity to be fully human, i.e., the leisure necessary to cultivate conversation beyond what is necessary for the human species to survive at all.

Even for the ancient Greeks, however, it seems an open question whether skilled craftsmen could have been integrated into political (i.e., conversational) life -- a problem which is still unaddressed today, with the proliferation among us of "technicians" (including medical doctors, computer scientists, etc.), who, as Arnold Gehlen noted,

[n]o matter how indispensable the expert may become in a rationalized society, his own [narrowly functionalist] perspective (which originated within the world of crafts and agriculture, and then moved on to prosper in that of industry) is of no ultimate significance. (1957/1980, p. 161)
There seems no reason why skilled craftsmen (in ancient Greece, or present-day America) cannot be citizens in the classical Greek sense, provided they expand their orientation beyond concern with "building" to concern with "giving," i.e., that they attend to the contribution the things they produce make to sustaining the public space of conversation. There may be historical precedents where this has happened, especially, in the wide-ranging social involvements of the master printers of the late Renaissance (Eisenstein, 1979, passim[5]). [Pelle Ehn's efforts (Ehn, 1989, passim) offer a contemporary exemplar, and Wellmer (1991, chap. 3) outlines a theoretical framework, for such conversation-facilitating productive work in the currently important domains of social organization of industrial production and design of industrial products.]

Conversation is often a means to life. Both farmer and craftsman use it to further their work. Conversation is also, for all persons, an "end" of life: something sought "for its own sake." The prisoner in solitary confinement talks to him or herself; oppressed slaves and laborers enjoy conversation with their co-sufferers whenever they can; experts delight in talking with fellow experts about their craft specialization[; old men just passing the time talking on the porch in front of, or around the stove inside a general store in a small town, are a commonplace of American movies]....

A shift (to borrow Henry Adams' idiom: a "phase change") occurs, however, when conversation becomes political, not in the sense of attending to the logistical-bureaucratic administration of society, but in the sense of establishing and caring for the space of speech and action (the "polis") as an end in itself. (Of course there are transitional forms here, with peasants organizing their carnivals, skilled craftsmen their guild activities, etc. But these social accomplishments remain immersed in a practical routine of life which is taken for granted, instead of the persons thematizing their conversational matrix as the encompassing frame within which the form of daily life [is shaped in and by the conversation, and] plays itself out.) Not only is conversation, as something integrated into the reproduction of daily life, an end of life. At least one way it is also the highest end of life, is that, when there are no problems left to cope with (either "for the moment," or, perhaps, in a future technological utopia[, forever!]), persons' abilities do not end with the free creation of things, but, as Levinas says, our offering the things to -- our conversationally sharing them with -- each other.

My image of conversation as the home of persons, is founded both in the fact of discourse as essential for humans to live at all, and in the ideal of conversation as the ultimate goal for persons to live for, again, not as the only thing in life, but as life's organizing center, through which all other things (including goods and goals) are assigned their places. Even the most non-linguistic of experiences such as the inwardness of love, aesthetic pleasure and exercise of physical virtuosity, become part of the human world instead of falling out of existence in the very process of their occurrence, only by being brought into conversation.

Sigmund Freud asserted, in Civilization and Its Discontents:

The feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed. (1930/1961, p. 79)
If we understand the taming of impulses by the ego to mean the integration of aspects of biological life into conversation, and their subsequent remodeling through conversation, Freud's claim seems to me almost the opposite of what conversation makes possible: There are ways of "taming" impulses which diminish the pleasure a person derives from satisfying them. Freud especially noted the effects of certain eponymically "Victorian" attitudes toward sexuality which were prevalent in his own social milieu. Another example is the person who takes up a "functional" attitude toward all aspects of life, so that, for instance, one eats only to take in nutrients one deems necessary to maintain unimpeded bodily functionality ("health") -- the intensity of such a person's experiences in all aspects of life will likely be diminished.

If by "taming," however, we understand conversational cultivation of the instinctual impulses, i.e., attending to them in conversation with the aim of elaborating their role in social life and the pleasure derived from them, then we embark on activities such as gourmet cooking and tantric sexual discipline, which introduce into life forms of pleasure which do not naturally exist. Here the pleasure in satisfying the underlying biological needs is increased by their being savored (via the mediation of conversation), instead of, as with impulses which are not brought into conversation, disappearing as fast as they arose, so that, no matter intense they were, they are no more (like the sound made by the tree that falls in the forest where there is no one to hear and remark on the occurrence?).

Conversation is not only necessary to support the non-conversational aspects of life, and it not only provides new possibilities of satisfaction in life as a new sphere of activity. In addition, the satisfactions that can be derived from those other aspects of life can be increased -- transformed, or even better: transfigured -- through their being elaborated via conversation.

Levinas makes a further point here. The gathering up of persons' animal life into conversation, beyond providing opportunity for enhancing the "quantitative" possibilities of satisfaction, also results in a qualitative transformation, from private to shared pleasure. Even at the level of the higher animals there seems to be some sense of mutual recognition. But with the bringing of life into the representational world of conversation, this process of taking pleasure in the other's pleasure in the pleasure one has taken in what the other has done for oneself, taking pleasure in the other's pleasure in what one has done for him or her, etc. is opened to far richer possibilities of elaboration than would otherwise be possible (the difficulty sustaining the present signification, even in discourse, is suggestive of the complexities involved!).

In conversation, the individual ceases to find pleasure strictly in him or herself (autistically), not as a form of self-denial, but as a form of self-expansion into the shared space of mutual recognition. This "space" is itself a rich source of new kinds of satisfactions (e.g., reminiscing, debating, thanking, praising...), in addition to adding a new dimension to all preexisting forms of satisfaction (e.g., just eating versus sharing conversation with the meal). Once the conversational dimension is experienced, all merely private pleasures will appear to be "missing something." Conversation is intrinsically empathic (and sympathetic) and ethical [note that I am not claiming here that conversation always [in fact] results in virtuous activity, only that it opens for its participants the potential -- a horizon -- for mutuality].

This observation leads to consideration of the claims to "universality" inherent in conversation. Words put forth an intrinsically open-ended claim, both for what they assert and that persons should attend to it; words pro-claim themselves. "My" words are not simply mine but rather they are there for me -- and for others. I call them "mine" and some others "yours" ("his," "hers," etc.), at least in part because, in general -- although not without exception! -- I have more control over the words I call "mine" than the words I attribute to others (each child comes to partition the universal given semiotic flux in this way as part of a learning process (see, e.g., Merleau-Ponty, 1964, pp. 119-20) -- which raises the question whether the phenomena with which this distinction is an attempt to cope might be dealt with better via a different categorization[6]). Especially when a person has a "new idea" (instead of just selecting and arranging familiar words, phrases and larger units), the person cannot claim agency for having produced it (Steiner, 1975, pp. 108-9). The words speak to whoever may listen -- including the words each person silently hears in him or herself ("thinks in his or her head").

One way this structure of the universality of conversation manifests itself is that persons can -- sensibly -- worry that others might "read their thoughts." Another way is how even the most carefully planned and managed discourse can be infiltrated by a comment, not just from someone the interlocutors did not suspect was overhearing, but even by a person specifically excluded from the status of conversant by being treated (constituted) as the object being talked about.[7] Such a person sometimes succeeds in slipping words into the "flow" of talk without calling attention to their provenance, so that the interlocutors initially treat the words as part of their conversation, and only afterwards do they notice they have been taken in, that the talk has gotten beyond them, and are they then able to take measures to try to restore the boundaries they had set to the conversation (including what persons count as conversants). For example, a school faculty disciplinary committee can be discussing how to punish a student who has been brought before it; the student manages inconspicuously to insert a turn into the conversation, which, if taken seriously by the committee, may persuade it to let the student go unpunished; the committee members start considering this new turn in their conversation as if one of them had introduced it -- and then one of them notices what has happened and sets the discussion back on course by interrupting the proceedings to tell the student, and thereby remind the committee: "Hey, wait a minute! It's not your place to be telling us what the rules are here...." Persons can suppress conversation's intrinsic universalizing dynamic).

To speak is to make public. It is to open oneself to the audition of all possible spirits. One may, and frequently, of course, does try to limit the audience (e.g., when telling a secret) -- such efforts presuppose an understanding that, left to itself, discourse is unlimited, and try to counteract it. Other times one may cry out in hopes someone will hear (e.g., when one finds oneself alone in distress) -- on these occasions one hopes to capitalize on the same presupposition. But these orientations toward discourse, which in given cases may succeed or fail in varying measures, are always practical matters which presuppose discourse's intrinsic universality. Even if one was in fact the last person alive, one's words would still retain their open intersubjective dimension -- albeit altogether unfulfilled.

To listen, in its turn, is to open oneself to hearing what is said. Often we attend to who said what was said, but not always. Often the participants may not notice whose voice brought which words into the conversation. Persons get immersed in conversation (better: they "settle into it," as a familiar coordinated social activity, which seems to take on a life of its own). The conversation elaborates itself (see, e.g., Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 134), for whomsoever to hear, in ways none of the participants could have predicted -- albeit only by the persons lending their voices (and attention) to it can any conversation exist at all.

Thus we see that one way in which conversation is universal is that it has a place for everyone, even if, in reality, those places are mostly unoccupied, due to individuals being excluded from the conversation or unable or unwilling to make themselves present (the disenfranchised, the disaffected, the dead, and many more). Another way in which conversation is universal is that it has a place for everything, even if those places are often occupied by its destroyers (war, famine, pestilence, plague...). We can speak together about everything.

The ending of Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal" illustrates both these aspects of conversation as persons' true home. The Knight, who has been away for many years fighting a Crusade, is finally coming home. Simultaneously, the plague is moving in the same direction. Everybody flees to try to avoid the plague, except for the Knight's wife, Karin, who waits at their home for her husband's arrival. Karin is literate in a society in which few lay persons could read. I propose she represents conversational humanity: the responsible cultivation of linguistic competence, beyond the merely factical participation in "language games" [Wittgenstein's "forms of life"] which is a universal behavioral consequence for people of the vicissitudes of being reared in a[ny] human social matrix.[8]

The Knight arrives (with Death following closely behind). Karin greets her husband. He asks Karin why she did not flee with the others. She replies that she had waited behind because she had heard he was coming. Conversation is the place of faith. Karin welcomes her husband and the motley assortment of other persons in his entourage. She has dinner prepared and invites all to eat and she reads from the Bible.

Death comes to the door. The Knight's Squire goes to the door and either sees nothing or denies what he sees (conversation is not the only use of language!). Death enters anyway. Karin greets even Death, calmly and graciously: "You are welcome in our house." By this I do not think she means that she is glad of the approach of death, although surely she is disappointed after all the years of waiting for her husband's return only to find him a broken man (she tells him she wants to enjoy pleasurable activities, like before he went away; he says he is tired). I think Karin's greeting Death means that conversation can, when it must, find a place for even the worst eventualities in human existence (see, e.g., Husserl, 1950/1973, p. 149).

As Death enters, Karin faces the inevitable calmly, while all the other persons present, one way or another, regress to less than conversational forms of behavior, and "lose it": deliriously embracing Death or anguishedly pleading that Death spare them, etc. [The Knight's Squire may be exception: As a Medieval prototype for Camus' L'homme revolté, the Squire argues against Death. We may speculate that the Squire, too, is literate, and see him as representing a different form of thematizing conversational life than Karin. That the one person is able to "keep their head" by "welcoming" Death and the other by cursing it, illustrates my thesis that the power of conversation ultimately derives from the process of conversing, which abides, not from its contents, which are endlessly changeable and even reversible (now we believe 'X'; now we believe 'X is wrong', etc.).] In humble trepidation (not yet having been there and therefore not wishing to presume what is not mine), I propose a "good death" may be -- as Gregory Bateson arranged for his family to be at his bedside when he died (Forsdale, 1993, personal communication) -- that life ends in conversation.[9]

[ Go to part 2 of this chapter! ]Go to part 2 of this chapter (Theory).


[1[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] In Der Spiegel's interview (Heidegger, 1976/1993a), the interviewers directly ask Heidegger the precise question I would have liked to put to him in this matter: "Evidently you experience an opposition in your own person which is such that many by-products of your activity can really be explained by the fact that, with various parts of your being, which are not concerned with your philosophical core, you cleave to many things which you as a philosopher know have no substance--concepts, for example, like 'homeland,' 'roots' or the like. How do global technology and the homeland fit together?" (p. 111). Heidegger's following remarks appear to constitute a redirection of the conversation rather than an explicit response -- much less an answer -- to this question: "I would not say that. It seems to me that you are taking technology too absolutely. I do not see the situation of man in the world of global technology as a fate which cannot be escaped..." (p. 111).

[2[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] I am tempted to think this may be a typo, that the word here in the text should be "on." This emendation would yield the expected meaning that symbols affect our orientation toward the world as it appears to us -- thus making this clause appositional to the following "on" clauses which enumerate specific modalities of this operation. The other possibility is that "of" is not a typo. Then Boulding's claim here is something stronger: that the symbol produces "the image of the image," i.e., man's being-at-a-distance from all that-which-is. The symbol produces human existence, like the "slab" in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001, or like a mother presenting a simple object, such as a ball, to her infant, smiling to him and evocatively speaking its name: "Baul. Baulll. B'all!...."

[3[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] I am not making a simplistically "anthropocentric" claim here. The higher primates exhibit a wide range of behaviors which indicate at least rudimentary symbolic processes. However, although "[c]himpanzees understand 'between themselves', not only the expression of subjective moods and emotional states, but also of definite desires and urges, whether directed towards another of the same species, or towards other creatures or objects...[,] there is a sharp barrier to mutual comprehension, when one of these apes sees another executing intelligent new actions quite unusual among chimpanzees" (Kohler, 1927, pp. 307-8). This may be one of the points in the evolution of mind at which further progress is blocked, per Boulding's argument, until creatures acquire language. This dissertation is concerned with conversation, no matter what "being(s)" may enter into it, be they God, angels, U.F.O.s, chimpanzees, etc. For the classical Greeks, "[t]he distinction between man and animal [ran] right through the human species itself" (Arendt, 1958, p. 19). In this connection, a salient question is: Given a being which presents itself as unable to enter into conversation, can we help it in such a way that it overcomes this disability?

[4[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] I have discussed this claim at length with Prof. Emeritus Forsdale, whose experience combines intractable musculo-skeletal pain with acute skill in studying interpersonal communication. He concurs with my position, "from his experience."

[5[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] In the Preface, the author notes that originally she wished to title the book: The Master Printer as an Agent of Change, "[b]ut although I do think of certain master printers as being the unsung heroes of the early-modern era and although they are the true protagonists of this book, impersonal processes involving transmission and communication must also be given due attention. In the end practical considerations became paramount. I decided cataloguing would be simplified if I referred to the tool rather than its user" (p. xv).

[6[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] Julian Jaynes' proposal (Jaynes, 1990) that, up to Homeric times, human existence did not interpret itself as personal agents deciding what to do but rather as obedience to divine inner voices, need not be accepted as historically correct, but only as possible in order to make us wonder whether there may be yet other ways of cognizing the matrix of experience which, however interpreted, is. Husserl wrote that "nature belongs to the sphere of spirit [rather than spirit being looked upon as part of nature or parallel to it]. Then, too, the ego is no longer an isolated thing alongside other such things in a pregiven world. The serious problem of personal egos external to or alongside of each other comes to an end in favor of an intimate relation of beings in each other and for each other" (1965, p. 190) -- Might life lived this way be different from our experience of life to a degree as great as our experience of life differs from that of Jaynes' archaic Greeks?

[7[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] The next section of this dissertation, "Taking Stock of Our Conversational Situation," treats in detail this role distinction between a person as (1) conversant, and (2) object of conversation, i.e., as an entity talked about by the conversants but whom/which they do not include among themselves as a conversant.

[8[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] I am using literacy here as a symbol for personal commitment to communication, and not primarily with regard to any orality-and-literacy problematic. To speak is as natural as anything can be for human beings (an aspect of human nature, somewhat like warbling may be an aspect of song-sparrow nature); to personally cultivate communication (as opposed to "just speaking") is an elective and, empirically, by no means universal human activity. The other characters in the film speak as a fortuitous byproduct of their childrearing; Karin, I propose, has undertaken a caring interest in speech (i.e., by learning to read).

[9[ Return to footnote trigger! ]] Kohut (1985), chap. 1, On Courage, describes how martyrs can be sustained in their last moments by hallucinated inner voices of the persons whose real nurturance enabled them to grow into persons able to rise to the extreme occasion of facing their counter-humanly unjust destruction.

[ Go to part 2 of this chapter! ]Go to part 2 of this chapter (Theory).

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Copyright © 1998 Brad McCormick, Ed.D. [ Email me! ]
14 March 2006 [03 September 1999]
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