The universality of conversation is not some diffuse ubiquity (like the ether of 19th century physics). Conversation is always a particular conversation about something particular. That "something," the object [a.k.a.: subject] matter of the conversation, is usually not the conversation itself, although when conversation becomes thematically self-reflective, it can be (this becomes complicated, as the conversation then must be careful not to get in its own way).
The object of a conversation is what the conversation is "about." This "aboutness" takes such forms as investigating the object, assessing it, making plans for acting upon it, etc. The conversants, in their conversation, discuss various aspects of the object of the conversation, and frequently the "aspects" discussed are not only descriptive but also prescriptive: not just clarifying what is the case, but trying to come to an agreement what to do about it. Thus, frequently, the conversation does not relate to its object merely speculatively, but leads to the object in some way being affected (the conversation makes a difference to or, for inanimate things, at least has an impact upon the object).
A person may enter into a conversation (1) as conversant or (2) as object conversed about (the same person can occupy both roles, but to understand that complication we need first to explore the basic structure). This distinction, I propose, specifies one of the fundamental partitionings of the social world. Habermas labels these two orientations toward an other person, respectively, "communicative" and "strategic."
I do not want to use the terms "strategic" and "communicative" only to designate two analytic aspects under which the same action could be described--on the one hand as a reciprocal influencing of one another by opponents acting in a purposive-rational manner and, on the other hand, as a process of reaching understanding among members of a lifeworld. Rather, social actions can be distinguished according to whether the participants adopt either a success-oriented attitude or one oriented to reaching understanding. And, under suitable conditions, these attitudes should be identifiable on the basis of the intuitive knowledge of the participants themselves. (Habermas, 1981/1984, p. 286)When a person enters into conversation as an object of the conversation, i.e., when other person(s) discuss, and perhaps deliberate what to do about the object-person, the object-person's perspective does not count as part of the discussion but only, at most, as further material which the conversants discuss. Such is an accused criminal's role vis-à-vis the jury deliberating "the defendant's case." Another example is a psychiatrist thinking or talking aloud to himself (and perhaps with others) in the presence of a patient about whether the patient is so "crazy" that the psychiatrist should have the patient involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. Even if the patient has reasonable arguments why this should not happen, the patient may effectively be silenced by the recognition that anything he or she says to the psychiatrist will likely not be taken seriously as a contribution to the discussion about possible hospitalization, but rather as more evidence which the psychiatrist will unilaterally evaluate for indices of pathology. A parent "discussing" with his or her child the punishment the child deserves for some behavior the parent has defined as misbehavior and decided the child committed, is a similar situation (child: "But, but--"; parent: "See! You're just proving how bad you are by arguing with me.").
"...If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you might fight him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel, or to reason, with him." ...The objectivating attitude of the nonparticipant observer annuls the communicative roles of I and thou, the first and the second persons, and neutralizes the realm of moral phenomena as such. The third-person attitude causes this realm of phenomena to vanish. (Habermas, 1983/1990, p. 46-7; inner quote from P.F. Strawson)Insofar as a person enters into conversation as conversant, his or her mode of participation is radically different.
Whereas in strategic action one actor seeks to influence the behavior of another by means of the threat of sanctions or the prospect of gratification in order to cause the interaction to continue as the first actor desires, in communicative action one actor seeks rationally to motivate another by relying on the illocutionary binding/bonding effect (Bindungseffekt) of the offer contained in his speech act. (Habermas, 1983/1990, p. 58)When a person participates in a conversation as a conversant, the person's perspective is taken seriously by the other conversant(s). If opportunity arises to manipulate the person's orientation in the world (e.g., by withholding information), the other conversants will willfully abstain from availing themselves of such opportunity, in order to preserve the autochthony of the other's participation in their conversation. Further, they will actively foster opportunities to enhance the autochthony of the other person's judgment, even at risk of increasing the possibilities the person will disagree with them, precisely because, in conversation, each individual values mutuality of communication per se (including learning how matters appear to each other conversant, irrespective such desiderata as "popularity" -- indeed, divergence of opinion will be positively valued for the expansion of perspective it enables) above attainment of private and partisan satisfactions.
One phenomenological effect of this shift (from object of conversation to conversant in conversation) is that the person does not enter into the conversation as a "body" in physical space (a.k.a.: "the universe") or an instance in some kind of logical space (system); instead what the person says (its meaning) becomes part of the discourse which may be associated with locations in a variety of ways, but does not occupy any specific coordinate location in the straightforward way the conversants' physical bodies in physical space, or their rank in a hierarchical institutional structure do. As a long-distance telephone service provider's slogan (1993) says: "With Sprint, no matter where you go, there you are." I interpret this as claiming that Sprint provides such high fidelity sound transmission that, wherever the caller is geographically located at the time he or she makes a call, the caller will perceive him or herself as being "right there" with the person on the other end of the line. Professor Emeritus Forsdale called my attention to this slogan during a phone conversation I (in New York) was having with him (in New Mexico), in which we were discussing the present point about where a conversation is located (which conversation, if somebody was trying to "listen in on," they might have "found" in a transponder communications satellite in geostationary orbit 25,000 miles somewhere above the equator...).
Functionally, the person who enters into conversation as a conversant is no longer engaged in strategic action (as its object), but in communicative action as one of its co-subjects, i.e., in an I-thou relationship (which, of course, will often be strategic vis-à-vis its object which may be a person or persons as easily as a material substance). This is not merely a matter of words, but a process of "constant action of concerned individuals who accept joint responsibility for what is being done" (Wild, 1972, p. 388), even if, frequently -- when "nothing much is happening" --, all that is being done is to sustain the mutuality of the participants' talk through words (or even appropriate silences).
Conversation, as the term is used in this dissertation, is what Habermas refers to as communicative action. Its normative structure is not arbitrary (I am here not just arbitrarily constructing a "designer" form of human interaction).
Discourse ethics uses transcendental arguments to demonstrate that certain conditions are unavoidable. Such arguments are geared to convincing the opponent that he makes performative use of something he expressly denies and thus gets caught up in a performative contradiction. (Habermas, 1983/1990, p. 129)To put it simply: If person A claims to be conversing with person B, then [to validate the claim] A must act in certain ways and not others vis-à-vis B. If A does not claim to be conversing with B, there is no argument on this point (although there may be highly consequential pragmatic issues, e.g., if A is stalking B to kill B). A can act in non-conversational ways and still claim to be conversing with B, but then there is no conversation as claimed (A is annoying B in some way; B asks A to stop; A tells B the annoying behavior has already stopped and A continues the annoying behavior). When it gets to the point that a person decides he or she cannot converse with another, then the only option is to treat the other as an object of strategic action, and attempt to take unilateral measures as appropriate (as one would orient oneself toward a "force of nature") -- including, e.g., trying to make the other person believe one is still trying to converse, to gain time to implement some ruse which will take the other off guard....
Thomas McCarthy summarizes Habermas's argument:
Rather than contractual agreements among "unencumbered" individuals with arbitrarily chosen ends, [the normative presuppositions of communicative interaction actualized in practical discourse] involves processes of reflective argumentation among previously socialized subjects whose needs and interests are themselves open to discussion and transformation. The egocentric perspective is treated not as primary but as derivative; autonomy is conceptualized in relation to embeddedness in shared forms of life. (Habermas, 1983/1990, p. xi)Habermas himself repeatedly emphasizes that this is not, as was Kant's ethic based on the categorical imperative, a possible exercise in thought, rather: the form of life proposed to be shared by persons in conversation must be mutually negotiated and produced by those persons in and through their conversation. Quoting McCarthy, Habermas writes:
Rather than ascribing as valid to all others any maxim that I can will to be a universal law, I must submit my maxim to all others for purposes of discursively testing its claim to universality. The emphasis shifts from what each can will without contradiction to be a general law, to what all can will in agreement to be a universal norm. (1983/1990, p. 67)An implication of this understanding of conversation as a practical basis (as opposed to merely an ontological condition) for organizing human social life is that in each case, for those who live it, their form of life approaches becoming fully rational (ethical, just, etc.) precisely to the extent that it emerges from their conversation (discussion aimed at shaping uncoerced sociation). The particularities of the form of life conversants may elaborate cannot, on principle, be pre-dicted (spoken for in advance), but rather any such putative foreknowledge can serve only as further material for the actual conversation through which the conversants shape their interaction. This is another sense in which conversation is ultimate reality: it is an emergent product of its own activity, not something which in some sense was "already there," so that it could be made the appropriate object of a predictive description. In order to find out how any real conversation "comes out," one has really to wait for the outcome.
The structure of consensual communication is so universal that even persons who have no common language or cultural background can, if sufficient good will is mutually present, come to agreement about at least some matters (e.g., dividing some food among themselves), by each party trying to understand what the other's behavior might be trying to express. If such persons remain together for more than the briefest time, they will most likely begin to "converse" about translating their languages so that they can converse increasingly effectively. NASA scientists even try to figure out messages that will be intelligible to extraterrestrials (if there be any), which messages the scientists send into interstellar space.
The social and communicative world in which persons live is, generally in fact even if not necessarily in principle, only equivocally a conversational world. Much speech is not conversation: commands, threats, lies, etc. are examples of Habermas's strategic mode of communication, where a person is treated as an object of conversation and not as a conversant. This is the first major constraint on the conversational quality of persons' lives: the extent to which they live as co-subjects versus the extent to which they live as strategic objects of conversation (other than a person withdrawing or being excluded from society, by death, ostracism, etc., it seems there is no tertium quid here -- even the most isolated recluse "talks with himself").
It is not necessary here to explore in detail reasons why persons' conversational situations are compromised in this way, although we have already considered one likely historical factor: In societies where the necessary labor time is a very large part of total available person hours, no person may be able to have enough time available to cultivate conversation, e.g., the political life of the classical Greeks, without exploiting others (slaves, etc.). Other possible contributing factors may derive from the fact that human society emerged from animal social life. It is possible that the advent of language gave to the dominant animals in a group vastly increased capability to dominate the weaker, e.g., to "boss them around," while the earliest conversational or proto-conversational interactions may have occurred between the dominant individuals.
That human society emerged from animal social life contributes to the second major constraint on the conversational quality of persons' lives, a constraint which applies to everybody, to the co-subjects as well as the strategic objects of conversation: The conversational world was not conversationally constructed but rather arose, "somehow," by a process of un-self-accountable "natural selection" as an evolutionary extension of pre-symbolic animal sociality. However it happened, the communicative world in which we live does not seem to be an aftermath of the Tower of Babel: it is not the confused remains of a grand conversationally negotiated project of social planning and civil and communication engineering which, for whatever internal or external reasons, broke down. Rather, our communicative world appears to be an evolving (i.e., ongoing, not necessarily improving) bricolage, more or less adapted to its environment (else it could not survive at all...), with pieces here and there that are much worse and much better than the norm. Some of the worse find their way to psychotherapists' offices and mental hospitals. Some of the better become classics of literature or "special" moments an individual cherishes in memory all his or her life. (My aim in this dissertation is to foster the latter, not just in general theory, as here, but, what I feel is more valuable, by giving operationalizable examples below.)
Equally as important as the historical factor in making actual social life only imperfectly conversational is the biological factor: man's extended period of infantile dependence, which reproduces in each individual's life the same quality of pre-givenness (Heidegger's word: "thrownness" is apposite here) as its form of social life has for each society as a whole. Persons do not enter society as autonomous, knowledgeable individuals who voluntarily negotiate their entry into a social contract. Persons enter society as babies who didn't ask to be born and have limited ability to figure out what's going on around them and even less ability to do anything about it even insofar as they do figure it out (if an adult is doing something hurtful to an infant, the infant may strongly protest, but the infant's protests -- his or her cries and flailing of little limbs -- are impotent to fend off the offender) (see, e.g., Becker, 1971, passim).
Even where the social milieu in which an infant is reared is generally benign or even actively facilitating, it is a pregiven surround into which the infant integrates him or herself largely unwittingly ("picks up naturally"), without awareness that alternative forms of life are possible or what they might be. Because "all interpersonal actions are, in some degree, messages" (Ruesch & Bateson, 1951, p. 214), and all messages also implicitly communicate a context (form of life) (p. 218), many of the "lessons" a person learns are not explicitly taught, but rather are learned unwittingly as a byproduct of living, through what Bateson calls: "deutero-learning." Many of these lessons would potentially be compromised by being explicitly taught, because to assert that something is the case opens up the possibility for persons to question whether it might be otherwise instead, and the motivational power of the patterns of behavior persons live by derives partly (often largely!) from their being unthinkingly taken for granted.
When a child has integrated a critical mass of his or her cultural surround, the child has a representation of the world: the child speaks and acts as an incipiently responsible member of his or her society (i.e., as one able to respond to questions and give an accounting for themselves, for their actions and inactions, etc.). Insofar as a person is a person (and not merely infantile potential to become a person), the person is always already in this condition, i.e., even his or her notions of accountability and responsibility have always already been culturally conditioned, and I think even Helen Keller's account of remembering her discovery of language (see, e.g., Langer, 1957, pp. 62-3) does not constitute an exception, since what an infant lacks due to immaturity and not having lived long enough may be qualitatively different from what Ms. Keller lacked due to her disabilities with which she lived for a long time in human society before she learned language (vocalization, of course, is only an accidental feature of discourse).
If and when individuals do find out there are alternatives, they initially can judge the alternatives only on the basis of their "na[t]ive" understanding of the world. Radical changes can subsequently occur in a person's perspective, not just substituting allegiance to one ethnic pattern for another, but even unto gaining an appreciation of the contextual and relativistic value of all forms of life, which Ruesch and Bateson (1951, p. 87) see as an essential aspect of "maturity." On the other hand, this way in which their native culture "infects" individuals before they can be aware what is happening (because only after the "infection" has taken hold does the person have a representational image of the world at all, in terms of which to think about anything!) also results in the otherwise puzzling phenomenon that often, at least at first, persons will reject even [what some other persons consider to be] a great benefice which is laid before them with no strings attached -- because their upbringing has been such as to make them see it as something bad or to be avoided.
The manifest content and the deutero-message of a communicative act are perforce performatively unified, but the manifest content need not straightforwardly represent the deutero-message or even contribute toward producing such a representation. Fabrications (lies, etc.) are obvious examples here, but the very fact that a form of social life evolves as prereflective praxis opens up possibilities of semantic "slippage" wholly apart from and prior to anybody's willful intent. To believe in the mores of one's social matrix "pays" (irrespective of their degree of representative truth) in the same way as any other kind of socially encouraged behavior. This situation is so pervasive that the novelty of the theoretical attitude, which first appeared in classical Greece, is that it attends to the validity of discourse as an end in itself and not just because it is useful to do so (Husserl, 1964, pp. 164-5). (When, through whatever generative itinerary, a speech act propositionally asserts something inconsistent with or even just disconnected from what it performatively teaches, I will call the result "mystified" -- or "mystifying" -- communication, the possible complications of which, insofar as they evolve out of awareness, are, literally, unanticipatable.)
Because persons always exist already embedded in a highly elaborated (although, as we have seen, often largely only fortuitously noetically coordinated) cultural matrix, whenever a person takes the further step of self-reflection, that individual does not find him or herself merely existing in some general way, but living as concretely embedded in a particular matrix of significations the individual did not produce (the disciplined elaboration of this fact is Husserl's great advance beyond Descartes: "...at the end of his career Husserl admitted that the first result of reflection is to bring us back into the presence of the world as we lived it before reflection began" (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 49)).
In any person's life, the work of reflective appropriation of one's form of life is always incomplete, and in most persons' lives throughout history, perhaps even more or less unattempted. Most of what we believe (not just propositionally, but also existentially and prethematically, or, to use Michael Polanyi's word: tacitly) is unaccounted for.
In each culture there exist beliefs and traditions which cannot be traced to human sources. These messages are accepted by the population as if they were messages from God, or messages from a mythological figure, or as if they were an expression of the nature of things. But regardless of the supposed source to which these messages are attributed, the outstanding feature is that there is no recourse, no reply, no possibility of correction on the part of the native. The anthropologist, in contrast, is aware that in another culture, perhaps, this particular area of belief is modifiable, while other areas may be inaccessible to correction. The areas which are inaccessible to correction we shall call cultural mass communication. (Ruesch & Bateson, 1951, pp. 41-2)I prefer the term "cultural unconscious" (Hall, 1981, p. xiv), or even: "ethnic unconscious" (which emphasizes its tendency to parochialism). In Alain Resnais' film, "Mon Oncle d'Amerique," this is described as being, unlike the Freudian unconscious, a set of permissions, not prohibitions, which are unwittingly internalized by the individual as his or her personal goals in life, the achievement of which the individual sees as personal success and fulfillment, rather than in terms of their social function which takes no concern for the individual's interests and may even work at cross purposes to those interests.
The irony that competition is a powerful motivator for conformity is an example here (see, e.g., Ruesch & Bateson, 1951, pp. 210-1). In a supposedly "individualistic" society, where many persons compete for limited rewards, all the contestants strive to become the same, only more so. The "winners" particularly well implement the social purposes underwriting the competition (e.g., industrial growth or defensive or offensive military feats), although, along with their winnings various tolls may be exacted upon their lives; the "losers," of course, are unambivalently depleted. But as long as people "play the game," society always wins (or at least its current mores are perpetuated); and while persons are immersed in competing, the furthest thing from their mind is likely to be questioning the game as such, even if, which often is not the case, they are aware that such social patterns can be questioned.
Edward Hall, in summarizing the thesis of his book, The Silent Language, makes this point clearly:
If this book has a message it is that we must learn to understand the "out of awareness" aspects of communication. We must never assume that we are fully aware of what we communicate to someone else.... The job of achieving understanding and insight into the mental processes of others is much more difficult and the situation more serious than most of us care to admit.In Resnais' film, the narrator asserts that culture's continued unconscious control over our lives is one of the most serious threats to the future of humanity.
The average reader... may be inclined to ask, "What's this got to do with me?" This point touches on the ultimate purpose of this book, which is to reveal the broad extent to which culture controls our lives. Culture is not an exotic notion studied by a select group of anthropologists in the South Seas. It is a mold in which we are all cast, and it controls our daily lives in many unsuspected ways....
Culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. Years of study have convinced me that the real job is not to understand foreign culture but to understand one's own. (Hall, 1981, pp. 29-30)
That persons live by beliefs the validity of which depends on their belief in them shows itself to be a condition that "cuts two ways." It enables persons to fashion empoweringly innovative forms of life; it also makes it possible for persons to be the unwitting agents of the impoverishment and misunderstanding of their own and others' experience. Even though conversation is the ground and center of human existence, persons can believe otherwise: the content of their conversation can assert that human existence has some other constitution (telos, etc.), and they may act accordingly (see, e.g., Habermas, 1981/1984, pp. 356-60). Within a wide range of alternatives, such "errors" may be sufficiently non-conflictual with the preservation (and even "advancement," i.e., congruous expansion) of social life that no one notices the inconsistency, and, even if persons do notice problems, all forms of life have problems, so that it would be irrational to reject a given form of life -- or even a theory in the so-called exact sciences! (Kuhn, 1970, pp. 77, 145) -- solely on that account.
No matter how persons conceive of human existence or the nature of conversation and its place in life, the persons still do, in fact, converse (including propagating these particular -- possibly conversation-destroying -- beliefs through their conversation!), so that the essential foundation for their life is [conversationally] sustained in fact even if not by intent. The resulting form of life, however, may be far less felicitous for the quality of the persons' lives than where conversation is more straightforwardly hegemonous. Bateson gives an example which is important for us:
There is a tendency today among subatomic physicists to use metaphors taken from life to describe the events inside the accelerator. No doubt this trick of speech, technically called the pathetic fallacy, is as wrong as that of which I complain, although less dangerous. To liken the mountain to a man and talk of its "humor" or "rage" does little harm. But to liken the man to the mountain proposes that all human relationships are what Martin Buber might call I-it or perhaps it-it relations. The mountain, personified in our speech, will not become a person, will not learn a more personal way of being. But the human being, depersonalized in his own talk and thought, may indeed learn more thingish habits of action. (Bateson, 1979, p. 107; italics in original)In such a social milieu which fancies itself as being "scientific" because it applies the methods of mathematical physics to everything, conversation still occurs and keeps the social order in existence (e.g., technicians converse in resolving system breakdowns and showing trainees tricks of the trade). But this conversation has as its pervasive content to structure social life in algorithmic, i.e., non-conversational, ways. That is, the conversational matrix sustains itself on [discussion and implementation of] its abolition. If such talk ever fully achieved its objective (and this may be no more impossible than many simpler ways persons already can destroy their communities -- vide James Jones in Guyana), the most that might remain would be inter-signaling computers the processes of which could be contents of conversation by other [still-]dialogical beings, if there are any left in the universe and they happened to discover this used-to-be-a-society:
A society which accepts itself without recognizing the need to continue to account for its own representative capacity alters its own image in a qualitative and, perhaps, irreversible way. Relinquishing the principle of representation is like draining the language of everything but the vocabulary of basic English: communication at some level may still be possible, but an inquiry into the meaning of the shift in language is no longer thinkable, let alone discussible, within the new linguistic establishment. Qualitative change in this sense signifies a cardinal but most subtle transformation: the choice of categorical matrices which ultimately render possible or preclude reflective analysis. Not whether one interpretation is to prevail or another, but whether there is to be interpretation at all is the problem. (Natanson, 1973, pp. 201-2)Existentially, persons who deeply believe they are [whatever] may indeed come to live lives which, both for themselves and others, approximate to their conviction. This can happen not because the persons were or are in fact what they think they are, but because, by acting as if they were that, they not only appear to themselves and others to be it, but also, as a byproduct of acting into their (material and social) surround that way, they reshape that surround to be better adapted to both nonexistent creatures who in fact would be what they act as if they were and also real beings -- for instance, themselves -- who consistently [choose to] act as if they were those nonexistent ones. For the sciences of man, the more persons act this way, the more evidence accumulates to confirm and the less to call into question theories which consider persons to be objects the behavior of which can be predicted according to formal laws on the model of physics. These theories, in their turn, encourage persons who believe in them to act as if they were true, thus further confirming their "validity" (i.e., their deutero-validity as motivators of human action)....
The psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch wrote:
At birth, the infant enters an asymmetrical system of communication, because his own communication machinery is as yet not fully developed; however a healthy human environment will bring about a gradual rectification of this asymmetry, and as soon as the biological maturity of the child will permit, symmetrical communication will be initiated. We shall later elaborate upon the fact that if children are raised in a human environment in which symmetrical systems of communication prevail, they are likely to be mentally healthy, and that if unfortunate circumstances force a person to remain in asymmetrical systems, disturbances of communication will occur.... We have chosen psychiatry as the focus of our attention because the psychiatrist in his daily practice is concerned with disturbances of communication. (Ruesch & Bateson, 1951, pp. 38, 13)I believe any random or systematic sampling of theory or practice will show that a truly conversational orientation toward social life is not pervasive in our social life. Our social world is pervaded by asymmetrical communication structures beyond those required by the young child's biological immaturity: the roles of employee and student, alone, which according to this hypothesis are intrinsically psychopathogenic, already encompass most of the population -- but certainly the majority of talk (including theory) about these social constructs in no way engages with this problematic. [Ruesch and Bateson (1951), in fact, do not systematically follow up in their book on this theme of pathogenicity of asymmetrical communication structures; one of my objectives in this dissertation is to contribute toward filling this lacuna. My hunch is that they had so much material to cover in setting forth a communication theory of psychiatry at a time when they also had to construct the underlying general notions of interpersonal communication theory, that this issue got overlooked. Bateson's subsequent work on the "double bind" theory of schizophrenia was one contribution here (see, e.g. Bateson, 1972, pp. 201-227; Watzlawick, Bevelas & Jackson, pp. 211ff.). Ruesch's later book, Disturbed Communication (1957) also addresses some of the effects of asymmetrical communication, but I believe these researches are far from exhaustively exploring the psychopathogenic potential of asymmetrical communication.]
"The blindness that culture imposes on its members" (Hall, 1981, p. 49) can make almost anything be taken for granted and seem to be "natural." And yet, as Heinz Kohut wrote: "First of all I will stress again that great frequency of occurrence---even ubiquity---does not connote normality, let alone health" (Kohut, 1984, p. 26). Kohut himself cited as examples dental carries before fluoridated water, and Freud's Oedipus complex (the idea that all 3 year old boys want to copulate with their mothers and murder their fathers, etc.), which may indeed be universal in the kind of families in which Freud and his associates (followers, patients, etc.) grew up and lived as adults (but not, e.g., in Alfred Adler's family, or among children reared in a way Kohut considers healthy).
To repeat an important fact: The minimum conditions of conversationality necessary to sustain human life can be satisfied by cultural forms which pay little attention to conversation and even pay a lot of attention to practices destructive of conversation. A team of Watsonian "time and motion" experts whose conversational life has as its primary content extirpating conversation from the working lives of large numbers of persons is an example. Fanatics of all varieties are probably another instance: since the "causes" to which they devote themselves often appear fantastic to nonbelievers, it seems likely that what is really going on is that they are intoxicated with the [very real] conversation in which the "cause" gets talked about (prayer would, of course, have to be included as a form of conversation here).
The situation is even graver than these considerations alone may suggest. So far, I have only described problems which seemingly might be eliminated. There do not need to be any "time and motion" experts. The methods of mathematical physics do not have to be applied to human beings. A God powerful enough to irreparably confuse the tongues of all the master builders at Babel surely could neutralize the conflicting tongues of all the zealots on earth. The problem is that removing evil may result in a void: a world of Vladimirs and Estragons waiting for Godot, or even more discouraging, agreeing among themselves that there is nothing to do (another way for conversation to destroy itself). Just because a number of persons are gathered together with nothing they have to do, they will not necessarily proceed to construct a polis, especially if the notion of conversation as space of appearance in this honorific sense is unknown to them. Margaret Mead urged:
For what we need today is imagination, imagination free from sickly nostalgia, free from a terror of machines bred of medieval fantasies or from the blind and weather-bound dependence of the peasant or the fisherman. And yet that imagination must not be empty, for an empty imagination and a free imagination are not the same thing. From a room out of which all the devils have been swept come only meditations about other devils and counter-devils. Then the mind is free only to take horns on or off the frightening face of the future. To be really free one must have good fare to eat..., one must have tools that one can trust...; one must have companions for the task in hand, elders whom one can trust and youngsters for whom the effort is worth the making. (Mead, 1975, p. 5)My contention, which I do not believe disagrees with but rather elaborates Mead's assertion, is that it is not sufficient merely to "have" these things: one must also have (appreciate) their meaning as goods. These meanings are not innately part of the human mind (at least not in any socially effective way), but are, for each person in his or her individual experience of life, contingently acquired (or not acquired!) through cultural transmission. (This condition is one of the reasons I have richly elaborated the notion of conversation as the home for man in this dissertation, because it is an idea which the reader may otherwise lack in whole or part; at least it is something the author lacked for many years and only began to acquire as an adult, and is still in process of coming to appreciate, and, since the author is a person, i.e., a product of socialization, if this happened to him, it is at least possible it could happen to other persons.)
McLuhan's dictum that the medium is the message applies here: our experience of life teaches us what life "is." A child who grows up always being ordered about may become compliant or defiant (or a lot of other things), but there is [almost?] no way such a child could perceive a command as an alien intrusion into being -- a kind of performative category mistake. The first reaction to a command by a child who grows up with his or her concerns always solicited, respected and integrated into a consensual social milieu, however, would likely be to doubt that he or she heard correctly, because such a syntactic and performative structure would not be an expectable part of this other child's world. (The first child would perhaps not comprehend what was going on if someone gently asked him or her: "What would you like?", which syntactic and performative structure may not even be known to the child as a possibility.) This thought experiment illustrates how persons can have incompatibly different notions of what human communication is, what conversation is, and what is the place in life of what they think conversation is.
Hopefully, it is possible for persons to engage in conversation, or for an outsider to engage them in conversation in such a way as to enable each to grow and understand the other's world (in the example: the one child coming to realize that human relations based on mutuality are possible, the other child that such relations are not inevitable and that, if one wants to keep them, it is necessary to care for them, and that there are other people who, not knowing about them, one may wish to inform). A major issue in interpersonal communication theory is how far such reorientation is possible. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that the process of socialization, along with making communication and knowledge possible at all, also inevitably erects insuperable barriers limiting how far they are possible:
Edward Sapir, an American anthropologist, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist, felt that the language one learns early, which one speaks as a result of being a member of a culture or subculture, is not simply a neutral way of expressing reality, but is in fact a profound means of shaping the manner in which its speakers perceive reality.... [T]he language you are born into, because of its very form, contributes profoundly to the way you sense the world about you. Thus, if you are born into a culture which speaks Mandarin Chinese you will not -- will never be able to -- perceive the world exactly in the way a speaker of, say, American English does. (Forsdale, 1981, pp. 168-9)Hans-Georg Gadamer, on the other hand, in his systematic exposition of philosophical hermeneutics, Truth and Method, while concurring that persons do in fact see the world in different ways, believes that in principle these differences can be overcome:
[P]recisely because [our interior dialog with ourselves] is infinite, because this orientation to things, given in the pre-formed schemas of discourse, enters into our spontaneous process of coming to an understanding both with one another and with ourselves, there is opened to us the infinity of what we understand in general and what we can intellectually appropriate. There are no limits to the interior dialogue of the soul with itself. With this thesis I would oppose the suspicion that language is an ideology. I want to argue for the pretention to the universality of the act of understanding and of speaking. We can express everything in words and can try to come to agreement about everything. (Gadamer, 1965/1975, p. 493)The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Gadamer's response to it both seem richly worth being thought about (German: "denkwürdig"), and, indeed, this matter is in a small way illustrated by my apposition of a German word and an English phrase in the present sentence. What seems clear is that only in actual conversation can the extent to which each position is applicable be discovered.
We have seen that every speech act reaches back into a pregiven (factical) cultural matrix no matter how far it also reaches forward toward mutual understanding. That we have the very notion of mutual understanding came forth from the un-understandable fact of our cultural matrix having [by good -- or not so good -- fortune] opened this possibility to us. Had we been born and raised some place else, we might never have thought about this at all. This includes even rational argumentation itself (including "this here" dissertation!). Even rigorous logic can performatively mislead, or at least some of Socrates' conversants and many others since have ended up feeling that way when confounded by deductive argumentation from their own words (see, e.g., Habermas, 1990, p. 96).
A thoroughgoing conversational orientation to life attempts to situate all things in their places in the conversation which [in the particular instance] is taking place. It takes stock of its situation in all conceivable ways (which effort, it is uncomfortably aware, may still miss important things!), to try to coordinate and make the best of the world which evolution has presented to it (i.e., thrown it into). An ever-present theme of every conversation, it seems to me, whether there is agreement or disagreement, needs to be: "Let us discuss how to relate to this situation in which we here find ourselves -- including looking carefully to check if maybe the situation isn't what we think it is."
 Within the "conversant" category, one can distinguish I-thou from we-subject interactions. In the former, the conversants directly turn their attention to each other; in the latter the conversants turn their attention jointly toward some third entity. E.g., in the process of trying to lift a big, fragile piece of furniture up a narrow staircase, two persons may function as a we-subject, with their entire attention on the piece of furniture and the stairs, and on carefully maneuvering the piece ("A little to the right." "Hold it." [person shifts a hand grip] "OK, now up just a little." "Steady.". [other person tentatively plants a foot on next higher step]...). When they get the piece to the top and rest it safely on the floor, the two persons may then disattend to their surroundings and look at each other in an I-thou moment of mutual recognition ("We did it." [both smile]). Some theoreticians, (e.g.) Habermas, focus on the we-subject; others, including Levinas and Buber, the I-thou. As my example suggests, it seems to me the two "go together". To explore this is an important area for communication study, but I have not focused on it in this dissertation.
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Copyright © 1998 Brad McCormick, Ed.D.
14 March 2006 [03 September 1999]