Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 13. (April 09) Tug of war, tug of words

QA 13. (April 09) Tug of war, tug of words

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On May 5, 2009
  • conversation, language

Michael the teacher was talking about what he says to new classes to disarm them. To disarm them? An ambiguous phrase. Did he mean to charm the children or to take away their weapons? Which reminded me of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s view that discourse (conversation, dialogue) is the way we can engage with each other without violence. Which started me thinking about how we use language to arm and disarm ourselves and each other.

We long to love, to know and be known, and we want good stuff for ourselves – more pleasure, less pain. This combination renders us in turn vulnerable and dangerous to those who come in contact with us, a situation that can be hard to tolerate. Especially if these others matter to us, if we also want good stuff for them. This goodwill we express in careful language and in the restraint of our aptitude for violence.

The word “war” comes from a root that means mixed up or confused. Whenever we mix it up together, the choice of violence or discourse is always at hand. This is not a simple dialectic. Discourse holds the possibility of peace, or at least the postponement of war. It is the rickety bridge that can carry us from conflict to resolution, but it is also conscripted into any war effort. Words as weapons, words that consolidate oppression. Words that lie. And so we say that truth is the first casualty of war.

In recent years, new industries have sprung up around the production of dialogue. We confer at conferences and disseminate at seminars. We have talks about talks to negotiate negotiation. Facilitators are on board to mediate the immediacies of human communication. Conversation and dialogue have been professionalised into a new form of managed care. Okay, that’s an oxymoron, but this is often a good and helpful thing. Yet I worry when the desire to avoid conflict traps us in increasingly sterile relations.

Diplomacy is better than war, but it’s not as good as friendship. Genuine dialogue is more dicey than diplomacy, but it’s a fine risk to run. Albertus Magnus, the 13th century theologian and scientist philosopher, said, “The greatest of all human pleasures is to seek truth in conversation.” To seek truth in conversation means to engage each other directly, each from our own lifeworld, to move together, keep talking, keep reaching. It calls for good will, open hearts and courage. This can’t be moderated or mediated by an outsider. We forgo war and get down to some serious wrestling. Eros takes the place of Ares as we incite each other to greater heights and deeper depths. We burst into laughter, into tears, and we keep on going. We play soft and easy or hard and fast, picking up some bruises no doubt, but we stay in contact until… Until we reach some climax or fall away in exhaustion or just find a good place to stop.

Until the next time.

© 2009


1 Comment

Jennifer Woodhull
Oh, yeah. I just got to read this, and it coincides very nicely with a book I'm currently reading: Inter Views, with James Hillman and Laura Pozzo. "The most accessible Hillman", somebody calls it, and it's certainly the first one I've been able to actually enter and savour. Some lovely stuff about hermeneutics as enemies of truth (to paraphrase). It opens with a quite blunt deconstruction of the entire notion of "the interview", which takes your discussion of conversation in an interesting direction. I'm keenly aware, as I rejoice in this dialogue (Pozzo is interviewing Hillman), that what makes me so happy is that Hillman is giving me new ways to understand and articulate my existing hermeneutics … I suppose that, like ego, one's conceptual framework is to be related to, rather than reduced to an object of suspicion. Awareness, again, seems to be what makes any sanity possible. Pondering that statement, I recognise that it doesn't fall under the heading of Hermeneutics. It's a conviction based on personal experience. Perhaps the equivalent of Wilber's transrational (vs. prerational)—? But then, everyone has a language for explaining why their particular truth is really true, rather than just another entry in the great conceptual stakes. This is the point where my eyes cross and I'm relieved to remember that I can always return to the breath …

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