59 Philosophical Dialogue

Verbal discussion of serious topics is in no way tangential to the practice of philosophy. From Socratic gatherings to the philosophical conventions of today, thinking things through out loud—and in the presence of others—has always been of the essence of the philosophical method. (Most philosophical texts embody this give-and-take, either in explicit use of dialogue form or by a more subtle alteration of proposal, objection, and reply in expository prose.) Your philosophical education demands that you enter into the great conversation of Western thought. A few suggestions may help:

  • Be prepared
    Productive dialogue presupposes informed participants. This means that during every class session, each of us will have read the material assigned for the day, we will pay careful attention to what others have already said, and we will think carefully before speaking. Of course, each of us will often be mistaken, but none of us should ever speak randomly.
  • Respect others
    Joint participants in dialogue show a deep, personal respect for each other. We owe it to each other to listen well and to give each other the benefit of doubt in interpreting charitably what has been said, trying always to see the worthwhile point. Although we will rarely find ourselves in total agreement on the issues at stake, we will never attack or make fun of each other personally.
  • Expect conflict
    Disagreement with an expressed opinion and criticism of its putative support is not disrespectful; it is an acknowledgment that we are taking the matter seriously. The more significant the issue under discussion, the more likely our exchanges will become passionate, even heated. But we must always deal with each other fairly, helping each other to see the light.
  • Quality counts more than quantity
    No discussion will be perfectly balanced among its participants, and each of us will have days on which we are quieter or more vocal. But no one should dominate the conversation, nor should anyone be utterly silent. If you find yourself speaking too much, try to listen more; if you find yourself saying too little, look for opportunities to contribute. But always remember that it is what you say, not the fact of your speaking, that matters.
  • Ask questions
    Not every contribution to the dialogue needs to be the proposal or defence of a thesis. It is always proper to ask for a clarification of the meaning of something that has already been said or for the justification of a claim that has already been made. (Those who are naturally quiet may find that a well-timed question is the most comfortable way to participate in the dialogue.)

Above all, remember that philosophical discussion is a cooperative activity, aiming at a mutual achievement of truth (or, at least, convergence on a shared opinion). It is not a competition in which “points” are to be scored against an opponent. We are working together, and each can learn from all.


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