Oops! It appears that you have disabled your Javascript. In order for you to see this page as it is meant to appear, we ask that you please re-enable your Javascript!

What makes a Conversation Philosophical?

The smell of old wood, hum of turning pages, and clock ticks make Stephen’s library a place of charm. Dead professors peek from their pictures on the wall, keeping a perpetual academic watch. But I don’t sit in the main hall. I am allowed use of an adjacent room meant for faculty members. There is seldom anyone in the room after two in the afternoon and that is the time when I visit the library.

And so, today too, I have the whole room to myself. A black bust of Albert Einstein sits in front of me. I smuggled it from the hall outside as library staff wondered what I had in mind. A quiet murmur and an occasional giggle sieves through the curtain as students in the main hall pretend to study. I sit on my chair and look at the bust. The bust smiles back. It is the Daemon.

***

Daemon: So we meet again.
Me: Yes, I was expecting you.
Daemon: Okay. So tell me about these conversations.
Me: What do you want to know?
Daemon: What are they about?
Me: Nothing in particular; they talk about a bunch of interesting things.
Daemon: Like?
Me: Love, death, art, God, relationships, science, food, freedom, etc.
Demon: Sounds interesting. And whom do you have these conversations with?
Me: Folks.
Demon: Which folks?
Me: Folks around me. Friends, teachers, family. I talk to you a lot. So you appear in many of them.
Daemon: But what is the point of writing them? And why should anyone bother to read?
Me: I told you yesterday. I have seen a glimmer of Truth and Transcendence in these conversations. And I want everyone to catch that glimmer.
Daemon: I am unlikely to be swayed by verbal decorations; so you can save your rhetoric for others.
Me: What do you mean?
Daemon: Don’t insult my intelligence by constantly parading Truth or Transcendence in your speech.
Me: What is it about the Truth that gets you worked up every time I talk about it?
Daemon: Nothing. It’s just that when you talk of Truth, it sounds more like an advertising slogan.
Me: Fine. I won’t use the word if that is what makes you happy.
Daemon: So answer the question now.
Me: What question?
Daemon: What is the point of writing these conversations? Why do you write them?
Me: I told you yesterday, didn’t I? I believe that philosophy happens through conversations. I am interested in philosophy, so I write these conversations.
Daemon: Yes. You said that.
Me: I also told you that I don’t yet have any reasons to convince you of my belief; so don’t pull me into that debate now.
Daemon: I don’t intend to. Whether your belief is true can begin to concern me only after I understand what it even means. For now, I am confused about what “philosophy happens through conversations” might possibly mean.
Me: What is it that you don’t understand?
Daemon: Do you mean to say that having conversation of any kind count as philosophizing, or does philosophizing involve having some kinds of conversations but not others?
Me: Obviously, not every conversation counts as philosophizing. Gossiping is a kind of conversation; but we certainly don’t philosophize when we gossip. When people in love of each other talk, they speak about how important they are for each other or praise each other. Such love-talk is not philosophy either.
Daemon: So are you saying that when we have any other kind of conversation – except gossip or love-talk – we philosophize?
Me: You did not get my point Daemon. Gossip or in love-talk is not philosophy, but then some other kinds of conversations – say complaining, or conversations involving communication of facts & information – don’t amount to philosophizing either.
Daemon: So you mean to say that except gossiping, love-talk, complaining, and conversations involving conveying of facts and information, having any other kind of conversation amounts to philosophizing?
Me: You still did not get my point, Daemon. The point is not to list down all kinds of conversations which amount to philosophizing and make another list of conversations which don’t. That would be impossible. We don’t even know how many kinds of conversations there are! Of all the people, you should know that!

 

Second Conversation: Einstein Bust at Stephens Library.

 

Daemon: Then how do you propose we draw the line between philosophical conversations and non-philosophical ones?
Me: We will need some criteria for that.
Daemon: What criteria?
Me: You see, criteria involve a set of conditions which any conversation must meet in order to be called philosophical. If a conversation meets all the conditions within the criteria, such conversation we shall call philosophical; and if it does not, we shall say that the conversation is not philosophical. So we can use the criteria as a tool; a tool to distinguish genuinely philosophical conversations from non-philosophical ones.
Daemon: Your ways of thinking are more ancient than me!
Me: Maybe. But that something is old does not mean it is wrong.
Daemon: I don’t know whether they are right or wrong. Just that these ways of thinking never lead to any result. People fool themselves into believing that they can have criteria for calling things by their right name. But then, either they never find such a criteria, or are mistaken about it.
Me: How can you say all this before even hearing me out?
Daemon: I know it from experience. People put up a pretense of being rational with all this talk about there being criteria and all that. But the truth is, by calling something by some name people just act out their whims. And it seems to me that you are doing the same. I think you call some conversations philosophical just because you like them, and label others non-philosophical for an equally irrational reason.
Me: I’m afraid you are being too judgmental too soon. Daemon.
Daemon: Am I? Do you have the criteria to distinguish philosophical conversations from non-philosophical ones?
Me: Yes. I do.
Daemon: Oh really? I would like to know it.
Me: Sure. But then you will have to abandon your skeptical self for a while and listen to me.
Daemon: I am not sure if that is desirable, but I will try.
Me: Okay then. So to give you the criteria I will first need to describe the various conditions that form part of criteria.
Daemon: Okay.
Me: And each condition has a basis. So our criteria for distinguishing philosophical conversations from non-philosophical ones will consist of many conditions, each having a separate basis.
Daemon: You are using too many words. What is a ‘basis’?
Me: Is it that difficult? I somehow get the feeling that you are deliberately acting stupid.
Daemon: You are the one here with all the knowledge. I am just trying to understand. Make your knowledge dawn on me, and go slow.
Me: I often get puzzled by your taunts, Daemon.
Daemon: Don’t get puzzled. Tell me what you mean by the ‘basis’ of a condition.
Me: A curious thing you are, Daemon. Okay. So let me explain it with an analogy.
Daemon: Yes, an analogy will do us good.
Me: Just as we wish to distinguish philosophical conversations from the rest, a person looking at a bunch of animals might wish to distinguish the large animals from the rest, right?
Daemon: Right.
Me: Then this person will need some criteria for identifying large animals, right?
Daemon: Okay.
Me: Now, this person’s criteria must comprise many conditions. Conditions that detail the circumstances in which an animal might be called a large animal. Okay?
Daemon: Yes.
Me: Let’s say her criteria include two conditions. And let’s say that the first condition is based on the body length of animals; and the second based on the body weight of animals. Thus, body length and body weight are the bases of the two respective conditions.
Daemon: Hold your horses. I lost you there again.
Me: Let me try to explain this using numbers. Let’s say that the first condition is: only animals with body length more than 1 meter may be called ‘large animals,’ but not the rest. Now because her first condition uses body length for making the decision whether an animal is large; it can be said that body length is the basis of her first condition, right?
Daemon: Sounds good.
Me: Likewise, let’s say that the second condition classifies only animals with body weight more than 10 Kilograms as large animals.
Daemon: Okay.
Me: So, In this case, because she’ll be using body weight as the basis for making the decision whether an animal is big or small, we can say that body weight is the basis of her second condition, right?
Daemon: Yes, of course.
Me: Do you understand what I mean by ‘basis’ now?
Daemon: I think I do.
Me: And now I hope you understand what I mean when I say that the criteria for identifying philosophical conversations might include multiple conditions, each having a different basis.
Daemon: Not so fast. I have a question.
Me: Shoot.
Daemon: How do you decide these numbers? Why say that animals more than 1 meters, and not 3 meters long must be classified as large animals. And why say that only animals which weigh more than 10 Kg and not those which weigh more than, say, 100 Kg must be labeled as large animals? Isn’t the choice of these numbers arbitrary?
Me: It is just an analogy, Daemon. Of course, in the actual world these numbers need to be justified. I just took arbitrary examples to illustrate what I mean by the ‘basis’ of a condition.
Daemon: Hmmm. So in actual world, a justification will be required?
Me: Yes. Shall we move ahead then?
Daemon: Wait, I have another question.
Me: Ask away!
Daemon: What if the two conditions give different results for a particular animal?
Me: What do you mean by different results?
Daemon: Listen, any ordinary peacock will likely have a length of more than 1 meter; so according to the first condition it should to be called a large animal, but then, the same animal is also likely to have body weight less than 10 Kilograms, and thus, as per the second condition it cannot be called a large animal. But the same peacock cannot simultaneously both be large and not be large! How do you apply your criteria on the peacock?
Me: Well, that depends on the person laying the criteria. She might decide that for an animal to be called large it is necessary that it gets classified as large by each of the individual conditions constituting the criteria; and thus the criteria can be said to contain many necessary conditions all of which must be fulfilled for the criteria to be fulfilled.
Daemon: So according to the criteria an ordinary peacock cannot be called a large animal?
Me: Yes. The peacock gets classified as large by the first condition but not the second. However, for the criteria to be fulfilled it is necessary that both the conditions are fulfilled; hence the peacock is not a large animal. An elephant however, is likely to be both more than 1 meter long and weigh more than 10 Kg, and thus can be classified as a large.
Daemon: But this is arbitrary. Why should fulfilling both criteria be necessary? Some people might as well consider the peacock to be large just because it looks large, irrespective of its less body weight. What authority does the person making the criteria have to decide that both large size and greater body weight are necessary for an animal to be classified as large?
Me: This is how definitions work, Daemon. People might be mistaken, but it is precisely the function of good definitions: they serve to correct our usage of words. Had such people – who call peacock a ‘large animal’ – known the definition, they would have realized their folly.
Daemon: But that is precisely my question. How do we know that the people who consider peacock to be large are wrong and the person with the definition is right?
Me: This is just an analogy, Daemon. Of course, in the real world, the person coming up with the definition must come up with further reasons justifying why necessary conditions are necessary and must be met. Now don’t stretch the analogy too far.
Daemon: Okay. But I have one more thing that I am not clear about.
Me: What’s not clear?
Daemon: How do you decide which conditions are relevant? This same person might have used, say, the average life-span of an animal as the basis for yet another condition, and might have included it in her criteria.
Me: You’ll have to explain your question a bit more for me to understand.
Daemon: Apart from these two conditions, let’s say this person includes a third condition. And this third condition, based on average animal age, might classify only animals with life longer than 30 years as large.
Me: Why would anyone do such a thing, Daemon?
Daemon: Why can one not do it?
Me: Because it is obvious that average life span has nothing to do with whether an animal is large or not. We all know that many large animals have a small life span, and many small animals might have long lives.
Daemon: Oh. Is it that obvious? Maybe it is. But then, will it always be obvious – even for criteria for new and un-examined objects – which conditions are relevant and which ones are not?
Me: It depends on the question under consideration, Daemon. Right now we are considering animals, and isn’t it obvious enough? Such hairsplitting is un-necessary.
Daemon: Hmmm. I will go with you for now if you say so. But I have one more question.
Me: You are an inquisitive being, Daemon. But I love your questions. Go ahead.
Daemon: Suppose while wandering in the woods one comes across a large pugmark. Now from the sheer size of the pugmark can one not deduce that the animal responsible for such pugmark must have been a large animal?
Me: Well. I guess one can.
Daemon: Doesn’t it pose a problem for our definition then?
Me: How so?
Daemon: See. According to our definition, both conditions, i.e. the condition about the size and the condition about the length, must be met for an animal to be classified as a large animal. But in this case, we could deduce that the animal was large without any information on the size or weight of the animal. Just the size and shape of the pugmark can be enough for us to conclude that the animal was big!
Me: Oh okay. I get your point now.
Daemon: Doesn’t my example render the definition null and void?
Me: Of course not! Your example might have shown that the definition is wanting, but it certainly did not show that it is wrong.
Daemon: How can you say that?
Me: Look Daemon. If I include yet another condition in the criteria – with pugmark shape and size as its basis – you will have your objection answered. And the third condition might be as follows: if the pugmark dimension is greater than 10 cm, then the animal is a ‘big animal’, else not.
Daemon: I do not see how it solves the problem. The definition is still wrong.
Me: Why wrong?
Daemon: Don’t you see it? Sharks and whales are definitely more than 1 meter long and weigh more than 10 Kg. So they fulfill the first two conditions within our criteria of ‘large animal’.
Me: OK.
Daemon: But then, they cannot be said to fulfill the third condition because they don’t even have feet, and hence can’t have pugmarks. And because all the three conditions must be met for the criteria to be fulfilled, whales and fishes cannot be said to meet the criteria. Even though they obviously are large animals!
Me: Oh. I see your point there.
Daemon: So the definition is wrong.
Me: No.  Perhaps I acted in haste and made a mistake.
Daemon: What mistake?
Me: Perhaps the third condition is not the same kind of condition as the first two. While the first two conditions are necessary conditions; the third one is a different kind of condition. The third one is a sufficient condition.
Daemon: What do you mean?
Me: See. Necessary conditions are ones which must all be met for the criteria to be fulfilled. But sufficient conditions work differently. If the criteria contain a sufficient condition and if we know that that sufficient condition is met; then we can consider the whole criteria fulfilled, even if we don’t know whether the necessary conditions are met.
Daemon: So, in your new definition, the first two conditions based on body length and weight are necessary conditions, and the third one based on pugmark size is a sufficient condition?
Me: Yes. So even if we don’t know the size and weight of the animal, if its pugmark is large we can conclude that the whole animal is large. And unlike necessary conditions, not all sufficient conditions need to be fulfilled for the criteria to be met. That solves your sharks & whales objection.
Daemon: But this is hardly satisfactory. It seems to me that you have been making changes in your criteria, and modifying the nature of the conditions merely to accommodate my objections. Every time I come up with an objection, you make a change.
Me: I agree that I have had to change the criteria that I initially presented. But then, it is terribly difficult to come up with correct criteria. In fact, it is the purpose of good philosophy to discover the correct criteria for calling objects by their right name.
Daemon: And so begins the sermon on Philosophy. And it comes from a person who until yesterday claimed he didn’t know what philosophy was. I wonder what motivations lie behind the veil of your self-proclaimed ignorance.
Me: Daemon, I see us digressing. My intentions are not the issue here. Neither is it our purpose to discuss the logic of definitions. I understand that I might have made some mistakes in presenting the analogy. But I presented it only to define the terms I shall be using. Now don’t take the analogy too far. We must get back to the issue that we were discussing.
Daemon: Of course. You claim to have discovered the criteria to distinguish philosophical conversations from non-philosophical ones. I want to know that.
Me: I will tell you. But I can only do that if you agree to hold back the barrage of your endless comments, objections, and taunts.
Daemon: I won’t interject if you insist. Give me your criteria.
Me: Okay. So here it is. For a conversation to be philosophical, three conditions must be met.
Daemon: Three necessary conditions?
Me: Yes. All of them are necessary conditions. Each must be met for the criteria to be fulfilled. And these three conditions, while individually necessary, are jointly sufficient.
Daemon: What do you mean by jointly sufficient?
Me: It means that meeting of these three necessary conditions by a conversation is sufficient for us to call that conversation philosophical.
Daemon: I see.
Me: The basis of first condition is the number of people participating in the conversation. The basis of second condition is the subject matter of the conversation; and the basis of third condition is whether the interlocutors hold positions.
Daemon: You’ll have to explain more for it to make sense.
Me: Of course. The first condition – which is based on the number of people participating in a conversation – requires that philosophical conversations involve no more than two people. The second condition – which is based on the subject matter of the conversation – requires that philosophical conversation be about ideas, not about events or people. And the third condition requires that for a conversation to be philosophical, the people involved in the conversation hold no particular position.
Daemon: That’s a whole load of crap!
Me: You promised to keep your taunts at hold.
Daemon: It’s not a taunt. It’s the truth. What you say is ridiculous. To accept it would be to accept the gibberish of a confused mind.
Me: I prefer your objections to your judgments, Daemon.
Daemon: You will have my objections too. To begin with, what reasons do you have to assert that there cannot be more than two people in a philosophical conversation?
Me: There’s a very practical reason, Daemon. When two people talk, both of them get ample time to express their views. When there are more people, every person gets lesser time.
Daemon: Even if more people talk, each person can still be given enough time, just that it will make the conversation longer; and that should be no big deal.
Me: But then, there are other considerations too. In a conversation between two people only one relation is involved: the one between the two people talking. If a conversation involves three people, each person must take care of her relation with the other two; and in a conversation between four people, every person must deal with three relations. The more the number of relations involved, the more restrictive a conversation becomes.
Daemon: I do not understand.
Me: Look. If a person talks to a close friend, such a talk might be quite open and free. They might even discuss intimate issues, personal problems etc.  However, if you add, let’s say, their school teacher in the conversation, they might not feel comfortable talking about some things. And if you also add their parents to the conversation, they might feel further constrained and talk even less. Philosophy involves a free discussion of ideas, which is best had in a conversation between two people.
Daemon: This sounds plausible only because you chose a convenient example. What about a bunch of friends? Such restrictions creep in only when people who are otherwise not comfortable with each other converse. A group of friends might have an open and free discussion irrespective of the number of friends present. And if you have a person talk to someone she’s not comfortable with, an open and free conversation might not be possible even if there are only two people involved. It is not the number of people in a conversation, but rather the level of comfort between interlocutors which matters.
Me: It is not only about comfort, Daemon. When two people talk, there is minimal pretense. When the numbers increase, everyone begins to advertise themselves to the others. When many people talk, they begin to think more and more about what others will think of them when they speak; and this stops them from expressing their ideas freely and openly. And when there are too many people, it becomes more of showmanship and less of a conversation.
Daemon: That too, is hardly convincing. Pretentious people pretend no matter how many participate in the conversation. The real issue here is not the number of people talking, but rather the character of people talking.
Me: We are discussing a necessary condition here, Daemon; not a sufficient one. I do not say that any conversation involving two people must be a philosophical conversation; but that philosophical conversations must involve two people. If two people talk, it does not guarantee that their talk must be philosophical; the other necessary conditions must be met too.
Daemon: My contention is that it is not even necessary. And even if your arguments were sound, which they are not, they’d only prove that a philosophical conversation is best had between two people, not that they happen between two, and only two people. Also, I cannot accept your conclusion because there are many counter-examples to what you say.
Me: What counterexamples?
Daemon: I agreed with you yesterday that some philosophers only had conversations with others in the name of philosophy. But they did not restrict their conversations to just one other guy. They talked to a lot of people at the same time. So, if their conversations are to be called philosophical, you cannot be right. Hence, either you must consider the conversations of past great philosophers to be non-philosophical, or give up your condition.
Me: It would certainly be wrong to call their conversations non-philosophical. But maybe the essential, philosophical part of their conversations was their spirited inquiry with just one interlocutor, and not many.
Daemon: Now you are just imposing interpretations; and the possibilities of interpretation can be many. However, your first condition is still the least ridiculous of the rest. What is that bit about philosophical conversations being about ideas, and not about events or people?
Me: That’s a very important bit, Daemon. Philosophical conversations are discussions on ideas.
Daemon: What do you mean by discussion on ideas?
Me: Look Daemon, when I think of what is it that I do when I talk to others; I realize that I often just discuss people, i.e. their personal tastes & preferences, their romantic interests, dispositions, political, affiliations, likes, dislikes, their weaknesses etc.
Daemon: Yes. That is gossip. I know very well that you goss.
Me: And at other times, I talk about events: like someone’s marriage, some event from college or classroom, about what I did last evening, or about something that happened in my life. That is discussing events.
Daemon: Okay.
Me: When we are discussing people or events, we are not discussing ideas.
Daemon: Don’t beat around the bush. I asked you what ‘discussing ideas’ is, and you are telling me what ‘discussing ideas’ is not.
Me: I do not see why this fails to satisfy you. If there are only three kinds of discussions –discussions on people, events, and ideas – and if we can separate discussions on people and discussions on events, we can distinguish discussions on ideas too, can’t we? Discussions on ideas are the discussions that get left behind once you take away discussions of the other two kinds.
Daemon: I am not sure if I could agree that there are only three kinds of discussions. But even if I did, I am not sure if it would be as easy to identify different kinds of discussions and distinguish them from each others as you make it sound.
Me: What is the difficulty?
Daemon: Tell me, do you know the story of Sisyphus?
Me: What about Sisyphus?
Daemon: The story of Sisyphus being cursed by the Gods to eternally roll a stone up a mountain all day long, only to let it roll down in the evening, or do you not?
Me: Yes, I do.
Daemon: If two people discuss Sisyphus and his fate, would they be discussing people?
Me: I don’t know. They might talk about Sisyphus’s person, i.e. his personal history, his emotions, his fury towards the Gods, or pity him; in which case it’ll be a discussion on people. Or they might talk about the idea of fate and consider Sisyphus as just an example of the meaninglessness of life or the cruelty of fate, in which case it’ll be a discussion on ideas. I’ll have to listen to the conversation to decide.
Daemon: Okay, and if two people discuss the event of Lord Krishna imparting divine knowledge to the warrior Arjuna on the battlefield of the Mahabharata, would that be a discussion on events?
Me: I cannot decide just like that Daemon. If these people discuss the theatrics of Lord Krishna’s instruction, perhaps that’ll be a discussion on events; but if they discuss the existence or characteristics of the knowledge itself, it’ll be a discussion on ideas. Again, I’ll have to listen to the conversations to be able to decide.
Daemon: How will you decide upon listening to them? Do you possess some divine intuition that helps you pass such a judgment?
Me: Of course not. I never claimed that.
Daemon: So, just like your criteria to distinguish philosophical conversations from non-philosophical ones, won’t you need another set of criteria to identify discussions on people and yet another set to identify discussions on events?
Me: Hmmm. Yes, I guess.
Daemon: Do you have such criteria?
Me: I guess I don’t have it.
Daemon: You said that it is a necessary condition within your criteria that philosophical conversations must be discussions on ideas. But you admit of being unable to single out either discussions on people or discussions on events because you don’t possess the relevant criteria; and hence, by your own argument, you must admit of being unable to single out discussions on ideas. If you can’t individuate discussions about ideas, how can you individuate philosophical conversations from the rest? Your criteria for distinguishing philosophical conversations is incomplete, it stands in want of yet another criteria for distinguishing discussions about ideas.
Me: Hmmm. I did not realize it earlier.
Daemon: So you agree that you do not possess the complete criteria to distinguish philosophical conversations from the rest?
Me: Yes, I do. But the fact that I do not have it does not mean that it can’t be found out. Why don’t we discuss it now and find out. I am sure if we work together, we will build the criteria.
Daemon: Your confidence amuses me. But I am in no mood of futile labor.
Me: Why futile?
Daemon: Look, if finding the criteria for philosophical conversations requires us to find the criteria for discussions on ideas, do we know that finding the criteria for discussions on ideas won’t lead us again into search of yet more criteria? I guess we don’t. We could go on forever searching for criteria without reaching anywhere. And I have no appetite for such labor. I’d rather go sleep.
Me: That’s just empty speculation, Daemon. Why should you think that?
Daemon: It’s not empty speculation. I speak from experience. I have never seen anyone come up with answers. No-one ever gets to the right criteria for calling things by their name. The discussion just goes on and on, endlessly.
Me: Daemon, that something hasn’t happened in the past does not mean it won’t happen in the future.
Daemon: There is good reason why it won’t happen in the future too. It is like the problem of explaining the meaning of something to a skeptic. If the person is sufficiently skeptical, you can never tell her the meaning of anything.
Me: How so?
Daemon: Suppose someone asks you what A means, and you say that the A means B. Now, this person might further ask for the meaning of B. If then, you reply that B means C, you might meet the same question again, and you’ll have to say something like C means D. D leads to E, E leads to F and so on. If one is sufficiently inquisitive, this process could go on forever.
Me: Maybe. But why do you think this problem with spelling out meanings is relevant to the problem of laying down criteria?
Daemon: Because just like spelling out the meaning of one word leads us to spelling out the meaning of another, laying down one set of criteria requires us to lay down another.
Me: Okay, I get your objection now. I need to think more before I say something about it.
Daemon: Think you must. But about your third condition – the point about people involved in a philosophical conversation having no particular position – are you serious?
Me: What makes you think I am not?
Daemon: People who hold no position in a debate are wranglers. You are not saying that all philosophizing is mere wrangling, are you?
Me: Well. Philosophizing is not mere wrangling; it is a couple of people wrangling about ideas.
Daemon: You can’t just run away with such bizarre statements.
Me: Of course. Interlocutors in a genuinely philosophical conversation cannot commit themselves to one particular position.
Daemon: How could that be? Philosophical conversations are debates, and a debate is not even possible without people taking up opposing positions?
Me: Who said that philosophical conversations are debates?
Daemon: It is a common thing to know about philosophy and philosophers. They debate and argue.
Me: But lawyers debate a lot as well. Prosecution attorneys try to persuade us that the accused is guilty and defense attorneys attempt to convince us that the accused is not guilty. A lot many debates happen in courtrooms. But lawyers can’t be said to philosophize when they debate.
Daemon: Maybe not all who debate are philosophers. But in every philosophical conversation one party essentially tries to persuade the other of its position. And if, as you say, parties to a philosophical conversation don’t even have a position, how can they ever persuade the other?
Me: No! How could you, of all the people, say that? Persuasion not the purpose of philosophy, nor of philosophical conversations!
Daemon: Are you saying that philosophical conversations have no purpose at all?
Me: No. Philosophical conversations are quite purposeful. They revolve around one important question or the other. I never said that philosophical conversations have no purpose.
Daemon: Then what is the purpose?
Me: Well. Philosophical conversations do not serve such usual purposes that other conversations do. They are not aimed at entertainment, not meant to persuade someone or extract information. They are not aimed at inspiring or motivating people either.
Daemon: You are telling me what the purpose of philosophical conversation is not while I asked you what the purpose of a philosophical conversation is!
Me: Daemon, how can I answer while you forbid me from using the word?
Daemon: What word?
Me: Truth.
Daemon: Ah!
Me: Yes. Truth is the aim, the purpose of all philosophical conversations.
Daemon: What could this possibly mean? Whenever you run out of answers you bring such fantastical notions.
Me: It’s not fantastical, but it certainly is elusive. It’s like happiness. Everyone seeks it, but it’s never found, never understood, never known, and never discovered. And isn’t that beautiful? Philosophical conversations aim at the Truth. And because it is never found, philosophical conversations go on and on.
Daemon: Until yesterday you were claiming to have seen the Truth, and today you say that because it is never found, conversations keep going. You contradict yourself.
Me: No. People sometimes catch a glimpse of the Truth, so do I. With a glimpse of the Truth, the aim of a philosophical conversation is achieved, and the conversation comes to an end. But then, the Truth is never static, it changes, and philosophical conversations begin again. No-one ever sees the Truth in its entirety, we just catch a glimpse. And any number of sightings is insufficient, for the Truth changes constantly. The investigation of Truth is an eternally relevant trade.
Demon: I wish you gave me your argument and not your rhetoric.
Me: What do you want an argument for?
Daemon: You must give me an argument for why you believe  an interlocutor in a philosophical conversation cannot have a position.
Me: If you want an argument, I will give you an argument. But you will have to grant me that finding the Truth is the purpose of all philosophical conversations.
Daemon: I agree to that for now if you insist.
Me: Truth is the purpose of a philosophical conversation. Hence, once the Truth is achieved the conversation stops. This should be obvious, because if the aim of an activity is achieved, there is no point continuing the activity.
Daemon: I could agree to that.
Me: This means that till the conversation goes on, the interlocutors don’t know the Truth.
Daemon: Why?
Me: Truth is the aim of a philosophical conversation, so once the Truth is known, the conversations stop; but the conversations go on until Truth remains unknown. Truth is the intended outcome of a philosophical conversation, not its point of beginning. From this, it follows that there cannot be a philosophical conversation in which the interlocutors already know the truth; rather, through a conversation, they seek the Truth. And hence, interlocutors in a philosophical conversation do not know the truth.
Daemon: That’s a lot of verbal jugglery, but I get your point.
Me: Then, there you have the argument: Interlocutors in a philosophical conversation do not know the truth, hence they have no positions.
Daemon: That’s not obvious to me at all!
Me: What is the difficulty?
Daemon: From the fact that interlocutors do not know the truth how does it follow that they do not have any positions?
Me: How can someone hold a position which is not known to be true? And as we established earlier, if a person knows the Truth she cannot be an interlocutor in a philosophical conversation.
Daemon: I don’t know whether I should call you naïve or stupid for believing that we hold positions only when we know them to be true. Look at your own example of the attorneys. The Attorneys don’t know the Truth, yet they hold positions in the court!
Me: I am neither naïve nor stupid. And I did not expect you to be fooled by the similar mannerisms of philosophers and lawyers, Daemon.
Daemon: What do you mean?
Me: The breed of the philosopher is very different from that of the lawyer. They might use similar methods, but their aims and their priorities are very different. Truth is the aim of the philosopher, payment from her client is the aim of the lawyer. Philosophers get into philosophical conversations because they seek the Truth; lawyers argue for particular positions in court so that they might get paid by their clients. Philosophers won’t get into such conversations that lead them away from the Truth; lawyers won’t defend clients who don’t pay them.
Daemon: I am not sure if this understanding of lawyers is correct. Lawyers do not always work for money; they fight cases for prestige or for the sake of personal satisfaction.
Me: That’s not my point. My point is that a lawyer qua lawyer does not aim for the Truth; rather, aims at some other incentive. But a philosopher qua philosopher aims at the Truth and not anything else.
Daemon: Haha. That’s funny.
Me: What’s so funny here?
Daemon: I got reminded of that joke someone told me.
Me: What joke?
Daemon: It goes: You can fool people into believing you’re a philosopher by using ‘qua’ a lot when you speak.
Me: That was a terrible joke, Daemon. And we are digressing again.
Daemon: Okay, let’s get back. You were making a point about lawyers and philosophers.
Me: Lawyers take up positions that they do not know to be true because they do not aim at the Truth, but philosophers cannot take up a position that they do not know to be true because seeking the Truth is their very aim, their very enterprise. Someone who settles with a position that she does not know to be true cannot be a philosopher, because philosophers settle for nothing but the Truth. Our discussion is about philosophers, not lawyers; and hence you must agree that we cannot take up a position which is not true.
Daemon: I am feeling a bit worn out now and can’t concentrate. Could run through your whole argument again?
Me: Sure. In a philosophical conversation, none of the interlocutors know the Truth. Only when one knows the Truth can one take up a position; and hence interlocutors in a philosophical conversation cannot have a position.
Daemon: Your argument sounds okay, but I’m not sure if it’s sound.
Me: What bothers you?
Daemon: You explained the differences between philosophers and lawyers; but how do you explain the similarities? We do know that philosophers debate each other as if they were lawyers. How will you explain the fact that philosophers debate so often? A debate can only happen if people hold differing positions; and if philosophers can’t hold positions, how could a debate between philosophers be even possible?
Me: I would say that philosophers assume ‘pretend-positions’ only to test out ideas.
Daemon: What do you mean by ‘pretend-positions’?
Me: Pretend-positions are positions philosophers assume and argue for; but they do so only to test whether such positions stand the strong scrutiny any Truth must pass through. And they keep their pretend-positions only insofar as they are not hit down by the force of a better argument. Pretend-positions’are only possible candidates for the Truth, not Truths themselves. A person who assumes a position without caring whether it was true is not a philosopher, but some sophisticated kind of lawyer.
Daemon: How can you be so sure? How can you be sure that the positions philosophers hold must be pretend-positions and not their actual positions?
Me: It follows from the very nature of the philosopher. What makes a philosopher is that she seeks the truth, not know it. What makes a philosopher is the uncertainty they create, not the certainty they possess. They can’t hold positions which they don’t know to be true. And if they get persuaded of the Truth of some position, they do not remain philosophers any longer.
Daemon: What do they become then?
Me: They become experts, experts of the domain within which they discover the Truth.
Daemon: We started off discussing the conditions that must be met for a conversation to be considered philosophical; and the last I remember, we were discussing your third condition. I don’t know where we stand now; perhaps we’ve drifted a lot.
Me: No we haven’t. What do you think of the third condition?
Daemon: I feel that it is nothing but a bundle of fancy words & concepts which nevertheless conveys just the simple, or should I say hackneyed notion that interlocutors in a philosophical conversation must not be dogmatic about their positions. And I guess it would be reasonable to accept it.
Me: And what do you think of my criteria, Daemon? I need to begin writing these conversations.
Daemon: It is obviously wanting. You don’t have convincing reasons why there must be only two parties to a philosophical discussion; you don’t know what a discussion about ideas could possibly mean, and there have been many conversations that are obviously philosophical but won’t pass your criteria. But then, why should absence of the right criteria hold you back from writing these conversations?
Me: Well, this blog will have philosophical conversations, and if I don’t have the criteria for what counts as a philosophical conversation, how could I begin this blog?
Daemon: Do what you want to, and don’t deceive yourself into believing that your actions must pass the scrutiny of reason. Reason never leads to results, and every action is eventually motivated by an irrational desire. If you wait for the right justifications to act, either you’ll never find them, or will be mistaken about them.
Me: I don’t believe what you say is right. But, for now I am tempted to keep your advice.
Daemon: And one more thing, don’t write such long pieces. Conversations should be short.
Me: Why should philosophical conversations be short?
Daemon: Practical reasons. They should be short else people will get tired and fall asleep!
Me: The pursuit of Truth should go on for as long as it should.
Daemon: I leave now. I shall meet you again tomorrow.

***

The Daemon left, I did too.

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016

Join the Conversation