A plea for more “conversation”: On being open to reasonable dialogue

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At a time when there is understandably considerable skepticism about the power of reason to adjudicate between competing cultural and social perspectives and values, the philosopher Anthony Laden’s portrait of social reasoning is quite promising. According to Laden, we need a new picture of reasoning if we are to appreciate the role reasoning plays in living together. In this picture, reasoning emerges as a form of conversation which is ongoing. It is not defined by or determined by its aim or end, namely some form of agreement, consensus, persuasive effect, result or even entertainment. 

Consider the differences between the norms that govern us in the context of judicial reasoning or public debate, and the norms that govern a casual conversation. Or consider the rhetorical virtues required when I am writing an op-ed as opposed to the skills required for genuine conversations. Conversation involves speaking with others, not to them. It is not a form of one-way communication. In a conversation, the participants must be attuned to one another, listening without the need for premature closure or judgment. When I lecture as some sort of expert to an academic audience of peers, I am hoping to speak with a voice of authority; I am expecting that the audience will take what I say as if it contains some measure of truth or validity — perhaps even making it difficult for them to actually disagree, assuming I have represented my subject as truthfully as I can. I think about my audience, yes, but the goal may not be to hear what they say as much as to communicate in a persuasive, clear and informative way a position about which I have confidence. Yes, I must respond to the questions that are raised, but more often the point of my response is to clarify or qualify or reassert what I am trying to convey — to shore up my talk for the next one.  

In marked contrast, when I am in a conversation, I may be trying to get to know someone, to understand where they are coming from, to hear what they are saying. I need to care about how they take in what I am saying, what impact it has on them, whether my words and gestures move them to respond one way or another. I must also be open to – even vulnerable to – being moved by what they say to me. To be not only moved to figure out a more effective way of saying what I have tried to say, to be more clear or persuasive, but also moved to alter my position, to be open to the possibility that the foundations of my point of view may be shaken and that I may be transformed in some way. If I am primarily concerned with my rhetorical strategies, or my evidence, I might feel I have failed if I change my mind in response to my audience. Yet, in a genuine conversation it would be virtuous to be open to such a change. I may be clear about my deeply held principles and convictions, and yet in a true conversation, I would understand those principles as commitments rather than certainties. In being attuned in this way, in regarding my deeply-held principles as commitments rather than certainties, I am more likely to be able to understand the positions of my interlocutors as equally reasonable even when they are different from my own. I may not alter my commitments, but I will remain open to more conversation. 

There is much more to be said about the norms that differentiate social reasoning from other forms, but the point of my sharing these ideas is the following. I am wondering whether we in the Williams community might pour more energy, and even more of our speaker money, into genuine conversations rather than high profile lectures. We spend at least $1 million a year on speakers, perhaps more. Many of them are valuable, and we can and should continue to have them, but I urge us to think creatively about myriad venues in which we can learn from and converse with outside guests and one another outside of the classroom, or even outside the op-ed page. Claiming Williams is certainly one tradition in which we attempt to do this. But I still want to ask: When was the last time you actually changed your mind in conversation with another? When was the last time you came to see someone who disagreed with you as equally reasonable even when you did not change your mind? I am not suggesting here that we must be relativists, or that there are convictions that one might never want to alter, but rather that we might be more in touch with the fact that there may be strong commitments underlying our convictions, and that our reasoning is often built upon those. Our convictions are not, for all that, unreasonable, but neither would it necessarily be irrational for them to change.  

Jana Sawicki, chair of philosophy and Morris Professor of Rhetoric, has been at the College since 1991.