A note on conversation

One good thing about France is the bookshops. Proper bookshops, filled with proper books — books that are about stuff, shelves of philosophy and science and all kinds of other things (there are reasons that French bookshops are good and British bookshops not so good, but I won’t go into these at the moment). So I made use of last week’s holiday in France to indulge in a buying frenzy — paperback editions are also reasonably priced — and to get hold of a number of books about philosophy, Chinese studies and so on. It’s good to be giving my French a work-out, and I like the style of French sinology, which tends to be more speculative than Anglo-American traditions.

Anyway, amongst the books that I came away with was Jean François Billeter’s Notes sur Tchouang-tseu et la Philosophie or “Notes on Zhuangzi and Philosophy”, a reflection on a colloquium that took place in 2009 in Taiwan; and I thought that it was worth sharing the following small extract. The extract comes from a footnote, because everybody knows that the best bits in books are to be found in footnotes. The footnote that caught my eye is about conversation.

Comme j’avais fait une remarque sur cette importance de la conversation durant le colloque, un collègue allemand m’a demandé pourquoi j’écrivais. Il y a trois raisons, lui ai-je répondu: parce que l’écriture m’oblige à clarifier ma pensée, qu’elle permet de la conserver pour un usage futur et qu’elle fournit une base à la conversation.

Here’s a rough translation into English.

When I made a remark during the colloquium about the importance of conversation, a German colleague asked me why it was that I wrote. There are three reasons, I replied: because writing forces me to clarify my thinking; because it allows me to keep my thinking for future use; and because it forms a basis for conversation.

I like this idea a great deal. I have often said that one of the things that I want most out of life is to have interesting conversations. And this is one reason why I, too, write—it initiates interesting conversations. The writing is not an end-point, but instead a part of a broader process of conversation with others.

This is not to say that I think the essence of life lies in chattiness. I’m not interested in the exchange of information for its own sake. Instead, my concern with interesting conversations is more about developing a certain depth of relationship—with others and with the many things that make up the shared world. Conversation, you could say, is engagement, alongside others, with the world. Or this, at least, seems to me to be the essence of conversation at its best. And whilst the exchange of information may be a part of this, it is not the whole of it. All kinds of other things might be going on as well in a good conversation (sharing perplexity, for example, which is not the same as sharing information). In other words, it might be possible to have some very rich conversations—like Marco Polo and the Kublai Khan in Calvino’s Invisible Cities—without speaking a single word…

 

Comments

Christopher Willmot
Reply

Heidegger reckoned chattiness was a sign of inauthentic being. I think its being sociable. Chatting is two people inspiring support in one another. Might conversation be two aware individuals inspiring meaning in one another?

Will
Reply

With Heidegger, it was probably for the best… there are other philosophers I’d rather chat with. But I agree —and I think that you are probably right that there is a value to (timely!) chattiness as well.

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