Dialogue is one of the most common things we do. When I say dialogue it is not just mere conversation or speaking between some people, I mean some conversation where people have some of their beliefs on the line and they are arguing for them, or arguing against some other person’s beliefs. I also do not mean bullshitting or “bull sessions” as Harry Frankfurt describes, where there is common knowledge the discussion is merely hypothetical. When people engage in some dialogue, they are supposed to be equals and engaged in their own beliefs, in an effort to change minds, discover truth, etc.
In keeping that assumption of equality, this rules out the relationship of teacher and student. A teacher can engage in a dialogue with their students, while it is assumed that the teacher knows the answer or at least can arrive at the desired goal or pedagogical lesson. This teacher student relation does not have to be literal, as in high school, but could be between two peers where the shared assumption is that one is explaining something to the other, the dialogue is educational.
The main concern I have with dialogue and equality is in civic discussions. Political discussion is one of the things that we love to engage in, so much so even Kant wrote an essay about how to have proper discussions that start with some world event and then transition to some political or philosophical discussion. When the dialogue is sincere, it represents multiple individuals who want to discuss their beliefs and have their minds changed or change the minds of others. There is a hope that some epistemic truth is obtained out of this discussion.
The issue with dialogue is sometimes it is not done in good faith and not engaged in as equals. I will argue that there are multiple ways we can understand the different ways we can deviate from the ideal and respectful dialogue. I will conclude with what I think is the depressing aspect about dialogue, so much so that dialogue becomes impossible and paradoxical sometimes.
There are two types of dialogue in philosophy that I think represent two of the ideals of dialogue. Many philosophical traditions have similar conversational-like beginnings, in the West we have Socrates as seen through Plato’s dialogues. This is what came to be known as the Socratic dialogue itself.
What I believe is so respectful about the Socratic dialogue is that it is not presumed that Socrates knows the answers to these questions. Socrates might start out the dialogue by asking some Greek figure what they think about some topic, asking them “What is X?”. Then, Socrates and the (un)lucky peer would take that answer and run with it. The other person will try and defend their view, elaborate, clarify, etc., while Socrates presses on and draws inferences and implications of the other’s previous answers. Socrates might also instead offer his own account of what something is. No matter the result, it is not assumed that Socrates is going to be trying to manipulate someone into believing something, despite the cries of the local government.
The other ideal seems to be the more academic sense that we are used to. Up front, the philosopher tells you what they are going to argue for. This is the opposite of Socrates, since Socrates might not have known where this conversation would have ended. The academic is being honest with you, they are telling you to be on guard and look for how to get to that end result. When Kant is writing in the Prolegomena that he was going to prove synthetic a priori judgements, or that his position of transcendental idealism is an entirely new one that none of philosophy has seen, then he is being straight with you.
There is another way of having dialogue, as outlined by this article on deep canvassing. Deep canvassing is where people go door to door to canvass, but they try to put the person’s beliefs and feelings and concerns at first.
An example of this would be some progressives go to the door of some conservative. They ask this conservative what they are concerned about politically, let’s say they go with health care. The deep canvasser has a standard set of ways to talk to people and has studied on these popular political issues prior to this conversation, no doubt. Through the course of the conversation, they try to hear out the person while at the same time trying to show what their belief’s do in reality. If someone is against Obamacare, one of the deep canvasser’s might show them some interview of a person who is alive because Obamacare was the only insurance they could get. Now the person has to make some decision, they have to think about their belief’s in health care and their supposed belief that they do not want to harm anyone.
The issue I have with this is that it is procedural and treats the person almost as if they are a child, unable to reach the logical implications of their beliefs on their own or investigate. Granted, it is fairly good a way of showing people about epistemic inconsistency, but it is not equal I think.
Take this other example. Say Ezra Klein is going door to door, he knows practically all there is to know about health care in America and even abroad. He knows all the figures and arguments for and against off the top of his head. Ezra goes door to door to conservatives and asks them these questions, innocently. No matter what the person says, Ezra can lead them into inconsistency in some way, to show them how their beliefs are inconsistent about harming people or how they want to save more money on health care.
This person did not come to be lectured by Ezra, in a teacher student way. Even more so, this way of deep canvassing hinges on psychological habits of humans. The deep canvasser knows people that think A probably think B, that if they think A when you say X they are going to say C. Anyone experienced enough as Ezra is in health care for example, could lead people to the desired results of the conversation.
This is what I believe is wrong about this conversation, is you come in seemingly neutral, but you have some desired argument you are trying to make. Socrates did not know what someone was going to say or where the argument was going to end up. Similarly, the academic makes the argument, but they tell you what they are going to do and how they are going to do it (another point is that when you read an academic paper you are there to learn in some sense, which is different than a dialogue of equals). Ezra the deep canvasser will try to lead you to some desired result, to show some inconsistency in your thinking that you did not even ask for.
Back in ancient Greece, we hear gripes and moans about the ways sophists use dialogues. Here is Arendt discussing this
Plato, in his famous fight against the ancient Sophists, discovered that their “universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments” (Phaedrus 261) had nothing to do with truth but aimed at opinions which by their very nature are changing, and which are valid only “at the time of the agreement and as long as the agreement lasts” (Theaetetus 172). He also discovered the very insecure position of truth in the world, for from “opinions comes persuasion and not from truth” (Phaedrus 260). The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality. In other words, one destroyed the dignity of human thought whereas the others destroy the dignity of human action. The old manipulators of logic were the concern of the philosopher, whereas the modern manipulators of facts stand in the way of the historian. For history itself is destroyed, and its comprehensibility-based upon the fact that it is enacted by men and there- fore can be understood by men-is in danger, whenever facts are no longer held to be part and parcel of the past and present world, and are misused to prove this or that opinion.
In Arendt’s discussion of the sophist (the lawyer or debater today), the sophist tries to win over an opinion. We see this in the courts. A criminal defense lawyer might try and make an argument that there is not enough evidence or reasons to convict their client. The defense lawyer may even know that their client did it, while still arguing that they are innocent.
We even have organized debates where the goal is not truth, but to “win”, as idiotic as that sounds it is sadly real. One side of the debate will choose some topic and try and poke at minor flaws in reasoning as ways to discount their entire view.
This sophistry is ever so popular in philosophy still. We see this in how people have for centuries now interpreted Kant’s philosophy in whatever way they deem fit. The phenomenalist will try to tell us Kant is just like the good bishop Berkeley. They pick out a few passages to show this, it might even convince a few people. After all, Kant says things that seem similar to phenomenalists.
The issue with sophistry is that it is not lasting, as Arendt says, the enchanting arguments are ‘valid only “only at the time of the agreement and as long as the agreement lasts”’. In Kantian scholarship, as long as people are willing to just agree that Kant is a phenomenalist the agreement lasts. However, someone can easily go and look elsewhere in the text to say that this is not the whole picture. This is what Allison does, and particularly Allais who gives seven damning reasons to discredit this sophist-like argument.
The issue with sophists in politics is that they might convince someone for a moment, but one could easily go home, hop on the internet, and find counter arguments, just as easy it is to read Kant’s own statements in his book about why he is not a phenomenalist. The sophist tries to win an argument, while sacrificing the truth, just for a momentary glory in some battle of wit and words. The sophist does not aim for truth or epistemic understanding about the nature or morality, just to feel more intelligent for a period of time.
Oliver Traldi writes of how the left in America has become a guild hall. The intro sums it up to a decent degree.
Three years after I took my bachelor’s degree in classics into what was at that point the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, many of my college classmates joined the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. A central criticism of Occupy was that it had unclear goals. As a response, one of my classmates drew a diagram. It had something like forty circles with words and phrases in them—“white supremacy, “the carceral state,” “environmental collapse,” things like that—and arrows connecting them. This is what it’s about, the image was meant to say. All of this. And I think it also meant: To understand what it’s about, you have to understand all of this.
The point being that, the left (maybe not just the left, but generally) has such complicated ways of explaining their beliefs that they might just resort to saying “to understand X you need to read A, B, … Z”. This might be acceptable for some academic to tell someone, or someone to say as a recommendation for a reading list, but it is not dialogue, it is anti-dialogue.
This is not to say that these things are not complex in reality. If you want to understand fascism, you might need to understand a bit about its origins, propaganda, capitalism, religion, racism, sexism, etc. The way a fascist regime manifests itself to people might not be obvious. But to say that you need to read these 7 papers on capitalism, Das Kapital, 4 papers on sexism, feminism, and transgender, etc., this is not dialogue. What you are saying is that “you are not qualified to discuss this topic with me until you are on the same level of well-readness”.
I am not sure if this would count as a paradox, but here goes.
Even if we try to strive towards the academic or Socratic method of dialogue, someone’s world-view could be very different than ours. When I say world-view, I mean the fundamental ways they think the world works, that is, science, epistemology, metaphysics, morality, etc. This does not need to be something only found in academia, where some 80 year old philosopher will probably never change their fundamental views after so long a life of studying. There are also what Justin E.H. Smith calls “peasant metaphysics”.
Smith mentions metaphysics in a newsletter. This piece is centered around global encounters between cultures, the mind-body problem, and what he coins peasant metaphysics, which might be a reference to “folk psychology”. Anyway, this comes up in discussion about how while dreaming or hallucinating, peasant’s or people unaware of the advances of thinking or science might think that their soul literally leaves them. The German who dreams of being in France might think their soul went for a quick journey through time and space to Paris for a baguette.
Now, the word peasant is not meant to be derogative I believe, in that someone is stupid, it is merely being a product of the times. Depending on what year you were born in America, you may just take it as a fact of life that there is no afterlife or God, which does not bother you. On the flip side, you may have been born in some other decade where atheists were little to none, it was assumed there was some divine being.
Convincing someone of something so fundamental being different or not true at all is a hefty cognitive task. We see how hard it is to convince people sometimes that what they believe, a one-off belief we can call it. Even more so, it is harder to show that something someone did was immoral, even internal to their own conception of morality. For example,
As someone best characterized as center left, I’m far more concerned with the potential harm of the left fringe than the right. Maybe I’m expecting too much. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. But I fear social justice ideology is far more insidious than flagrant racists. For example
Notice how this is within rising fascism, where, at the time of writing, about 200,000 Americans have died and many more harmed by the rising fascism in America. It seems absurd to me that one would choose Nazi’s in power over the left who might tell them someone they did was immoral. One should not need to be Jesus Christ to merely tell someone “hey, that is pretty selfish”. Thankfully, someone responded.
Now even more so than that, it is much harder to convince someone that there fundamental beliefs and world-view are wrong in some way. It is one thing for Kantians to discuss and criticize about the Critique of Pure Reason, it is another to criticize or have a dialogue with the QAnon follower.
The QAnon conspiracy is as an ideology in some sense. We can see comparisons to it to libertarianism, the US flavor that is. However, I would like to go with what was said in PhilosophyTube, that it is more of a “vibe”. The difference between the Kantian metaphysics and the peasant metaphysics or conspiracy theory of QAnon, is that there seems to be willingness internally to those Kantians to critique themselves and there is a drive for consistency and truth. However, really only the first method of Socratic or academic dialogue is the way to change the Kantian.
To change the QAnon follower’s mind, I do not think it is respectful to deep canvass them, use sophistry, or go the guild hall route. Deep canvassing might work, but I think it is still disrespectful. Sophistry probably won’t work, just like sophistry does not work on the well-read Kantian scholar. Similarly, the guild hall method won’t even work because the QAnon follower might just retort “here are these 30 videos and 80 articles to read”. It seems the only path left is the philosophical dialogue.
The issue with QAnon is that it is not some scholarly pursuit, it is a vibe. Furthermore, it seems that these people in this system are some of the last to sit down and engage in the long process that is a philosophical dialogue. To change their mind you would have to really convince them of basic norms of belief again, while also convincing them of some positive world-view.
There is a whole subreddit, and probably more stories else where, that show the effects of the QAnon followers on their close ones and themselves. Even people leaving them, maybe them even getting covid, family members dying of it, or some other tangible artifact of reality, does not trigger any sort of self-reflection. The paradox is that, the only route to talk to people who are so far gone, the Nazi, the QAnon follower, the Stalinist, is impossible.
The temptation, especially when so much is on the line, to partake in a disrespectful dialogue is high. This is something I, leftist in nature, have been grappling with since the pandemic started and the ensuing crises after. When so much is on the line over beliefs, over votes, over action and inaction, it is tempting to try and some seemingly more effective strategy. It is tempting to say “read all these books and understand this whole 54 bubble diagram”, it is tempting to use sophistry (especially as someone “trained” in philosophy and logic), it is tempting to deep canvass someone, to lead them to the desired conclusion. The only two routes I see that maintain respect is through the philosophical dialogue or to not engage at all, unless someone wants to engage with you “as a student”.