Conversation and Correspondence

It has been said – I heard the physicist Freeman Dyson relating it – that the human urge to converse is akin to the termite’s instinct to build castles. Perhaps the truth of this becomes most clear in the edge case of the hermit who converses or corresponds with an imaginary interlocutor. Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden for an audience; Nietzsche’s deep loneliness is ultimately a yearning for company. Perhaps this yearning, the more intensely it is experienced, invokes the fear that the desired union gets tainted, leading to a gesture of postponing, the bittersweet thought that ‘true’ friendship is always a thing of the future. Nietzsche had his own disappointments with Richard Wagner or his ménage à trois with Lou Salomé and Paul Rée. His Übermensch is above all else capable of friendship, i.e. noble, witty, deep conversation.

We could learn a great deal from intellectual history, and I relish in Peter Watson’s books about it, but I want a working answer for myself. Can the notion of good Conversation (with good wine of earthly, not aquatic, origin) deliver on the promise to give us enough meaning to live fulfilling lives? And can it do this without the backlash of fanaticism, a cult, say, that enforces certain rules of conversation and punishes those who fail or refuse to follow them? Can our idea of conversation become something sacred without the symbolic scaffolding of explicit rules?

I think this is an okay question. Wittgenstein pointed out we always follow public language rules, consciously or not; Habermas attempted a Theory of communicative action as a new foundation of philosophy herself. If we officially elevate conversation to the status of ‘ultimate’ source of meaning, does that destroy the very vitality we had imagined would quench our thirst?

Conversation is the practice of relentless critical interest in each other’s mind that must in my view defy any definite rules, including of course the rule that there are no rules. Provisionary, pragmatic rules are thus indispensible but they are more like patterns than like laws. As soon as we enshrine them (I choose that term deliberately), conversation can find a way around it. It can always find a way to mock or subvert these rules. In more technical words, conversation will never be Turing decidible.

This elegant openness is wonderful and it would be all too human to assert some sort of élan vital at work underneath our endearing attempts to join each other in conversation. Some sort of metaphysical redeeming Truth that appears but through human minds who are ultimately rewarded with the Platonic Union when the lights go out.

In other words: Let us just talk with each other. And believe one thing if you must: After you leave the scene, you will have gotten away with it.

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