This post proposes a book project, for anyone who wants it.
Two kinds of serious conversation
By “serious” conversations I mean conversations that work toward knowledge (at least for one party), or good decision (at least by one party), or designing something complex.
The serious conversations glimpsed in the Analects are mainly between a master and student. The Mencius is more concerned with how an adept should counsel a king. 1A7 looks like a handbook for that.
These two kinds of conversation get their shape and point from inequalities: unequal wisdom and unequal power. Between master and student, one side has the wisdom and the power. Between counselor and king, one side has the wisdom and the other has the power. The point of both conversations, as understood by all parties, is to transmit some wisdom from the wiser party to the other — within constraints imposed by the powerful party, such as limited time.
One could do a study of these two forms of conversation in Confucian literature: the varieties of each and the guidance on how to do them well. That’s not my main proposal here.
Is it fair to say that when early Confucianism thought about serious conversation, these two are the main kinds it thought about?
The Western tradition saliently values another kind of conversation, aiming more at discovering or creating than transmitting.
In Book X of the Iliad, Nestor asks for a volunteer to spy out the Trojans’ position. Diomedes is willing, but asks for a second volunteer to go with him. For
When two go together, one of them at least looks forward
to see what is best; a man by himself though he be careful,
still has less mind in him than two, and his wits have less weight.
Personally I find that when I’m walking with someone else, I don’t see anything at all. But this passage was popular back in the day. People would allude to it simply by saying “sün te dü’ erkhomenw” — “When two go together.”
Plato’s Socrates quotes Diomedes facetiously in the framing material in the Symposium. (I can bring you along to the dinner even though you’re not invited, because “when two go together” we should be able to think up an excuse.) He quotes Diomedes’ remark again in the companion dialogue, the Protagoras, in saying why he has sought out Protagoras for discussion. Aristotle quotes Diomedes’ remark at the beginning of his discussion of friendship in Nicomachean Ethics VIII, to say that friends help us understand and act well. And he quotes it again in Politics III (1287b13), in explaining why justice normally requires that political authority be distributed fairly widely among the citizens, and hence requires the rule of law. When people figure things out together, they make better decisions. Rule by the wisest is not the rule of any individual.
Diomedes has been quoted to similar good purpose more recently.
In serious conversation on the Diomedean model, people exchange questions, ideas, observations, and other considerations (arguments implicit or explicit), to try to arrive at a conclusion on some pressing matter. The picture is of people sharing intellectual activity. The point of the conversation is to think together through some shared problem.
In the West and elsewhere, striking exemplars of Diomedean conversation might be found in the meetings of decision-making assemblies on the town or tribal level: the conversations that rule. But I suppose it is natural enough to envision most serious conversation along Diomedean lines, wherever people are free from the kind of concentration of power and fear of disharmony that come from e.g. dependence on large-scale agriculture.
A borderline case of Diomedean conversation is debate in which the parties are concerned mainly with who wins or loses, or “which is to be master.” And yet even this sort of conversation can be very valuable, so long as the parties retain intellectual standards at least as rules of the game, or have a referee for the process and an external authority for the decision (judge and jury). The pained encounters between representatives of rival philosophical schools in the Mencius are at least borderline cases of Diomedean conversations.
In Diomedean conversation, differences in antecedent experience and opinion help give the exchange its value. At least, it is helpful that one party thinks of something before the other. (For this it may be enough that we are currently looking in different directions; or that by not being you, I more easily think of objections to what you say.) But if the resources were all on one side, Diomedean conversation would lose its point.
In the Confucian conversations, the parties interact but in two distinctly different roles. Hence the picture is not that of a shared activity in which a third or hundredth party might easily join on the same terms. Rather, the conversational activities of the parties are essentially different, essentially separate.
Diomedean conversation aimed at decision can be called “deliberation,” using the same word we use for solitary thinking toward decision. Diomedean conversation aimed at knowledge can be called “inquiry,” or “trying to figure something out.” Perhaps most solitary serious thinking, when the problem is difficult, is like having a Diomedean conversation with oneself.
You might have one or the other of the two Confucian conversations with yourself. We would call that kind of thinking a struggle for self-control.
The master-student conversation could be used as a model for ideal political and personal relations conceived as vertical, while the counselor-king conversation could be a model for action aimed at social change or correction (or for doing one’s best in the non-ideal circumstance that the philosopher is not king).
Diomedean conversation can be model for friendship, the co-authoring of books, the seminar process, the scientific community, liberal democracy, and in general, life in community.
I’d love to see a book like this: a collection of passages (of whatever length) from Chinese philosophy, literature, and history before the 19th century – e.g. from the 水滸傳 – that directly discuss Diomedean conversation or distinctly display good examples of it: people trying to pool their intellectual resources in a way that doesn’t presuppose relevant inequality, to understand or decide or design something – not just to transmit something antecedently held by one party in the conversation to the others. Where do we see people clearly engaging in that sort of shared activity, or recognizing and valuing it at least for private life among friends, or offering norms for it, or trying to institutionalize it?
I have no idea how much good material there is. I just haven’t read that widely in the tradition. But there must be some (hopefully not all bandits and bedchambers). I think putting piles of it together in one place could be extremely valuable, not least by shining a light on a positive aspect of a tradition that many people respect on grounds other than what’s in it.
One might do much of the work for such a project without reading Chinese, since one can pretty well recognize an appropriate passage even in mediocre translation — so long as the good material isn’t mostly in untranslated texts.
The Analects includes a great variety of what might or might not be glimmers and sparks thrown off by the idea of Diomedean conversation. The book I’m proposing might start with an essay on these. But what we don’t find in the Analects is a direct focus on the idea, or good illustrative examples. And I find myself wondering whether the sparks simply fell to the ground and died.
What do we find outside of the Analects ?