"When two go together"

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?

Diomedean conversation

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.
(lines 224-6)

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.

Project proposal

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 ?

5 replies on “"When two go together"”

  1. Hi Bill: this is a wonderful project proposal which would be very important for understanding the place of traditional Chinese culture in the world. Jullien and Roetz have written some insightful pages on this issue, but to my understanding no scholar has ever made an attempt to put together a collection of what you call “Diomedean conversation” examples. If I understand him correctly J.F. Billeter claims that the Zhuangzi contains some examples of “Diomedean” conversations, and there must be more. But, at least in my reading experience (having been reading premodern Chinese texts for more than 15 years), such passages are extremely rare (you might also want to have a look at Christian Meyer’s book on the emergence of some kind of public sphere in the Song dynasty and Sima Guang’s analysis of the “consultative assemblies” (jiyi 集議), see Christian Meyer, Ritendiskussionen am Hof der nördlichen Song-Dynastie (1034-1093). Zwischen Ritengelehrsamkeit, Machtkampf und intellektuellen Bewegungen, [Monumenta Serica Monograph Series LVIII] Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 2008). In general, historical chronicles like the Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 might be a good point of departure…

  2. I’m very grateful for these suggestions, Kai! And already I’m overwhelmed.

    I don’t have the expertise to do this project myself – nor the time: it has no synergy with my day jobs. I’m hoping somebody else wants it. At most I could be a collaborator, ideally with a large group, and someone else as chief editor. I think there must be plenty of people who could each offer a few passages and some discussion.

    Contributors hereby solicited. Maybe we can start by discussion here?

    Kai, you write in your wonderful 9/27/12 post that in Taiwan, “powerful ministers [are] challenged in … direct and open [debate] … quite regularly. … it is not evident to me that this kind of dialogue can be easily described by the means of traditional Chinese vocabulary (say by using attributes like ‘Chinese’ or ‘Confucian’).”

    That could suggest an objection to my proposal: that it’s an unpromising exercise in making Howdy Doodies in history. But I don’t think the project has to go that way. Granted, the relevant passages may constitute only the tiniest percentage of the limitless ocean of old Chinese texts. But one should expect that the passages that actually discuss D-conversation will value it for reasons, and value for it norms, that neatly match some of the broader values of e.g. the Analects, such as respect, honesty, humility, the golden rule, and of course learning. That is to say, the passages would not just be votes for the Chineseness of D-conversation. Rather they would show how core human values that are also salient core values in the Chinese tradition both (a) insist on D-conversation (and its political and academic parallels) and (b) have much to say about how it should be practiced. By constituting and furthering discussion of D-conversation, the book might be helpful in, for example, the pursuit of workable educational reform.

  3. Thanks, Michael, for your suggestions on a nearby thread:
    reproduced here:

    … the Liji, I would say, speaks to this issue about as much as texts such as the Mengzi does. There are situations of dialogue that extend beyond the kind of interactions that occur in the Lunyu, but the Liji does not theorize about these dialogues the way it might be said that it theorizes about li … While these kinds of student-disciple interactions do fit under a kind of broad category of li, the Liji seems to be more concerned with rituals related to mourning and sacrifice …

    That said, there is a chapter on learning (學記), which might be read to have a little to say about this. On a related note, you might want to speak with Aaron Stalnaker, whose current project is on master-disciple relationships in early China.

    A text that seems to be more concerned with the kind of dialogue you’re looking for, at least in early China, is the Salt and Iron Discourses (鹽鐵論), which features extended back and forth discussions between a court official (御史大夫) and a scholar (文學, usually understood as someone representing a Confucian view). While the text sides with the 文學, the other position is represented more charitably than they tend to be represented in early Chinese texts. I thought I came across a partial translation of it, but I can’t seem to find it now.

    I’ve just read the 學記, and I don’t see what in it might be relevant. The chapter gives norms for teachers and for students, for teaching and learning. I don’t see a suggestion that teachers can learn anything from students, or that peers in either rank can benefit each other by exchanging ideas.

    I think I’ve seen a partial translation of the debates on iron and salt in one of the old blue philosophy anthologies – which I can’t seem to put my hand on. I would want to see especially at what account there might be of how the debate was conceived and set up, and any comments in the course of the debate reflecting a willingness (at least in principle) to acknowledge learning from the other side.

    Maybe it’s a mistake to conceive the book as an anthology; maybe instead it should be a set of short essays, or a mix. I suppose it depends on what we find.

  4. Thanks to a comment by Agui under Yu Jiyuan’s 9/18/2011 post on “Transmitting and Innovating,” and an article linked by Joel Dietz in his post of 4/19/2012, I gather that Michael Puett proposes that in early China ritual was, and possibly was regarded as, something sort of analogous to a conversation in which many people contributed to the creation of new wisdom. The idea, if I understand it, is that some of the things people do are observably good (whether or not they are in line with the tradition of the time), and good actions tend to be copied, so if one thing we’re all trying to do is to copy whatever sort of action is widely copied, we’ll innovate an excellent way of life together over the generations, by something like natural selection. That’s sort of Diomedean, but it’s not conversation.

    I’m waiting for my library to get me the book.


    Quaker Meetings are outstandingly Diomedean quasi-conversations, in which people speak as they are inspired.

    One point that might encourage the hope that there is much to be found in China is the sometime currency of the doctrine that each of us has, in some sense, a direct line to Heaven, in the form of implanted basic virtues or values. Granted, that is not the idea that each of us has something distinctive to offer, or that each stands to benefit from the other’s help. Indeed it may be taken to recommend unconcern with others’ help in thinking, on the grounds that for purposes of moral inquiry, at least under decent conditions, each of us is an individual sufficient unto herself (e.g. Mencius 4A4, 4A12, 7A4; but see 4A1, 4B15). Sufficient but perhaps unnecessary, as you can discover my innermost heart and needs just by examining yourself, without consulting me; and after you do, I can discover my innermost values just by asking you (6A7).

    What matters is what people made of the doctrine in fact.

    Mencian egalitarianism is a view that might be attractive to someone who wants a foundation for general ethical principles applicable to all, but who also operates with a radical fact-value distinction. If the right values are not realities we can discover by our general intellectual capacities and methods, they might still be universal if they’re simply imposed on our preference-sets by heaven or the genes of our species. But then here’s the rub, the two-legged rub. First leg: if you think facts and values are quite separate, you lose a main reason for caring to investigate facts. They seem less practically important across the board. Second, it seems to me, the value of Diomedean conversation is salient mainly in fields where new problems often arise and solutions are shown right or wrong before forever: facts and crafts, devices toward particular ends, but not ethics. So I worry that the Mencian view brings a tendency to overlook the value of Diomedean conversation. I guess my line of thought here is a little spidery though.

    The craft of medicine is perhaps an exception, for while treatments are followed by visible results, the connection between treatment and result never becomes visible. What about the craft of military strategy?

    I skimmed through the Mencius to find passages displaying D-conversation or touching on it in a positive way, aside from the debates between representatives of rival schools. Here are the best I found, in order of decreasing bestness, with the relevant points paraphrased:

    Even the best of us (or the best learners?) should readily and gratefully heed good advice and correction from anyone.

    Mencius advocates “making friends in history,” i.e. with writers of the past, possibly reflecting a conception of friendship among the wise that involves mutual teaching as a significant part. But on the surface the text may suggest that being friends with an ancient writer is something sharply distinct from learning from the writings.

    “A feudal lord should not exercise sole authority in the execution of a Counselor” – from rule 4 of the agreement among the feudal lords.

    Although Mencius doesn’t like arguing, he feels he has to do it, to weed out Mohism and Yangism.

    –In social intercourse, what is the correct attitude of mind?
    –A respectful attitude of mind.
    But what Mencius has in mind concretely is propriety in the exchange of gifts.

    A king should take others’ views into account slightly in deciding what ministers to hire and fire. But the emphasis here seems to be on the negative: don’t take others’ views into account much.

    I think there’s a passage about how Confucius had no particular teacher but rather learned from everyone, or many? I can’t find it.

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