On Dialogue

Douglas P. McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

One of the most important articles for a young student of philosophy to work through is Thomas Nagel's 1974 classic paper entitled: "What is it like to be a bat?" Nagel argues well that we simply cannot form anything more than a "schematic conception" of what it is like to be a bat; the subjective character specific to these creatures is simply beyond our ability to conceive. He writes: "… even to form a conception of what it is like to be a bat…one must take up the bat's point of view. If one can take it up roughly, or partially, then one's conception will also be rough or partial."

He argues that our range of understanding is limited because our own experience is all that our imagination has to work with; thus, the more the other's experience (i.e., that of a bat, a mosquito, etc.) is different from my own, the less am I able to understand the "objective ascription" of the experience in both the first person and the third person. And so it follows that "there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language".

Nagel, however, is careful to point out that this problem is not limited to "exotic cases", such as the subjective character of a bat or snake, etc., but exists also between human persons: "The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably is mine to him."

A mental health patient who suffers from clinical depression told me once how upset he became at a young cleric who patronizingly assured him: "I know what you are going through". The fact of the matter is he has no idea what this patient is going through. Most of us simply do not know what it is like to have suffered sexual abuse at a young age and to be suffering from clinical depression and to be subject to severe temptations to suicide.

The fundamental point here is true even with respect to less extreme and more ordinary instances; I only know what it is like to be you to a very limited degree. What is it like to possess your unique epistemic conditions and thus interpret the world through that model of yours? My understanding can only be partial; for I understand some people better than others, because they think very much like me, have had very similar experiences, are making the same mistakes I made in the past, etc. Such people are not a problem for me to understand well, but such people are relatively few and far between. Most people I know are very much unlike me. Not only do they have a different personality and are different in moral identity or character, they've had experiences that I will likely never have. Only on a very general level am I able to understand such people. But the more conditions for knowing that I acquire through life, the wider becomes my range of ability to understand others. All this is the result of the fact that human intelligence is limited by matter, by its close association with sense perception, space, time, memory, etc.

I will argue that we are able to gradually acquire certain conditions for knowing through authentic dialogue; for it is authentic dialogue that moves me ever closer to an understanding of the other, without ever being able to understand him completely. For dialogue to be authentic, both require a rare ability to listen, an ability to achieve an exit-of-self, and both have to be at that point in their lives where they have begun to adopt an attitude of healthy skepticism towards their current way of seeing things, that is, a practical openness to the fact that reality is always much larger than what my own limited model would suggest. This is difficult for some people, because they tend to confuse universal ideas and deductive reasoning with the overall model through which the real is interpreted.

There is a significant difference between ideas that are universal and thus encompass every particular instance of the universal, and an epistemic model that is limited and far from all encompassing. Included in an epistemic model are, among other things, deductively reasoned conclusions that require universal propositions in order to be valid; however, although I possess the universal idea of 'equine', for example, or 'humanity', or 'radiation', etc., the idea is often poor in content, for I know very little about horses, relatively little about human nature, and certainly less about the nature of radiation. It is through induction, a process of inferencing on the basis of observed activity that I come to know the natures of things more completely, but the activity I choose to pay attention to depends upon the kinds of questions I ask, which in turn depends upon the problems I wish to solve and the aspects of these things that currently interest me. Thus, I always end up asking questions that belong to a limited and determinate area of knowledge; I may end up asking questions proper to the science of psychology, or biology, or philosophy, etc. And so included in that model through which I interpret the real are a multitude of inferences, each one of which has a power that I am often unaware of, a power independent of its degree of probability.

The epistemic model through which I interpret the real is always limited and in development, for there are so many epistemic conditions that I am currently missing that alone will permit me to understand what I am simply unable to understand without them - I believe conditions are currently missing only because I have been steadily acquiring conditions for knowing every year it seems, from as far back as I can remember, and I have no reason to believe the process is at an end or even whether there is such an end. But when I allow my own limited model to enter into contact with one entirely different, that is, when I enter into dialogue with another who asks different questions because he is interested in different problems, a "clash of cultures" (Popper) takes place. Depending on how I understand the nature of knowledge, I will see this clash either as something positive or as something negative.

During this "clash of cultures", many of my inferences are challenged, especially those that have crystallized into apparent certainties as a result of being left unchallenged for so long. My reasoned conclusions too are critically challenged, in particular those that are invalid, but also those that are incomplete - and my reasoning is always incomplete, whether it is deductive or inductive. The other with whom I choose to dialogue might compel me to take my reasoning further; he might challenge me to notice the limitations of the premises upon which my reasoning begins and challenge me to take another look, this time perhaps from a different angle. And how much of my inferencing is contaminated by bias?

Indeed, some biases blind, and some shed light; the other with whom I am in dialogue might be subject to biases that permit him to see what I hitherto have been unable to see, thus he may shed light on the deficiencies of my own model. Moreover, my own moral paradigm might also be insufficient. Finally, everything I have said about him can be said about me, that is, I may challenge him to expand his intellectual frame of mind.

To understand someone to the point where he actually enlarges my purview and enables me to see what I otherwise would not see, usually takes a great deal of time and effort. That is why it is normal to need to read a great book a number of times; it takes more than one reading to begin to appreciate a person's magnum opus ; for if a person has spent a lifetime thinking about certain problems within a very specific frame of mind, how can I be expected to benefit from the model through which he interprets the real after just one reading? I have to read it, and read it again, and perhaps a third time in order to begin to re-examine all that I know, or most of what I know, in light of the new horizon with which I am beginning to become familiar. He has asked different questions, and those questions open up for me a new avenue that very often comes across as strange, at least initially. It is not enough for me to try to understand him while remaining within my own intellectual horizon; I cannot enter his world without a certain ecstasis , an active exit of self; for there is no enlarging of the self without such an exit of self.

It seems to me that it is fear that keeps a person from "taking leave of himself" and his comfortable surroundings, and so he remains within a small circle of authors with whom he is familiar, who do not threaten the stability of his little world. Such people demand to see everything from a very limited vantage point; the result is uniformity, a feeling of security, and a measure of control, as well as a stifling, unexciting, and exclusive point of view. The default position of such a narrow mind becomes "I am right", and so dialogue is no longer regarded as an avenue for growth in learning but is interpreted as a kind of battle, an opportunity to take on a defence of a relatively small worldview.

Reality is always so much larger than an epistemic model, just as mathematical models of some aspect of reality seem to fall short after a certain point. Similarly, the realm of the real always exceeds the scope of our own epistemic model that is made up of deductively reasoned conclusions, probable inferences, true and false beliefs, unknown biases, as well as the limited language we speak, disordered passions that affect our perception, and a profoundly limited experience of the world of people and places.

That is why dialogue can be a very exciting prospect. Great treasures can be discovered in the most unexpected places - more than once has it happened that I have discovered insights and valuable ways of looking at certain problems, very useful to a religious paradigm, from some of the most anti or simply non-religious sources.