Why Bother?

The Internet has opened up new vistas for the intellectually curious or the lovers of art and literature. It has also unleashed a barrage of sophomoric and abusive arguments, terrible reasoning, and amateur garbage without redeeming value.

Most of us are not reaching new commanding heights of intellectual or artistic brilliance. But that does not change our desire to participate in these conversations. The eternal question, then, is how to participate when we are no Aristotle, no Einstein, no da Vinci?

The two questions I ask myself, more and more, are: what am I trying to accomplish with this one post, or in this one discussion? And what do I hope to contribute?

The first question is largely selfish—what do I hope to take away from whatever form participation takes? What can I learn, how can I grow from it?

The second question is about striving to give at least as good as I get. Why would anyone bother to enter into a discussion with me, or read my posts? What can I give to the specific person I am attempting to reach?

There are two standpoints that most people will find themselves in at some point, if they invest in learning or improving their art at all. In intellectual matters, this can be summarized by two conversations I have had in recent months.

In one case, a fellow Sweet Talker said to me that he felt a few of us had really gotten away from him, and he wasn’t sure what he could contribute on the subjects we were talking about. Philosophy wasn’t really his thing to begin with; why would he try to catch up to us when he could invest in areas more important to him? But we often touch on things that do matter to him, yet the way we discuss it is not exactly inviting.

In another case, a fellow Sweet Talker who is far more of an expert in philosophy than I am said that he had basically withdrawn from all serious Twitter debates. The gulf between the background he had invested in, and that of the typical person he might encounter that would want to discuss some philosophical matter there, seemed too vast to bridge. How can you debate moral philosophy with someone whose entire experience of it is a few blog posts? It’s hard enough to approach these subjects after reading many, many books.

The reality is that we are almost always in the shoes of both of my fellow Sweet Talkers at once. When talking to someone else, there is usually a great deal we know that they do not, and vice versa. It must be so, unless we think only a specific set of life experiences or the content of some specific books is all that counts for anything. Sweet Talk itself is meant to be a shrine to the possibility of conversation across many standpoints and life experiences—I hope that some of our more obscure or jargon-filled posts do not detract from that.

Often the conversation is itself the goal—there is a joy of what Gadamer called “the live play of risking assertions, of taking back what we have said, of assuming and rejecting, all the while proceeding on our way to reaching an understanding.” Scoring a point can be harmless in this context, so long as it is understood by both parties to be a matter of play rather than hostility, and so long as you are graceful when a point is scored against you. In this way, we both enjoy the game, and so I both contribute and receive.

But I also crave that live feedback, the connection with another human being with a different perspective who can be perplexed by things I find obvious, and so help me see how it might be perplexing. Intellectual insulation is intellectual decay; it’s just a matter of how long it takes. Someone who has not read a word of philosophy is just as capable of helping me in this way as someone who has read the entire western canon, in the original languages.

And what do I have to offer?

I am less confident in my answer to that question than I have ever been. But if I can learn from people, regardless of their specific expertise or interests, surely people can learn from me. It is this bare minimum of value, simply by having lived my life, simply by having a standpoint, that I believe I can contribute. And I am trying to live more, and learn more, and get better at determining what I might have to offer that would be valuable to a specific person I am talking to as well as people in general, so that I can increase the value of my contributions.

What more can any of us do, as writers, conversation partners, artists, and human beings?

11 thoughts on “Why Bother?

  1. I absolutely loved what you said here. As human beings and writers we can focus our attention on enriching the conversation of the world around us with practicality and enhancing our basis of knowledge rather than focusing on the mishap that is the pop culture media. We’re so focused on what everyone else is doing that we forget why we do something or what our original mission is with our blogging. Why did we start blogging? Were we ambitious dreamers who thought we could change the world one thoughtful post at a time? Or did we want to shake the norm by thinking outside the bubble we put ourselves in?
    Great post! Ps-love the painting you included. Art is amazing and art changes lives.

    1. I’m glad you liked the piece!

      I don’t know if I can change the world. It seems like a big place, and I a very small part of it. But I will try to make my part, however big it might end up being, as good as I can make it.

  2. Really interesting post and some fantastic questions asked. Coming from guy who literally started blogging for the first time yesterday, I did have to pause for a while and think “why should I? what do I have to offer thats so interesting? Why do people want to hear what I have to say?”but that’s the thing, I think everyone has a story and everyone has something to say. Also that picture is highly relevant (plus very pretty. is it an oil painting?)

  3. The worst is to drop out of debate and discussion because you think you’re so much more advanced than the people around you. If that’s really the case, you’re forfeiting a potentially useful pedagogical role. But more often than not, we’re all specialized in our own way, such that the problem is almost never one where you’re a lot deeper down a uni-dimensional learning curve. What seems like a sophistication gap is thus more likely personal frustration from an inability or unwillingness to translate the ideas in cogent and non-specialist language. The first case, the guy who thinks he doesn’t know enough, is just classic insecurity. That’s much easier to address, but ironically the sophisticate makes matters worse, by confirming the first person’s insecurities as valid while simultaneously refusing to be a mentor.

    1. Well put. To be fair to each person, I was very selective with how I characterized their position, based on what I wanted to do in this piece. The first person essentially decided philosophy wasn’t for them, but they’re seriously investing in another area that requires a great deal of learning on their part. The second person hasn’t withdrawn entirely, just from serious arguments _on Twitter_, and in fact actively mentors people that he connects with and who show an interest in learning more.

    1. Depends on which game you mean! If it’s just conversation, the net is teeming with it; just seek out people who share your interests and talk with them.

      If it’s art, or writing, then just start making—share it, accept that you’ve got to start from somewhere if you aren’t happy with your current skill level, and connect with other people who are working at similar projects.

  4. valkenburgh

    Awesome. Made me think of Michael Oakeshott’s the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind:

    “As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.”

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