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In another case, a fellow Sweet Talker who is far more of an expert in philosophy than I am said that he had basically withdrawn from all serious Twitter debates.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?