Conversation in Commerce: Intimate, Impersonal, and Indirect

Featured Image is The Moneylender and His Wife, by Quentin Massys.

The offering of a schilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest.

-Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence

In a post two years ago, Nathan distinguished transaction and exchange based on the impersonal quality of the former and the conversational quality of the latter. He gave grocery stores as an example of the transactional, and farmer’s markets for the conversational.

In many grocery stores the shopper can select, check, bag, and pay for the groceries without ever having to speak to another person. Where is the catallaxy in that? You do not make friends with your celery and dog food. Grocery shopping is about cost primarily, because your choices have already been laid out for you. We may trade off a store with a better selection for one with lower prices, but in that context we have already made our choice in choosing where to shop, and all that is left is cost. The transactional context contains risk that can be managed, but is devoid of uncertainty.

At the less structured farmer’s market, however:

In exchange there is possibility of alteration of preferences. You go to the farmer’s market for the experience, and fresh tomatoes. But you never know what else might show up at the farmer’s market. It is fraught with uncertainty. It is also steeped in conversation. The very context suggests that one approaches it wanting to have her preferences shaped by the experience. Sellers get intimately involved in each sale, talking with every customer and potential customer. Advice is given and recipes are shared.

I think Nathan is onto something here, but I also think that both settings are conversational, in an important sense.

It might be better to say that the wider context for each is conversational, in a variety of ways.

At a grocery store, the manner in which choices are laid out for shoppers is neither random nor entirely about cost saving. These strategically designed layouts create what Michel Anteby calls vocal silence; though no explicit direction is given, specific choices suggest themselves.

It’s true that at the grocery store these suggestions often emphasize cost saving, as with the placards indicating discounts or stands emphasizing some particular bargain. But the basic arrangement of items in aisle suggests a relationship among them. When I go to get ketchup, I might see mustard and suddenly remember we’re running low on it. Little things like that.

Providers and retailers spend a lot of time attempting to anticipate their customers. Sometimes this is simple cost saving, again—if things are organized in an intuitive way, it’ll take me less time to find them. But an important part of it is figuring out what innovations (however small) customers would be amenable to.

Adam Smith’s point about the shilling at the top of this post should be kept in view; money talks. But money talks very indirectly.  It doesn’t tell providers much more than that people were willing to pay a certain price for something. Market research isn’t as intimate as chatting with someone you see every week at a farmer’s market, but it is more direct than simply watching sales figures. We might call this style of conversation impersonalTens of billions of dollars are spent on it each year.

The conversational styles are continuously generated through transactions and exchange by establishing what Charles Taylor has called “footings” for the participants on each side.

 In the way we exchange, talk to one another, treat one another, we establish and then continue or alter the terms of our relationship, what we might call the “footing” on which we stand to each other. We do this through our rhetoric, our tone of voice, the kind of remark I permit myself and you don’t challenge, and on through an infinity of nuances.

Let’s say we are friends, but I am older than you. I can respond to this by treating you as an ingénue, offering avuncular advice on frequent occasions, sometimes intervening in a bossy fashion, dismissing peremptorily some of your ideas, and so on. You for your part don’t challenge this; you may even like it. The upshot is that what I call a certain “footing” gets set up, call it an uncle-nephew footing, in which we each have certain expectations of the other, in which certain moves are normal and expected, and others are surprising, even shocking, and in which certain obligations are implied on each of our parts, and the like.

The footings in the conversation between market researchers and their subject are that of detached analysts on the one hand and subjects of study on the other. Though the latter are there voluntarily, the authority of the former is established from the outset. Researchers control the structure of the engagement. The degree of freedom subjects are allowed is limited, and determined in advance by researchers.

At Nathan’s farmer’s market, the representatives of the farm establish the footing of experts and salesmen, but also something like an acquaintance. The tone of the conversation is more casual.

The grocery store strives to make conversation as indirect as possible. They may conduct market research, and the providers of the goods they sell certainly do, but once in the store all they want to hear from their customers is the sound of their wallets emptying. In as much as there is a footing here, it is established through vocal silence. And customers respond primarily through their buying patterns.

This has been given its ultimate expression in our day through online retail. Amazon sets itself up as the website of choice for ordering what you want as quickly, cheaply, and painlessly as possible. There seems to be no human element at all. But of course, there is. Amazon is constantly listening to their customers. Vocal silence is created algorithmically, on the fly, and those algorithms are constantly being evaluated by people. New business prospects are experimented with on a smaller scale before being deployed to the general customer base or abandoned.

Even at its most indirect and impersonal, commerce is a series of ongoing conversations, establishing, challenging, and altering various footings on each side along the way.

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Propertarian Hokey Pokey

Since I’ve come to know the Sweet Talk Kids, the property rights thing has been brought forward regularly as an entree of interest, like hotdogs, chips and kool-aid for Saturday night TV. I’m not terribly good at all the vocabulary nor some of the philosophical underpinnings, but the posts winging about have been quite educational, and I’m grateful for it.

As far as I can tell, there are two main lines of argumentation: 1) private property is theft, inherently [insert appeal to avaricious human nature. Problem of avarice resolved by benevolent redistribution imposed by state]; 2) public property is theft [insert appeal to mitigating features of nature. Problem of avarice resolved by not-so-benevolent redistributive forces of nature].

I know on which side of the divide I fall, to wit: side 2. And I have a few reasons I fall that way, the main ones as follow: the benevolence of the state is inherently violent. It must seize property by force, which requires either the threat of death and/or a complacent populace. Having a populace complacent to the state is problematical because it submits to the will of a state which allows no larger organizing principle than itself, which is (if I may anthropomorphize) what the state desires and will seek to attain and perpetuate. The state, in other words, is messianic, and will crush all other suitors.

What larger organizing principle is there?

Here, I think, is the rub. Arguing for an organizing principle larger than the state is a matter of metaphysics, i.e., whether there is such a thing as nature, an invisible hand, or a providential will of some sort. Perhaps even a personal God–but that’s too much, seeing as how even the most fervent believer in God believes that he is hidden amidst the elemental things, revealing himself very particularly, if at all.

Now side 2 is essentially reduced to an appeal to cold, hard, experience, both for itself and against the state. Each argument is in this way weakened, being basically founded upon witness, which can be contorted and perverted according to will. Thus, sweet talk. Are the not-so-benevolent forces of nature to mitigate the inherent avarice of private property owners convincing to you? Let me count the ways…

No matter how I count, however, I must appeal to a moral authority for the right to private property, not a theoretical one, not as a foundation, not until after I lay a foundation based on an unrevealed moral authority reconstructed by feeble minds. The will of a state is not, essentially, as messy as all that. What the state wills shall be so. By nature, then, to argue for private property is the weaker of the two sides.

What is it about the appeal to witness, however, that has such persuasive power?

The implications reveal, I think, that the argument is not set on a pole, as it seems at first glance: private vs. public property, or what-have-you. The arguments are appeals to a set of beliefs, the one founded on witness, the other founded on will, neither founded on objective reality, despite any appeal one or the other might make to such a not-a-thing.

On the one side are the institutions of the state, and on the other are the institutions of civilization with ancient precepts which strive to reach the unreachable heavens. Both coexist in an uneasy truce, some epochs more uneasy than others. When one finds favor in your eyes, you put your whole self in and you do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around, with lots of friends and fellow travelers participating in the dance with you, and there will be an inside and an outside. Where the frontiers meet is where the music is played. Whose hokey-pokey radiates the most warmth and happiness?

Questions of justice are hereby eschewed, for those are fundamental to each dance.

The Three Perspectives of Justice

The view from nowhere does not exist; it is accessible to no one.

I think that justice—the character trait—is arrived at through a lifelong dialogue among three points of view.

The first is your own, honed through proper notions of prudence, courage, temperance, charity, inheritance and hope.

The second is the person or people you are trying to figure out what you owe, or what they owe you. Hume’s faculty of sympathy, or what we call sympathy today plus what we call empathy, is your primary tool here, as well as a lifetime of experience attempting to understand yourself and others.

The final one is Smith’s impartial spectator; impartial not in the sense of objective but in the sense of not being partial, not having a stake in the outcome.

All three are in a way mental constructs, as we must have mental models of ourselves, the people we are dealing with, and an imagined impartial judge observing the matter. And all three require nourishment through use and persistent critical evaluation over time.

You arrive at just decisions through the effective weighing of the claims made by these inner agents; you become truly wise when these inner constructs closely approximate real people who exist outside of your mental world.

Love of Wisdom

I asked: do we need philosophy to live a good life or flourish as a social whole?

Chris and Sam H provided excellent answers. In addition to their direct responses, I think Sam H’s post on aesthetics and art also helps us approach something like an answer.

As far as I’m concerned Protagoras (as portrayed by Plato) had this all figured out about two and a half millenia ago:

Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and father and tutor are vying with one another about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand what is being said to him: he cannot say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honourable, that is dishonourable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that.

Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a pupil of ethics, from the time we can understand words to our passing from this world. This the world seen by Burke and by Oakeshott; a world thick with ethical prescriptions and corrections and contested intuitions. Chris puts it like this:

I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.

Emphasis added by me.

This all closely parallels the earlier conversation about art. I made the case that art appreciation is a situated, institutional thing, possible only as part of a community. My brother David thought that there must be more to it than this, just as Socrates rejected the soft socialness of Protagoras’ ethics. Sam H played the peacekeeper by bringing underlying, to some extent pre-social emotions into the picture in addition to the Protagorean framework.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

A Humean or Smithian moral sentimentalist perspective added to a Protagorean and Oakeshottian thick traditionalist perspective is, in short, a very good first approximation of the reality on the ground.

But to come back around to the original question again, does philosophy have a role to play within that reality?

I think so, and so did Protagoras. He taught ethics and charged for the privilege. Thinking it through, this shouldn’t seem so odd—after all, language’s reality on the ground is basically identical, and yet we still have English teachers. Certainly people can speak English without English teachers, but yet we expect English teachers to instill certain conventions, certain norms.

Ethics are contingent and traditional but philosophy can play a role in making these contingent traditions give an account of themselves.

I think Deirdre McCloskey’s account of the clerisy, her word for the writerly intellectual class, is something like what I have in mind. By her reckoning, they are supposed to help out by clarifying and providing coherent (but not Platonically self-sufficient) frameworks that help people both in making evaluations and simply in making sense of their lives. By her reckoning, the class of people has been asleep at the wheel (or worse, drunk and hostile) since at least 1848.

Her call to action goes as follows:

We need to revive a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.

I knew as soon as I read these words that I did not merely agree with them, but wanted to take action. I wanted to do philosophy, to contribute to the revival of that “serious ethical conversation”.

Sweet talk is one part of that effort, and I am grateful, here in week three, for the contributions everyone here has made so far.