by Albert A.
Anderson, Professor of Philosophy, Babson College, ©1998 Agora Publications,
purpose in this essay is to focus on the idea of a dialogue common to all
people, one rooted in nature and dedicated to serious action in all spheres of
life. My goal is to answer two questions: What, exactly, is dialogue? In what
sense is dialogue common or universal?
What is Dialogue?
Confusion arises from the tendency to mistake
dialogue for other activities that resemble it but are quite different. Although
dialogue can be either an oral or a written activity, the oral form usually
comes first to mind, and the various activities with which dialogue is often
confused tend also to be oral. I will focus on the oral mode, but the essential
nature of dialogue is the same, whether in oral or written form. I begin by
distinguishing dialogue from some activities with which it is sometimes
Dialogue is not conversation.
Sharing experiences with family or friends at dinner or cocktails, casual chat
with neighbors, and informal talk about television, movies, sports, and
politics, are examples of conversation. Generally these activities lack serious
purpose, filling the the time, amusing, and entertaining, but seldom with any
definite aim or goal. Conversation is free-floating. Those who introduce
serious topics with a definite goal or purpose into such contexts will probably
not be invited again. Though some philosophers have questioned its value,' this
kind of communication performs an important function in lubricating normal
Dialogue, is not discussion. Radio
and television talk shows, political meetings, religious gatherings, and much of
what goes on in classrooms at schools, colleges, and universities qualify as
discussion, differing from conversation because they generally do treat serious
topics and often have definite goals or purposes. They seek to instruct, inform,
persuade, or convert. Discussion is also more formal than conversation, with
tacit or explicit rules. If such protocol is violated, the participants run the
risk of being cut off, silenced, or failed. Participants in discussion tend to
speak from a particular point of view, usually trying to articulate and defend a
given perspective, though with greater flexibility and openness than parties in
Dialogue is not debate.
Debate differs from discussion in that the verbal exchange usually has a limited
number of positions stipulated at the outset (such as affirmative vs. negative,
liberal vs. conservative, or plaintiff vs. defendant), each competing with the
others with the clear goal of winning the contest. Debate is a zero‑sum game. If
one side wins, the other side must lose. The goal in a debate is to win the
verbal contest by persuading others, often without concern for the truth of the
matter. It differs from discussion in its single‑minded purpose of proving a
pre‑established position in order to win; to change positions in a debate is to
lose the contest. The adversarial method frequently employed by lawyers is one
familiar form of debate. Although it is not necessary for the legal process to
employ this method, when
money and power
are at stake it is not surprising that a win/lose strategy takes over.
The most important difference between dialogue
and these other forms of oral exchange is its primary dedication to what is
common or universal. Conversation often depends on the tastes and inclinations
of the participants without an agenda or clear objective. Discussion and debate,
by contrast, are dedicated to presenting and defending a specific position or
point of view, usually determined by the context or the group being represented.
Unlike these other forms of verbal activity, dialogue makes no prior judgment
about the outcome of the process. It is serious inquiry that seeks to understand
the nature and activity of whatever subject matter is being considered. It
searches for truth rather than taking it as given at the outset of the inquiry.
Participants in a dialogue are free to change their mind in the course of the
Dialogue employs a dialectical method dedicated to examining and
questioning assumptions, especially the ones we usually take for granted.
Sometimes dialectic is confused with eristic, a form of verbal dispute that does
not seek a common or mutual goal. Debate favors eristic over dialectic.
Confusion between eristic and dialectic arises from the rigor of the reasoning
common to both, but the difference lies in their purpose. The purpose of
dialectic is to reason through an issue, refusing to rest until the participants
in the dialogue freely reach common ground. Those who practice eristic do not
shy away from manipulation and deception if they are effective in achieving
victory. On the other hand, dialogue is impossible if the autonomy and dignity
of the participants are violated.
The fundamental purpose of dialogue is to promote
the knowledge, insight, and wisdom that nurture the best possible life for the
participants. These qualities unify rather than separate people. Although they
are realized in the mind or soul of the participants, they are inclusive rather
than exclusive. In a zero‑sum game, the qualities are exclusive. For example,
France's joy in winning the 1998 world cup in soccer could not be shared by the
team from Brazil. Those values are not common or universal but are shared only
by the members of one team and their supporters and fans. The members of the
other team and their supporters and fans are, by the nature of the activity,
excluded. On the other hand, if I help one of my students explicate, interpret,
and apply the Allegory of the Cave from Book 7 of Plato's
the benefit we both experience is inclusive. Rather than compete with each
other, we join together in a common venture. Insight, understanding, and wisdom
are not scarce resources. When my students and I engage in dialogue, my own
understanding and insight increase. Plato's Cave Allegory helps students realize
that education depends upon distinguishing illusion from reality, thus enhancing
the freedom to choose, even if one only chooses the Socratic wisdom of not
pretending to know what one does not know? Increased autonomy leads to increased
dignity. When I dwell among autonomous, dignified human beings, my own autonomy
and dignity are also enhanced. This is especially important for those of us who
believe in democracy as the best form of government. Democracy dies without the
autonomy and dignity of citizens.
To say that dialogue is universal means that it
fosters a kind of education that promotes common benefits open to all. This is
not true of all forms of education. If a person learns how to confront an
opponent by killing or maiming more efficiently through the martial arts, that
kind of education is unlikely to provide mutual benefit. We might draw an
analogy with the principle of nuclear deterrents and argue that if everyone were
to learn a martial art it might discourage others from attacking us. However, in
the case of individual safety, differing levels of skill would probably
encourage rather than discourage those who seek to display their prowess.
Dialogue, by nature, seeks the common good. But this does not mean that
it depends on altruism or that it promotes selflessness. One of the important
benefits of dialogue is that it allows all of us to promote our self interest by
learning to think for ourselves and by helping us defend ourselves from those
who would manipulate and control us and from our self‑imposed dependence.' This
is the Socratic principle of soul tending, a kind of education best conducted by
means of dialogue. People who participate in and benefit from Socratic dialogue
enhance their individuality and develop essential aspects of their self, but
they do that without detracting from other selves. When my students, my
children, and my neighbors learn to think for themselves, I benefit by living in
a community of autonomous individuals who have learned self control and who know
what is needed to promote and enhance the common good. I am not calling for
utopia. I know that even Socratic enlightenment will not automatically bring the
But I think that dialogue promotes that kind of enlightenment.
I further believe that such enlightenment is an important aspect of a good life
for human beings.
Because we cannot count on the altruism and universal good will of others, dialogue employs dialectic to expose and refute sophistry and eristic manipulation. This, too, has a common or universal application. Here the argument for deterrents is more successful than in the case of the martial arts. Learning to spot the fallacies in a political speech, uncovering false advertising, and recognizing religious brainwashing are effective means for avoiding deception. I may still succumb to the siren song of a Tartuffe, but dialectical education provides a strong line of defense against it. The more people acquire such skill, the less likely they will be to fall prey to such manipulation.
Oral forms of dialogue as I conceive it can penetrate nearly every domain of
activity. It is especially important for general education, but it can
enhance the arts, human relationships, the sciences, technological action,
religion, political organization, medicine, and business. This is another sense
in which dialogue is universal or common. It is relevant
here and now for almost every endeavor and every field of activity. But its
universality is also affirmed by finding it in other places and at other times.
In ancient Greece Heraclitus envisioned the possibility of a meaning common to
all, one that unites human beings with each other and with the natural world.'
It took another century for dialogue to emerge as a fully developed form of
inquiry. Dialogue is not specific to any culture, to any gender, to any race, to
any profession, or to any nation. To illustrate this claim, I will turn to the
best examples of dialogue in its written form‑Plato's dialogues.
The dialogue opens with a conversation
between Socrates and Cephalus, a retired businessman who is a longtime friend.
This exchange begins as chat, without a clear purpose or goal. Cephalus tells
some stories about what it means to grow older, passes along some sage advice to
the younger generation, but quickly retires when Socrates begins to steer the
conversation toward serious topics for
When Polemarchus enters, the concept of justice has been introduced as an
important topic for reflection and definition. Polemarchus draws upon the ideas
of the poet Simonides and tries to articulate and defend a specific position
that he brought with him into the discussion: "Justice is the art that gives
benefit to friends and injury to enemies."6 Socrates questions that definition,
forcing the exchange into a progressively rigorous examination; Polemarchus is
reduced to silence when Socrates reveals its implicit contradictions.
Discussion is replaced by debate
when Plato's character Thrasymachus takes over. He interprets Polemarchus'
retreat as a form of losing the argument, and he cannot let Socrates win.
Socrates' relatively gentle questioning of Cephalus and Polemarchus is soon
replaced by an ardent debate, involving both Thrasymachus and Socrates. The
topic of dispute between Thrasymachus and Socrates is a serious philosophical
issue, but those two characters in Book 1 are primarily interested in refuting
each other, not coming to a common and mutually beneficial understanding or
insight about justice. Socrates affirms the unsatisfactory nature of the
I'm like a glutton who snatches a taste of every dish brought to the table,
without allowing enough time to enjoy the previous one. Before we even
discovered the nature of justice, I left that question and started asking
whether justice is virtue and wisdom, or evil and folly. Then, I couldn't help
being diverted by the question about the comparative advantages of justice and
injustice. The result is that I learned nothing. I still don't know what justice
is, and therefore I don't know whether it is or is not a virtue; nor can I say
whether the just person is happy.'
Book 1 contains important hints of the insights to come as the dialogue unfolds,
but eristic dominates over dialectic in the mighty battle between Socrates and
Thrasymachus. Even if we applaud Socrates' negative case as he refutes
Thrasymachus' version of
the most this exchange offers is a good example of how dialectic`allows us to
defend ourselves against those who try to persuade us that injustice is superior
The positive account of the nature of justice and
its ultimate relation to goodness requires several more books to develop.
Although Book 1 of Plato's
contains good examples of conversation, discussion, and debate, the exchange
does not become dialogue until Book 2, when Plato's brothers Adeimantus
and Glaucon enter the exchange:
Glaucon: Socrates, do you really want
to convince us that it is always better to be just than unjust, or do you merely
want to pretend that you have convinced us?
Socrates says that he really wants to convince them, and that opens the way for
genuine dialogue (rather than conversation, discussion, or debate). This is not
the place to follow that dialogue, nor is it possible to summarize what it
achieves in a few words."
There is a form of speaking and writing, what
Plato calls rhetoric, that cuts across the many differences that separate us and
opens the possibility of a common
venture that benefits all
who participate. Universal dialogue should be distinguished from the various
forms of exchange that limit themselves to the particular interests of
subjective and relative contexts. I do not deny the presence and power of the
particular, but I think there is great benefit if we seek what is common and
universal. Plato's works provide examples of such dialogue, inviting us to
replicate and emulate his method. It is not Plato that matters but the common
dialectical quest in which he and his characters invite us to participate. The
complex and fully developed dialogue, which many think is Plato's masterpiece,
is not manifest until Book 7.
Callicles: I would make a
distinction, Socrates. There are some rhetoricians who really do care about the
public when they speak, but there are others of the sort you describe.
Socrates: That's good enough for me.
Rhetoric, then, is of two kinds, one that is mere flattery and shameful rubbish;
and the other that is noble, aiming at the education and improvement of the
souls of the citizens. This second kind of rhetoric strives to say what is best,
whether welcome or unwelcome to the audience."
' Heraclitus, Fragment 2 (Cf. Hermann Diels
Die Fragrnente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch and Deutsch,
trans. Albert and Ueselotte Anderson [Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 19341,
p. 151). z Friedrich Nietzsche's writings are filled with attacks on the
triviality of this kind of speech. Zarathustra, for example, would prefer
silence to chatter. "Flee, my friend, into your solitude! I see you dazed by the
noise of the great men and stung all over by the stings of the little men. Woods
and crags know how to keep a dignified silence with you. Be like the tree that
you love with its wide branches: silently listening it hangs over the sea. Where
solitude ceases, the market place begins; and where the market place begins the
noise of the great actors and the buzzing of the poisonous flies begins too"
(Thus Spoke Zarathustra,
First Part, "On the Flies of the Market Place" trans. Walter Kaufmann [New York:
Viking Press, 1954.1). But Martin Heidegger, takes a more positive approach:
"The expression `idle talk' ["Gerede"] is not to be used here in a `disparaging'
signification. Terminologically, it signifies a positive phenomenon which
constitutes the kind of Being of everyday Dasein's understanding and
(Being and Time,
trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson [New York: Harper & Row, 19621, p.
"People fail to gain an understanding of the meaning presented here, both before
and after they hear it. For even if everything happens according to this
meaning, they act like novices whenever they test themselves against the words
and deeds I explain by analyzing and dissecting each according to its nature and
activity. Other people continue to remain unconscious about what they do after
they awake, just as they lose consciousness of what they do in their sleep"
(Heraclitus, Fragment 1). "Meaning" is an English rendering of the Greek word
logos, which means "law," as well as "word" and is the basis for the term
"logic." For Heraclitus logos is common or universal, uniting human law and
natural law or, perhaps more accurately, never separating them. The distinction
between nomos (human law detached from nature) and physic (natural law)
emerges as Sophistic culture develops in the works of people like Protagoras,
Thrasymachus, Gorgias, and Antiphon, all in the latter half of the 5"' century
B.C. Although Plato's dialogues provide an elaborate account of the various
Sophists, W.K.C. Guthrie offers an introduction to this culture in
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971). 6 Plato's Republic,
trans. Benjamin A. Jowett, adapted by Albert A. Anderson (Millis, Massachusetts:
Agora Publications, Inc., 199'1), 332. ' Thrasymachus, Socrates, Polemarchus,
and several of the other characters in
(some who speak and others who are named but only listen) are based on
historical individuals. But all of them, especially Socrates, are
characters created by Plato. The relationship between those characters and the
historical individuals requires considerable analysis and evaluation, but it is
a mistake to equate Plato's characters with the actual people with those names.
$ Plato's Republic, 354.
I have developed this line of
of Plato's Republic
and several other Platonic dialogues in my book Universal Justice: A Dialectical
Approach (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997).
" Plato's Gorgias, trans. Benjamin A.
Jowett, adapted by Albert A. Anderson (Millis, Massachusetts: Agora
Publications, Inc., 1994), 503.
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