Sunday, February 14, 2010

Professor Bart Verschaffel: "Culture of Discussion"

In looking around for material on the concept "culture of discussion" -- something that I've written on previously -- I came upon the transcriptions of presentations given at an ECCM Symposium on the "Productivity of Culture." The acronym "ECCM" stands for "European Capitals of Culture and Months," and I suppose that Athens is one of these capitals, for the symposium was held there from the 17th to the 21st of October in 2007, thus a little over two years ago.

One of the speakers was Professor Bart Verschaffel, a philosopher and head of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at the University of Gent, in Belgium, and he had some very interesting, even fascinating remarks on the West's "culture of discussion" that I would like to quote at length from his text, "On the importance of the Idea of Europe and the disadvantages of its reality," though I have made paragraph breaks for ease in reading:

First of all the discussion, the primordial instrument of democracy, as invented in Greece from the 5th Centry BC on.

The discussion is a very peculiar game with amazing presuppositions. A discussion differs completely from a dialogue: it is not 'listening to what the other has to say', it is not an 'exchange' and not an 'encounter'. The discussion is a war game fought with questions and arguments to find out if somebody is right or not, this is: to find out if what somebody says is true. And because there is no criterion to recognize 'truth' with absolute certainty -- we are not sofoi but filosofei, we are not wise but we strive for wisdom -- the discussion is the game of question and argument and reply used for testing if a statement or an idea 'holds'. If it does, it is convincing because it brings evidence or clarification and argument. Many divergent and even contradictory ideas can be argued for, so that a discussion never leads to the once conclusive truth. Knowing for sure that somebody is wrong is a possible outcome of the discussion, but the first and most important lesson is that nobody is ever for once and always 'right'. Nobody owns the truth. But the discussion happens in the name of Truth. The game of the discussion is about finding out and demonstrating that somebody is wrong, because he contradicts himself or cannot bring evidence or arguments. The discussion, therefore, is a very dangerous game.

First of all because one can start a discussion about anything. Not only about practical matters and business interests, but also about 'culture' or the meanings a society lives by: about values and beauty, about the existence of god, about what is just and how to legitimate power. Or about what makes European culture 'white'? Or the minor languages so special that we have to save them from the English [language]? We all know that, starting from the ancient Greeks themselves, most societies don't like questions like these, and in general don't like the game of the discussion. They want to control what is being talked about. And probably not without a reason: playing with the meanings a society lives by is indeed unsettling and dangerous, because it suspends the 'rightness' of a culture and undermines its self-confidence.

But the discussion is even more dangerous and destabilizing for a second reason: the discussion introduces in society the reality of the game situation that confers to each participant an equal position and suspends authority. In the discussion all participants have the right to speak and only the arguments count. It doesn't matter if they are spoken by man or woman, student or professor, rich or poor, and it doesn't matter what family or party they belong to. It doesn't count who speaks. What counts is the truth and the power of the argument. The game situation of the discussion implies that very real and very effective social differences -- 'authority' -- is put between brackets (as long as the game lasts). This can indeed be threatening and destabilizing, and tempt to forbid or control the 'discussion'. Because in reality it does matter who speaks: the speakers are not equal, and they have many other interests than just finding the truth. For many societies the discussion inherently implies an aggressive lack of respect for 'real' dignity and the power at place. They would maybe promote 'dialogue' and 'mutual respect', 'exchange' and 'hospitality', and even the 'freedom of opinion', but they wouldn't want discussion -- they cannot afford to agree with the game where the others can start from radically and openly questioning your truths.

It took several hundred and even thousand years for the West to adopt principally rational discussion as a means to settle conflicts, to accept the conditions of the 'game' of discussion, and to introduce discussion as a means to prepare decision-making -- in politics, in science, in education . . . Time and again 'real' power interests, authority, institutional positions, or some kind of truth is introduced to limit free discussion. There is always some kind of belief, be it scientific or political correctness, that tries to win control. But the specificity and the importance of the intellectual culture of the West resides in this culture of discussion, that -- as implied by the game itself -- can never be appropriated by those who have invented it or who play the game. The importance of the intellectual tradition of the West doesn't come from that line of thinking that believes in the power and effectiveness of rationality and scientific triumphs, but resides in the line of thinking that promotes discussion and doubt, from Socrates and Diogenes to Montaigne and Bayle, Voltaire and Nietzsche, and Valery.

On this final point by Verschaffel, I have some doubts, for I think that rationality and science are not purely instrumental but promote discussion and doubt as part of their search for truth and are simply special cases of the larger culture of discussion. But let that be. I want to look more closely at some of Verschaffel's other points.

I dislike the metaphor of "war game," because war is a zero-sum activity in which one side gains at the expense of the other, the object being to defeat the other side. That might better fit as metaphor describing the practice of competitive debate, where each side aims to win by vanquishing the other side, for they are bellicose opponents, enemies. Discussion need not be debate in this sense of pitting mutual antagonists against one another. Since the aim is to attain truth, rather than to destroy an enemy, discussion can be a mutually beneficial 'game.'

I would also prefer a concept other than "game" for the dialogue that takes place during discussion because this concept implies an artificial situation set off from the more serious business of life. As such, players follow the rules during play but eventually finish the game and walk away from it . . . until the next time to play. But discussion of the sort under consideration here follows rules that apply to all of life. One ought to have reasons and evidence for one's positions. The 'game' never really ends.

Perhaps the views of J├╝rgen Habermas on communicative action better express the role of discussion as a social activity that, ideally, pervades an entire culture, though it is not the only sort of discourse, nor is culture defined solely by discourse. Verschaffel seems to think of discussion as a more narrowly circumscribed activity of the sort that takes place in seminars, but he also recognizes that it is a "dangerous game" because it, again ideally, poses questions about everything and gives every discussant an equal role. In principle, nothing is sacrosanct, and nobody is the final authority. It thus transforms individuals and even society, and is therefore potentially a destabilizing activity.

As Verschaffel notes, "most societies don't like questions like these, and in general don't like the game of the discussion," and that in part accounts for the social conflict that we see taking place in Europe between the larger European society and the Islamic society currently expanding there. The Islamic world does not tolerate open discussion about Muhammad, for example, that would raise questions about his status as moral paradigm.

This intolerance is not unexpected, for as Verschaffel notes:
It took several hundred and even thousand years for the West to adopt principally rational discussion as a means to settle conflicts, to accept the conditions of the 'game' of discussion, and to introduce discussion as a means to prepare decision-making -- in politics, in science, in education . . .
Looks like we're in for a long 'discussion.'

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