all flockbinkers are treadknicious… and other salient observations

Forays into Logic, Whimsy, Meaning, Hilarity, and Nonsense.

Tag: conversation

Elvis Wu and Jennifer Smith Further Explore the Impossible Relationship between ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Social Skills’

 

Abstract:  This is part two of a dialogue that began several posts ago, between two of our thrice-worthy protagonists–Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major, and Jennifer Smith, budding philosopher-at-large. In the first part, the two of them talked about the nature of everyday conversation, and why it is that people approach it in the ways that they do. This time, the conversation moves to the even more interesting topic of whether philosophers are capable of having a normal conversation.


 

The scene:  Elvis Wu and Jennifer Smith have been talking for a while on the patio out in front of Panera Bread in downtown Chattanooga. The topic? Philosophy, philosophers, and whether these people know how to talk about the same normal things that everyone else talks about. They started out talking about typical conversational patterns, and now they’re moving on into darker territory: What DO the philosophers talk about, when you catch them in an unguarded moment?

 

Elvis Wu:  So here’s the interesting thing. Are conversations between philosophers substantially different from conversations between regular people?

Jennifer Smith:  Um. I guess? Because they’re full of lofty thoughts.

Elvis Wu:  Oohh! I like it.

Jennifer Smith:  So, do philosophers skip the small talk? What in the world DO they talk about?

Elvis Wu:  Well, you know, the usual: departmental politics, tenure tracks, the syllabus. That sort of thing.

Jennifer Smith:  Hardy har-har.

Elvis Wu:  Really, most philosophy professors talk about the usual kinds of things. That’s why i’d rather not use them as my examples of what philosophers are like. A real philosopher…you know, someone who actually lives it…would be more like your friend Little Biffy.

Jennifer Smith:  Dang it! Somehow i knew–i just knew!–he was going to come up in this conversation. I just knew it.

Elvis Wu:  Well.

Jennifer Smith:  I just knew it.

Elvis Wu:  The dude thinks things through, and he chooses his words carefully.

Jennifer Smith:  That he does.

Elvis Wu:  And he’s never afraid to call anything into question.

Jennifer Smith:  You’re right. That he isn’t.

Elvis Wu:  He’s a philosopher.

Jennifer Smith:  I guess he is.

Elvis Wu:  And he’s a really good philosopher. He’ll not let go of a question until he’s fully satisfied that he’s gotten an answer that makes complete sense.

Jennifer Smith:  [sighs]  Yes, you’re right about that.

Elvis Wu:  Yet you seem not to appreciate these exalted qualities of his.

Jennifer Smith:  Well… they can make conversation difficult.

Elvis Wu:  Hah! Conversation isn’t always supposed to be easy.

Jennifer Smith:  [muttering things under her breath that do not sound very nice]

Elvis Wu:  There there, Jennifer. You’re a philosopher too, you know. It’s just that your philosopher side is not your favorite side of yourself.  [smiles]

Jennifer Smith:  [mutters a few more things]

Elvis Wu:  And that places you in the weeny minority, and in highly exalted company!

Jennifer Smith:  [mutters a couple more things, but at least she’s smiling now]

Elvis Wu:  He’s a pretty sharp kid. You’re fortunate that he’s picked you out to be his friend. He doesn’t connect with most people. He obviously thinks you’re pretty smart.

Jennifer Smith:  [stops muttering things, but doesn’t stop smiling]

Elvis Wu:  [smiles back]

Jennifer and Elvis:  [just a couple o’ grinnin’ fools]

Jennifer Smith:  Okay. I surrender. So, can we get back to a point you were making a minute ago? About the differences between philosophers’ conversations, and the way regular people talk to each other.

Elvis Wu:  Sure. It’s an interesting theme to explore.

Jennifer Smith:  Um. Do philosophers talk about…the weather? Do they talk about professional team sports? Do they talk about men’s fashion? How about movies and books? I suppose yes, on the books. Do they talk about nerdy books, or the regular ones?

Elvis Wu:  Whoah! That’s a lot of questions.

Jennifer Smith:  And music! Do they care about music? Or art? Do they attend the ballet? Do they go to rock concerts? I have so many questions about what philosophers are interested in!

Elvis Wu:  Apparently.

Jennifer Smith:  I mean: if your life is all about digging into things and asking the tough questions, then is it possible to be interested in the normal things that everyone else is interested in?

Elvis Wu:  Well, you’ve piled up a bunch of stuff for us to examine. Why don’t we start on in, and let’s use our little friend Biffy as the archetype of a philosopher.

Jennifer Smith:  Um, okay. The little nerdo.

Elvis Wu:  He’s a perfect live model to make use of here, because we both know him and we’ve got some idea of what sorts of things he would talk about, think about, take an interest in.

Jennifer Smith:  Okay. I surrender. Little Biffy it is.

Elvis Wu:  You mentioned art, music, and dance. Let’s start there.

Jennifer Smith:  Sure.

Elvis Wu:  So, if Biffy were to express an opinion about the arts, what sort of opinion would it be, and what sort of basis would he have for it?

Jennifer Smith:  You’re asking ME?

Elvis Wu:  Sure. You’ve dialogued with him enough to know what kinds of approaches he’s likely to take in the analysis of an idea.

Jennifer Smith:  [sigh]  I guess so. Well, let’s see. Biffy might say something like, “What is the purpose of art, and does this particular sculpture serve that purpose?”

Elvis Wu:  Marvelous! I think you may be on to something.

Jennifer Smith:  And then he might say, “This sculpture, for instance, looks like a lobster whose innards were blown out by a hand grenade and then swept into a little pile. In what way does this serve the purpose of sculpture as an artistic medium?”

Elvis Wu:  You’re nailing it. I almost feel like he’s speaking through you.

Jennifer Smith:  [smiles]  And then he would say, “If a sculpture is supposed to represent some aspect of the concrete world, then this one has failed. But might there be other aspects of reality that the sculptor was attempting to capture?”

Elvis Wu:  Wow. Go on.

Jennifer Smith:  And then he might say, “Why don’t we start by laying down some definitions. What do we mean by the term ‘art,’ and what are we saying when we claim that a given work of art is ‘good’?”

Elvis Wu:  I’m in awe. It’s almost as if you ARE Little Biffy.

Jennifer Smith:  I’ve had enough conversations with him by now, to guess where he might go in our little scenario.

Elvis Wu:  You’re doing great. So, let’s stop there, and examine what he’s said so far.

Jennifer Smith:  The little dude’s barely getting started.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing]  I realize that, but you’ve already given us some good material to start with.

Jennifer Smith:  Good-o.

Elvis Wu:  So, one of the things he’s wanting us to do is to start out with definitions. How very Socratic! Our man Socrates would have done exactly the same thing. What is art? And what does it mean for something to be good? If we’re not clear on these two things, then the whole discussion turns out to be pointless.

Jennifer Smith:  But doesn’t everyone just sort of intuitively know what art is? I’m not Biffy right now, i’m me. Forgive me if it’s a stupid question.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing]  Not at all! The majority of people would probably say something similar. So, here’s my response. My little nephew recently created an art installation that involved some play-doh, a pile of weeds from the back yard, and one of his own bowel movements.

Jennifer Smith:  Eewww!

Elvis Wu:  Right, right! So, how should we approach this body of material… as an art object? As a pile of nonsense? Or something else?

Jennifer Smith:  You’re not being fair. Most art isn’t like that.

Elvis Wu:  It’s astonishing, the range of material that’s being offered to the public these days, under the title of ‘art’.

Jennifer Smith:  Um, okay. I guess that’s true. So how WOULD we define art?

Elvis Wu:  Well, i suspect our young friend Biffy would say something like, “Let us define ‘art’ as that which has been created not primarily for its usefulness, but in order to satisfy our ideas of what constitutes ‘beauty,’ or, at any rate, ‘the visually interesting’.”

Jennifer Smith:  Okay, i give up. You’re way better at channeling the Biff-ster than i am.

Elvis Wu:  Ah, i have learned from a master! So do you like the definition?

Jennifer Smith:  Sure, i guess. I’d have to think about it for years to really decide whether i agree fully with it or not. So let’s just say: yeah. It’s a good definition.

Elvis Wu:  Honestly, it’s as good a definition as we’re likely to come across anywhere in the literature on art, or philosophy–or, for that matter, philosophy of art.

Jennifer Smith:  [smiles]  I’m not even going to ask you if there’s really such a thing as “philosophy of art.”

Elvis Wu:  Oh, there are branches of philosophy for everything. Philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of knowledge, philosophy of education, religion, history. Every academic field has a corresponding body of philosophers who’ve taken an interest in that particular area of study… but they approach it as philosophers, not as scientists or religious leaders.

Jennifer Smith:  I mean, wow. I had no idea that the field of philosophy was so diverse!

Elvis Wu:  That’s a whole conversation by itself, and we probably want to get back to the one we were having–about art, examined philosophically.

Jennifer Smith:  Wow. But okay.

Elvis Wu:  So, Biffy–that is, you playing Biffy–also wanted to know what would be a good definition for a ‘good’ work of art. Even if we can establish what art is, in general, how do we decide whether a particular work of art is a ‘good’ one?

Jennifer Smith:  Yeah, wow. That *is* a good question.

Elvis Wu:  Everyone’s heard of the Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s David, and maybe a painting or two by Picasso. What sets these monumental works of art off as examples of what art can be, at its best?

Jennifer Smith:  Wouldn’t you have to have a degree in art, or something, to even begin to be able to talk about that? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Elvis Wu:  Certainly, it’s a complex topic. And maybe we don’t need to get into it for now. What we were trying to do, if you recall, was to figure out what a properly ‘philosophical’ approach to things would look like, and i think we’ve at least made a start at finding out.

Jennifer Smith:  You’re letting me off easy.

Elvis Wu:  Well, to be honest, i’ve got a class coming up in a bit, and i need to get over to the university. Which means you’re off the hook for now.  [smiles]

Jennifer Smith:  Um, do you think we might be able to pick this conversation back up at some point? It was starting to get interesting.

Elvis Wu:  Well, you really ARE a philosopher, aren’t you!

Jennifer Smith:  Um. Maybe. I think the jury may still be out on that one.

Elvis Wu:  Well, when the jury convenes again, we shall discuss the philosophy of art in more detail! For now, mademoiselle: adieu, adieu, adieu.

Jennifer Smith:  Um, adieu right back at you, dude.

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Smith and Elvis Wu Talk About Whether ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Social Skills’ Are Mutually Exclusive Categories

 

Abstract:  So here’s a challenge for ya. Imagine a philosopher. Got him? Okay. Now imagine him entering into a normal, everyday conversation with someone. What, you say you can’t imagine that? Well, my dear reader, you are not alone. There are vast numbers of people out there who have no idea what philosophers talk about when they’re not philosophizing. Perhaps, then, this blog post will be of help to you. Because, please understand, Elvis Wu is the consummate philosopher…but he knows how to talk about all manner of things.


 

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Jennifer Smith is hanging out on the front patio at the Panera Bread in downtown Chattanooga, sipping a latte and reading something by Debbie Macomber. (If you were to ask her, “So what’s the title of the book you’re reading?” she would roll her eyes at you. She would probably not even know the title. She doesn’t typically make her reading selections based on their substantial content…and she figures that the title is more or less randomly chosen anyway.) However, when Elvis Wu spies her sitting at her table on the sidewalk, the first thing that pops into his mind is not the title of her book. He is, as ever, focused on matters of greater substance.

Elvis Wu:  Well, if it isn’t Jennifer Smith! Fond greetings to you!

Jennifer Smith:  Er, “fond greetings” to you as well, Elvis.  [she smirks playfully]

Elvis Wu:  Hah! Do you take exception to my somewhat unusual salutation? I guess no one else says “fond greetings.” Yet it’s precisely what i meant.

Jennifer Smith:  It’s okay. At least you didn’t say, “I choose to greet you with fondness in my heart,” or something extra uber-nerdy like that.

Elvis Wu:  [contemplative]  Wow, that one was really good. I’ll have to file it away for future reference.

Jennifer Smith:  Rar rar rar. So what are you up to today, good sir?

Elvis Wu:  It’s a beautiful afternoon, no? So i’m just walking about the downtown area soaking up some rays before the really wintry weather sets in.

Jennifer Smith:  Good plan. I guess that’s sort of what i’m doing, as well. You got big plans for Thanksgiving?

Elvis Wu:  Oh, i’ll be getting together with some friends for our own version of a Thanksgiving feast.

Jennifer Smith:  Sweet.

Elvis Wu:  And you?

Jennifer Smith:  Thanksgiving dinner with the fam. We all sort of live around the Chattanooga area.

Elvis Wu:  Nice! Well, i hope you and your family have a delightful holiday.

Jennifer Smith:  Thanks. I guess you’ll be spending your holiday wishing “fond greetings” to people.

Elvis Wu:  Well, probably something along those lines. Do you approve?

Jennifer Smith:  You know, it’s funny. We do have all these accepted ways of talking to each other, that have sort of developed as fixed conversation patterns. And even slight departures from the basic “hi, how ya doin” sort of thing really do come off as odd. I just never really bother to think about it.

Elvis Wu:  A terrific observation! I like to mess with those conversation templates a bit, when i think i can get away with it, to shake people up a bit–get them out of their fixed ways of thinking about conversation.

Jennifer Smith:  No wonder you seem to have a somewhat limited friend pool.

Elvis Wu:  Mmm. Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Smith:  I’m sorry–that didn’t come out the way i intended it to.

Elvis Wu:  No, it’s okay. You’re right. I choose my friends carefully, and not usually on the basis of whether they know how to talk like regular people.  [smiles]

Jennifer Smith:  Gosh, i just don’t know if i could be that committed. When i’m talking with someone, i don’t want to have to think through every single thing i’m saying to make sure it’s fresh and original and…

Elvis Wu:  Genuine?

Jennifer Smith:  Owch. Touché. Sure, okay–genuine. We all have these conversational patterns that we’ve learned–it sure does make talking with people a lot easier than if we had to come up with brand new stuff every time.

Elvis Wu:  I get that. And, really, the whole idea of “social skills” is largely attached to whether a person has mastered those ready-made templates for conversation. Philosophers, regrettably… [he smiles sadly] …tend not to have the reputation for making use of the regular conversational patterns that everyone else does.

Jennifer Smith:  Well, i mean, you’ve got excellent social skills. But then, i don’t think you represent all philosophers very well.

Elvis Wu:  Shall i interpret that as a compliment?

Jennifer Smith:  By all means.

Elvis Wu:  So. I wonder if it’s possible to be a true philosopher, and at the same time have excellent social skills?

Jennifer Smith:  Gosh, i don’t see why not. In principle, y’know? Philosophers like to talk about real stuff, real issues–but surely that can be done without wierding out the people you’re talking with.

Elvis Wu:  Fair enough.

Jennifer Smith:  Y’know, i have wondered sometimes–what it would be like if people had conversations based on what they were really thinking and feeling. So much of the stuff that we say to each other really does seem to be memorized junk. I do it. We all do it. Well, not you.  [she scowls at him]

Elvis Wu:  [laughs]  Why don’t we try an experiment?

Jennifer Smith:  Er, an experiment? Like what?

Elvis Wu:  Like, let’s try to have a regular sort of conversation, and analyze it as we go along.

Jennifer Smith:  Oohh. I do not EVEN know about that.  [she smiles]  But sure.

Elvis Wu:  Okay. Why don’t you start? Pretend that you just walked up to me, and you want to initiate a conversation. Do you start with a greeting?

Jennifer Smith:  Uh–sure. I’d say, like, “Hi, how’s it going.”

Elvis Wu:  Whoah, stop, stop! We could spend the next half hour just analyzing that!

Jennifer Smith:  Oh golly, let’s not. Please.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing]  Okay. Let me just make a couple of observations.

Jennifer Smith:  Fire away.

Elvis Wu:  First, there’s the word “hi,” which essentially doesn’t mean anything. Think about it. What does “hi” mean? It’s basically a way of acknowledging the other person. “Hi,” “hello,” “greetings,” etc. are basically just ways of saying, “I acknowledge your value and the relevance of your presence in my life,” something like that.

Jennifer Smith:  OMG. I do not even.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing]  And then there’s the part where you said, “how’s it going.”

Jennifer Smith:  Mmm-hmm. And now i’m thinking, i have no real idea what that means.

Elvis Wu:  Ah! Well, perhaps it means something like, “I wonder what the–long or short, depending on the circumstances of the conversation–table of contents of your life would feature, were you to lay it out for me.”

Jennifer Smith:  Elvis, you are so weird.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing again]  Oh, it’s probably gonna get worse. So then, if i were a normal sort of person, i might reply to you, “Oh, nothin’ much. You?”

Jennifer Smith:  Mmm, that sounds right.

Elvis Wu:  Which is a completely wasted opportunity to talk about real things, but we can set that to one side for now.

Jennifer Smith:  Good. Please.

Elvis Wu:  So it’s basically just a reflexion of what the first person said, and we’ve already covered that.

Jennifer Smith:  [breathes a sigh of relief]

Elvis Wu:  So then, what would you say next?

Jennifer Smith:  Um, i might say, “Not a whole lot.” Or, if i really wanted to talk about what’s going on in my life, i might mention something specific, like, “Well gee, i just got a raise! That’s pretty cool.”

Elvis Wu:  Nice! You’ve provided two possible branches the conversation might take. The first one isn’t very interesting, so let’s pursue the second.

Jennifer Smith:  Okay.

Elvis Wu:  If i’m really interested in you, and the circumstances of your life, i might pursue the idea of your raise. How much? Was it for doing good work? Will it enable you to expand your household budget?

Jennifer Smith:  People don’t usually go into all that.

Elvis Wu:  No: Because people usually aren’t all that interested in learning about what’s going on in your life. Sad but true.

Jennifer Smith:  Harsh!

Elvis Wu:  Am i wrong?

Jennifer Smith:  Er, well, not really. Most conversations take only a few seconds, and don’t go into any real detail at all.

Elvis Wu:  Well. So if i’m really interested in you as a person, i might pursue the details of your job situation. But if i’m not, or if time is limited, i might just say, “Sweet! That’s great.”

Jennifer Smith:  Sounds about right.

Elvis Wu:  And what would you say in response?

Jennifer Smith:  Well, maybe something like, “And what’s up with you?”

Elvis Wu:  Perfect! And, again, if they really feel like engaging you, they might come up with something interesting that’s going on in their life. Otherwise, they’ll probably just say, “Aw, nothin’ much.”

Jennifer Smith:  Yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes.

Elvis Wu:  And that takes us to the exit point, if the two people aren’t really interested in pursuing a real conversation, or they haven’t got the time. So one of ’em might say, “Well, all the best to ya!” And the other one might reply, “Sure, man, you hang in there!” Both of which could be translated, roughly, to mean, “I hope your future circumstances are consistent with your best plans and hopes,” something like that.

Jennifer Smith:  Something like that.

Elvis Wu:  And then they go their separate ways.

Jennifer Smith:  My word.

Elvis Wu:  Such a funny thing, conversation.

Jennifer Smith:  Y’know, from now on i’m going to be terrified–well, maybe half terrified, and half curious–about what you’re really thinking when we chat.

Elvis Wu:  Ah! Such a feeling of power.  [clasps his hands under his chin after the fashion of someone named “Smedley” or “Igor”]

Jennifer Smith:  Dude, you are SO strange, i cannot EVEN.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing heartily]  I assure you, my thoughts are nothing but charitable toward you, even when you’re talkin’ ’bout nothin’.

Jennifer Smith:  [smiles]  Well, that’s comforting. Sort of.

 

 

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