Philosophy is a lot of things, but it’s also mostly talking. Think of the paradigm case: Socrates and the corrupted youth, all in togas, dust hanging in the air, the sun in their eyes. They’re not meditating. There are no test tubes. They might be drinking tea, gesturing, shaking their heads, furrowing their brows, but they’re definitely talking and listening, going back and forth, going on and on, often very agreeably disagreeing. You can hear Socrates lining up his mark, bringing low some jet-setting, jumped-up Athenian who thought he knew what he was talking about when he talked about justice.
Of course, there’s also the image of the feverish Nietzsche, sitting alone by a solitary light, getting on with his dark work in the shadows. But all those books, if they’re written well, are conversations with us, their readers. A good philosopher talks to us on the page – think of the greats you admire. Hume is in the room, arguing with you when you read him. There’s Descartes, sitting by the fire, speaking right to you.
The dialogue, the seminar, the question in the hallway, the post-talk Q&A, the blog, the panel discussion, the comment streams, the tweets – philosophy as it is today mostly gets done by talking.
We’re starting to understand the harm that living in cognitive bubbles and belief silos does to us. It’s cosy, but the damage is done not just by closing our minds but shutting down meaningful political conversations – all that is something our age might be known for as much as pandemics. We’re the first people who stopped talking, and stopped listening, to people who aren’t like us. For my part, and maybe this will strike a chord with you, I can’t remember the times people like me have agreed with me. It has happened, but it left no mark. What I can recall very clearly, what’s made me think hard, what’s made my sketchy outlook on life a little more fine-grained, has been talking to people unlike me who disagree with me. That’s when I’ve learned something. Those are the very few times I think I’ve actually been doing a little bit of philosophy. Maybe you know what I’m talking about.
This issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine is about diversity in philosophy – what’s the current state of things and what should we do about it? For a discipline that depends so much on talking, is it going too far to suggest that diversity in philosophy is an existential matter, something we better sort out or risk watching our philosophical conversations go the way of our politics?