Eight Ways to Improve Our Conversations


by Kathy


Most of us from Philosophy Workshop would be happy to help improve the process of group communication, whether or not we agree with the following list of suggestions.  First however we must all face the biggest obstacle to any improvement: habit.  It’s difficult to change the way we talk; often we speak the way we do because we’re so used to it that we can’t imagine an alternative.  But I don’t think anyone believes we’re all  stuck with our current behavior, even those of us who don’t believe in free will, but who would probably nevertheless agree that we can change for other reasons.  So I think that with some practice and effort (or insert the word you believe describes the process) and some patience with one another, we really could have even more amazing conversations.  These are my ideas about how to accomplish it, and I’m looking forward to hearing yours too.

1.     Read more philosophy

Admittedly, philosophy is often difficult to read.  If you’re a newcomer to the group and the subject, you may well want to stick to the posted essays and to learning more from other people rather than reading additional philosophy.   But once you’ve been around for a while, ask yourself, would you attend a wine group even though you never drink wine just so you could voice your opinions about it?

It helps to ask someone knowledgeable for reading recommendations.  They can probably point you toward books or essays that are less technically demanding if that’s a concern.

2.   Avoid implying that philosophy is a person and that she has come to certain sweeping conclusions

Philosophy, like most intellectual disciplines, has become professionalized since the 19th century and is practiced by a diverse group of people.  While philosophers usually agree on certain basics, such as what constitutes a reasonable argument, the laws of logic, and so on, they’ve come to little or no agreement on most of the major issues.

This should come as no surprise.  After all, if philosophers had a huge meeting, agreed on a consensus, and then published their findings, couldn’t you just go read that, accept it, and avoid thinking for yourself ever again?   While there’s no shortage of people who would be glad to tell you what to think, there is a shortage of consensus.  So when you speak, try to be precise and avoid sweeping statements about philosophy.

3.     When you mention scientific studies as part of your argument, be careful and precise

When you avoid sweeping generalizations about science and say what you specifically mean, you’ll avoid all of the following problems.

a.       Avoid implying that science is a person

Science is a process, a systemized way of approaching a study; the rules of the system have been built up through custom, the history of its practice.  As with the word “philosophy”, try not to personify science.

b.      Philosophers are the best philosophers

Is it really necessary to point out why this is so?  You would typically have to study philosophy for at least nine years before you could earn a PhD, so it follows that a doctor of philosophy usually knows philosophy best.  Similarly, within science, a myrmecologist usually knows more about ants than an astronomer.   Specialization just works that way….

But some people may be unusually resistant to this because they imagine that philosophy is nothing but the random voicing of our opinions about stuff.    Actually, philosophy in the West has consisted of some of the best minds of our civilization working on the most basic questions of meaning for at least the last 2500 years.  A student of philosophy studies what those other philosophers have said, and attempts to perfect the arts of rational argument and presentation.   If by some miracle a philosopher does all that, earns his PhD, actually finds a job, and manages to publish, don’t you think maybe he could have picked up a helpful idea or two about the subject, or developed an idea in all its implications that a myrmecologist, for example, might have been too busy with ants to have explored?

c.       Respect the difference between science and philosophy

This one’s a little tougher than the others, because some areas of philosophy have, over time, migrated into the arena of science.  It is also completely possible that more questions about the self, the mind, identity, and so on may in time migrate in that direction.

But science will never give us the answers to the most fundamental questions about supernatural belief or about values.  Why is that?  Is science somehow lacking?  No, it is not.  These just aren’t the things that science studies to begin with.  Scientists may well study the effects that ideas and beliefs have on people and the world, but the questions of rational belief, value, and interpretation fall within the realm of philosophy.

Confusing the focus of these two disciplines never fails to bring down the level of group discussions.

d.      Don’t give “science” the credit for your opinions

While it’s true that individual scientists have opinions about philosophical issues, scientists do not all convene to pass group judgment on, for instance, ethical or theological issues.   Groups of scientists do, however, occasionally take action together, such as signing a letter or petition or launching a protest on some issue.   Such groups of scientists never claim to speak for every existing scientist, so why should you?

4.     Recent is not necessarily better

Our culture admires progress.  So it’s hardly surprising that many people assume philosophy progresses in the same way as, for example, science.  Philosophy, however, is one of the humanities, and in the humanities neither the date nor the popularity of a work or idea are used to gauge their worth.  For instance, you wouldn’t expect someone to discard Shakespeare because J. K. Rowling has the latest word and is more popular, would you?

Wikipedia defines Whig history as “the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress toward enlightenment.”

To take a Whiggish approach to the history of philosophy isn’t actually an error.   But it is an error to present it as fact rather than an opinion.  Also, note that this is usually a pejorative adjective – that means that Whiggishness is usually not admired.  Consider that the term is based on the English Whig party who believed that all of history had conspired to develop the height of civilization in the form of the 19th century British Empire which would supply the final word on everything.  They were not the first or the last to be wrong about that.

5.     Try not to use your personal beliefs as the basis of an argument

Beliefs can and should appear in a discussion of philosophy.  However, it is asking too much to expect others to accept your beliefs as the basis of an argument.  For example, if I am a Druid of a certain variety and worship the Grand Ginkgo Overlord (hereafter referred to as the GGO), I may wish to mention him in a discussion of animism.  I may even wish to quote the GGO if he has made pertinent remarks on that subject.  What I should not do is tell others that they had better believe it because the GGO says so, and to ignore him is to court a total absence of reason and powdery mildew as well.  If we expect others to share our beliefs, there are many places we can find that sort of fellowship – such as churches, secular humanist groups, and so on.  But it’s out of place in a philosophy group or discussion.

People usually have no trouble understanding this when it comes to religious beliefs.  However, the same is also true when it comes to secular and cultural beliefs.

6.     Argue but don’t brawl

Some people are very sensitive to disagreement, and avoid argument at all cost.  Others enjoy a real fight.  Neither extreme is appropriate here.  People are expected to rationally argue their case, but without aggression.

7.     Use good manners if you want to get along well

Your mother was right, of course.  If you want to be liked, you should always avoid pomposity, show consideration for others, not talk too much, and not burp publically.  You know the drill.

8.     Don’t dwell on your mistakes

However, once you’ve come home from a meeting and realized that you have violated every suggestion in this list, just come back and try to do better next time.  You can put it behind you faster if you also apologize or at least make nice with anyone you may have offended.   But I can’t think of any ethics that demands you sit around feeling badly forever, and besides, this is a pretty forgiving group.


5 thoughts on “Eight Ways to Improve Our Conversations

  1. Jack Flynn

    Following these guidelines would most definitely improve the exchange of ideas. Number three I see as the most likely to be the source of conflict and misunderstanding.
    I would like to push back a little on the notion that philosophy must give ground to the forward march of science or that philosophy must be chiefly concerned with values. Regardless of what areas science investigates, I believe that in so far as science moves beyond the experimental testing of hypotheses philosophy has a role in terms of areas such as the soundness of inductive and deductive reasoning used by science to establish the validity of results and the soundness of concept formation. There are many other areas where science and philosophy overlap, but I’ll leave that for another time. I’ll certainly try to keep Kathy’s guidelines in mind or trust that she will remind me of them when needed.

    • Good point, Jack, about the overlap between science and philosophy. Perhaps they are different but compatible ways of approaching many of the same fundamental questions about life. I might even advance the possibility that philosophy encompasses science – certainly, science had its birth in philosophical investigation. And science, today, has begun to approach the edges of some questions once exclusive to philosophy, for example, in tracing neurological correlations with spiritual practices such as meditation. As science grows more powerful, I think we need philosophy all the more, to help us gain wisdom in interpreting the meaning and implications of what science offers.

  2. #1 – Read More Philosophy: For those whose interest in philosophy has just awakened, it’s crucial to know that there is no need to invest an enormous amount of time to get started. Understanding some of the basic questions of philosophy is enough. I strongly recommend starting out with Bertrand Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy”. In this short work he lays out the basics of the theory of knowledge with his typical clarity of style. In this little book Russell makes reading philosophy feel like an adventure!

  3. Marky

    Re: pwportland and #1:

    Thanks for the book suggestion, which can be downloaded for free:


    For those who procrastinate on picking up philosophy 101 texts, or who favor audio over written materials (i.e. joggers, commuters, gardeners, all-purpose multi-taskers :~), you can download a series of free lectures from Oxford U on philosophy for beginners, as well as a series on developing critical thinking skills:



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