Are We Just Talking to Ourselves?

imageOne of the banes of being philosophic lies in cultivating a crippling propensity to observe. It’s a bane because the marrow of some situations hides within a direct experience rather than making observations about it. For example, which is more pleasurable: analyzing music or listening to it?

When speaking I often find myself the victim of observation. The primary concern that has beset me is as follows:

Are we really even talking to each other?

My answer is, on the whole, no. Or at least it can’t be proved we are talking to another based on words alone.

Some may be familiar with the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this). This implies just because something succeeds another it does not follow it was caused by or in any way linked to that which preceded it. Methinks conversations might make use of this fallacy.

Doubtless many have heard conversations where clearly the other person was simply trying to get their own points across. Maybe you’ve noticed someone who always has a better story than someone else and makes sure they share it. At this level it’s easy to see there is no direct connection between what one person and the other says; it’s just two people talking at each other, not with.

But does the connection grow much stronger in a conversation where it is evident there is a single topic under discussion?

“I think I’m going to get a tattoo.”

     “What kin’a of tattoo you gonna get?”

“I’m thinking an ouroboros caught in the clutches of an owl.”

     “If you want a good one you’ll haveta pay a lot.”

“I’ve saved up some dough, so I’m good to go!”

Seems legit, eh? But check it out: let’s remove one of the participants and line up their statements:

“I think I’m going to get a tattoo.

“I’m thinking an ouroboros caught in the clutches of an owl.”

“I’ve saved up some dough, so I’m good to go!”

Now the other:

“What kin’a tattoo you gonna get?”

“If you want a good one you’ll haveta pay a lot.”

We see they are logically consistent within themselves; it is not clear the other person’s statements are necessary to facilitate the transition from one sentence to another.

The observant reader might object at the outset that I’ve fashioned this example merely to suit my own position–which isn’t completely without merit–but this type of conversation does occur, and thus lends some support to the position that at least in some cases it cannot be proved that two people are talking to each other based on their words alone.

Hopefully you were at least initially intrigued by this separation of statements, because it gets the mind where it needs to be in order to address this issue. But to be fair, let’s see a less formal dialogue:

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Not much, jus’ hangin’ out. Wanna grab lunch?”

“Nah, I can’t; I’m waiting for a package to be delivered.”

“Alright—some other time, then?”

“Just leave me alone, Jeff.”

“Have it your way.”

In isolation most these statements appear as responses or elicitors of responses. On its own either speaker’s string of statements would appear nonsensical. But this makes matters worse in some sense: We would be forced to return to the conversation in whole to determine whether we can show that one statement is somehow linked to another. But to what degree is the link there?

Read it forwards. Can you predict any following response based on either of the sentences that precede it?

Read it backwards: Can you predict any elicitation of response by the response itself?

I don’t think any perspective necessitates, predicts, or in any way determines or limits the statements that touch each other in a conversation.

imageRandom owl and ouroboros to break up all the thinking

Yet if we want to salvage the notion of a conversation, we might dig our heels in and state the following maxim:

While at least two people exchange words, and when removed one of those people’s statements by themselves appear so nonsensical someone else’s words are necessary to promote understanding, then we have what is called a ‘conversation.’ 

This seems pretty practical. But who’s being practical? This is a philosophy blog!

What if three people are talking and one is merely interjecting completely random things between the other two’s statements?

Furthermore, if we commit ourselves to the position that when a single person’s statements by themselves are so nonsensical we must assume they were talking to someone else, that would force us to conclude that the madman’s soliloquy necessitates some actual entity with which he was conversing, and thus we would admit of our own insanity. ;)

I think the only way we could view a completely sure conversation would be in what I might term a dialectical syllogism:

“All men are mortal.”

     “Socrates is a man.”

“Therefore, Socrates is mortal.”

Short of something as logical as this dialectical syllogism, which indeed almost never occurs, it appears conversations are indeterminate outcroppings that merely happen to occur in close proximity in terms of time or succession and perhaps contain related content.

That is, there is no necessary link that binds interlocutors’ statements to another’s.

Just try it out sometime. Eavesdrop and test the soundness of someone’s else conversation (or observe your own), trying to find the twine that binds. It’ll escape every time.

That leaves us free to stretch some boundaries.

Hold a ‘conversation’ with someone while speaking in such a way as to appear as though you are engaged in dialogue, but are in fact speaking about something completely different; towards or away (but not with) them; using words with multiple meanings, etc., knowing there’s no way to soundly identify necessary causality or connection.

Politicians like to engage in public dialogue—maybe see if some of their statements exhibit these qualities? I have an intuition they might already be aware of all this too.

So sneaky! Could it be? Are we all politicians in speech?