Knowing what we are saying



“Indeed, truth is in their opinions, but not at the point where they imagine it to be.” (Pascal)


There is a recurring obstacle when it comes to understand the nature and issues of the philosophical exercise taking place in the form of a discussion. It consists in thinking that to philosophize amounts to merely expressing oneself, communicating something or defending a thesis. Even if it is possible to lead a philosophical exchange in many ways, including those just mentioned, we want to emphasize here the idea of a philosophical discourse that reflects itself, that sees itself and that develops in a conscious and determined way. We are starting from the assumption that to philosophize is not merely to think, but that it raises a more specific injunction: philosophizing enjoins one to think about thinking, to think about one’s own thought. It thus convenes ideas, while being conscious, or at least trying to be, of the nature, fragility, implications and consequences of the ideas that we express. Here we mean being conscious of our ideas and, of course, of those of our partners. Than only can speech be an interpellation of our ‘being’.

The principle we are referring to here does not claim to diminish the role of intuition, of spontaneous speech, or even of the approximate understanding that guides many discussions, but we hope to catch the reader’s eye, for a moment, so that he can behold the visible limits of certain types of exchanges which, out of complacency or ignorance, remain below themselves. Overall, let’s say that the problem is what can be called ‘associative thinking’. It functions under the general scheme of “it reminds me of something”, modeled on “I want to bounce back on” so popular in televised debates, or again the popular “I would like to add that” or the “I want to nuance that”. So many expressions that, in the end, mean not much, often saying what they do not say or stating a point that they did not mention.

In the classroom, this takes the form of a tendency, on the part of the teacher, to prioritize the expression of ideas, as vague as they may be, over any other considerations: the student expressed himself, it is good! This consideration is pushed to such an extent that the teacher is ever ready to conclude the statements of the student, to put words in his mouth under the pretext of reformulation, solely to be able to say: he said something, he talked! If such concerns and behaviors can be understood within certain types of linguistic exercises, it may become problematic for the philosophical work. In support of our hypothesis, we will describe some specific skills related to the discussion, which we deem essential to philosophical work.


Speaking at the right time

Some people will object us that the requirement to “speak at the right time” is only a superficial concern, devoid of real substance. There are two possible reasons for this. Either because the rule is conceived as a mere act of politeness: not to interrupt a speaker, for example. Either because it is motivated solely by a practical concern: to speak at the same time as someone else prevents proper listening and understanding. But such perspectives forget the primary goal of philosophizing: the relation to one’s own speech. The mere fact of being able to solicit or to deliberately mobilize one’s speech and mind, not through some kind of fortuitous and uncontrolled chain of events but by a willful act, conscious of itself, is already fundamentally modifying the relationship between oneself and one’s thought. What is more, if the idea in question does not become the subject of a dialogue with oneself, it is to be feared that the idea, as it will arise unexpectedly, will neither be understood nor heard from its author. To verify this, to see the problem, simply ask a child or an adult whose words sprang spontaneously to repeat what he just said. More often than not he won’t be able to do so.

There is a reason for this omission: the clumsy and awkward aspect of this behavior indicates self-devaluation. “My own ideas have no value, why would I express them? Why would I care about their form and appearance? Why would I talk to be heard? Besides, how can I chose the appropriate time to utter them? My speech comes out in spite of me, maybe even against my will. It does not belong to me.” Thus, when we ask this individual to talk at the “right time”, it is a significant effort that we ask from him, but a most necessary one. This kind of work involves going deep into oneself, something which, although not always easy, is vital.

The problem is the same when we ask that people raise their hands before talking, even if it seems difficult, especially with young children. Why not turn this requirement into an exercise in itself? But it might be a bit frustrating for the teacher, who primarily wants to show to others and to himself that “his” children have ideas. Yet perhaps they simply repeat what they heard at home or at school, but it feels so good to hear it. While the fact of talking at the right time, on the contrary, shows that the child knows how to do what he must, and that a non-accidental inner debate has been initiated. And, with nuances, it is the same for adults. To take distance from oneself, by decoupling one’s speech and self, is a constitutive act of being.


Finishing one’s idea

As we have mentioned, it is so tempting to finish the sentence of one’s interlocutor, child or adult! But if we think about it, what drives us if not some kind of impatience taking the guise of a superficial and complacent empathy? If the child falls, is it necessary to rush to lift him up, or can we give him the opportunity to do it by himself, even if he cries, so that he learns to help himself on his own. Especially since the words or sentence parts that are obligingly provided by the teacher or the neighbor might be very far, or very short, of what the speaker wanted to articulate. But just like a drowning man rushes on whatever is thrown at him, without thinking, even if that thrown object might be of no use to him, someone who looks for his words often instinctively grabs whatever words are told to him, without analyzing their content nor even their effectiveness or correctness.

Invariably, while claiming to help the other, what we seek above all is to please ourselves. We shamelessly give in to our impulses. While the one who is struggling to complete his task is trying to do important work on himself and his thought. This does not mean that he must toil without any assistance whatsoever, but the first kind of help that he deserves is to be allowed time, so that he can find his way by himself without the external pressure of the group or of the authority, to rush him while pretending to help. If there is really a deadlock, some procedures might be devised to allow him out. For example, by learning to say “I can’t make it”, “I am stuck”, or by asking “can someone else help me?” Because, from that moment onward, the problem has been articulated, it is signaled, and in this way the person remains free and autonomous, since he is conscious of the issue and is able to express it in his own words.


The role of the idea

Leibniz makes the risky assumption that it is not in the thing in itself, but in the connection that the living substance is to be found. Taking advantage of this insight, we suggest that what distinguishes philosophical thought from the general one is precisely the “connection”, that is to say the expressed relationship between ideas. In itself, an idea is just an idea and a word a word, but within the grammatical, syntactic and logical articulation, the word, since it becomes operative, reaches the status of concept, and the idea takes part in the elaboration of thoughts, since by joining other thoughts it helps to construct and build.

It is not so much the ideas that we are seeking, however smart and brilliant they may be, else the discussion would look like a vague shopping list, like a vulgar debate of opinions, thus producing a disordered and inchoate global thinking. What we are looking for are links, connections, relations, involving the mastery over these connectors generally so poorly understood and applied, beginning with the “but”, and proceeding through the “yes, but”. We are aiming at an increased understanding of the relationships and correlations between the propositions. How many dialogues are exchanging conflictual statements without noticing the slightest contradiction, without evaluating the potential problematic! How many statements of disagreement that fail to precise or to perceive the specific character of the disagreement, while the competing statements are not even concerned with the same object, or again they state the same idea but use different words.

So, rather than hastening out other ideas, or other intuitions, before piling up even more words, why not taking some time to identify and to evaluate the relationship between concepts and ideas, so as to become aware of the nature and scope of our words. But there again, impatience reigns: this is laborious work. It is apparently less glorious and most frustrating, yet, is it not more consistent?

Also, a simple exercise, let’s ask the one who is about to talk to announce first the intention of his speech, to articulate the link between his intention and what has already been said, to qualify his speech. If he can’t make it, he should recognize it and try to fulfill this task once his speech has been said. If he still can’t make it, he can then ask others if they can help him. But to achieve this, one must be interested in the already expressed words, and not solely to think about what one wants to say, even if the grass is always greener on the other side. One must set himself a goal, bind himself to it, focus and not let oneself be overflowed by the inner turmoil when ideas are scrambling at the gate like a subway exit at rush hour. Hegel would call it a, “Schwärmerei”, the roar of a swarm of wasps where nothing can be distinguished anymore.

It is not sufficient to simply say something, but one must determine in a deliberate way what he wants to say, to tell effectively what he wants to, and to know what he is saying. Otherwise the discussion can be quite nice and friendly, but is it philosophical? It is not sincerity nor profound words that qualify a philosophical talk. One like the other fall into the trap of evidence, because it is possible to transmit an idea or to repeat what we have heard without knowing what we have said, without grasping the content of our speech, its implications and consequences. What are the key words of our statements, what we could call the ‘concepts’? What is the principal proposition that underpins the others? How to synthetize our words? What is the main idea that is not expressed but that is nevertheless present? What allows us to say what we say? What are the propositions and how are they articulated? What is the potential for contradiction in our discourse? On what ignorance does it rest?

To philosophize, as an attitude, perhaps stands on a fundamental act of faith: all discourse is limited, biased, contradictory, incomplete or false with respect to various requirements, such as truth, reality, efficiency, transparency, intent, etc. Thus, the opposition does not lie between those who have a perfect speech and those who suffer from various imperfections, but between those who are aware of their own shortcomings and those who prefer to ignore them.

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