How Things Are Between Us, 2

As I wrote in a recent post, it’s reductive and misleading, but all too common, to think about conversations as mere transactions. I ask and you bid; I have my say and you have yours. But in conversation with another person or a group, I can’t be indifferent to how things are between us. If I am actually and persistently indifferent, then I might be a sociopath or another kind of dangerous person. If I am a relatively decent person and happen to lapse into indifference, you can justly complain that I am neither respecting the standing and authority you and others have, nor am I seriously committed to our conversation, which amounts to the same thing.

Grice writes about conversation as “talk exchange,” and that formulation worries me a little, but he clearly has in mind something more than the transaction we entertain when we talk about “an exchange of views.” The phrase, which might suit diplomatic occasions where distinguished persons stand up and make speeches to let their official positions be known (before retreating from public view to have a conversation about what to do), falls short of capturing exactly the point Grice invites us to make: talking things over, figuring out what to do, making meaning, reaching agreement or finding out where we disagree — all of that is a cooperative undertaking, a joint activity.

Cooperation doesn’t mean we set aside differences; even the most charitable interlocutors can be deeply and persistently antagonistic. Like all good collaboration, conversation tends to bring differences to the fore. It puts them out in the open, we sometimes say; and it’s worth pausing over that expression and considering where that open ground might be, and why we regard it as open. But if we pretend we are just trading or trafficking in (different) views, we are ignoring the common ground already beneath our feet. This ignorance opens to the door to all sorts of abuses and indecencies.

Charles Taylor goes much further in this regard:

…language serves to place some matter out in the open between interlocutors. One might say that language enables us to put things in public space. That something emerges into what I want to call public space means that it is no longer a matter for me, or for you, or for both of us severally, but is now something for us, that is for us together.
Let us say that you and I are strangers travelling together through some southern country. It is terribly hot, the atmosphere is stifling. I turn to you and say: ‘Whew, it’s hot.’ This does not tell you anything you did not know; neither that it is hot, nor that I suffer from the heat. Both these facts were plain to you before. Nor were they beyond your power to formulate; you probably had already formulated them.
What the expression has done here is to create a rapport between us, the kind of thing which comes about when we do what we call striking up a conversation. Previously I knew that you were hot, and you knew that I was hot, and I knew that you must know that I knew that, etc.: up to about any level that you care to chase it. But now it is out there as a fact between us that it is stifling in here. Language creates what one might call a public space, or a common vantage point from which we survey the world together.
To talk about this kind of conversation in terms of communication can be to miss the point. For what transpires here is not the communication of certain information. This is a mistaken view; but not because the recipient already has the information. Nothing stops A making a communication to B of information already in B’s possession. It may be pointless, or misguided, or based on a mistake, but it is perfectly feasible. What is really wrong with the account in terms of communication is that it generally fails to recognize public space. It deems all states of knowledge and belief to be states of individual knowers and believers. Communication is then the transmittal, or the attempted transmittal, of such states.
But the crucial and highly obtrusive fact about language, and human symbolic communication in general, is that it serves to found public space, that is to place certain matters before us. This blindness to the public is of course (in part anyway) another consequence of the epistemological tradition, which privileges a reconstruction of knowledge as a property of the critical individual. It makes us take the monological observer’s standpoint not just as a norm, but somehow as the way things really are with the subject. And this is catastrophically wrong.

2 thoughts on “How Things Are Between Us, 2

  1. marctognotti


    Although in the rest of your post you backed off from it, I really liked your framing of what you call the ask/bid model of conversation:

    “The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity.”

    Now, I might be misunderstanding your concept. But the fact is I see a lot of untapped potential in it, whereas in your post you seemed to abandon it as unsatisfactory, mentioning some concerns.


    I feel some obligation to attend to your concerns before I talk about what excited me in your formulation:

    1. “it reduces human relationships to market transactions.”

    2. “we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them.”

    3. what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating.… After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation.

    Somehow I don’t see the basic bid/ask model running afoul of any of these concerns.

    First, does it necessarily reduce human relationships to market transactions? I didn’t see it that way. Let’s say, for example, that I want to strike up a friendship with someone to pursue a matter of civic concern. I might tell them what I have in mind and ask if they are interested in joining me. As I see it, that’s a “bid,” which may or may not satisfy an implicit “ask” on the part of the person I approached (to be evidenced by their response). So here you’ve got your bid/ask model applied to a circumstance that isn’t a market transaction. (Am I missing something here?)

    Second, while I fully share your wish for a “loose” and “non-linear” model, I seem to see how the bid/ask model (or an expanded conception of it) could in fact be understood in a very complex and non-linear way, e.g. where you would have, in an ordinary conversation, multiple explicit and implicit bid-asks going in both directions and on different levels, including the non-verbal, continuously. (If we use a group model rather than frame our thinking as a conversation of two, the web of non-linearity and complexity are immense.) You cite a study by some folks at the Max Planck Institute who say that human conversation is typically complex and non-linear, and includes all kinds of sub-or barely-verbal components, some even beneath the level of awareness, and that all of these complex interactions — framed under the rubric of “other-initiated repairs” — go on all the time and in both directions during a typical conversation. You suggest that these findings somehow reveal the “bid/ask” model to be oversimple or rigid. Yet I notice that (in your account of the matter) the Max Planck authors classify “other-initiated repairs” under three categories that themselves fit the bid/ask terminology: i.e., their categories are “open requests,” “restricted requests,” and “offers.” So a bid/ask model, it seems to me, can be understood as accommodating something very loose, non-linear and even sub-conscious.

    Third, you say that what’s “really missing” from the bid/ask model is “human relationship”: “Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price.” Again, there’s something in what you are saying that I really support: Human relationship and commitment are at the core of what I’m looking for, too: I believe, with you, that all conversation includes as a critical and essential component some form of commitment. But I don’t see that shared commitment is absent from your bid/ask model, at least as I’m understanding it. Instead, I think that human relationship and joint commitment — albeit in a simplified and reduced form — are not only present but fundamental sine qua nons for even such a brief and superficial interaction as a stock trade or a grocery purchase. Such transactions can’t take place except under conditions of commitment, trust and confidence on many levels — conditions to some degree present in the present intentions of the interacting parties, and to some degree also built into the public “shared world” which both have accepted and that makes their interactions possible in the first place. The transactional exchanges depend upon all parties following a wide range of accepted, mutually-understood norms, procedures and practices within a shared, familiar, stable and trusted world. True, the seller and buyer might not continue in their “conversation” past the exchange of goods and cash, but we can say about all conversations and mutual commitments that they are limited by some agreed-upon scope and purpose. So this is arguably a matter only of degree, not essential difference. The fact that a stock trade doesn’t reach the level of a sustained mutual life commitment doesn’t mean that such a mutual life commitment doesn’t fit the bid/ask model in key respects.


    In short, I’m open and attracted to the idea that all conversation fits a bid/ask model (or structure?) and can be viewed in terms of an ongoing, multi-level, non-linear “back and forth” of emotional and conceptual bids and asks. To me, this seems coherent with an understanding of conversation as a joint construal of understandings and agreements which, when reached, could be understood as successful “transactions” and which are achieved by processing introduced novelties and differences (bids and offers). Any conversation depends upon some degree of shared commitment; however, such a commitment would itself seem to be a product of accepted bids and offers:

    Bid: “Are you committed to working this through? I am.” [Shyly looking away.]
    Offer: “Huh?” [in tone of surprise.] “Yes, of course: As long as you remain respectful.”
    Transaction: “We’re agreed! Let’s go.” [Smiles and handshakes.]

    To quote your description of the bid/ask “model” (again, I might prefer the term “structure,” to emphasize that we are attempting to describe something that happens, rather than create a model to engineer a product):

    “The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity.”

    Some of what I like about the proposed structure is that it involves “asking” and “bidding” in a way that to me (1) recognizes mutual respect and mutual recognition of the autonomy of the other as a condition for conversation, and (2) similarly, suggests the importance mutual accord as a goal or purpose, and (3) also presumes a recognition of the potential gifts, needs, desires and preferences that people may bring to each other for their mutual benefit, and, (4) finally, it suggests a very interesting concept and term, “liquidity” — and, by association, “currency,” and “flow” — as a new thing that comes into being when bidders and askers, or interlocutors, discover agreement or consensus. (Aside: I’m interested to consider how that liquidity manifests, looked at from the perspective of individuals and at the level of the market as a whole.)

    Such shared understandings and agreements are not the outcome of necessity, but are conditional on preferences discovered through reciprocal bids and asks. Such agreements therefore open a freely-flowing path coherent with mutually-supported preferences: liquidity, as the course or flow of conversation and action between the parties. In this way, we grow the shared ground or platform from which we can launch forward into new conversation and action. I like the pragmatic bent of this (I’m partly intending to invoke “pragmatism” or “pragmaticism” as a philosophy): Conversation is about coordinating in action in a healthful flow forward. It’s about striking the rock in such a way that water gushes forth.

    What might be separating our approaches is that while your emphasis was on what’s missing from the “transactional relationship,” I have seen it as both structurally analogous to and/or as derivative from higher orders of engagement, and as something that would not be possible had not a deeper form of human engagement created the grounds upon which the “merely transactional” is even possible. (Aside: When I say this, I am thinking this on a number of levels. But to zoom out for a moment to a broad historical view, what I’m saying implies something like: if it hadn’t been for relatively high levels social, political and institutional stability and trust that were created in the United States prior to, say, the era of industrialization, we would have never have been able to build this whole powerful transactional empire that we have today. We are operating on the basis of past conversations and deep spiritual capital that we are depleting, using up, rather than appreciating in the sense both of honoring and growing.)

    “The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity.”

    A retake on the matter: If we come together as human beings, and it pleases us to stay together, in each other’s proximity, in an ongoing relationship and/or in conversation, we do so presumably because each of us gains some pleasure or satisfaction from the interaction. My bids and offers and your bids and offers become, within the reciprocal relation we agree to sustain, our bids and our offers to each other. Our bids and offers for attention are returned and received, we give and we get and continue together as long as our interactions remain agreeable to each and both. Even better, by discovering agreement and what is agreeable to each of us — e.g. by developing norms and practices of mutual respect and service — we are able through our cooperation to increase the incidence of what we find mutually agreeable, and in doing so we create, recursively, a basis for discovering even higher levels of agreeable living together and conversation.

    At each step, each of us has something to offer or contribute, something new and different to bring into the shared space, that opens up between. Sometimes the difference that one of us proposes — the bid or offer that I or you make — finds resonance, sometimes not. In the analogous domain of market transactions, that might equate to the acceptance or rejection of a certain price. In conversations among friends or citizens, the difference that is “bid” could be a new idea or new proposal by one, which the other may or may not meet or accept, which has emotional and conceptual components. Through our individual and joint explorations, we keep bringing into the joint space the uniqueness and novelty of perspective and action that each of us we has to offer, and in this in-between created by the unique differences that we each introduce into our shared world, we create a kind of “spread.” The spread in this sense can be seen as a space of potential joint development and action. More and more diverse individuals or perspectives make for a wider spread. When in the spread that arises between our different bids and offers we find a new agreement, a new joint understanding, or take up a new joint intention, we discover the new “liquidity” that happens when out of difference we have discovered a new path of commonality — shared ground, feeling, intention or action — which increases our several and joint power to make the world more to our individual and shared liking.

    Something about what I’m calling the “spread,” here an equivalent for the world and what’s “between us.” It’s historical. It grows and changes. Every new understanding achieved by the participants changes the participants’ capacity to see and what becomes relevant for seeing.

    Aside: The spread between us, a world, or developmental field, opens up between us; this world can be seen as consequence or cause of our standing together. For instance, if our preferences precede our willing (since to will or to choose something implies a motive, which implies a preference), if we are social because we prefer to be together, and if the shared world arises out of our sociableness, then we can say that the world brings itself and us into being, rather than the other way around. This may seem a mere play on words. It may indeed be tautologous — what comes first, the container or the contained? — but I think this is not trivial. We may be speaking of a co-constitutive logic. This brings me back to the Aristotelian notion of final causality: the final cause of the eye is the field of seeing. This does not mean that seeing is the purpose of the eye, as if according to an instrumental logic, but that eye and field-of-sight arise with one another.

    Directly or indirectly, I think I’ve touched upon most of the things you raise in your second and third posts, “How Things are Between Us” 1 & 2.


  2. Pingback: How Things Are Between Us, 3: A Brief Reply to a Long Comment | lvgaldieri

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