Tag Archives: conversation

Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post about Masha Gessen’s “Trump: The Choice We Face,” I remarked that the opposition Gessen sets up in her essay between realist and moral reasoning seems a little too clean and stark. It is also not one we can carry over, intact, into political life.

We should like to be able to choose, always, between right and wrong, and do what is right; but life does not present itself in these terms, and it’s easy to imagine cases in which moral reasoning might prevail and political action would thereby be limited, or impossible; where strict adherence to the moral could usher in its own Robbespierrean terrors; or where we simply failed to take into account the extent to which moral reasoning is already conditioned and determined by the actual, by the real.

Of course we should try to temper realism with moral reasoning, but we should probably not complete Gessen’s shift: we can never operate entirely from one side or the other.

It’s important to recognize the shortcomings of the transactional and still reserve the power to deliberate about what to do and outcomes we would like to see. A balanced view wouldn’t force the choice between realism and morality, but allow for the fact that sometimes people have to get their hands dirty; and when they must, they can and should act while remaining fully aware — at times they will be tragically aware — of the moral difficulties in which they have entangled themselves.

It’s rare in life, and in political life rarer still, that we are able simply to substitute moral reasoning about right and wrong for practical deliberation, just as it’s always cold and inhuman to reduce practical deliberation to a calculation of costs and outcomes without consideration of what we owe to ourselves and others.

A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

Serious Conversations, 12

In a brief Twitter essay on Richard Spencer’s claim that the Nazi salutes at his “Hail Trump” speech were “clearly done in the spirit of irony and exuberance,” New Republic editor Jeet Heer quoted a few sentences from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew that resonated with some of the writing I’ve done on the conversational stance and what makes a conversation serious (especially this post and this one). So I went back to Sartre’s 1944 text and read for context.

Here, our “post-truth” crisis looks more like a raging pandemic of bad faith:

How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it. He never sees very clearly where he is going; he is “open”; he may even appear to be hesitant. But there are people who are attracted by the durability of a stone. They wish to be massive and impenetrable; they wish not to change. Where, indeed, would change take them? We have here a basic fear of oneself and of truth. What frightens them is not the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation. It is as if their own existence were in continual suspension. But they wish to exist all at once and right away. They do not want any acquired opinions; they want them to be innate. Since they are afraid of reasoning, they wish to lead the kind of life wherein reasoning and research play only a subordinate role, wherein one seeks only what he has already found, wherein one becomes only what he already was. This is nothing but passion. Only a strong emotional bias can give a lightning-like certainty; it alone can hold reason in leash; it alone can remain impervious to experience and last for a whole lifetime.

The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons. How entirely at ease he feels as a result. How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew appear to him. He has placed himself on other ground from the beginning. If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse. I mentioned awhile back some remarks by anti‐Semites, all of them absurd: “I hate Jews because they make servants insubordinate, because a Jewish furrier robbed me, etc.” Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.

Those wishing to read more can download a PDF of Sartre’s text — in the translation by George J. Becker, with an introduction by Michael Walzer — here.

Another Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I promised myself at the beginning of this long, drawn out election cycle that I was not going to write about the presidential contest. I don’t believe I’m breaking that promise if I quote an article about the presidential race as a quick follow up to my post about Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness.

There, to develop my intuitions about the fundamentally non-transactional character of conversations and other cooperative undertakings, I focused on Nussbaum’s discussion of the shortcomings of transactional forgiveness, and in particular its emphasis on scorekeeping.

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find Martin Wolf writing about the dangers of a “transactional approach to partnerships” — which would reduce all alliances, agreements and institutions to winner-take-all “deals” — in an excellent piece called “How the West Might Soon Be Lost”:

…the ability of the US to shape the world to its liking will rest increasingly on its influence over the global economic and political systems. Indeed, this is not new. It has been a feature of US hegemony since the 1940s. But this is even more important today. The alliances the US creates, the institutions it supports and the prestige it possesses are truly invaluable assets. All such strategic assets would be in grave peril if Mr Trump were to be president.

The biggest contrast between the US and China is that the former has so many powerful allies. Even Vladimir Putin is not a reliable ally for China. America’s allies support the US largely because they trust it. That trust is based on its perceived commitment to predictable, values-based behaviour. Its alliances have not been problem-free, far from it. But they have worked. Mr Trump’s cherished unpredictability and transactional approach to partnerships would damage the alliances irreparably.

A vital feature of the US-led global order has been the role of multilateral institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. In binding itself by the rules of an open economic system, the US has encouraged others to do the same. The result has been extraordinary growth in prosperity: between 1950 and 2015, average global real output per head rose sixfold. Mr Trump does not understand this system. The results of repudiation could be calamitous for all.

Serious Conversations, 11

“When in the Republic Thrasymachus says that justice is in the interest of the stronger, and Socrates starts to question him about this, Thrasymachus should hit Socrates over the head,” writes Robert Nozick in Philosophical Explanations.

He concedes too much when he enters an activity, discussion, that assumes that there is some mark of correctness and rightness other than (and superior to) strength. Similarly, there are norms of discussion that Thrasymachus draws upon — for instance, that anyone’s objection put seriously and sincerely ought to be replied to — and these norms, too, are incompatible with the position he states. Must the stronger also reply to an objection, if it is not in his interest?

Nozick returns to Thrasymachus’ surrender in his discussion of moral dialogue:

When someone raises a moral objection to something we are doing or planning, we feel we owe him an answer, a moral answer. It will not do simply to hit him on the head or to shrug our shoulders. An ethical egoist would reply only if he thought doing so was in his own interest; we feel we have to respond with moral reasons. (However, we do not have to expend our life’s savings to track down the person who objected and then went off to travel in inaccessible places. We ought to respond, prima facie, although this ‘ought’ can be overridden by other considerations.) Only by responding are we treating him as a value-seeking I; the only way to respond to his requesting moral reasons or raising moral objections, the only response to it qua that, is to offer moral reasons in justification or defense of our actions, to engage, if need be, in a moral dialogue with him. (Recall our earlier remark about how Thrasymachus undercuts his own position by engaging in discussion.) To engage in moral dialogue with someone is itself a moral act, whose moral character does not lie solely in being an attempt to get at the moral truth, or in being a vehicle to change and deepen a personal relationship and thereby be a means toward resolving moral conflict. Rather, (sincere) engagement in moral dialogue is itself a moral response to the other’s basic moral characteristic [as a value-seeking I], apart from its being a means toward satisfactory accommodation with the other. It is itself responsive to him; perhaps that is why openness in moral dialogue, considering carefully and responding closely to the concerns of the other, so often is an effective means toward resolution of conflict. When each is aware that the other is responsive to his or her own (valuable) characteristics in the very act of discussion and in the course the discussion takes, then this noticing of mutual respect is itself a force for good will and the moderation of demands; the altered conditions created by the dialogue may fit different moral principles so that new solutions are appropriate.

A moral dialogue of this sort is an especially clear example of a mutual value-theoretic situation…where each participant is responsive to the other’s basic moral characteristic, is aware that the other is responsive to her own, and is responsive to the other’s responsiveness, is aware of the other’s second-level responsiveness and is responsive to it, and so on….We want to be in mutual value-theoretic situations; only then is the value in us (including our own value responsiveness) adequately answered. Hegel’s discussion of the master-slave relation elaborates how domination thwarts this; the master cannot force this responsiveness from the slave, and unless the master shows responsiveness to the slave’s basic moral characteristic (but then he could not remain his master) the slave cannot respond to that.

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.

Serious Conversations, 10

From Part 2, Chapter VI of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute, this description of a coffeehouse in the Sehzadebasi district of Istanbul:

What wasn’t discussed in the coffeehouse? History, the philosophy of Bergson, Aristotelian logic, Greek poetry, psychoanalysis, spiritualism, everyday gossip, lewd adventures, tales of terror and intrigue, the political events of the day—all gathered up into one swollen conversation that burst like a spring deluge, carrying away everything in its path, as surprising as it was senseless, one topic seething forward before the other was finished. But, then, of course, nothing was ever discussed in detail. In the coffeehouse a story would rise up as if from a long slumber, or like a faint memory of the ancient echo of a death. As conversation turned deliriously from one subject to the next, Alexander the Great would join forces with Hannibal or the Kantian imperative, all to serve as antidotes to daily life. With even the most benign adventure, the pleasure was in the retelling. The patrons had listened to one another for so long that they could guess more or less what would happen in any story. Conversation was merely a platform for the speaker to display his eloquence; it was more like a play, or the recitation of a dearly loved work, for the exchanges were executed according to predetermined conditions—not at all unlike the traditional Turkish mime theater, ortaoyunu. The story would be interrupted by the same interjections, and laughter would follow; if certain members of the crowd were directly involved in the tale, they would make their defining pronouncements at just the right moment. If the narrator introduced new details, he would be cut off at once with, “You made that up!” But it was these new twists that people came to enjoy most in later recitations. And no one ever found the endless—and mandatory—repetitions tedious. In fact it was only the out of the ordinary that met with some resistance. New ideas were at first humored out of courtesy and a slight curiosity, but they would remain unaddressed until the crowd’s ever-vigilant imagination had recast them as pleasantries, thus assimilating them to their own idiom. This is what happened to any attempt at serious conversation. A new story was accepted into the repertory only once it had been reduced to a base sexual escapade, a tale of pederasty, a piece of slapstick shadow-puppet humor, or the replica of an ortaoyunu. There was a specific name given to those who discussed serious matters: they were known as the “world regulators,” the aristocrats who busied themselves with the regulation of the world.

A Note on the Latest No-Platforming

There are currently a number of arguments being made on both sides of the question whether the no-platforming of Peter Tatchell constitutes censorship. I won’t say they are all good arguments; but I’d like to suggest there’s more at stake in all this than the speech rights of one very outspoken person. This thought was brought home to me by a turn of phrase in Jerry Coyne’s very thorough post on the Tatchell affair:

If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard.

Censorship might well have been the intended outcome of Fran Cowling’s childish refusal to take part in a debate with someone who had signed a letter defending the free speech of Germaine Greer and other writers whose views she found unsavory. I don’t know for certain that she meant to do anything other than stomp her feet in public (some people call this behavior “virtue signaling”) or if she had thought her actions all the way through.

All that involves very complicated questions about her intentions and so on, and it’s beside the simpler point I want to make. Before jumping into questions of what Cowling intended or what were the intended or unintended consequences of her actions, I suggest we pause to consider the simple fact that (as Coyne puts it, or almost puts it) Cowling broke an agreement. Full stop.

Of course, we make and break agreements all the time, sometimes reaching and then rescinding an agreement jointly with others, and sometimes in violation of commitments we’ve made, or without fulfilling the explicit or implicit terms of the agreement. It’s in making and breaking agreements where we come up against questions of what we owe each other.

In this instance, the breaking of the agreement could stand at least as much discussion as the censorship question or the question what Cowling hoped to accomplish by breaking the agreement. It’s not simply that Cowling broke or withdrew from the agreement she’d made to appear alongside Tatchell. He’s even said that he’s ok with that (“She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witchhunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”). It’s her denouncing him as a “racist and a transphobe” that really bothers him.

But there was a much much more basic agreement in place even before the invitation to either speaker was made, and that’s something like a shared commitment to debate, or the very idea that it’s worth talking things over and listening to what others have to say — as opposed to, say, might makes right or some equally ugly proposition. It’s hard to believe that this even needs saying: when we deny others who share a commitment to talking things over the standing to talk, we wrong them and invite all sorts of abuses against them and against ourselves.

This is one reason why Cowling’s actions appear to be unethical and dangerous even if it can be argued that they are not, as her supporters insist, a violation of Tatchell’s individual rights.