Good discussions

In my second undergraduate year, I got into badminton. I would go to the sports hall most afternoons and play against a few of my friends and course mates. Every single time I visited, there was a group of Indonesian chemical engineering students, who played constantly. They were obviously brilliant. One day, I plucked up the courage to chat with some of them and one invited me to have a game. Maybe you can guess what happened next; though maybe you cannot. Yes, he was clearly streets ahead of me. It was a mismatch. But, no, he didn’t annihilate me. Instead, my opponent effortlessly kept the rally going, seemingly standing still and whacking the shuttle to all four corners of the court while I ran hither and thither trying with all my might to return the next shot. Minute after minute I exerted myself, becoming increasingly hot, red and sweaty, until I just could go on no more. I had to stop. I think he didn’t particularly want to win the point, nor was he deliberately wearing me down. He just wanted to keep the game going as long as possible.

Badminton is no longer my passion but philosophy is. The best philosophy is discussion based. It’s an interaction between two or more of us wrestling with the same problem. I’ve noticed that some people are very good at discussion. By this, I don’t mean that they ‘win’ the discussion by being the cleverest or destroying an opponent with their irresistible argument. Those who are good at discussion have another set of attributes. The cleverest people are not those speaking loudest or trying to impress. They are generous instead. That generosity extends to interpreting the previous speaker’s point in as helpful a way as possible. The best discussant seems able to understand their interlocutor’s point, perhaps better than even its first speaker did. And then they offer something back, a new idea with which to play.

I sometimes mention as an example to others my experiences meeting the philosopher David Lewis. He would get asked a lot of stupid questions, or what could be interpreted as stupid questions. I might have asked him a few myself. I found, however, that he had an amazing talent for making any question a good question. He would always give it a good answer, pointing out something interesting and productive in it, which would allow a conversation to move on to new territory with us all feeling safe and satisfied. There was no “I don’t know what you mean” or “No, that’s irrelevant”. He would give a generous interpretation of the point and show what you could get out of it. A question is an opportunity. You can give the briefest of answers, and it might be true. But where’s the benefit in that? Instead, you can take it up and run with it.

I’ve had some beautiful discussions of late, which have prompted this post. I try to be the best discussant I can but I still meet plenty who are better than me. They look for agreement rather than disagreement. If they detect ignorance, they don’t point it out directly but gently correct it in their reply. Like my badminton opponent, they don’t try to win the point. They see that the value is in the activity rather than its conclusion. Let’s keep the back-and-forth going as long as we have the time. If we do it right, we all have a gain in understanding.

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