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How To Have Productive Philosophical Conversations

January 22nd, 2008, 2:01 pm

How To Have Productive Philosophical Conversations
by Scott Hughes

When discussing complex topics such as philosophy, skillful conversation becomes even more important. If conversationalists fail to use good technique, then they will not communicate with each other effectively, and the conversation will become unproductive. Let me suggest some ways to make and keep a conversation productive when discussing philosophy.

Listen - Most importantly, you need to listen as well as you can to the other people in the discussion. Many people talk too much and listen too little. Ironically, if you talk too much, you will have a lot of trouble expressing yourself. If you listen well, you can express yourself better because you can tailor your response to what the person has already said. Additionally, if you listen to others intently, they will likely return the favor. If you do not listen to them and just try to talk over them, then they will likely do the same to you.

Ask Questions - Plato's dialogues show how Socrates used questions to have productive philosophical conversations with others. The Socratic Method can come in great use in discussions of philosophy. Asking questions will help you better understand the other speakers, and it will cause them to express their contentions more clearly to you. That will greatly reduce misunderstandings. Additionally, asking questions makes you seem genuinely interested in the other person's ideas. Making disagreeing statements, instead of asking questions, may make the other person feel attacked and may make you seem preachy, both of which will make the discussion less productive.

Speak Clearly - This may seem obvious, but many people instead try to show off or make their ideas seem stronger by using more complex language. However, you will have most productive conversation by having the least misunderstandings, which you can do by expressing yourself as clearly as possible. Using concise, simple, and specific phrasing will usually help you express yourself clearly. Rambling, over-elaboration and the unnecessary use of "big words" will make you less clear. Additionally, you can express yourself most clearly when you match the formality of your speech or writing to the formality of the situation. In other words, use formal phrasing in a formal situation and more informal phrasing in a more informal setting.

Speak Nicely and Politely - If the conversation turns into a contest, or if any of the speakers feel angry or offended, it will greatly reduce the philosophical productivity of the discussion. A discussion about philosophy can quickly degenerate into a name-calling, insult-throwing fight. The other person will listen to you more if they feel more comfortable and respected. Do not just speak as nicely as you must in order to keep the conversation philosophical; instead, speak as nicely, respectfully, and politely as you can. Avoid insults, name-calling, or offensiveness as much as possible. Also, especially if you disagree, try thanking the other person for discussing the topic with you.

If you genuinely try to have a productive conversation, you almost always will. Most people do philosophy for fun out of interest, so why not try to have a productive conversation when discussing philosophy?

Whatever you do, good luck and have fun!

About the author: Scott Hughes maintains an internet-based philosophy club at OnlinePhilosophyClub.com. You can discuss philosophy at the Philosophy Forums.

Please post comments on this article.

January 25th, 2008, 7:09 pm

nu2dis wrote:But is it also a forum where one can come and read a variety of views/opinions/beliefs that may not actually converse with each other so much as reply to the original topic statement/question?

You can respond to the original topic or to the replies already present. Either way is fine.

I think you are in the right place.


April 28th, 2010, 12:32 pm

If someone sends you a rude or personally attacking PM, please forward it to me by copying and pasting it in a new message addressed to me.

June 2nd, 2010, 4:11 pm

Jackowens in another thread wrote:I went over your "How To Have Productive Philosophical Conversations" and found especially interesting, in light of the problem I had with Pjkeely (and starting to have with you) is your point about asking questions. What's missing is pointing out the need to answer asked questions. I saw absolutely nothing about that. Why that striking imbalance?

This is a good question. To communicate effective and avoid talking past each other; it's important to not only listen and genuinely try to understand the other person's questions but also to respond to the questions.

Of course, sometimes questions can be unclear, loaded or even unanswerable. The solution here might be to respond to the question with a followup question. For instance, person A may ask, "When do you think Bobby stopped beating his wife?" Person B may think this is a loaded question but can respond productively, "I think that question is loaded with the assumption that Bobby has beaten his wife at all; is that the case? Do you believe Bobby has beaten his wife? Do you have any evidence or argument to support the proposition that Bobby has ever beaten his wife?" Much like the rest of discussion, the point isn't to ignore the question or assume what was meant by an unclear or loaded question just to get past the question and get back to one's own rants but rather to use the principle of charity and followup questions to productively continue the discussion.

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