Isolation & Availability

I am writing this for my students, having in mind how the changes in our educational arrangement have impacted them.

Prolonged periods of isolation is difficult. This is especially true when we lose contact with what excites us, what inspires us, and what motivates us. Sometimes being around family members for long can feel isolating; sometimes being in a classroom can feel isolating; sometimes, I am sure, listening to an online lecture can feel isolating, too.

If you like to talk about psychology, your passions and interests, and you don’t find yourself around people who listen, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. Send me an email and we could arrange a Skype call. I know the difference between thinking alone and thinking with someone. I know the difference between talking with a teacher who cares about your interests and talking with someone who isn’t available in the same way. When we talk with someone who cares, we might take a few steps further toward who we are destined to become.

I still remember the conversations I had with my professors during my undergraduate studies. Sitting with them in their office or walking with them slowly and talking in the distance between the lecture hall and the professors’ office. I remember talking about Kant and Schopenhauer with Prof. Douglas McDermid; I remember talking about phenomenology with Prof. David Morris; and, I remember talking about writing, philosophy, and critical thinking with Prof. Moira Howes. Those brief and apparently-ephemeral conversations were formative for me. I wouldn’t have been who I am now without them.

The best teachers I had never gave me any advice. They, instead, made me more aware of myself and my situation.

One of the most common errors, which I heard about from my students, is they want to be “prepared” before they talk to a teacher. They want to read all their articles, their book, they want to re-read the course textbook before approaching the professor for a simple conversation. We often don’t need to be prepared in the way we think. The conversation itself is the beginning. The conversation is practice and preparation. It is a practice in the art of getting out of your isolation, appreciating another person’s availability, and making yourself available to them.

Untying Knots: Nietzsche’s Dance

I recommend reading Pam Weintraub’s article on Nietzsche and Dance. What is crucial about this perspective is that it views dancing not as doing, as much as undoing, unraveling, untying. Here is, to me, the most significant passage:

… those who dance are not burdened by ressentiment, or need for revenge. They have the sensory discernment needed to resist pernicious applications of the ascetic ideal. In Twilight of the Idols (1889) and The Antichrist (1895), dance appears as a discipline for training sensory awareness and cultivating skills of perception and responsibility, so that one is able to participate responsibly in the creation of values, conscious of what one’s movements are making.

Dancing requires letting go. Paradoxically, it is in that act of letting go that we connect to something larger and more significant. First, one must let go. Let go of the stand-still, of fear, of self-judgment, of the self, and of the pre-occupation with self-presentation.

Letting go requires detachment with what goes on in the mind (“second-order intentionality” as Elstrup and Engelsted might say), and a return to sensuality (“first order intentionality”). A return to the senses. Returning to what is going on. Dancing requires giving in to a “radical realism”.

The letting go is the ground for re-engagement. Only after untying the existing knots, one can use the strings to tie oneself anew. Letting go provides the ground for a new search, a new aim, or a new encounter with one’s aim.

Conversations & Positions

We shouldn’t think about conversations only as exchanges of information. Nor should we think about our positions in conversations only as givers and receivers of information. Too much emphasis on information overshadows the fact that our position in conversations are also tied with power, rights, and duties. For example, in a father-son conversation, we could recognize the father’s duty to tell the truth, just as we could recognize the son’s trust as part of his position. Moreover, the positions aren’t fixed and change depending on how we proceed in an exchange. The son could gain a deeper sense of trust in his father. Or he could gain a sense of power as a result of how seriously his father takes him. If the son finds himself able to change his father’s beliefs and actions, he is empowered. He learns that his speech signifies more than just elements of language. He learns, for example, that he can make promises and commitments (on which others rely) and he can refuse offers and invitations (and have his refusal honored). In short, we learn that our linguistic expressions can affect the world beyond language. 

In his essay, The Ethics of Speech Acts, Guy Longworth points out how communication could involve subtle negotiations about where we stand in relation to others. A simple remark about your colleague’s use of words might be intended (or have the consequence of) insulting his linguistic ability. He draws on J. L. Austin’s distinction between three aspects of speech acts. We can think about an expression as an isolated series of linguistic elements (i.e., as a locutionary act). We can think about an expression in terms of what it means and what it does in its context (i.e., as an illocutionary act). And, finally, we can think about it in terms of what it means and what it does for the participants involved and the conversation (i.e., as a perlocutionary act). Correcting your colleague’s grammar might be taken as an insult (its illocutionary charge), and it might transform your relationship with him into something more distant or hostile (its perlocutionary charge).

Freedom of Speech

After outlining Austin’s distinctions, Longworth connects them to the topics of freedom of speech and pornography. When we think about freedom of speech, we often tend to think in literal terms of whether or not someone is permitted to make certain utterances. This neglects another essential condition for utterances to be meaningful (as they are intended) and to do what they aim to accomplish. Our ability to perform illocutionary and perlocutionary acts isn’t only dependent on the freedom to utter meaningful words (locutionary acts). It is also dependent on other people, with whom we are talking, to take our statements in the intended way. This requires taking both us and our expressions correctly. Understanding illocutionary acts requires us to see the speaker under the appropriate light, recognizing their position in the discourse, including their rights and duties, and recognizing what they are able to do, e.g., understand the state of affairs correctly and decide for themselves. 

Longworth points out that there are at least two different ways of silencing someone. You can silence them by “brute force” (locutionary silencing) or you can take away the meaning of what they say, undermining their position (i.e., their rights, duties, and abilities) in the conversation. This might involve undermining someone’s credibility, which results in others ceasing to interpret their speech with trust. Longworth calls this illocutionary silencing

Pornography

Against this background, Longworth considers the claim that pornography trains us to lose grasp of women’s expressions of refusal. In other words, watching pornography trains people to take acts of refusal as merely pretending-to-refuse. This is similar to losing trust in someone, or learning that a sign that used to indicate fire no longer means fire. In such cases, the person in a position loses the ability to perform illocutionary acts. Assuming that illocutionary acts depend on the listener’s recognition, the logic that is at play in pornographic conversations, might deprive us of the ability to recognize illocutionary acts outside of the context of pornography. 

Possible Objection

There are two potential objections here. First, we should also consider the intention and purpose behind acts of dismissal. When someone fails to recognize (or pretends to fail to recognize) a woman’s rejection, we shouldn’t take the failure as a simple matter of information exchange. We shouldn’t fall back into seeing conversation as giving and taking information. If someone aims to take advantage of you, and if they benefit from “misunderstanding” you in a particular way, then we shouldn’t rush to attribute their misunderstanding only to their past environment and learning history. It’s possible for a sexual predator to recognize an illocutionary act while still refusing to ascribe it with perlocutionary meaning. In such a case, the act of refusal is being recognized, as an illocution. On the other hand, it is possible to respond ethically without understanding someone’s meaning at first. 

I think Longworth has already considered these possible objections, especially because he includes a brief discussion of communicative intentions. It is, in many cases, sufficient for conversation partners to remain open to the possibility of misunderstanding, remaining responsive to ambiguity and willing to participate in further clarification. When we remain open in such a way, we are admitting the possibility that the person is saying more than what we have already understood, or saying something other than what we take them to be saying. Such an openness means that we are cooperating with our conversation partners in order to bring about their illocutionary act and to help find their place in the on-going conversation.