Philosophy: Oral or Written Medium?

Graham Harman has a comment on interviews (vis-a-vis Foucault), since I can’t really navigate his blog very successfully to find the original comments he is commenting on, I am referring to the latest post:

Namely, when I read those Foucault interviews fairly early in graduate school, I thought: “good grief, how can these people speak so brilliantly and articulately on the fly like that?” The answer is: they can’t. These are not like television interviews. They’re edited and touched up later.

I don’t have a problem with that. With politicians we need real-time, spontaneous interviews because we want to hear them think on their feet, not release some canned document from their p.r. office.

But with philosophers, I don’t think there would be much point in an off-the-cuff, real-time interview. The answers wouldn’t be especially interesting.

I suppose that’s true vis-a-vis philosophical banalities, but the question than it seems to me should be why? Why are philosophers not able, supposedly, to say brilliant things off-the-cuff? I think the comparison between politicians and philosophers here is pretty interesting, because, as most of us know, politicians usually deal with memorized phrases and pieces of political jargon, and of course if you hear the same philosopher talk about his/her ideas, in many cases it has the same sense of thoughtless repetition – I think with more and more of the philosophical conferences, videos, blogs etc etc available to the general public, it is easier to see that.

I suppose it would be fun to try one in real-time in front of a camera too, but it would mostly just serve as a stunt or an interesting experiment. The answers would be much better if you have at least a few minutes alone to think them over first. Philosophy is largely a written medium, and skill in oral debate is generally overvalued here.

My first reaction to the last sentence was to bring up Plato and the dialogical nature of Socratic philosophy, but then of course I remembered very quickly that the dialogical nature is all a product of Plato’s own careful crafting of the supposedly spontaneous conversations into a nice back-and-forth exchanges with beautifully written narrative framings. Plato is thus giving us all a sense of philosophy as a conversation while, of course, most of it is composed later and very probably greatly enhanced and edited, if not created ex nihilo. However, I always thought that philosophers valued a kind of oral ability to debate, to encounter the points of others in a lively spontaneous exchange – or is it just me? Wouldn’t it strike you as awkward if in a philosophical exchange one simply said something like: “I will have to get back to you on that, I will think about it and write an essay later and send it to you.” I mean, there’s nothing seemingly wrong with that, is there? Most of us think about things and write and think some more and only later do we think that what we thought was “interesting” or at the very least worth being written down. Is there a value to the thought that is written down? Are there thoughts continuously evaluated based on their worthiness to be written down? My good friend, while criticizing Derrida, always used to say that Derrida’s problem was that he thought it was worth to publish every single thing he ever thought about or talked about. I would say it would probably be a different story if Derrida was a blogger, don’t you think? I mean who is this “you” that I am awkwardly addressing anyway?

I think as much as I agree with Harman’s assertion that philosophy is largely a written medium, I wonder if this statement should be taken as simply describing the reality as it is and therefore should continue to be, or if one might say that philosophy is largely a written medium, but does it have to be? Of course, to avoid the argument that I am writing about this, I will say that “written medium” here seems to suggest a certain time span, a certain mediation – in an oral exchange, only thoughts that come immediately (or with a minimum amount of mediation) are important. The question then is “How long is long enough?” between a question and the written response to it? Isn’t it why we like philosophical exchanges in an oral format? Someone who is a good writer can turn out to be a boring speaker, and the other way around…

I don’t think that it should be one way or the other, of course, but I always thought that interviews or lectures or conferences for that matter are good in terms of seeing the philosopher at work in the present time, not mediated by written and rewritten texts and editing – I suppose that’s why I think that people who read their conference papers are lame: why bother if you could just email your text to others and get written response? Why not just talk about it? Maybe all conferences would benefit from a good pub session – no papers, just talking. Afraid of saying something stupid or banal or boring? Well, go to your room and write an article for a journal then – “Rebeer anyone?”

18 thoughts on “Philosophy: Oral or Written Medium?

  1. Jean-Jacques Nattiez made the significant point that despite the great variety of forms of music in the world, it was not until the West discovered a systematic and written notational system for “music” that a certain complexity was enabled.

    Now, the question is, does this prosthetically enabled complexity that makes the spectacular music of Mozart possible necessarily superior or more authentic than other forms of music?

    It seems that the written form of philosophy indeed enables a remarkable complexity, but also that something of this complexity possibility can obscure the power of philosophy (as music).

    It does not go to far to say that just as there is something fundamental to tapping one’s hands on a table, there is something fundamental to putting to otherwise discordant ideas together.

    Kleist said that he actually didn’t know what he thought until he tried to explain it to his sister (at least that is how I remember it)…one wonders at which point “what you think” comes to the fore: when you discuss it back and forth with someone, or when you have built it into an architecture of supposed to be impervious arguments.

    At what point is what we “think” played, in the way that score is performed?

    As to Plato’s dialogues, the great problem with them for me always was how non-dialogue-like they were, giving the illusion of a live, contingently intercepted development.

    Perhaps philosophy is more like architecture, and less like music.

  2. Hi there.. i enjoyed your post dearly, although, i am standing up for the independant philosopher who can cultivate deep and correct thoughts “off the cuff”. This stands only because I am “up the sleeve.”

  3. I think that it’s actually more than just a written medium: it’s also an inherently institutional one. You can see Rousseau twist and turn to get out of this problem in the First Discourse, but it doesn’t quite work. Philosophy is enabled by venues and social spaces (both physical and printed) in which philosophical encounters can take place: libraries, journals, stoas, academies, and so forth. Obviously this affects what kind of philosophy is done and how it is done–but there is always a need for sites of both immediate and asynchronous encounter.

    So the question of philosophy’s writtenness, I think, should (pace Derrida) be secondary to the question of its social environment. After all, the primary value of a written philosophical text is its permanent availability as something to be encountered. I’d even hypothesize that in a world where audio recording technology developed before writing, philosophy would not be substantially different.

  4. Philosophy is enabled by venues and social spaces (both physical and printed) in which philosophical encounters can take place

    I think agree with this point – my post above was primarily an immediate reaction to the comment, a kind of reaction that would at least pretend to forego its own writtenness (cool word) and make the point as if an a conversational response without editing or polishing up…

    What do you think social spaces like blogs would do for philosophy if those who are doing philosophy all started their own blogs and shared most of their raw ideas with the general public? What would have happened to the institutions of control which places you mention are in one way or another?

  5. There seems to be something of a false dilemma here, I think. In the first instance, I’m not sure that anything is ever really ‘off the cuff.” Consider Jazz, Sports, improvisational comedy, etc. There’s a ‘head’ in jazz, which serves as the basis for musicians in an ensemble to riff on, and which allows them to reintegrate solos (not to mention the fact that there are theories of improvisation); there are set-plays and variations thereon for athletes; there are set-pieces, pop-cultural references, and comedic gimicks for comedians, etc.

    Ditto with presentations at conferences, etc. the only difference, it seems to me, is that very few philosophy folks want to make their performances look improvised. I have seen, however, a woman give a job talk without reading a word (she must have memorized her paper, or close enough), and it was just about the best talk i’ve seen precisely because it felt ‘spontaneous.’ but I would hardly claim that there was anything extemporaneous or off the cuff going on.

    all this brings me to the notion of Darstellung….

  6. I’m still waiting on that post on Darstellung…

    I think conferences are weird in the sense that everyone thinks they’ll get some reactions to their papers, but in their majority, conferences in their official role seem to be a waste of time – maybe I need to go to some smaller, more interesting ones – the panelists read their stuff, get a couple of small questions, react a bit and then the most interesting part is behind the scenes conversations whether between presenters or between the members of the audience. Last time Shahar and I went to a large gathering, I think we’ve spontaneously developed a sign system of “sucks, let’s get out” and “sounds decent, maybe stay for a bit”…

    Of course, improvisations are prepared. One thing that always makes me concerned in student evals is stuff like “He repeats himself while lecturing” – partly, it’s an intentional strategy to drive the point home, but partly it’s of course a kind of improvisation: you have keywords like “self” or “reality” or “meaning” or “Kant” and a number of things you always say about these things, years of teaching the same subject will do it to anyone… I think the best part of any philosophical conversation I’ve ever had is always an unexpected route it is bound to take, you cannot prepare for it and you cannot guarantee where you will end up, even your own points might start stating one position and end up becoming something unexpected. I think blogs can easily become a very interesting philosophical medium, even with all the egos and all the philosophical agendas involved.

  7. Mikhail, I guess I’d say I’m somewhat Foucauldian when it comes to these things. I don’t think blogs are inherently less congenial for the creation or perpetuation of institutions of control–it’s just that their pseudo-informality ensures that any power relationship is concealed beneath the surface.

    I do think, though, that blogs are like the 21st century equivalent of medieval universities or 18th century Tischgesellschaften. Even if they’re not “free” in an absolute sense, they’re certainly more free and open than mainstream institutions (otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you). Eventually, I’m sure, the form will petrify and institutionalize, and we’ll have to find some other venue. But for the time being it’s certainly a positive development.

  8. Greg, I think blogs are clearly becoming or will soon become “institutions of control” – think about all the usual organizations branching out to blog in addition to the regular activity – I still think there’s a certain dexterity to blogs, maybe it’s its last breath…

  9. “The question then is ‘How long is long enough?’ between a question and the written response to it?”

    I like to think of the way that instant messaging breaks down this distinction between spontaneous oral language and mediated written language—like the minimal gap Zizek likes to emphasize separating reality and illusion (the reality IN illusion itself).

    When engaged in an instant-messenging chat, conversations can persist over several hours with breaks unthinkable in a face-to-face exchange. They can proceed, and in a certain sense always do, at a pace I think we identify with the spoken exchange though. Every time I ever return to a chat I had hours ago, we don’t greet each other the way we would “in real life” after many weeks or months of not seeing each other: wondering what particular changes had happened to you, or how the other has thought about our topic of discussion where we left it off since we last spoke. Such conversations are almost seamless, and yet interrupted with *real* gaps of time underneath. Even an every day blogger (or journal or book author) (can) reflects on the gap between the present entry and the last one. In instant-messeging I think it’s far less common to tune back into a chat-window you opened yesterday imply some significance about your friend being “away.”

  10. Joe, Sorry I don’t quite understand your response, nor do I understand the Zizek reference. Are you suggesting philosophers should instant message, e.g. instant messaging is the proper medium for philosophy? I mean, if IM is a gap between reality and illusion (whatever that means or whatever Zizek thinks that means) that’s fine, but what possible consequence does that have for anything at all? I mean, we already know that the time of philosophy tends to be slow, and yes, when we think about things, our initial answers (in philosophy and certainly in other areas) demands revision.

    Alexei raises a rather good point re: jazz muscians “riffing” on one line. I’m not sure it really matters if philosophy is primarily a writen or spoken medium, that is, we all know that the writen becomes fossilized/institutionalized and then it’s re-said and takes on new life, whether the next bar of a jazz improv or in the form of a discussion or new article. Naturally, the best conversations of any kind are the ones that take interesting or strange turns, certainly, journal articles and many iterations of conferences are not always the best mediums for such a thing. However, I’m not sure I’d give blogs all that much credit because very often (as Mikhail notes above) it simply reproduces the institutional power dynamic or becomes more like the floor of the stock exchange in which everybody is yelling and protecting their own precious positions (whether or not it’s relevant to the discussion at hand or not). By the way, Alexei, darstellung or augenblick?

    My good friend, while criticizing Derrida, always used to say that Derrida’s problem was that he thought it was worth to publish every single thing he ever thought about or talked about.
    So true–although I suspect it’s more to do with publishers trying to sell books then Derrida himself, however, I’m not so sure…

    Anyways, as far as interviews go, it’s always at the back of my mind whether or not it’s actually “capturing” anything at all. Very often the questions are designed to allow for the philosopher to make a concept clearer or summarize their position. I’ll have to look closer at the responses in some interviews I have lying around. It was Levinas, of course, that made some unfortunate comments in an interview that didn’t quite “match up” with his broader philosophical claims, wasn’t it?

  11. A few afterthoughts, based on the subsequent comments….

    It occurs to me that one of the reasons that conferences tend to be such a waste of time (at least for me; attending the tends to bore the hell out of me — although I like drinking with new people — and presenting at them is more tedium than I can bear) has to do with the complexity of philosophical discussion, and how we manage it. I can’t imagine, for instance, a philosophical conversation being texted between two folks on their cell-phones, nor do IM philosophical conversations work too well either, because one’s sentences can only get so long and convoluted before the IM machine cuts you off. Simply put, there’s an upper limit of grammatical (if not conceptual) complexity that certain media impose. If there’s a relevant point to the discussion between spoken and written philosophy, maybe it’s to be found here, i.e. that text allows us to process and present complicated material better than speech (come to think of it, something like that is probably true, when you don’t understand a written sentence, you can reread it. It’s stable. Can’t say the same thing about speech).

    Shahar: Yes to Darstellung, no to Augenblick. The former, I would say, makes the latter possible (in specifically human contexts, like art, technology, and social interactions).

  12. just a couple thoughts, brought to mind by Alexei’s comments…

    Philosophy, like many academic fields, has a sophisticated language of its own, and also requires a lot of background knowledge, especially given the complexity of sub-disciplines that exist… which leads me to suggest that the reason most people don’t philosophize “off the cuff” effectively is because they CAN’T.

    I certainly include myself in that group, but I think it’s also true of many scholars: Bring up a topic, and there’s so much knowledge that has to be sorted through in order to establish one’s perspective on that topic, and I just don’t think most people have access to all that information off the top of their head. If they do, they then have to express it in a way that makes sense to the other person.

    I recently saw Zizek present a lecture here in Seattle. When it came to the Q & A, I had the same reaction I’ve had at other events. I thought, “Why don’t these people formulate their questions before coming to the mic?” But – in addition to the obvious nervousness – I think it’s just not easy for most people to formulate their thoughts quickly and effectively. And, that incoherency made Zizek’s responses equally incoherent. Even someone knowledgeable and quick-witted can’t respond well when they aren’t sure what they’re responding to…

    hmmm… ended with a preposition. I can’t write either. 🙂

  13. GD, I think it’s most certainly true that philosophical apparatus has grown to an extend that any topic would create a sort of mental jam if one were to attempt to address is “off the cuff” – yet there’s something incredibly philosophical in the very act of successful “off the top of my head” improvisation. If we use the already mentioned jazz example, it is fair to say that jazz itself is a rich tradition of various possible improvisational models, therefore if one were to do in on the spot, one can easily propose the same dilemma: Well, I’d love to but you know I’d have to start with a basic scale here and work my way up…

    Complexity is certainly here and the technical language sometimes gets in the way, yet I think that there are plenty of great philosophical moments, either in writing or in conversations, when a sort of an idea comes about without anyone actually working on producing it. I wonder if our traditional model of a philosophical subject thinking about things on the “inside” and then externalizing them in either form is what makes this topic so difficult to deal with? What if Hegel’s been right all along and, to horribly paraphrase/possibly distort, thinking takes place somewhere “in between”? Recent discussions of “correlationism” made me think of how utterly reductionist a “correlationist” position would be if we only have an access to the correlation between thought and being and yet as eager as I am to find one decent correlationist, I really can’t because most of the accused parties are far from such primitive simple schemes. In this case, our discussion is framed as a correlation between philosopher’s thoughts and a possible appropriate medium which is, of course, a terrible simplification of the matter at hand, isn’t it?

    If thinking then is a kind of social activity, then writing is certainly a very inadequate medium as it only presents the ideas – well-thought and formulated as they are – for the public consumption, not really for a public discussion, since responses and rejoinders are rare these days. Even if a decent “debate” takes place, it’s always an exchange of positions for the judgments of the general public (hopefully, or a small circle of specialists).

  14. Yeah, that’s an interesting thought, and perhaps in this blog discussion we’re witnessing an example of thinking as “social activity” — my faith in blogs may be restored! (Usually reading blogs makes me feel convinced that social activity = not thinking!)

    I know a lot of my best thinking has usually come from dialogue and response, not necessarily just reading texts. I hear that from other students as well; they prefer a good discussion to simply reading. Although both are certainly necessary. I would love to see a debate where both sides came ready to hear from and learn from the other, rather than with a preconceived agenda of how they plan to dismantle their opponent’s arguments…

  15. to nicely wrap up this thread, let me go with objection-proof Leibniz – in a letter to Malebranche:

    My Reverend Father
    While returning to my home I thought deeply about what both of us said. It is very true, as you clearly acknowledged, that we would not be able to reflect enough on all things in the heat of conversation, unless we subjected ourselves to rigorous rules, which would be too tedious. However it is much more convenient to follow these rules on paper. I wanted to try this out.

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