9. Conversation


“To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

Now, let’s imagine two chaps having a discussion. Umberto and Giovanni are sitting in the Coranas Café in Via dei Calzaiuoli, Firenze, halfway between the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the river Arno. It’s a late afternoon in April and the two chaps are pretty much the only customers in the cafe, although there is an old lad wearing a black jacket and suit at the next table, gently nursing his glass of water after finishing his espresso. Let’s call him Hans-Georg and let’s also imagine he is eavesdropping on Umberto and Giovanni, not for any malicious reason but purely to observe their discussion. There is an easy flow of dialogue between the two, interspersed with bouts of florid gesturing on Umberto’s side. Giovanni is calmer; he’s the cooler customer.

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For Hans-Georg, their conversation represents an idealised and pure moment. To him, neither Umberto nor Giovanni are trying to objectify the other, they both seem to give credit for the other’s ideas. They also don’t allow themselves to get trapped into the other’s way of presenting them. For example, when Umberto says “Listen Giovanni, you can’t say that about Wittgenstein,” Giovanni immediately interjects.

“No, wait Umberto, you misunderstand me. I don’t mean that Wittgenstein was wrong. I merely mean that the Tractatus was the experiment, par excellence, that pushed the limits of logical positivism until the inevitable happened and it burst.”

“So Wittgenstein was wrong, according to you,” Umberto excitedly jumps in.

Leaving a little space after Umberto’s pronouncement, Giovanni replies “No Umberto let me finish. Wittgenstein was right because he could see that it would burst. Remember the ladder. Right at the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein said ‘throw away the ladder after you have climbed up theses propositions’, or something like that.”

With some difficulty, Umberto reflects in silence, before saying, “OK, so what you are saying is that the Tractatus was really Wittgenstein’s philosophical dead-end.” Pausing briefly, with Giovanni allowing him space to formulate his thoughts, Umberto continues, “I guess that was why he seemed to shift so much later on when he wrote about ethics not adding to our knowledge, although he thought it captured ‘a tendency in the human mind,’ which he admitted to respecting deeply.”

Whilst Giovanni silently nods his head, Umberto sips his espresso, and then with a look of solemnness says “I guess you are right about the Tractatus, it was a doomed exercise, there was no room for ethics in its strict propositional logic.”

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“Yeah, you know, I never quite thought of it like that,” said Giovanni, “there is no room for ethics in the Tractatus. Gosh, it sounds so obvious now that you say it.”

At this point Hans-Georg grabs his black fedora and heads for the door, after leaving payment in-between the cup and saucer for his espresso. Heading south on the Via dei Calzaiuoli, he strides towards the Arno. En route he reflects that Umberto and Giovanni really seemed to listen and help each other go further in their understanding than they could have gone on their own. Now, if Hans-Georg was the same as our Hans-Georg Gadamer he would have been delighted to witness the fluid movement of understanding between the two chaps. Who knows? Perhaps, in my little idealised Gadamerian vignette, he was?

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Back to Gadamer proper, we find him examining the term conversation, and reasoning that there are conditions of participation in a dialogue: “To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.”2

Expanding, Gadamer articulated three conditions regarding conversation. The first was that one must allow the subject matter of the conversation to dictate the flow of the conversation, and that one should not enter into a conversation with a pre-determined goal if one wants to have a genuine experience. The second was that one must remain open to what the other actually gives within the conversation, and hence respond to those opinions and not just what arises in one’s own thoughts. And, the final condition was that “every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language.”3 With these three conditions in place, Gadamer believed a ‘successful conversation’ could take place where both participants “come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community.”4 There is much force here in Gadamer’s reference to community, because he tried to articulate that we should be open rather than stating that we should just be – the Heideggerian position.

Such ‘prescriptive’ thinking, though, often gets one into trouble within philosophic circles because philosophers like to pounce upon each other and slash at ideas with logical razors until any life contained within them has all but bled away.

This being true, I believe that Gadamer was both immensely audacious and ingenious to get his ideas accepted into the annals of philosophy. This is because he managed to breathe life once more into Heidegger’s enigmatic, but effectively beached, leviathan letting being be when Heidegger himself could not. By forging ahead of Heideggerian notions, and daring to be explicit in how one should relate to an other, rather than remaining in the inscrutable realm of letting being be, Gadamer nailed his colours to the mast and declared that philosophy must be useful and not just high level pontificating. Now, throw your daggers, you Heideggerians.

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By establishing his three participatory conditions for a conversation, prioritising the subject matter over oneself, allowing the other to voice their opinion and the creation of a ‘common language’, Gadamer demonstrated his commitment to understanding and not to dated philosophical protocol. Being stuck on a beach with Heidegger and his whale was not useful for Gadamer. Exchanging pleasantries, sunning oneself, and endlessly chewing on a diet of phenomenology were not to be the pinnacles of Gadamer’s career. Instead, he wiped the sun cream off, pushed the whale back into its natural habitat, and bid Heidegger “Good day,” as he strode off the beach looking for an opportunity to meet someone with whom to engage openly and productively. However, before any such meeting could take place Gadamer wanted to be clearer about his ideas and so he continued to muse:

“Conversation is a process of coming to an understanding. Thus it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says. What is to be grasped is the substantive rightness of his opinion, so that we can be at one with each other on the subject… Where a person is concerned with the other as individuality – e.g., in a therapeutic conversation or the interrogation of a man accused of a crime – this is really not a situation in which two people are trying to come to an understanding.”5

Understanding through conversation, therefore for Gadamer, requires that each person regard the other’s opinion and not just the other as an object. A stunningly obvious truth, but one that absolutely needs stating. A friendly Gadamerian, David E. Linge, repackages this idea so that we might dwell upon it further, in case we all too rashly dismiss it due to its simplicity and bumble blithely ever onwards: “The dialogical character of interpretation is subverted when the interpreter concentrates on the other person as such rather than on the subject matter – when he looks at the other person, as it were, rather than with him at what the other attempts to communicate.”6

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The necessary realisation being that we need to stop looking at, and start looking with, if we want any actual understanding to emerge, because understanding comes through participation not observation as far as Gadamer is concerned. A bold move that will rub anyone’s inner Aristotelian up the wrong way: something, which I, of course, thoroughly recommend, endorse and condone. Consequently, when one looks with someone else one can achieve a sense of community and, as Gadamer described, feel that an experience has occurred. Such ‘soft’ results though, through sensing and feeling, build a wider picture than their individual pleasant but vague sensations, because they help to create something philosophically much overlooked. They weave together with other soft elements, such as an open disposition and the desire to learn, to craft an environment where self-consciousness can evolve and adapt, perhaps bringing us closer to the much sought after wisdom of which we yearn. Should our desire, therefore, be to create a rich tapestry from these soft threads?

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Such a proposition to cultivate ‘woolly-ness’ again assists in re-floating Heidegger’s whale, with its inscrutable yet essentially empty, lost, and overly neutral suggestion to ‘let being be’. This is because Gadamer started building from Heidegger’s end point, realising that the beach location was perfect, just not the article placed upon it. So, with the calm dignity of one who did not necessarily know the final design of what he started to construct, Gadamer returned to Heidegger’s sunny haven because he certainly knew how and why he needed to build. That said though, Gadamer did not revert to tried and tested principles of construction with the aim to create a stunning shiny edifice destined to summon in a new era of architecture: his programme was not driven by grand aspirations or the craving to show off. However, I fear that at this point I might have committed an authorial faux pas and leant so heavily upon my construction metaphor as to confuse the nature of Gadamer’s enterprise. Consequently, I need to request your further indulgence as I pull Gadamer’s soft and woolly subversion of Western philosophy back from the imagery of the architect’s drawing board to realm of ideas and thoughts. This I will do by gently blending from principles of construction to principles of philosophic theorising with, of course, my sincere apologies for the disruption.

Gadamer’s project then, was not a building block approach whereby a rigid blueprint is planned with construction around uniform and known materials. The step-by-step approach of starting with firm foundations and then setting down course after course of block-work in order that anyone might dwell within the result was not Gadamer’s intention. Just so, it was exactly this programmatic engineering of scientific communities with their strict adherence to principles of logic and order, which many philosophers have attempted to mimic, that Gadamer desired to avoid. He realised that something essential gets lost when one’s thinking is fashioned along such lines. For him, any restriction which entailed that truth can only be generated and found acceptable through such programmed methods, was something to rebel against. The discovery of truths should not only lead to the development of conceptual knowledge as far as Gadamer was concerned, but to other types of knowledge and even, possibly, to wisdom. Such thinking, though, is the very stuff of insurrection and Gadamer courageously leaps, as the salmon, up the waterfall of thought, against the almost overwhelming pressure of surging philosophical currents aided ever downwards by gravity and the sheer volume of names, reputations and tombs of revered learning.

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Continuing on his counter current achieved by his thoughts on conversations, horizons and prejudices, which have broadened our understanding of ourselves in a world that is occupied by others, Gadamer now takes us to a quite unexpected destination. Maybe he realised that he ought not to present yet more fascinating and insightful perspectives but instead dive wholeheartedly into a different terrain altogether? Maybe he had squarely fixed his sights on this new target all along and was always aiming in that direction? Whatever the rationale, motivation, or luck that brought Gadamer to this new destination, though, is of no great importance for us. What is important is what he did next. And, by asking the following two questions, Gadamer appears to violently changed tack and plunge into a completely different tradition of philosophy: “Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge? Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”7

To be continued… but only after we have spoken with Wilfred.


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 367.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 378.
  4. Ibid., 379.
  5. Ibid., 385.
  6. David E. Linge. ‘Editor’s Introduction’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, xx.
  7. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 41-42.

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