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Forgive me, God, this sin of speech

February 23, 2015

(— vergebe mir Gott
diese Sprachsünde!…)
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Dionysos-Dithyramben, “Unter Töchtern der Wüste”

*

Cliche the first: “Never talk about politics or religion.”

Cliche the second: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Being cliches, of course, both are entirely true, and both are entirely misleading.

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Misleading:

The first: Don’t talk about politics and religion, we assume, because they’re controversial. They’ll start arguments. Because talking about sports won’t? Or about the latest gossip?

The second: Talk about ideas, we assume, because they’re what matter. They’re not frivolous. Unlike the present state of the world we live in? Or who’s a good person, and who isn’t?

*

True:

The second:

Because talking about people, unless you’re contemplating an interaction with one of them, is nothing more than gossip, a way to reassure yourself that your network of various acquaintances really does hang together, really does coalesce into a social sphere; and most of the time, people are neither good nor bad enough to demand an ethical response.

Because talking about events, unless you’re contemplating a response to one of them, is just news, a way of marking the flow of time and your place in it, your place on the outlined path of life, or on this or that side of history; and most of the time, the events we hear about don’t actually call for us to do anything except not pretend like they didn’t happen.

And because talking about ideas, unless you’re contemplating changing your mind on one of them, is nothing more than self-congratulation, a way of reminding yourself that your opinions are (in your opinion) correct; but there no time like the present to stop thinking that what is not, is, and that what is, is not; and to start thinking that what is, is, and what is not, is not.

The first:

Because not everyone realizes that it’s pointless to talk about politics and religion if you’re not trying to change your mind.

And because, even if you do realize, it’s still the case that trying to change your mind is difficult, and it’s not polite to force other people to do difficult things for which they haven’t volunteered.

*

This applies, of course, not only to politics and religion, but to all ideas that matter.

It doesn’t apply to talk about science in the sense of natural history, which, as the name suggests, is really a form of news. They discovered a new kind of dinosaur! They put a man on the moon! How exciting to live in such times! Nor does it apply to talk about artistic preferences, which is just a form of gossip, talking about people synecdochally, by talking about the things the people have made. This kind of talk isn’t idea-talk at all.

But it does apply to talk about science in the sense of natural philosophy, and to talk about artistic judgments, in the Kantian sense.Neither of these kinds of idea-talk are controversial in the slightest. It just doesn’t make sense to engage in controversy about quantum mechanics, or algebraic topology, or the effect achieved by a particular poetic meter. I can teach you something about (say) QM, or I can learn from you, or we can be confused about it together, but as soon as we start arguing about who’s right (rather than trying to see who’s right), we’re no longer talking about QM at all, we’re just expressing (say) our wish that the many-worlds interpretation of QM be false because it being true would be bad for our preferred side in the wars of ir/religion. Such conversations, despite surface appearances, have nothing to do with the ideas supposedly in question. We might say the same, for that matter, of actual political and religious ideas, unlike political and religious cheerleading.

No, these ideas aren’t controversial; rather, they’re a bit dull, for those who don’t find them fascinating, and are difficult, even for those who love them. To the student, when there is a student, the remarks of the teacher in conversations about natural philosophy verge on gobbledygook, and in conversations about artistic judgments verge on the utterly vapid. When there’s not a student–that is, when there’s not a teacher, when neither conversant knows what ought to be said next–it doesn’t feel like meeting someone at a party and trading the names of bands you like; it feels like being called on in class and not knowing what to say, and like listening to someone else when they’re called on and they don’t know what to say. Awkward, unsatisfying, aimless.

And when the student finally learns the lesson, and both parties in the conversation know what to say when? At this point nothing remains to be said. They’re left to contemplate in silence.

A strange way, this, to spend your leisure hours. But if it isn’t what you want to do, just gossip and read the news. Don’t talk about “politics and religion.”

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