Feb 16, 2011

Right Racket After All, Says the Philosopher

Last week, I fortuitously came across another piece in which a reporter tells us how a social scientist has (re)discovered some truths long well-known and taught by philosophers and theologians.  Talk Deeply, Be Happy? discusses psychologist Matthias Mehl's findings which seem to show a correlation between reported levels of happiness and the proportion of "substantive" or "deep" conversations as opposed to "small talk" people routinely engage in with others.

This summary, by Tara Parker-Pope, is fairly careful not to draw conclusions ranging beyond the research -- a frequent problem, as I wrote last week, in some reporting on social scientific (re)discoveries of insights long commonplace in other literature, which miraculously multiply a small amount of  information, loaves and fishes-like, into baskets of grandiose speculations.  (Even after the feasting, though, crumbs enough remains for later, more sober, nourishment of the mind.)

Permitting Mehl to speak in his own words about the construction of his study, his assumptions, his inferences, Talk Deeply, Be Happy? opens intriguing questions, which can be and call to be pushed, explored, examined further -- precisely what I intend to do here.  To someone fortunate enough to be involved -- at least part of the time -- in sounding depths of philosophical (and, sometimes political, social, and theological) questions, texts, viewpoints, for a person experienced in  the joys and frustrations, the requirements and obstacles, the wax and wane of desire germane to such activity -- in short in the genuine intellectal life -- there are a number of long-discovered, systematically articulated and passed down, insights on these matters which it seems almost akin to robbery not to share.

But first, it's worth reading through, even lingering over, several passages from the brief article, looking at two key components of the study:  how the conversations were classified, and why deeper conversations were connected with happiness.

The main distinction made was between substantive conversations and small talk.  The latter could be "about the weather or having watched a TV show," for example, while the former included those turning on "current affairs, philosophy, the difference between Baptists and Catholics or the role of education."  Even conversations about TV shows could be substantive, however, "if the speakers analyzed the characters and their motivations."  (An aside: as a philosopher deeply interested in practical rationality, I've often been struck by how often narratives and characters better embody and dynamically display some moral principles, distinctions, concepts than do philosophical treatises).  There were other types of discourse as well, of course, for instance more practically oriented talk, addressing "questions about homework or who was taking out the trash."  The study counted the time spent in these but didn't focus on them.  The ways these three types of conversation were distinguished from each other leave some questions unasked, but I'll raise those momentarily below.

What made people happy?  Spending a greater proportion of time in substantive conversation than in small talk.  But why? 
substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people
These explanations make good enough sense, at least as starting points.  But they ought also to be puzzling (the kind of puzzling that would lead one into really substantive conversation) to us.  Sure, human beings have some sort of drive (or perhaps actually a set of different coinciding desires) to find and create meaning in their lives, a motive so strong that they will often generate fantasies or desperately grasp onto any offered meaning -- but what intrinsic connection would this bear with substantive conversations?  Practical conversations, whether about the many processes of everyday life or about steps towards significant goals, conversations oriented around getting things done, those certainly involve meaning, don't they?  And, would everything Mehl might be counting as substantive really involve finding and creating meaning?

The second motive is also puzzling.  Why should wanting and needing to connect with other people have anything to do with engaging in substantive conversations?  Isn't small talk carried out precisely with the motive of interacting in manageable ways with our fellow human beings?  In fact, one way substantive conversations differ from small talk is that there is something at stake in them, some things are being asserted to have some values, and that is why we might just find ourselves in disagreement, rancor, conflict with the other people with whom we are ostensibly connecting.

Actually, as many ancient and medieval philosophers (and theologians, and playwrights, and . . . ) knew, these two motives are interconnected.  Aristotle is a good enough a person to start with as anyone, not least for the boldness of his assertion:  "all human beings by nature desire to know."   What is it that we want to know, we might ask him, and in the book whose commencement is that very passage (the Metaphysics), it turns out to be the causes of things:  what they are, what makes them occur, what their structure is, and what the purpose at work is.  That's not always the case, of course.  In his Poetics, when discussing six elements of dramatic artistry, Aristotle remains concerned with our yearning for learning, or desire for knowledge.  And, if, as he maintains (he might recant today) poetic production is more philosophical than history, it is not because he thinks nobody is interested in, perhaps even fascinated by history -- again seeking meaning in one form of narrative or another.

One of my favorite passages of Aristotle's Politics for its suggestive richness runs:
The human being is the only animal that possesses speech (logon).  Voice is a sign of the painful and the pleasurable, and so the other animals possess it (for their nature encompasses this much, that they can sense pain and pleasure and communicate them to each other), but speech is also for setting forth the useful and the harmful, and likewise also the just and the unjust.  What is specific to the human alone, as opposed to the other animals, is being able to perceive  the good and the evil,  the just and the unjust, and likewise all the other moral categories, and it is the sharing of these that makes the household and the political community.
It's precisely our capacity to perceive, share in, and communicate about justice and injustice, goodness and badness, beauty and ugliness (another set of  moral categories Aristotle discusses) that permits deep, substantive conversation.  But, as he points out in the Rhetoric (and in other portions of the Politics), these values, what they are, what they properly apply to -- these are matters of controversy.  The orator must learn about common views about, for instance, the fine or noble and the base or ignoble precisely so he can convince people who already see things otherwise over to his viewpoint.And, he likely has to do so against opposition.

Plato, Aristotle's former teacher, was cognizant of all of this as well. In more than one place in the dialogues, Socrates mentions or gets fellow discussant to admit that what human beings do not agree on, and therefore argue about, and are even willing to come to blows over, are "the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, the  noble and the base," perennial subjects of substantive discussion.  And, while the dialogues portray many scenes of genially joking or perplexedly seeking conversations, they also contain passages of two different sorts, which ought to give us pause in equating "substantive conversations" with those in which we seek out shared meaning with other people.

Many conversations in Plato's dialogues are simply agonistic, not least since quite a few of the characters find their insecurities and inefficiencies coming to the fore in the back and forth of substantive dialectic.  Some of them become angry, take offense, sometimes, like Meletus stalk off (to later bring charges against Socrates).  Others, like Euthyphro or Ion (in the dialogues named after them)  -- even though for the reader something has been learned -- leave the conversation about the same as they came in, no gain in meaning.  Some of the characters are not even interested in having a back and forth exchange, just in saying their piece about weighty matters, opining and resenting when others question in response.

Why would having "substantive conversations" about deep matters be connected with human happiness?  Actually, it's not.  That is, substantive conversations are not productive of human happiness in such a direct way.

We do sometimes have (and even tell others about -- yet more conversation) a wonderful conversation with another, revealing of selves, touching on or even delving into deep truths.  Given the incredibly vast amount of dusty trivia cluttering up the storehouse of my memory, coupled with my abilities to draw out connections, to systematically organize them, and to do so without introducing a pedantic, lecturing style, I get surprised fairly regularly by interlocutors telling me how much they enjoyed our conversations, how much they learned, how useful they found it -- but really, I ought not to be surprised, since when I get into similar conversations, I come away equally happy.

Still, can one count on having such conversations if the talk steers into deep waters?  Not at all.  If delving into the depths exposes fissures, lines of conflict, reveals insecurities -- even if one attempts to engage in substantive conversation with a person who thinks they know all about the topic, but really doesn't, opening a spiritual gulf between the discutants -- substantive conversation may well make one unhappy.  Then again, if one thrives on conflict and discord, arguments or even talking past each other about such issues might make one happy in some sense (instrumentally, since what really makes such a person happy is feeling the emotions, seeing their own mastery displayed antagonistically, perhaps even being beaten down by the other, the security that comes for some with submission -- the conversational conflict just provides the means for this goal).  Or, then again. . . . .

Objections could be multiplied at this point.  What about cases where a person is doing spiritual or psychological work on themselves, and at first substantive conversations are painful, but then lead them towards happiness?  What about . . . . Almost infinite wrinkles could be introduced, no?  Well, not infinite, but many, and this is precisely where the usefulness of moving from social science into philosophy (and theology, and history, and literature -- really into a perspective formed by the humanities) is most clear.  Who has explored the many different distinctions and interconnections needed to make better sense of this very important, highly fruitful, but (in Mehl's study) not thought-through matter?

Put in another way, what disciplines have a long history full of highly articulate and deeply reflective texts chock full of (often systematically connected) ideas one can bring to bear on such questions?  Whose practitioners (ideally -- I have much to say about how philosophical formation is stymied at many schools) develop their own competencies, their own insights through sustained conversation with the great authors through study of these texts?

The main trouble with deducing much from this study -- apart from the fact that the sameness group is admittedly rather small -- is that the categories of conversation Mehl introduced and correlated to measures of happiness are far too simplistic.  And, not just in themselves, as if by subdividing them further or tinkering with their borders (so that, for example, philosophy professors just chatting idly about a new book neither one cares anything about would be reclassified as "small talk") the matter would take on the sort of clarity needed -- though, these would be improvements to some degree.  The main trouble is that in looking to language and human happiness we are already moving into philosophical territory where empirical work needs to be informed by its own conversational interactions with philosophy of human nature, moral philosophy, philosophy of language, and some other fields as well.

Mehl's research, as it moves into its next stage, takes a promising direction.  He aims to discover "if people can actually make themselves happier by having more substantive conversations."  Again, to do this well will require some further sophistication in categorizing conversations.  But, that's just a small, first step. This question has already been approached, countless times, with great subtlety of distinction, by author after author in the humanities.  I'll end -- and I'll take up some of the loose and yet-idle threads of this conversation in later blog posts -- by just pointing out one philosopher who addressed this topic: Plato (well, actually two, since Plato's writing about Socrates).

We see not only Socrates, not only his followers, but many of the ancient (leisured, to be sure) Greeks not only enjoying substantive conversation but deliberately creating occasions where it would take place, prolonging it.  Socrates himself willingly goes too his death because he will not give it up, arguing that while his barbed words vex his fellow Athenians, he actually renders them and their lives better thereby, consoling himself with hopes of carrying on such deep and enjoyable conversation in the afterlife.  And as we read through Plato's depictions, do we not ourselves enter into, if only on the periphery, a superlatively substantive conversation going on down the ages, transcending time and death?