Made Ready by Conversation (Johnson)

What good is sitting around talking about books?

This is a rather urgent question for the faculty of the Torrey Honors Institute as we start into another academic year, because we are leading our students once again into an extended season of exactly that. At Torrey, the professors assign classic texts, reserve classrooms, and show up to ask questions. In response, our students dutifully read those classic texts (they really do! It’s like college magic!), put their chairs in circles, and attempt to answer those questions.

They converse with each other. For three, six, or nine hours per week, they are guided by the professors to talk with each other about the assigned reading. The conversation constitutes the bulk of their general education, and accounts for all their classroom time. They do attend some lectures, and there’s a lot of time spent in individual meetings during office hours, and several other contact points, formal and informal, throughout the semester. But all that activity is ancillary to the vast, ongoing conversation. Sometimes it seems like all we do is converse.

Is this a good idea? It’s not hard to think of powerful arguments against it.

But here’s why we’re committed to it. As Francis Bacon (1561–1626) famously said, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” It’s a great, pithy saying that captures the arc of learning: the first step is to fill our minds by reading great books, and the last step is to face the stern discipline of writing, which requires us to compose our thoughts and seek apt ways of expressing them. But in between comes “conference [makes] a ready man.” What is that?

The classic exposition of Bacon’s meaning can be found in an essay by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) published in The Adventurer. He spends a few lines defending reading, and a few commending writing, but most of his essay is devoted to the importance of conversation (as he renders Bacon’s word “conference”) for the formation of educated people.

Johnson pictures a student who completes step one: he immerses himself in his subject, fills his mind with understanding, and generally “wears out his days and nights in perpetual research and solitary meditation.” Good student! Except that this student is “too apt to lose in his elocution what he adds to his wisdom,” that is, to buy knowledge by trading away his ability to communicate it. What will such a student do when the time comes to speak his mind? He will “appear overloaded with his own notions, like a man armed with weapons which he cannot wield.” He will have no ability to put his thoughts into words, to “adapt himself to the various degrees of intellect which the accidents of conversation will present.” Instead he will talk to people,  but not well:  “to most unintelligibly, and to all unpleasantly.” And Johnson backs up his claim with an anecdote:

I was once present at the lectures of a profound philosopher, a man really skilled in the science which he professed, who having occasion to explain the terms opacum and pellucidum, told us, after some hesitation, that opacum was, as one might say opaque, and that pellucidum signified pellucid. Such was the dexterity with which this learned reader facilitated to his auditors the intricacies of science; and so true is it that a man may know what he cannot teach.

A thinker who has spent too much time locked up in his own head will find himself, when forced to speak, uttering such explanations that explain nothing. Communication is hard work, and few people can succeed at it without constant practice. That practice is not an extraneous burden added onto thought; for most people, intellectual clarity emerges in the midst of bringing ideas from the mind to the mouth.

Conversation is the best way to overcome another problem: our tendency to reinforce our own opinions as long as we keep holding them passively in our minds. Johnson describes the habitual process of a reader’s “confirmation bias:”

When he meets with an opinion that pleases him, he catches it up with eagerness; looks only after such arguments as tend to his confirmation; or spares himself the trouble of discussion, and adopts it with very little proof; indulges it long without suspicion, and in time unites it to the general body of his knowledge, and treasures it up among incontestible truths:

But what happens when such a thinker enters into dialogue with actual people?

when he comes into the world among men who, arguing upon dissimilar principles, have been led to different conclusions, and being placed in various situations view the same object on many sides, he finds his darling position attacked, and himself in no condition to defend it: having thought always in one train, he is in the state of a man who having fenced with the same master, is perplexed and amazed by a new posture of his antagonist; he is entangled in unexpected difficulties, he is harassed by sudden objections, he is unprovided with solutions or replies; his surprise impedes his natural powers of reasoning, his thoughts are scattered and confounded…

Johnson is especially eloquent when describing the way mind confronts mind in these discussions: “It is difficult to imagine with what obstinacy truths which one mind perceives almost by intuition will be rejected by another.” How can it be that others don’t see things the way I see things? How can it be that we walk around under the same sky but you think it is a totally different color than I do?

And how hard it is to convince others! “How many artifices must be practised to procure admission for the most evident propositions into understandings frighted by their novelty, or hardened against them by accidental prejudice.” The outcomes of these conversations can never be predicted in advance, because the competing ideas have to come into the arena and be championed by the advocates who show up on that day, however prepared they may be. As I’ve seen in class over and over, sometimes the participants with the best ideas do the worst job advocating them, and the whole day is carried by a couple of students who do an incredible job of recommending their way of seeing things. Or, as Johnson (somewhat less politely, it seems to me), puts it: 

It can scarcely be conceived how frequently in these extemporaneous controversies the dull will be subtle, and the acute absurd; how often stupidity will elude the force of argument, by involving itself in its own gloom; and mistaken ingenuity will weave artful fallacies, which reason can scarcely find means to disentangle.

The best way to be prepared for such arguments is to engage regularly in some form of conversation about ideas. The student who spends too much time stocking his mind with ideas in seclusion is all but useless once the words start flying:

In these encounters the learning of the recluse usually fails him: nothing but long habit and frequent experiments can confer the power of changing a position into various forms, presenting it in different points of view, connecting it with known and granted truths, fortifying it with intelligible arguments, and illustrating it by apt similitudes; and he, therefore, that has collected his knowledge in solitude, must learn its application by mixing with mankind.

Of course not just any conversation will do.  I’m sure everybody’s been part of a really bad book discussion group at some point, the kind of discussion that makes you feel dumber at the end than when you started. A series of discussions like that would not serve our purpose. So careful planning and preparation are required, and good technique is called for, to encourage conversations to rise to the level of the true meeting of minds. But that’s another topic altogether. What Johnson advocates is plentiful conversation, “mixing with mankind” in conference. It’s the crucial middle step between reading and writing, and it’s for Johnsonian reasons that we spend most of our time there in Torrey.


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