What makes for a good conversation partner in my philosophy practice?

As I examine all of the conversation partners I have been fortunate enough to have philosophical conversations with in the past and present, I come to the tentative conclusions that certain things about them are necessary features and that certain things about the kinds of lives they lead are also necessary. The following features are meant to be essential; surely, there are other features–great humor, a love of beauty, incomparable talents–that can be important but then are not necessary.

My latest sketch of an answer regarding what makes for a good candidate for philosophical practice is included below.


I. The Time for Philosophy

Q: When is it the appropriate time for one to come to philosophical inquiry?

One must be open and ready.

1.) Openness: When a vague question about existence–this being rather like an urge or a force–is asking to be clearly asked.

2.) Readiness: When one is up for being put to the question.

One may be open but not ready, as when a question arrives but the one to whom it comes is not up for it. One may be ready but not open, as when one wishes to be put to the question but there is no question of existence urging itself upon one.

II. Material Conditions

Q: What material conditions make possible having philosophical conversations with a philosophical guide?

One must have the appropriate financial means and must also have the time it takes in order to take care of his words.

1.) Financial Means: One has enough money (i.e., is not in debt, does not hoard, is not a spendthrift) that one can offer some of it freely and easily in the form of a gift.

2.) Leisure: One has enough time outside of work and other responsibilities in order to converse unhurriedly for fairly lengthy stretches at a time.

Being overworked and always in a hurry, one may have the means but not the leisure. Or out of work or living in precarity, one may have plenty of leisure but insufficient means.

III. Moral Virtues

Q: Which moral virtues are indispensable for a candidate conversation partner to have?

He has to be properly generous, committed, and patient.

1.) Generosity: A liberal person, in Aristotle’s view, is more concerned with giving than with taking. He is neither a spendthrift nor a miser. Giving properly involves also taking pleasure in giving. (The virtue of generosity is such that it cannot be accompanied by displeasure.) A liberal-spirited conversation partner is one who knows how to delight in giving in order to meet some of my material needs.

2.) Commitment: A conversation partner is committed if he shows up before the scheduled conversation each and every time. The feeling is one of having given a promise, of having pledged himself, for there is no wavering, no guarding, no vacillating, qualifiers, or reservations. In The Uses of Argument, Stephen Toulmin discusses J.L. Austin’s view of promising. When I promise that I shall have a conversation with you on Tuesday at 7 a.m., I hereby commit myself unguardedly and without reservation to being present, thus lending my authority to my statement. I stand behind my statement and would be ashamed were I not to show up in all senses of the words ‘showing up.’

3.) Patience: A conversation partner must be able to stay with something, to dwell on something, to sit with whatever it is–be it pleasurable or painful–until an answer arises. Patience is one capacity for being with the not knowing or with the not presently knowing. It precludes aggression.

IV. State of Mind

Q: What is the proper state of mind of a candidate conversation partner who wishes to philosophize with a philosophical guide?

He must be dispassionate, considerate, and lighthearted.

1.) Dispassionate: He must be able to move from the first-person standpoint to the third-personal standpoint: from this particular claim about his life, about the way it is going, to the disinterested view of himself, of what it means for any excellent life to go well. As I write in Awakening to Philosophical Life,

The ‘basic questions of living’ occur to me but transcend my existence; they emerge in my time but go beyond my years; they shape my moral character but the nature of my character is poured from a general cast of mind. They enliven me–this is true–yet only by dint of coursing through my being; and while their beginning is contingent, their reason for being is necessary.

2.) Considerate: The candidate conversation partner must be able to slowly mull something over in order to come to a more considered view of it. This may take some time since a view may be unclear, inconsistent, convoluted, longwinded, or it may simply not fit all the facts. A considered view, taking patience and good fitness, is clear, simple, and accurate.

3.) Lighthearted: Even though philosophical thinking is hard, the conclusions we reach are illuminating and light. Thus, it is not a coincidence that we like to smile, laugh, and exchange kind words throughout and at the end. We may joke. Hence, the seriousness of the subject shouldn’t be conflated with the lightheartedness of our demeanors. The sullen, sulky person or the person prone to complaining has no business entering in. Only the one who uplifts and is uplifting.