Skyping ‘without a body’

Quaestio 1: What is living discourse?

1.) ‘Philosophical Death.’ There is no face-to-face, only the voice-to-voice. As Socrates makes plain when he converses with his friends in Phaedo, philosophizing is an ‘impersonal’ activity. It occurs not in the personal (evidenced in the face or ‘in the body’) but in the trans-personal (which is possible through the voice).

When we say that ‘to philosophize is to learn how to die,’ we mean that we are conceiving of ourselves as the kinds of beings who can go beyond empirical predicates (hair color, skin color, etc.), narrow concerns (whether the electric bill is due later on today), the appetites of the body (hunger, thirst, etc.), and cramped self-interests (e.g., how the guide ‘feels’ about me, etc.). Thus we engage in following along the line of thought wherever that thought may take us.

(Compare analogous genres: Catholic confession, the blindness or impartiality of justice, John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.)

2.) Equal Footing. Living discourse takes place only when both philosophical guide and philosophical friend can put each other to the question and stand beside each other in mutual understanding.

3.) One-pointedness. Living discourse is one activity concerned with the subject matter in hand. It does not admit of wandering, straying, of being two or more activities, and so on. This one-pointedness distinguishes living discourse from everyday social exchanges.

4.) Live Voice. What is distinctive about living discourse is that it is live. It cannot be reproduced or recorded, manufactured or mimicked.

5.) Responsiveness. The philosophical friend does not know what questions will be asked during any philosophical conversation and, specifically, what question will come next. Thus, he must be agilely responsive to the question that comes his way without being announced beforehand. That question may catch him off guard.

Quaestio 2: How does Skype, when best understood, make possible philosophy as living discourse?

When philosophical friends and I have philosophical conversations over Skype,

  • We are neither in a public space nor in an office. Miraculously (due to Skype), we are both at home: I am at my home and he is at his. This ‘other space’ encourages us to begin each conversation on equal footing.
  • We meditate in silence at least 30 minutes beforehand.
  • We sit in cross-legged (possibly lotus or half-lotus) position.
  • We do not use the video feature during the duration of our conversation. Thus, we cannot see each other.
  • We turn the brightness of the computer screen down to zero.
  • Ideally, we set the computer outside of our field of vision.
  • We begin each conversation at the exact starting time, yet neither of us knows how long the conversation will last or at what time it will end.
  • Throughout much of the conversation, I have my eyes closed.
  • We pay attention to the sound of each other’s voice and to the line of inquiry we are following wherever that inquiry is leading us.


1.) We are better off having philosophical conversations over Skype than we would be were we to have philosophical conversations in person.

2.) Skype can serve as a platform that makes possible philosophizing as living discourse.

Skyping blindfolded

Yesterday, I advanced the counterintuitive thesis that my philosophical friends and I are better off having philosophical conversations over Skype than we would be were we to have philosophical conversations in person. I promised that I would prove why this thesis is nonetheless true and, in so doing, that I would show how Skype can serve as a platform that makes possible philosophizing as living discourse.

What stands in my way of making this case is a set of four interlocking assumptions concerning how we know ourselves and each other. I will call this picture a ‘naive empiricism,’ one that we have taken to be common sense and one that stretches back to the birth of philosophy. The ‘naive empiricist’ believes

I know this living person because

    1. I can see him (the visible);
    2. he is near me in space (here);
    3. he and I occupy the same time (now); and
    4. it is often true that 1-3 hold (frequency/reliability).

Metaphorically speaking, then, I know myself because

    1. I can ‘see’ myself (introspection: the ‘mind’s eye’);
    2. I am ‘near’ myself (being present 1);
    3. I am ‘on time’ with myself (being present 2); and
    4. it is often true that 1-3 hold (frequency/reliability).

(One could conjecture that this is a rather ‘tribal’ conception of knowing: I see John here and now and quite often and thus I say that I know John.)

As we examine each assumption, however, we soon discover that each is not true. First, seeing another or ‘seeing’ myself provides no guarantee that I know the other or myself. For a family member may see me but never know me. And I may introspect but never find out anything illuminating about myself. Next, someone’s being near me or my being ‘near’ myself may grant me no privileged access to knowing him or myself. I may stand in a crowded subway car, yet I wouldn’t say that I know my neighbor. Or I may be hyper-aware of my physical location without ascertaining anything significant about myself. Next, my being in the same punctual ‘now’ as another may be nothing more than contingent: John and I, say, happen to be good with clock time, but apart from that we have never said a word to each other. Last, the claim that these things are often the case either with another or with myself may only lead to glossed-over familiarity, to taking something for granted, as when I see the same landscape each and every morning without the sense of aesthetic appreciation.

This ‘naive empiricism’ may run deep within us, but it does not follow that it is true. It runs so deep, in fact, that when one goes and seeks guidance, one likely believes that the guide must be here, now, and before one’s face. These are all mistakes.

Instead, I want to explore how we actually come to self-understanding. On my account,

  1. one comes to know oneself and another best (i.e., in a philosophical sense) through the ear and living voice and thus through the invisible dialogue;
  2. each voice is here in the sense of being properly responsive to the uttered words of the other; and
  3. each does not occupy clock time (1, 2, 3,…) but rather the unhurried time of philosophical inquiry (slowness beyond slowness);

Living discourse, thus, unfolds as a genre in which philosophical guide and philosophical friend cannot see each other yet are properly responsive, in an unhurried way, to the basic question put to the philosophical friend. In this fashion, the philosophical friend can come to know himself.

In the following post, I will try to show how Skype can facilitate living discourse so understood. When we converse via Skype, it is as if we were going about things blindfolded.