Holding one’s tongue: Silence before speech

How infrequently do we hold our tongue. The phrase ‘holding one’s tongue’ we apply too narrowly, only to cases where we are upset and bound to say something that may hurt our interlocutor. At such a time, holding one’s tongue is appropriate and no doubt it saves us from embarrassment, foolishness, backtracking, and apologizing later on. And yet, not saying what may come to mind is an exercise that is best practiced not narrowly but across a whole range of cases. In lieu of privileging speech over silence, we had better reverse the relationship: holding silence to be the default, we only utter words when they are warranted.

‘Only when they are warranted?’ Yes, only after they have passed the test given by the demands within a specific context: answering cleanly a legitimate question; asserting a true belief in order to broaden the pool of true beliefs among us; saying in a few choice words how we are actually doing; helping the interlocutor make sense of a subject that had so far proven mysterious to him; issuing sincere words of love to one’s beloved. These are but some clear, vivid examples.

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The relationship between direct speech and philosophical inquiry

Direct Speech and Philosophical Inquiry

I believe we creatures of habit, we too-clever beings have learned all forms of indirect speech. To overcome indirectness, I have sought to teach direct speech. Indeed, I have insisted that a philosophical conversation cannot begun unless the philosophical guide and the conversation partner engage exclusively in direct speech.

In my manual The Art of Inquiry, I write that

[philosophical] inquiry matters because it teaches us direct speech. Most of our lives have been spent partaking in indirect speech. We have become well-versed in grandiloquence, circumlocution, subterfuge, deception, evasion, omission, ellipses, hyperbole, self-deception, avoidance, insincerity, flattery, cunning, politeness, complaints, offenses… Direct speech partakes of none of these locutions. In direct speech, I say what is the case; I speak in good faith; I care for truth.

Inquiry, as a carrier of direct speech, teaches us directness, simplicity, parsimoniousness (love of the fewest words necessary), and awareness. We speak to, not around; we speak with, not over; we speak about, not away from. As inquirers, we have nothing to hide, so we speak plainly to and with each other.

I think this passage is good, but the nature and importance of direct speech could be clarified even further. I try to do this below.

What Direct Speech is

Direct speech is the thought-act of (1) saying what you mean or (2)  figuring out what you mean when you say, and seem to believe, something. Saying what you mean provides us with key ‘resting points’–possible points of departure, good pauses, profound and unforeseen conclusions–whereas saying something whose meaning is unclear to us gives us reason and motivation to inquire further about what it is you mean, whether what you say is accurate, whether saying this matters even if it is true. The second speech act is the nub or gnawing of ‘hunger,’ is already ‘turning into’ a question to which you are ‘alive’ or about which you are ‘fraught.’ Things, at this point, are beginning to get serious and significant such that we might learn something about ourselves, something that we could not have foreseen, imagined, grasped or conceived of at the outset.

What Direct Speech is Not

Direct speech does not consist of (1) jargon. Large, rare, foreign, or lesser known words or phrases seem to be, more often than not, ways of muddying the waters. Without jargon, one is more apt to speak straight to something in hope of getting a clearer view of oneself.

Direct speech involves no (2) stratagems. (Perhaps psychoanalysis is the genre and hermeneutic of indirect speech.) Hence, one does not resort to speaking around something, to evasions, to misleading jokes, to asking how the guide is doing, to changing the subject, etc.

Lastly, a speech act is not direct if the utterance is said with the intention of exhibiting (3) vanity (focus on the narrowed self), expressing flattery (focus on the narrowed other), or saving face (focused on not being ashamed of oneself).

Direct Speech as Risk-Taking

As a result of clearing away the jargon, the stratagems, and the vices of vanity, flattery, and face-saving, we can enter into the genre of direct speech. And direct speech makes it possible to impartially follow a line of thought to the very end. Of course, there is no guarantee that this will be the case, that getting to the very end will yield greater self-awareness or self-understanding. But, in following a line of thought to the end, both guide and conversation partner involve themselves in danger, commit themselves to taking a risk without the possibility of reward.

While writing this short meditation, I have been struck, just now, by what I think I may be trying to do. Perhaps all of this, I now think, was simply another attempt to understand more clearly and fully what would allow for a philosophical inquiry to spring forth. For unless what I have said above is true, we cannot possibly have an inquiry, cannot get around to ever having an inquiry–cannot partake in and learn from that

unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.