Conversation as Sharing: From the Individual Body to Networks of Communication

By Yusuke Wakazawa 

Since my undergraduate days in the philosophy department, the idea and practice of conversation has underpinned my pursuit of intellectual history. Despite the commonly held association of philosophy with solitude, I have encountered many historical examples of philosophers who were active participants in social exchanges. As depicted in Plato’s dialogues, ancient Greeks shaped and expressed their ideas of life in a convivial atmosphere. Enlightenment philosophers including Voltaire, Diderot and Hume were fond of eighteenth-century salons, clubs and societies. In nineteenth-century America, the meetings of the Metaphysical Club mediated the birth of Pragmatism. This significant aspect of the history of philosophy led me to propose a postdoctoral project on philosophy and conversation in the eighteenth century. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the idea and practice of conversation have gained relevance as a contemporary issue across various human activities including education, politics and public health. Social spaces for conversation, such as restaurants and pubs, could become hotbeds of infection and have been requested/ordered to close in some circumstances. Universities need to offer online courses as part of the present social distancing policy. It has become more common for scholars to attend online meetings and research seminars. Still, even after the outbreak of the pandemic, technology has enabled us to continue our conversations in a different format. Without leaving my house, I meet colleagues, teach students, and chat with friends online. Yet, there is a recurring sense that something is missing in these online conversations. Feedback from Students has also expressed this feeling of dissatisfaction or perplexity. Many of them, especially first-year students, want to attend in-person classes.

I sometimes find that online conversations are rigidly structured and hierarchical due to the technological features that dictates the format of these interactions. As no more than two people can speak at the same time, we often need a chair to keep these online conversations going. When we meet in person, the circle of conversation sometimes turns and breaks into two or more small groups, and this occurs without the explicit intention of the participants. There is a natural flow of conversation when we meet in person. Online conversations might lack this flexibility, as everyone simply views the same screen from their various respective locations. There would seem to be a hidden regulatory force behind online conversation, and this may underlie the sense that something is missing in this form of communication.

The current situation also reminds me that daily conversation before the pandemic was an embodied activity, more than the mere exchange of information. It was rather the process of “sharing” feelings, things and space through the use of our bodies. Eating together is an example of this act of sharing. As sharing means the incorporation of something foreign and new from outside into the self, conversation thus entails an experience of transformation. In addition to individual subjects, human relations themselves can change through it. I see this process as the origin of creative force in conversational interactions. Conversation is creative because participants in a conversation cannot predict where their conversation will lead. This unpredictability represents the opposite of the regulation forced on us in online conversation.

Jon Mee’s online seminar at the University of York in May was a timely opportunity for me to connect my daily experiences and thoughts on conversation with eighteenth-century studies. His current project focuses on networks of eighteenth-century physicians whose sociable exchange mediated the production and circulation of Enlightenment discourses on human nature, the body and feelings. His archival research in Edinburgh, Manchester and Liverpool shows that these medical men were active participants in the “conversable worlds” of eighteenth-century Britain. I am particularly interested in their medical theory of human interaction with the physical environment, which eighteenth-century intellectuals deployed to classify diverse types of social networks. We often encounter eighteenth-century texts that present an analogy between the human body and social institutions, or wide networks of social interaction. In addition to engaging in conversation, eighteenth-century intellectuals reflected upon the nature of human interaction and envisaged the anatomy of social networks underlying their practice of conversation. Here, the study of the human body was well connected to reflections on communication.

     Jon’s seminar paper explores the idea of the “affective object” with reference to William Cullen’s medical theory of the mind. Along with Scottish philosophers including Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, Cullen aimed to describe the process through which the mind interacted with external objects. This cognitive theory emphasized that sentiments were embedded within the material world. Kevis Goodman’s recent study, “Reading Motion” (2015), has shown that Cullen theorized the human body as an “active part of a larger social and historical environment” (350). Thus, his medical pursuits expanded from a focus on understanding the individual body to looking at a wider web of human interactions. He saw different scales of systems regulating the world: the individual body as a system, which itself was also part of the wider system of the social environment. 

     I came to know the life and work of Cullen through exploring David Hume’s sociable exchange in eighteenth-century Scotland. Serving the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh as a secretary, Hume had chance to share his inquiry into human nature with medical practitioners of the time. The activities of this society show the close interaction between medical and philosophical inquiry as an outcome of conversational exchange. In 1755, Cullen moved from Glasgow to take an academic position at Edinburgh University, and played a pivotal role as an influential teacher in the network of Scottish physicians. Hume was one of his patients, and they maintained a friendship through intellectual exchange. In the Oxford DNB entry on Cullen, W. F. Bynum points out the influence of Hume’s scepticism, the limits of human understanding, upon his own medical theory and practice (“The Enquiring Mind”).

The exploration of eighteenth-century medical discourse reminds me that conversational activities are embedded within the physical environment. In addition to responding to interlocutors, conversation also entails human interaction with things and space. This would suggest that the conversational worlds of eighteenth-century Britain can be examined not only as intellectual history but also as the study of material culture. As the exchange of snuff-boxes in Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768) shows, objects mediate the act of sharing itself.

Yusuke WAKAZAWA is an EAA research fellow at the University of Tokyo, Japan and a research associate at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York.

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