Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the author six novels and six non-fiction books, including, most recently, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation. She is host of the TV interview show, The Civil Discourse, broadcast on many PBS stations and available on Youtube.
Defining Good Conversation
In the course of writing about conversation, I’ve been drawn to research its philosophical and psychological meaning.
A starting point is Sigmund Freud, who pioneered the “talking cure.” He found that if his patients could be encouraged to talk without inhibition—to free associate on what they were feeling—they could find the source of their problems and the cure for their symptoms.
Freud’s talking cure introduced the idea of transference. In the course of therapy, patients often felt that they had fallen in love with their therapists. This idea is relevant to an understanding of conversation as it connects us with others. A deep sense of affection for those we are engaged with in a good conversation.
If love can be understood as important in conversation, so can desire. The relationship of conversation to desire may be better understood if we draw on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan drew on material from the early twentieth-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and saw language as the primary structuring agent for desire of any kind. According to Lacan, we operate in the world out of a sense of incompleteness or “lack” and are continually drawn from one temporary meaning to another. .
The continual search for meaning on the part of our desiring self seems to me at the heart of good conversation. We seek to fill the lack in ourselves by engaging with someone who is Other—who comes from another position, another background, another set of experiences.. To both recognize this difference and to be welcoming of it is the premise upon which good conversation is built.
Finally, I connect the humanizing emotion that arises out of good conversation to the teachings of eighteenth-century moral philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s Categorical Imperative addresses the moral aspect of our engagement with the world: “never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always also as an end in itself.” While a conversation can be useful to us, it is only truly satisfying when we see our fellow conversant as a complex human being, not as a means to an end.