The Further Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 4: Conversation Man’s whirlwind conversational ride through the ages!



Dr John Reed spent 8 years at Oxford University (amassing 3 social science degrees including a Ph.D).  He worked for several years with historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin (author of the likes of ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’ and ‘Conversation’) on conversation projects in health centres, shopping centers, high streets, art galleries, libraries, choirs, and even IKEA to see if it could be turned into a cultural and community hub. 

At Say It Now, John is our ‘conversationalist in residence’. Raising the bar in our understanding and thinking of the immense power conversation has on the human experience in relation to life, the universe and everything in between.

In this realm he’s no longer Dr. John Reed, in this world, he’s…Conversation Man!

Howdy! This month I’ve been challenged by my SayItNow colleagues to discuss what on earth conversation is, and has been across the ages, in around 1200 words. A task which is more or less impossible. But nevertheless as I’m Conversation Man I’ll give it a go.

The trouble with ‘conversation’ as a subject is that ‘it’ is quite hard to define, or pin down, in precise terms. But by and large when I discuss conversation, or the conversationist, below what I’m talking about is a ‘culture of conversation’. In the sense of a kind of soup of subjects, practices, norms, attitudes, etc. which occur between a group of people in certain contexts over time and which tend to be related to certain philosophies of life and thereby values. A kind of what, where, whom, how and why of conversation. Which I try to draw a historical line through.

Conversation 1.0 – The Prehistoric Conversationist

In the beginning there was fire. And we can thereby imagine early humans sat around a nice warm fire, perhaps in a cave, having a good old chin wag about this and that with their tribe, or some part of their tribe. No doubt whilst cooking and eating something wild, but tasty, whilst discussing practical and social matters, telling stories, singing, dancing, and perhaps pondering nature, one’s ancestors, the moon and the stars.

A simple conversational scenario, but never the less one which has no doubt reverberated through the ages where conversational life is concerned. As after all many of us still enjoy a good campfire (or fire-side) chat, food is still very much tied up with conversation, and smoking (in the form of cigarettes or a pipe) has been and still is an opportunity for an exchange of thoughts. And one can also imagine this tribal camp fire gathering gradually developing into the ‘village council’, and thereby the beginnings of the political meeting.

But equally where did early humans, be they hunter gatherer or then agrarian, go if they wanted a more intimate chat with someone for whatever reason, away from the wider tribe? Did they snuggle up under a rug in a more private cave or hut, thereby inventing pillow talk? Or did they slink off to a lesser known cave with a pal, perhaps to do a bit of cave painting, as romantic artists in search of a bit of solitude still do, metaphorically at least, to this day? Or did they ‘go for a walk’, through the woods, prefiguring the hikers and strollers who now dot the countryside? Or did they invite a friend, or two, round to their place for a cup of tea, or beer, a practice which might eventually turn into the ‘Public House’ or ‘Coffee Shop’?

The idea, and reality, of this ‘Pre-historic Conversationist’ of course still echoes down the ages. Arguably in every individual, or group, who yearn for or try to establish a simpler, more natural, more communal life, or at least those who talk about doing so. ‘Hippies’ for example, and their various cultural cousins, as well as everyone who enjoys a good weekend music festival or evening around a bonfire. One could of course argue that in truth not that much has changed since then, conversationally speaking. Technology and social, economic and political organisation may have changed, but the fundamentals of who we are, and what we talk about haven’t that much. We are still in essence concerned about our survival, status and related technology, our tribe, our family, eating, cooking, dancing, and otherwise pondering the universe. But equally what we talk about has clearly evolved, even if it hasn’t entirely revolved.

Conversation 2.0- The Ancient Conversationist

On our whirlwind ride through the conversational ages our next stop is thereby the ‘Ancient Conversationist’, whom we find in Athens in Ancient Greece. A lot has of course changed since the age of the previous Pre-historic Conversationist agriculture, architecture, the wheel, writing, art, mathematics, city dwelling, politics, trade, religion etc. etc. But in order to try to draw a line through all that complexity I’ll discuss what we can learn about conversation from the philosophers of Ancient Greece, who by all accounts were the forefathers of modern thought and thereby in a sense conversation.

First it’s worth pointing out that all four of the people discussed below were privileged men who were all concerned with the likes of Virtue, Knowledge, Reason, Wisdom, the Good, Happiness and the relationship between such ideas, established through a process of dialogue. Ideas which still concern most of us, conversationally and culturally speaking, to some degree to this day. And second it’s worth making the obvious point that they were all philosophers, people who ponder things, but who also ponder about pondering things. And let’s face it most of us these days are, in a piece-meal or amateur sense, a bit philosophical, and also anthropological, in that culturally speaking very few of us now go through life in a merely traditional or accepting or unconscious fashion. But beyond that I wish to discuss some of the differences between them, as archetypes of cultures of conversation.

Conversation 2.1, Socrates- The Humble Deflator

If you were wandering the streets of Athens at the time you might have bumped into Socrates, surrounded by a bit of a crowd. A stone mason and midwife from a relatively wealthy family, and by all accounts a very ugly man with a fat belly and bulgy eyes, who dressed scruffily, hardly washing, wore no shoes, owned few possessions, was indifferent to material pleasures and practiced moderation where eating, drinking and sex were concerned. And there are still plenty of people around who agree with him, practicing elements of asceticism, moderation or stoicism and reflecting such values in their conversational lives.

His philosophical practice also tended to involve the public deflation, if not quite humiliation, of experts and supposed certainties, using a process of questioning based upon feigned ignorance, humility and irony. And thereby every person who converses in such a fashion, employing de-construction, skepticism, cynicism, irony, satire and such like for these ends could be seen to have a bit of Socrates in them.

Conversation 2.2, Plato- The Noble Idealist

You might also have found Plato in his Academy, a good looking, well-built chap, from a noble aristocratic lineage, developing his notion of universal, ideal, forms of natural and moral truth (a bit like himself, a ‘Philosopher King’). Which we mere mortals sometimes catch a glimpse of in our shadowy, messy, reality but which we can also try to align ourselves with through our more virtuous faculties, such as reason.

Plato wasn’t ‘an idealist’, in the sense of the youthful and unrealistic striving for perfection in the real world, but never the less he thought that ideals were real, existing (one might say) in the mind, or soul, of God or Nature or what have you. And in terms of thought, and conversation, one still sees to this day an at least tacit appeal in many cultures of discourse (particularly the moral and aesthetic) to the existence of ideals. And often this appeal isn’t merely theoretical, or abstract, but practical, as people try to strive or move towards a more ideal world, or self. A mind set, and associated culture of conversation, which one might most obviously associate with aspects of Religion, Art and the Humanities, as well as Politics, Business, the Consumer Society and in relation the body and fitness.

Conversation 2.3, Aristotle- The Worldly Scientist

You might find Aristotle, a doctor’s son, in his Lyceum, where he was chiefly concerned with trying to understand the world around and about him, including the natural world and the human condition including its political arrangements (he thereby being considered the father of various later ‘hard’ scientific disciplines and also political science).

One could thereby see him, in terms of a culture of thought and conversation, as being an early Scientist. A mode of thought which has of course reverberated through the ages, and even those of us who aren’t ‘scientists’ in a formal sense still think and converse in a somewhat scientific fashion. As after all a better understanding of how the world, and people, work not only helps you get what you want out of life, but it can also transform your sense of what is worthwhile, or at least interesting.

Conversation 2.4, Aristippus – The Luxurious Hedonist

Aristippus enjoyed luxury and was happy to seek sensual gratification including the company of the notorious Lais (the greatest courtesan / prostitute of her day). He pursued making money, which he spent on the pleasures it could afford, avoided politics and such public troubles, and developed the philosophy (and practice) of hedonism. Albeit he was far from a ‘Libertine’ in the excessive sense.

Aristipuss’s view of life is also still with us. Indeed one could argue that ‘make money and enjoy yourself’ is now the predominant philosophy, and thereby conversation, of ordinary people in the modern world. Of course pleasure can be found in all sorts of things, including thinking, but most hedonists, to this day, still tend to focus on, and thereby converse about, the pleasures of the body, and the related senses, which money can afford. Including wine, women (or men) and song.

Of course the Humble Deflator, Noble Idealist, Worldly Scientist and Luxurious Hedonist aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive philosophies or cultures of conversation. And neither do they necessarily replace, or preclude, elements of the Pre-historic Conversationist. Rather each type draws out, and evolves, a particular conversational tendency.

Conversation 3.0 – The Early and Mid Modern Conversationist

Our next stop on our whirlwind tour is late 18th Century Western Europe. Where we encounter what one might call the ‘Early Modern Conversationist’. A lot has changed since the age of the ‘Ancient Conversationist’. Technologically we’ve seen the invention of the printing press, which has transformed communication and knowledge. We’ve gone through the Renaissance and a related Scientific Revolution, which has given birth to the Industrial Revolution, Modern Medicine and other intellectual and artistic stirrings. Centuries of Feudalism, and the related power of the church, are crumbling under the weight of an intellectual Enlightenment involving rebellious members of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.

One could though argue that the ‘Early Modern Conversationist’ was in many ways an evolved, updated, version of the ‘Ancient Conversationist’, in a bit of a ‘back to the future’ fashion. As the Enlightenment, and its Revolutions, were, intellectually, dominated by the thoughts of privileged men (albeit with posh women overseeing some of their conversation salons). And it could be seen as a conflagration of the humble deflation of church and monarch, a noble idealism in relation to what mankind and society could be if they were a bit freer and more equal, allied with a belief in a scientific kind of knowledge and reason, and also no doubt motivated or spurred on by a good dollop of luxury, money making, and related pleasure seeking. Of course the ill educated ‘masses’ were involved in the French and American Revolutions, but, arguably, the dreams of the ‘Early Modern Conversationist’ were still rather Ancient Athenian, with no great desire to include the likes of most women, foreigners, slaves, the working classes or the youth in their fun.

In the 19th Century the ‘Mid-Modern Conversationist’, still on the whole a privileged man, albeit often in conversation with their wife, thereby became concerned with the condition of the masses. Most visibly in the role of industrialist philanthropists, such as, in Britain, the likes of the Guinness, Cadbury and Rowntree families, amongst others. With a related coterie of middle class social reformers of different kinds. All of which, one could argue, had a good streak of both noble idealism (of a somewhat Christian bent) in it, as well as the attitude of the worldly scientist using such tools to examine and also try to do something about the problems of society.

Conversation 4.0- The Late Modern Conversationist

In the 20th Century we arrive at the ‘Late-Modern Conversationist’. Technology of course has continued to evolve, with the likes of the telephone, radio and TV, which have transformed communication once again. But the main change is that now, as ‘the masses’ become better educated and more aware due to mass media, as well as a bit better off and healthier, all those people who didn’t have much of a public say in Ancient Greece, namely women (and LGBTQ+ people), ‘foreigners’ (or at least migrant ‘ethnic minorities’ and the people of non-Western nations), ‘slaves’ (or at least the Working and more downtrodden Middle Classes) and even the youth are starting to want a place at the conversational and existential table.

Demanding things like the vote, health care, workers’ rights, civil rights, independence, respect, a voice, environmental rights and such like. As well as a desire to be ‘individuals’ (in part aided by the new Consumer Society) and to not simply conform to the wishes of their parents, teachers, politicians or bosses. What were thereby often predominantly elite concerns about freedom, equality and social reform of the Early and Mid Modern Conversationist have thereby become the concerns of the masses.

All of which involves, conversationally, a fair bit of the humble deflator as people try to unpick, take down and generally question the status quo and the powerful. But there’s also a fair bit of the noble idealist in that conversation, albeit often rather confused, as people try to imagine a better world and way of life for themselves and others. As well as an ongoing contestation of, and appeal to, the worldly scientist, both professional and amateur, both in terms of facts, but also anthropologically as we continually review ourselves and each other in cultural terms. But equally there’s also a good dollop of the luxurious hedonist, or at least that aspiration, in much of this conversation. As while people might want to change the world by and large many of them want to at least try to make money and have a good time doing it.

And arguably, in the early 21st Century, this is still roughly where we find ourselves, albeit in an evolved form which now includes the internet, robots, AI, and concerns about the likes of global warming. A peculiar conflagration, conversationally speaking, of humble (or sometimes more angry) deflators, noble (or not so noble) idealists, worldly (or sometimes not so worldly) scientists, and luxurious (or at least aspirant) hedonists, all wrestling for a place at the conversational table. Part of which is that now pretty much everyone is involved, in some sense, in a philosophical, anthropological, political, artistic and often entrepreneurial conversation about who they, and we, are, and where they, and we, should be going, or not going. All of which has mixed into it a variety of appeals, in essence, to the life and times of the Prehistoric Conversationist, as we dream of a return to at least elements of a simpler time when we all sat around the camp fire in a stable community smoking a spliff, eating grass and pondering the moon and the stars.

Which is perhaps to ponder how we can all sit around that by now rather metaphorical camp fire, and have a genuine say, when there’s billions of us spread around a warming planet. But it would seem that technology, and voice enabled technology, must surely have a part to play in all this, as a kind of 21st Century techno camp fire. Yours, Conversation Man p.s. a good conversation is after all a journey, with others. And so if you’ve got any thoughts about, or stimulated by, any of the above, or there’s a topic or question raised you’d like to hear more about, or there’s something going on which you feel is relevant, do email me at . See you in episode 5…