Learning about listening

I’ve been working on my methodology chapter while, appropriately, learning about listening. Well, I guess I’ve been learning about this throughout my doctorate, really. And I’m very conscious of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back mode, because I’ve had previous epiphanies; moments of realisation when the wisdom of others dawns on me, and the value in just shutting up and letting it in. I always find it incredible looking back through my blog, or my notebooks, or my emails, and realising I’ve been here before. How many times do we (I) have to be confronted with something before we internalise it? I guess it’s an ongoing thing. I still find it so much easier, effort-wise, to be the teller rather than the asker, although I struggle to accept that about myself.

I’m not veering towards epistemological or moral relativism. I’m not saying that everyone else is right about everything. What I’m saying it that, when other people speak, they’re speaking their truth, and there is truth in what they say. It might not be the point they think they’re making, but there will be truth in there, and one needs to stop fighting in order to see and hear that truth. We could all listen a bit more. This is an interesting idea to be hit around the head (repeatedly) with while I’m writing a doctoral thesis; i.e. making a claim and preparing to ‘defend’ it. How do we reconcile defence with listening? I’ll come back to that.

I found Monica Vilhauer’s book on Gadamer’s Ethics of Play really excellent. It’s a relatively short and highly readable book on Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, the theoretical framework that underpins my thesis. It arrived in my hands at a perfect time, just as I’d finished John Callender’s book on free will and responsibility, although the connection between the two might not be immediately obvious. I was intending to spend November drafting my methodology chapter and felt a little guilty for reading John’s book instead; I worried that it was too tangential. But I’d attended the conference on psychedelics John organised for the Royal College of Psychiatrists in October, and we’d got talking about the promise of psychedelic therapy for emotional healing and moral development (which I would argue are deeply connected). He suggested I read his book, so I did. And then we met up and talked about it over olives and curry. It just blows me away, the wisdom of other people. I think it must take a very wise person to listen to an idiot child-adult like me and find something of value in there. John’s a psychiatrist, so that’s his area of expertise, but, still.

John’s book draws together a lot of threads I’ve been following. The central concern of my thesis is the role of universities in society, which Blessinger (not the most exciting of writers on HE, I find) summarises very simply as ‘creating an educated citizenry’. This of course raises loads of other questions: What does it mean to be educated? What is the value in having an educated citizenry? By ‘citizenry’, do we mean everyone, or are we just talking about a proportion of society? Why? There are lots of assumptions that are tied up in this about conflict, consensus, equality, efficiency, progress, and the place of human beings on earth. What kind of world do we want to live in? Is it possible for all our desires to be accommodated? One immediate problem clear from John’s book is that we struggle to accommodate our own desires even as individuals. We are in perpetual conflict between what we want, and what we want to want (and even, perhaps, what we want to want to want… etc). John presents psychotherapy as a process that helps individuals to become less conflicted. In focusing on their own second order desires, therapy accommodates the autonomy of the patient or client, rather than dictating what they should want and how they should be. Such autonomous moral development does not, however, present a solution to the disproportionate amount of violent crime and reoffending by individuals whose behaviour is ‘unconstrained by pity or common humanity’ (p244). Huxley (1962) had an answer for this in his novel/utopian blueprint ‘Island’; to identify early on in life those with an innate desire to dominate others, put extra effort into teaching them the rules of compassion, and send them to work felling trees. The more philosophy I read, the more Huxley’s vision makes sense.

We often focus on the conflict between individuals and groups, and I’ve been wondering whether this is putting the cart before the horse; whether we need to work in the first instance on our internal conflicts. Alan Watts (1966) says we don’t even need to work on these; we just need to accept that ‘the real goodness of human nature is its peculiar balance of love and selfishness, reason and passion, spirituality and sensuality, mysticism and materialism, in which the positive pole has always a slight edge over the negative’ (p134). According to Watts, there is no problem to solve anyway, other than perhaps the needless suffering that accompanies the fantasy of the self, and he points out that even those who do manage to become internally angelic evoke ‘hordes of devils to keep the balance’ (p135). White needs black in order to exist, and vice versa. To live well, and to be a ‘civilised, sensitive and intelligent member of the cosmos’, requires that we purge the self-contradictory rules from life.

There’s a lot of overlap between Gadamer and Watts. I don’t know why that surprises me; they’ve always been the two philosophers whose views resonated with my own more than anyone else’s. Both describe life as play. Both emphasise the need for difference, and the futility of trying to win others over to your perspective. Watts gets more fundamental about why it is futile – on a quantum level – while for Gadamer one gets a sense of a Third Way-style paradox; it is only through listening without the intention to persuade, that we have a chance of persuading! Vilhauer’s book opens with a quote from Plato: ‘could you really persuade… if we don’t listen?’

Vilhauer also acknowledges her family as her dialogue partners. This is something close to my heart at the moment, as my mother and I have recently been engaged in a hermeneutic exchange after she sent me her memoirs. They were long, and it wasn’t easy reading. The third and final part ran from 1984 (when I was five years old) to the present, and catalogued a lot of stuff I’d buried and run away from. But I thought about it, talked about it, re-engaged my therapist, and penned a response back to my mother that clarified a few things she was sketchy on and gave a taste of how I remembered a couple of key events. I was careful to avoid any accusations and to highlight the things I appreciated and was grateful for. And she wrote back, and I wrote back, and she wrote back again. Each time shorter, as there was less to disagree about. For Gadamer, through conversation we always come to some sort of agreement, even if it is on what exactly it is that we differ.

So… my thesis is about conversation, and perhaps it would help to look at it as a conversation. Or, at least, a snapshot of what I’m hearing from all this listening.



Callender, J. S. 2010. Free will and responsibility. Oxford University Press.

Vilhauer, M. 2010. Gadamer’s Ethics of Play: Hermeneutics and the Other. Lexington Books.

Watts, A. 1966. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. London: Souvenir Press.

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