Monday, January 11, 2010

How Not to Start a Philosophical Conversation

I first started leaving junk I've written around the internet almost nine years ago. From the very beginning, I pasted a note at the very top of the pieces inviting thoughts to my e-mail address. They made it clear that I hardly even cared what it was you thought, just so long as you wrote me to tell me the thought. I probably sounded pretty desperate, and even now I have a note in my rightnav bar, right near the top, trying to make it as easy as possible to talk to me:
Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me:
I think it is a common problem for people like me, people who like to think about really big, unanswerable questions, to find other people to talk to about them. You can't count on your friends for everything, for friends are forged in the belly of spatialtemporal happenstance. It can be very lonely. I remember even as a philosophy major, I didn't really find very interesting the people in the department, and professors have their own thing going on. When you do find someone, you tend to latch on and keep blathering for fear that if the conversation ends, it will never start up again (alcohol helps with this kind of phenomenon). The e-mail discussion group is filled with people who basically just need ears to listen (or rather, eyes to read). There's only so much one can say about Robert Pirsig and the Metaphysics of Quality before it becomes apparent that it's just one more happenstance collection of conversation partners. There's nothing wrong with this--but such a realization about the contingent nature of discussion and the sheer unfairness of such a dearth of interested partners would help relieve some of the stresses and strains that arise when people have their own lives and concerns.

I have left my e-mail address all over the internet because I always enjoy a fresh conversation. I even have a special mailbox called "OB Letters" (titled so long ago, that I can't quite remember what it was for, though I think it was "Outta' the Blue Letters," though lately--particularly with the below--it's more like "Oh Boy Letters"). I've received many different responses over the years (indeed, a few people wanting me to do their homework), and some people who e-mailed me cold years ago still keep in touch. Everyone has their own interests, but almost everyone is willing to put their own deep, abiding interests on partial hold long enough to intersect them in some minimal way with my own, which I am willing to do to my own in return.

Almost everyone. A conversation is about linking up two different sets of interests. If no effort is made at this, it is difficult to think of what is going on as a conversation. Conversations are optional and we all have our internal barometers on the kind of time and energy we are willing to put into one. What I am about to recount is an e-mail exchange I had recently, and I'm recounting it mainly because it is funny, though--I won't lie--partly out of revenge.

This is not how you start up a conversation:
Hi Matt, My name is [blank blank] from [has really big beer]. I came across your blog while browsing
Please find a unique Understanding of Reality altogether via this essay by Avatar Adi Da Samraj.
Plus related references.
2. The Ancient Reality Teachings
3. Adi Da and postmodernism--Adi Da's unique Understanding of both modernism and postmodernism
4. The Rebirth of Sacred Art
5. The Body as Light

[blank blank]
Okay, first: don't ever send someone an essay, particularly if the only thing you say about it to connect it to the other person who you are contacting cold, out of the blue, and without further preface, is "I saw your blog" and "this is unique, altogether." The second odd thing to notice are the "related references." What's that about? I felt like I was in an interview, and I was the interviewer. It's like walking down the street and someone accosts you with, "Yes, I would like to apply for the job--here are some phone numbers you can call who will say nice things about me." And here I didn't even know I was offering a job.

And what followed was a 1,200 word "essay," annoyingly set in 18-point font, perhaps to make it look more profound than the previous 10-point "this shit will blow your mind" prologue. Now, when I think of "essay," I think of long trains of thought connected together in a pleasing, progressive kind of way. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to think of essays as at the least made up of paragraphs, where "paragraph" is defined as "spatially off-set cavalcade of words of more than one sentence." No such luck for this "essay." Each was just one sentence.

I kind of glanced through the thing, dipped my toes as it were, to get a feel for what it was. Since [blank blank] had done me the kindness of glancing at my blog, I thought I would at least return the favor. The feel went something like this:
Reality Itself egolessly, Indivisibly, and Divinely Is As Is—always already Prior to attention, "point of view", and ego-"I".

Reality Itself Is Self-Evidently Divine.

Reality Itself Is The Only Divine.

Reality Itself is not a Deity.

Reality Itself is not a relation of attention, "point of view", or ego-"I".

Reality Itself—or The Divine Itself—Is The egoless and relationless Context of all-and-All.

Yikes. It even had the weird underlining (who uses underlining anymore?), with the broken "Is As Is." Really bizarre. And then there's the content--fairly typical, New Agey, post-Buddhist pseudo-sophistication. Which, ya' know...whatever--it's just not my kind of thing. I shouldn't even call it "pseudo": it is what is, and makes perfectly good sense in a certain tradition of articulation. The kind of ideas behind the stylized aphorisms, however, I truly think are the same kinds of ideas in a lot of post-structuralist thought. I may not like the quasi-metaphysical talk of "reality itself," but when everything is said and done, what the above kind of thing does is dissolve the subject/object dichotomy, which gives sense to "Reality Itself is Nothingness," and leaves the reality we mere mortals toy around with to be the relational junk pragmatists specialize in. Hence all kinds of books and essays linking Buddhism and pragmatism and Buddhism and Derrida.

And yet, this is "unique, altogether."

So, this is what I replied with, being the nice kind of guy I am:
Hi [blank],

Thanks for the essay, but I'm less in the market for soliloquies than I am for conversation. I'm sure the collection of aphorisms that make up the essay, well-worn and reminiscent of a large-scale trend in thinking, work quite well for most purposes, but they are not exactly the direction I usually go.

Take it easy,

[blank--I mean] Matt

A kind of "thanks, but no thanks" reply. I didn't want to berate him, because he was no doubt well-meaning, though I did want to convey the kind of thing I am looking for should he want to engage in it. I thought "soliloquy" was a nicer way of saying "monologue," which is what an essay is. And, okay, I did want to tweak his whole "unique, altogether" fantasy. But what more could you ask for from someone you've never talked to before?

Apparently, a lot more:
Hi Matt, Thankyou for your response which is really an auto-biographical self description, rather than an intelligently considered response to Adi Da's Luminous Wisdom Teaching.
Plus you could not have thoroughly considerd Adi Da's Wisdom Teaching in the less that hour in which I sent you my email.
Okay, let me stop it right there and say, he's got me there. As it happens, I had checked my e-mail within the first hour after he'd sent it, and I think I took about 15 minutes to read, consider, and craft my reply. And considering how long it probably took him to show up on my website, find my e-mail address, and paste in his no-doubt-ready-to-go cold-call e-mail, I thought it struck just about the right parity.
The essay that I sent you was not a collection of aphorisms or soliloquies. It was/is the most profound essay ever written on the limiitations of ALL of our usual forms of "knowledge", whether secular or so called religious.

Plus Adi Da's Luminous Wisdom Teaching is the most profound, complete, and comprehensive META-philosophy ever written and spoken in any time and place.

This appreciation for instance. 1.

Or these words written by Adi Da on His Understanding of Death--easily the most extraordinary lines ever written about death

1. aphorisms and soliloquies?

Okay, I'm not sure what the last "aphorisms and soliloquies?" means, but I'm guessing it means that whatever is behind the link contradicts that description, though I didn't waste any of my precious time (much better spent in mocking) to find out. However, considering my dictionary tells me that an aphorism is "a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation," I wouldn't wager too much money on it. And the only reason I'm including the links is in the off chance that somebody does a search for the links and finds this page mocking this poor, errant proselytizer (I really hope [blank blank] comes back and leaves comments).

But other than that, yikes!, right? I don't know--[blank blank]'s just about convinced me. If only he'd thrown in a few more "profounds" and "evers," I think I might have to go back and spend some real quality time with Adi Da. I mean, if [blank blank] knows that the brief smattering of sentences in seemingly random sequence are the "most profound, complete, and comprehensive META-philosophy ever written and spoken in any time and place," then he must have some sort of special powers of clairvoyance, no doubt gained from the reading itself, to hear all the things anyone has ever said, right? And that's not even mentioning the powers needed to read everything.

[Blank blank]'s reference to meta-all-caps-philosophy, by the way, is his way of connecting what he's saying to me. That's his extended hand, the attempt to make it look like this is a conversation. I don't know...maybe I should have given him a fairer shake...he did spend all that time clicking on the first link, "Attraction to Metaphilosophy," in the first category of my rightnav bar....
Hi [blank],

You are quite perceptive in noting that my response was largely autobiography--I'm a human being with his own own pressures and demands, including that of being a grad student, and as an amateur philosopher I have my own conceived tasks and projects. I enjoy conversation with those who wish it, but I don't consider it good manners to simply send someone an essay and expect them to be overjoyed with the prospect of having to read and spend time considering it--I have a blog because it gives people the option of totally ignoring it. If people want to talk to me about my bog, or really anything at all, they can start a conversation by e-mailing me, but requiring me to read an essay as a prerequisite to the conversation is more than I can commit to. All due apologies. I said "soliloquy" because I thought it would be a polite way of saying, "You sent me a monologue talking about yourself, but I'm not accepting monologues just now."

I perused the essay briefly, and it does look like a collection of aphorisms to me. I don't even know why you would take that to be a slight. Nietzsche was one of the greatest philosophers of the last 200 years, and some of his best work was in the aphoristic style.

You sound very committed to the philosophy enunciated in the essay, and I'm glad you find it to be the most profound, complete, and comprehensive ever. I'm sure such satisfaction makes life's conundrums and stresses easier to bear, but I'm not unhappy with mine just now, and without any indication that dialogue rather than conversion is your goal, I'll take your opinion about Ladi Da to be autobiographical.

Good luck with that,

Okay, the "good luck with that" was definitely bitchy, but what do you want from me. (And yes, the "Ladi da" was on purpose, too.)

Conversation about really big, abstract topics can be really interesting. Almost all philosophical conversation, whether it's about the meaning of life over a Jägerbomb or an e-mail laced with references to Aristotle, Heidegger, and Camus, are likely to be mostly articulations of our own perspectives and opinions, the kinds of things that we've found useful in the way of thinking and doing, the kinds of things that get us through the day. The conversation is best made when convergence of opinion isn't the explicit goal (though the arrogance of philosophy makes this typically an implicit goal), but rather simply an exchange of viewpoints in the hopes that something said might help the other person.

At least, that's what I've found. What do you think? (The implicit question after every single one of my posts.)


  1. Sep 2008,
    I posted, "And my Heart-Truth is Obvious", from the same guy. I thought he wanted to talk about it, so I posted it, but he never showed. Looks like I got the same sites too...


  2. Aw, that's sad--I was really hoping he'd come around.

  3. Matt ... this was classic spam. Automated marketing, no attempt at a conversation. I get ten day, but they rarely get past the spam filter.


Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: