1. Philosophy and communication

Philosophy, philosophical ethics, human flourishing, wisdom, self-knowledge, communication (Key thinkers: Dewey, Vico, Whitehead)

Key points
  • Philosophy is the study of central and fundamental problems
  • It is about the nature of things and why things are as they area
  • Ethics is a branch of philosophy that explores how we ought to live, act
  • Ethics is important in communication because every communicative act is a moral one
  • Human flourising is the ultimate goal of life
  • It's about becoming a 'whole' person, about attaining wisdom
  • Some philosophers feel that we have lost this ultimate goal, that our ideals are sinking to match our practice
  • Communication exposes our ideals through the ways in which we interact with, and behave towards, others.
  • To communicate fully we need to enter into another's experience of the world
  • Both the recipient and giver of communication are affected

1.1 Lecture

Developing a communication framework

This course is designed to give you an outline of the principles of dialogical communication as they apply to everyday communication. The aim is to help you develop a communication framework so you can decide what to do – or what not to do – in the difficult situations you might encounter in life.

I believe that developing such a framework for yourself – one that is personal to you – is far more effective than simply giving you a list of bullet points that tells you how to act and what to do when confronted with a specific, tricky situation. Although bullet points are helpful in many circumstances they do not cope well with nuance – and effective communication requires nuance. If you can develop for yourself an understanding of what constitutes for you a right and a good communicative act, then you will be working from your own personal first principles rather than a list of elements designed by someone else, a list that might not fit with your own beliefs and values. This approach, therefore, seeks to provide you with an intellectual framework for developing (and continuing to develop) your own core principles, values, and ideals for living a ‘good’ life, however that might look for you. The reasoning behind is that if a you are aware of the principles, values, and ideals that govern your life, then you can decide on how you want to interact with and influence others both online and off. The ultimate aim is to build self-understanding and (in the words of the famous Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire) to raise your critical consciousness as an historical actor who can intervene in and change the world – both your own and that of others. This will help you become an acting, self-constituting person, one who acts deliberately, as opposed to one who reacts involuntarily and feels blown about by the apparent fickleness of others and of the world. In the final analysis, this means that you should be able to prevent potentially difficult situations from happening in the first place, rather than trying to control a mess once it has occurred.

In order to do all this, however, we first need to touch a little bit on the field of philosophy and to understand how it can help us build the kind of rigorous, intellectual framework that will help us handle difficult situations.

Philosophy versus theory

Philosophy can be described as the study of central and fundamental problems, especially those connected with knowledge, concepts, values and reason. It is about the nature of things and it is about asking why things are as they area. There are various branches of philosophy, including aesthetics (which deals with the nature of art and beauty), epistemology (which deals with the nature of knowledge), metaphysics (which deals with the nature of existence), and logic (which deals with the nature of reason). What concerns us here, though, is ethics (sometimes called ‘moral philosophy’), which is a branch of philosophy that explores right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice, and asks how we ought to live and act.

Why is this important for you? Why don’t we just look at various theories of communication and skip the philosophy all together? There is certainly a huge body of literature regarding communication – wouldn’t this be more practical than philosophy? I would argue, ‘No.’ Theory is simply a way of explaining ‘reality’ in an abstract way through the use of general concepts: it is a proposition, abstraction, or hypothesis that seeks to explain the concrete. We can use theory to understand how communication works in different environments, but it does not provide us with a framework for handling communicative acts at the everyday level. Philosophy, on the other hand, causes us to ask fundamental questions about the very nature of communication – questions that can inform and influence our very actions. Communication itself is an ethical act and you will continually be presented with ethical dilemmas in your everyday life. Using philosophy to create an intellectual framework to handle these dilemmas will, in the end, give you better coping skills, help you build your emotional and personal resilience, and generally improve your wellbeing because you will have something rigorous and personally valuable to check yourself against. Ethical philosophy is common sense and has common-sense applications because it helps us ask useful questions and to find the ‘best’ answers. It forces us to ask,
  • How should I act?
  • What should I do?
  • Did I act wisely?
  • Did I act well?
  • What are my motivations?
  • Are my feelings morally justified?
  • What could be done better?
  • What do I need to do to make the situation better?
  • Have I learnt anything from you?

Having the courage to confront such questions – and to answer them truthfully – gives you control over yourself in difficult situations instead of making you feel at the whim of the world.

1.2 Tutorial

This week's tutorial will begin with a general discussion about the aims of the tutes, followed by group work and some general conversation.

Tutorial 1.2.1 Aims of the tutorial discussions

The tutorials aim to provide a safe environment for you to think about about how you communicate with others and why they communicate with you in particular ways. In particular, we want to surface some of your expectations and assumptions around your (and others’) communicative practices. Through conversation, I want you to feel safe to voice any ‘difficult truths’ about yourself, your attitudes and opinions. We need to get at how you actually think and act, not how you would like to think and act. The idea is for yourself and for others to understand how you have arrived at your communication style. This course is not about telling you how to think or act or that the ways in which you think or act are 'wrong'. It's about exploring issues and uncovering assumptions that might or might not be limiting in your relations with others. Some of it will be difficult, confronting, challenging. It will require honesty, good faith, trust, openness, compassion.

The aim is to create an atmosphere that is
  • Dialogical
  • Civil
  • Respectful
  • Non-defensive
  • Non-judgmental
  • Ideologically neutral
  • Safe
  • Open

Tutorial 1.2.2 Provocations (groups of 5-6)

  • Are some people more human than others?
  • Why can't I judge others?
  • Gossip is just a part of everyday life.
  • Is it OK if you say it as a joke?
  • Apologies are over-rated.
  • Should people get their comeuppance?
  • It's OK to speak negatively about others.
  • What other people think about me is none of my business.
  • You should tell people what you think about them to their face.
  • People are too easily offended.
  • Who has more power in a conversation shouldn't be an issue.

Tutorial 1.2.3 Others (work in pairs)

  • What do you hate about how others do or say things?
  • What do you wish they'd say or do differently?
  • What offends you?
  • Who is it most important to communicate effectively with?
  • What upsets you?

Tutorial 1.2.4 Big stuff (groups of 3-4)

  • What is the purpose of life?
  • What gives life meaning?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • How should we live?
  • How can we achieve our own full humanity? And how can we love others for theirs?
  • How do we become good?
  • How do we live, act, behave well?
  • What role does power play in communication?
  • Is there an art to life? An art to living?
  • What does living well mean?
  • What is anti-life?

Tutorial 1.2.5 Individual reflection

  • How often do I make excuses?
  • Do I avoid difficult conversations? Do I have the skills for a difficult conversation?
  • Am I ever sarcastic? Do I mock or deride others?
  • Do I have a right to be offended? Are my feelings morally justified?
  • How often do I speak negatively about others?
  • When did I last apologise (and mean it)?
  • What expectations do I have of others?
  • Am I truly the author of my own actions?
  • Am I conscious of the beliefs that inform my actions? What are my motivations?
  • Am I deciding who to be?
  • Do I work toward unity in my actions? Am I a self-constituting, unified agent with a commitment to acting morally?
  • How might I see things differently?

1.3 Readings and resources

1.3.1 Suggested reading

Barrow, Robin. 2005. On the duty of not taking offence, Journal of Moral Education, 34:3, 265-275, DOI:

Preface to Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity by Christine Korsgaard


Korsgaard, Christine M. 2009. Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, Oxford University Press: Oxford, DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199552795.001.0001
Download chapter (pdf)

One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale—high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act.
  • (Plato, Republic 443d–e)

Both human beings and the other animals act, but human actions can be morally right or wrong, while the actions of the other animals cannot. This must be because of something distinctive about the nature of human action, about the way in which we human beings make choices. In this book, I try to explain what that distinctive feature is, and how it is connected to some of the other things that make human life different from the lives of the other animals. The name I give to the distinctive feature is the traditional one—rationality. As I understand it, reason is a power we have in virtue of a certain type of self‐consciousness—consciousness of the grounds of our own beliefs and actions. This form of self‐consciousness gives us a capacity to control and direct our beliefs and actions that the other animals lack, and makes us active in a way that they are not. But it also gives us a problem that the other animals do not face—the problem of deciding what to count as a reason for belief or action. To put the point another way, this form of self‐consciousness makes it necessary to take control of our beliefs and actions, but we must then work out how to do that: we must find normative principles, laws, to govern what we believe and do. The distinctive feature of human beings, reason, is therefore the capacity for normative self‐government.

The capacity for normative self‐government brings with it another distinctively human attribute, normative self‐conception, perhaps more than anything else the thing that makes being human both an adventure and a curse. For an action is a movement attributable to an agent as its author, and that means that whenever you choose an action—whenever you take control of your own movements—you are constituting yourself as the author of that action, and so you are deciding who to be. Human beings therefore have a (p.xii) distinct form of identity, a norm‐governed or practical form of identity, for which we are ourselves responsible. As a rational being, as a rational agent, you are faced with the task of making something of yourself, and you must regard yourself as a success or a failure insofar as you succeed or fail at this task.

If, when we act, we are trying to constitute ourselves as the authors of our own movements, and at the same time, we are making ourselves into the particular people who we are, then we may say that the function of action is self‐constitution. This conception of action opens up the possibility that the specific form of goodness or badness that applies to human actions—rightness or wrongness—is goodness or badness of their kind, goodness or badness as actions. A good action is one that constitutes its agent as the autonomous and efficacious cause of her own movements. These properties correspond, respectively, to Kant's two imperatives of practical reason. Conformity to the categorical imperative renders us autonomous, and conformity to the hypothetical imperative renders us efficacious. These imperatives are therefore constitutive principles of action, principles to which we necessarily are trying to conform insofar as we are acting at all.

That way of putting it will make it clear that the conception of morality and practical reason that I defend in this book is the Kantian one. But I also draw on the work of Aristotle, to explain the sense in which an intentional movement can be attributed to an agent as its author, and on Plato, to explain the kind of unity that a person must have in order to be regarded as the author of her movements. For it is essential to the concept of an action that it is attributable to the person as a whole, as a unit, not to some force that is working in her or on her. And it was Plato who taught us, in the Republic, that the kind of unity required for agency is the kind of unity that a city has in virtue of having a just constitution.

Following Plato's lead, in this book I argue that the kind of unity that is necessary for action cannot be achieved without a commitment to morality. The task of self‐constitution, which is simply the task of living a human life, places us in a relationship with ourselves—it means that we interact with ourselves. We make laws for ourselves, and those laws determine whether we constitute ourselves well or badly. And I argue that the only way in which you can constitute yourself well is by governing yourself in accordance with universal principles which you can will as laws for every rational being. It follows that you can't maintain the integrity you need in order to be an agent with your own identity on any terms short of morality itself. That doesn't mean that we have a reason for being moral that is selfish, that morality gets us something else, the integrity needed for agency and identity. Rather, it means (p.xiii) that a commitment to the moral law is built right into the activity that, by virtue of being human, we are necessarily engaged in: the activity of making something of ourselves. The moral law is the law of self‐constitution, and as such, it is a constitutive principle of human life itself.

Humanistic conscience by Erich Fromm

Taken from Chapter 4 of Man for Himself. An inquiry into the psychology of ethics.

Humanistic conscience is not the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing; it is our own voice, present in every human being and independent of external sanctions and rewards. What is the nature of this voice? Why do we hear it and why can we become deaf to it? Conscience judges our functioning as human beings; it is (as the root of the word con-scientia indicates) knowledge within oneself, knowledge of our respective success or failure in the art of living.

Actions, thoughts, and feelings which are conducive to the proper functioning and unfolding of our total personality produce a feeling of inner approval, of “rightness”, characteristic of the humanistic “good conscience.” On the other hand, acts, thoughts, and feelings injurious to our total personality produce a feeling of uneasiness and discomfort, characteristic of the “ guilty conscience.” Conscience is thus a reaction a re-action of ourselves to ourselves. It is the voice of our true selves, which summons us back to ourselves, to live productively, to develop fully and harmoniously – that is, to become fully what we potentially are. It is the guardian of our integrity.

It is the guardian of our integrity; it is the “ability to guarantee one’s self with all due pride, and also at the same time to say yes to one’s self (Nietsche, the Genealogy of Morals).” If love can be defined as the affirmation of the potentialities and the care for, and the respect of, the uniqueness of the loved person, humanistic conscience can be justly called the voice of our loving care for ourselves. Humanistic conscience represents not only the expression of our true selves; it contains also the essence of our moral experiences in life. In it we preserve the knowledge of our aim in life and of the principles through which attain it; those principles which we have discovered ourselves as well as those we have learned from others and which we have found to be true.

Humanistic conscience is the expression of man’s self interest and integrity, while authoritarian conscience is concerned with man’s obedience, self-sacrifice, duty, or his” social adjustment.” The goal of humanistic conscience is productiveness and, therefore happiness, since happiness is the necessary concomitant of productive living. To cripple oneself by becoming a tool of others, no matter how dignified they are made to appear, to be “selfless, “ unhappy, resigned, discouraged, is in opposition to the demands of one’s conscience; any violation of the integrity and proper functioning of our personality, with regard to thinking as well as acting, and even with regard to such matters as taste for food or sexual behavior is acting against one’s conscience.

But is our analysis of conscience not contradicted by the fact that in many people its voice is so feeble as not be heard and acted upon? Indeed, this fact is the reason for the moral precariousness of the human situation. If conscience always spoke loudly and distinctly enough, only a few would be mislead from their moral objective. One answer follows from the very nature of conscience itself: since its function is to be the guardian of man’s true self-interest, it is alive to the extent to which the person has not lost himself entirely and become the prey of his own indifference and destructiveness. The relation to one’s own productiveness is one of interaction. The more productively one lives, the stronger is one’s conscience, and , in turn furthers one’s productiveness. The less productive one lives, the weaker become one’s conscience; the paradoxical – and tragic – situation of man is that his conscience is weakest when he needs it most.

Another answer to the question of the relative ineffectiveness of consciousness is our refusal to listen and – what is even more important – our ignorance of knowing how to listen. People are often under the illusion that their conscience will speak with a loud voice and its message will be clear and distinct; waiting for such a voice, they do not hear anything. But when the voice of conscience is feeble; it is indistinct; and one has to learn how to listen and understand it communication in order to act accordingly.

However, learning to understand the communications of one’s conscience is exceedingly difficult, mainly for two reasons. In order to listen to the voice of our conscience we must be able to listen to ourselves, and this is exactly what most people in our culture have difficulties in doing. We listen to every voice and to everybody but not to ourselves. We are constantly exposed to the noise of opinions and ideas hammering at us from everywhere: motion pictures, newspapers, radio, idle chatter. If we had planned intentionally to prevent ourselves from ever listening to ourselves, we could have done no better.

Listening to ourselves is so difficult because this art requires another ability, rare in modern man: that of being alone with oneself. In fact, we have developed a phobia of being alone; we prefer the most trivial and even obnoxious company, the meaningless activities, to being with ourselves; we seem to be frightened at the prospect of facing ourselves. Is it because we feel we would be such bad company? I think the fear of being alone with ourselves is rather a feeling of embarrassment, bordering sometimes on terror at seeing a person at once so well known and so strange; we are afraid and run away. We thus miss the chance of listening to ourselves, and we continue to ignore our conscience.

1.3.2 Extension reading

Vico's Oration on Virtue and Wisdom
Whitehead's essay, The Aims of Education
Dewey's Democracy and Education online, free and in full via the World Wide School Library (wow!)