by Jordan Poyner

Not every conversation is an argument, but perhaps every argument should resemble a conversation. I had this lesson reinforced for me recently while participating in St. Olaf College’s summer workshop for students interested in exploring the ideas of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Living in a dorm, attending classes, and socializing with other scholars who shared a desire to better understand the work of one monumental thinker was a wonderful experience. Yet our conversations in and outside class were often both fruitful and frustrating. Of course there were serious disagreements over our diverse interpretations of Kierkegaard’s words, but even discussions of movies watched together, social etiquette, and our reasons for attending the workshop were fraught with an inescapable relational friction.

There is nothing wrong or strange in such resistance. Living together is both a necessary and joyous burden. “At every moment,” writes Kierkegaard, “the individual is both himself and the race. This is man’s perfection viewed as a state. It is also a contradiction, but a contradiction is always the expression of a task, and a task is movement […].” 1 We are responsible to ourselves and to others: learning to live in the borderland between inwardness and sociality is one of life’s great trials. Furthermore, it is not a state which we should aim to transcend. We are stuck together, and relationship requires a grace in suspension.

On an oddly cool evening in late July, I started speaking with a fellow scholar outside the Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf. Though the subject broached was cordially personal, the trajectory of the conversation shifted towards the political and it quickly became clear that we disagreed on some fundamental points. At first, I resisted voicing my concerns–I didn’t want to strain our nascent friendship by objecting to their sincerely held convictions. Instead of being candid, I was ambiguous in my response. I tried to challenge their ideas without committing to my own.

Frustrated by the confusion this course engendered, I rather gracelessly came right out and said my piece. Certain that my friend was misunderstanding a concept, I was determined to resolve the confusion. The concept was one I felt I had significant experience with and, furthermore, I was convinced that my interpretation was well-armored by certain objective evidence at my disposal. After each rejection of my claims, I insisted that my reasoning be re-evaluated: they were merely missing a subtle distinction I was making. Mutually exhausted and impatient, we agreed to adjourn the conversation. In contemplating the breakdown of this exchange, I recognized a few crucial mistakes I often make while speaking with others.

If I want to be better able to engage in conversations (especially those on difficult but essential subjects), it will be necessary for me to adopt a unique humility. What I (and the world, according to Kierkegaard) need is a little Socratic ignorance.2 As Plato’s Socrates claims in the Apology, there is wisdom in knowing what we do not know.3 This paradox should not undermine our capacity to converse, but instead aid us in determining how we speak to one another and what it is we speak of. The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is persistent in making his points, yet he is gracious in admitting when his conversational partners have contradicted him well or raised a serious question. Furthermore, when our intellect fails us in a particular area, there is no shame in admitting it. Like Socrates, we should aspire to possess a good spirit and a sense of humor about ourselves, even as we passionately attend to the question or topic at hand.

In conversations and arguments, we are often too intent on being heard. We should endeavor to be more aware of moments where our eagerness to speak is born of an egoistic urge to make ourselves known. Erasmus’ Socrates said, “Speak, so that I may see you.”4 It benefits us to be reminded that these words are the enjoiner of the conversational other. If our words have the power to establish our character, it should not be out of a desire to posit ourselves that they are spoken. Our becoming known is a terrifying and beautiful consequence of conversation–it will happen if we let it.

In each conversation, we are participants in a relational project and intrinsic allies of whomever we are conversing with. This does not require that we modulate ourselves so as to be inconspicuous or agreeable. We are still individuals with something of our own to say. There is bound to be some abrasion in our jostling against one another. That we will affect and be affected by one another (often in imperceptible ways) is both essential and inevitable. We must be open to our own mutability as an effect of relational friction. Conversations are a vital component of our process of becoming deeper, well-rounded human beings.

Being malleable is not the same as being insubstantial, however. One of the contradictions inherent in conversation is that it demands both humility and self-assurance. In the best conversations, each party has a solid form, which is capable of yielding even as its interior structure remains intact. We ought to have the confidence to voice a consideration fully and unambiguously, to be willing to voice an unpopular opinion and ask questions that no one else is asking–not for the sake of being contrary, but in the interest of pursuing a mutual investigation. Accord is a noble object of conversation, but we need not shy from contrast.

As an essentially human phenomenon, conversation is inherently messy. It takes a certain poise and courage to live in the muck. When we converse with others, our ability to rely on the distinction between subjective and objective information is impaired. Humans, unlike computers, do not live with their intellectual history carefully transcribed: we think thoughts and do not always comprehend their origin. Recognizing this will invoke patience, both on our own behalf and that of others.

We should strive to trust others with ourselves in conversation. Equivocation, as a conscious act, is an attempt to control others’ perception of us and an expression of mistrust. However, this is no excuse for immoderation. There is a time and place for every conversation, and being thoughtful about whether to broach a particular topic is not timidity. Conversation is born of a mutual willingness to participate; one cannot force it into being.

In argument and debate, we too often focus on the oppositional aspect of the exchange. Reminding ourselves that each interaction is at heart a conversation might help us to live more gracefully. As Kierkegaard so infuriatingly insists, every contradiction is a task.5 It is a movement. We are moving through life, rubbing up against one another–at times tenderly, at times roughly. A conversation requires its own contradiction. We must be humble and reflective, maintaining a certain skepticism towards our own ideas. We must also be confident and assured, enthusiastically pledging ourselves to speak and listen.

Jordan Poyner is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he studied English literature, film theory, art, and anthropology. 


1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. and ed. Reidar Thomte (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 28.

2. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 99.

3. Plato, Apology, 21d.

4. Erasmus of Rotterdam, Apophthegmata, iii, 70.

5. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, 49.