People may not think much about conversation in general, never mind as an art. They just talk to one another. A common assumption is that anyone can converse. Another is that conversation is ubiquitous and will always be the backdrop of society. Stephen Miller, in Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, calls such ideas into question. He is especially concerned about the United States, where he believes “rescuing conversation may be an impossible task in a culture that admires both angry self-expression and nonjudgmental ’supportive’ assent.”
Miller begins to define “conversation” in chapter 1, introducing experts from past centuries such as French essayist Michel De Montaigne (who Miller says thought of conversation as an intellectual sporting event that would improve one’s mind), French aphorist François La Rochefoucauld (who believed that people were not sensible in conversation because they were thinking about what they wanted to say themselves rather than responding to what was being said to them), and British satirist Jonathan Swift (who felt that conversation suffered from a decline in raillery“good humored, intelligent wit and banter.”) Miller concludes that the meaning of the word “conversation” in eighteenth century Britain is still applicable three centuries later, using what he calls “the age of conversation” as a touchstone throughout this book. Ultimately, the art of conversationas any artis hard to pinpoint. The entire book forms an extended definition, relying heavily on belletrist sources, wrapping around and through a variety of places and times, to shed light on the power and importance of what Miller refers to as “real” conversation.
Is there a difference between talk and conversation? Supporting his assertion that they have generally been used interchangeably, Miller cites texts as varied as Judith Martin’s Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (1983) and Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation (2005), a study of conversation in seventeenth and eighteenth century France. Then Miller turns to Dr. Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth century British lexicographer and author and one of three writers who Miller says most influenced his thinking on conversation. Johnson typically did not distinguish between talk and conversation. However, James Boswell (Scottish diarist and renowned biographer of Johnson) did report one instance where Johnson said that conversation, unlike talk, demanded an exchange of ideas. Miller, likewise, holds this as a requirement. Another refinement in the unfolding definition centers on the concept of pleasure, which is rooted in the ideas of David Hume, an eighteenth century Scottish historian and philosopher whom Miller regards as another of his major influences. Hume, Miller reports, believed that good conversationalists were “immediately agreeable” and that “all the merit a man may derive from his conversation (which, no doubt, may be very considerable) arises from nothing but the pleasure it conveys to those who are present.”
Can conversation, through a pleasurable exchange of ideas, also serve as a means to an end, such as when trying to gain information from someone or trying to flatter? Miller quotes twentieth century British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (the third major influence on Miller’s work) who said that conversation “has no determined course, we do not ask what it is ’for.’” It is “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure” whose “significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.” Oakeshott believed that conversation differentiated human beings from animals and civilized people from barbarians. It was reading Oakeshott, Miller says, that first stimulated his own interest in the subject. Then, while writing about eighteenth century British thought a decade later, Miller says he noticed how many writers of that time considered the quality of a person’s conversation to be...
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