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Communication is the trait that brings humanity to the human race. The ability to share, define, and collaborate on ideas with others is what creates society. Since the beginning of time, influential figures have stressed the importance of this process. Plato, a Greek philosopher from around 400 BCE, was a prolific author who defined much of the key early philosophical ideas. In his work The Republic of Plato, Plato authored Book VII: The Allegory of the Cave. This allegory describes the nature of education and the duty of those who find greater truth to return to the less educated and share their findings : “It is our task as founders, then, to compel the best nature to reach the study we said before is the most important, namely, to make the ascent and see the good. But when they’ve made it and looked sufficiently, we mustn’t allow them to do what they’re allowed to do today… To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less worth or of greater”. This concept of collaborative communication is further explained in a work by John Stuart Mill, a 19th century English philosopher who synthesized ideas from the Enlightenment and Romantic eras into his own philosophical endeavors. This work, On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion, from On Liberty, Mill stresses the need for engagement with all ideas in the efforts to create a more complete truth; “… There is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part”. A more contemporary author, David Bohm, a 20th century theoretical physicist who, in his later life moved into philosophy, further develops this concept of collaborative truth in On Communication, from On Dialogue: “Thus, in a dialogue, each person does not attempt to make common certain ideas or items of information that are already known to him. Rather, it may be said that the two people are making something in common, i.e., creating something new together”. Through this broad timeline of philosophical development we see each of the influential figures singing the praise of a “Collaborative Truth”, the creation of a higher understanding through the exploration and creation of new information. This Collaborative Truth is the key to how humanity and societies are unique to humans. Although each author proclaims this idea, I argue that each of these men is hypocritical in their application of the ideas that they hope to spread.
Plato was born to a “aristocratic and distinguished family”. This gave him the financial and political comfort to deeply explore his philosophical interests. Plato had an extensive circle of influential characters in his life, including his teacher Socrates, and the ability to travel and engage with prominent political and philosophical figures of his time. Later in his life, Plato established the Academy. The Academy was a space for deep investigation in science, math, and philosophical ideas, as in that time each of these subjects was deeply entwined as a larger idea of academic broadness. This Academy was more accessible in that there was no tuition charged, yet still required the financial comfort to pursue a lifestyle with little monetary gain. This is similar to the current norm of an unpaid internship required in many fields. This academic space was composed of educated, financially established, people who could travel in the pursuit of a greater truth. Not only this, but of all of the students in this academy, only two women were ever students in this space. Through this insight into Plato’s Academy we find a very narrow section of the larger society who were even able to engage with his works, and these people were those who were similar to Plato and had educational backgrounds. This seems to be in stark contrast with his assertions in The Allegory of the Cave that the educated have a duty to “go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less worth or of greater” (Book VII: The Allegory of the Cave). Instead, Plato’s work tends to fall more in line with his own description of one who has spent their time educated and thus without truth, “the latter would fail because they’d refuse to act, thinking that they had settled while still alive in the faraway Isles of the Blessed”. Now we have established that Plato had a narrow sphere of who was able to engage with his ideas and create the dialogue that he deemed so valuable, and this enhanced his establishment as a one-sided communicator. His published works were stylized as dialogues primarily in order to replicate the Collaborative Truth that comes with real discussion. Yet, this places Plato’s views as the basis to all of the “discussion” happening, and removes true interaction and creation of new ideas from his own. Plato created a select sphere of those with access to the truths he hopes to reveal and discover in the world and centered his views at a position of authority over those consuming his communication, the listeners.
John Stuart Mill is a founding father of modern Liberalism, praised for his groundbreaking ideas of unfettered free speech, education for all, and, most revolutionary in some people’s eyes, a supporter of women’s rights. Through his writing in the work Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion, Mill defends the need for all opinions to be freely expressed on two fronts; first, that if the opinion is correct, those who had the incorrect opinion would gain truth; second, that even if the opinion is false, those who are correct benefit through belief solidifying debate. Mill argues that often truth is found somewhere between two opposing views as well. These arguments set up a pretty solid stance for Mill living in alignment with his philosophical ideas, and the larger concept we have found in Collaborative Truth. He often shared perspectives in newspapers and other publically available publications, while welcoming dissenting viewpoints and even finding that common ground truth on issues. A glaring issue that highlights Mill’s hypocrisy on the issue of Collaborative Truth is his defense of imperialist action by Britain. John Stuart Mill was employed by the British East India Company for over half of his life. This company was only able to maintain their power and wealth through the inhumane rule of Britain over India. Mill viewed India as “barbaric” and not develop worthy of the same rights and freedoms he so aggressively defended for white men and women: “he assumed that there was a readily available scale of civilization on which peoples could be ranked. He was quite certain that the English were civilized and that the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Ireland were uncivilized and barbarous” (Sullivan, Eileen P.). This meant that his ideas of communication, free speech, the Collaborative Truth, those ideas are only relevant to whom he deems worthy of it, and in this instance that meant those who happen to be European. This idea is again reflected in his idea that those with more education should have more than one vote. John Stuart Mill is hypocritical in his defenses of the value of all perspectives and the right of every perspective to have equal weight, his Collaborative Truth conveniently excludes vast segments of the world.
David Bohm is a physicist and philosopher of the 20th century well known for contributions to theoretical physics utilized for the atomic bomb and his philosophical perspective on communication. His work, On Communication, speaks to the need for open dialogue for the purpose of “creating something new together”. Bohm’s most stressed point in this piece is the value in the collaborative process as the main reason for dialogue. He mentions the need to overcome one’s “blocks” to communication, or an “insensitivity or ‘anesthesia’ about one’s own contradictions”. In his Dialogue Proposal, Bohm further defines an ideal communication facilitation in his style, one point he makes is on the role of a leader or instructor; “any controlling authority, no matter how carefully or sensitively applied, will tend to hinder and inhibit the free play of thought and the often delicate and subtle feelings that would otherwise be shared”. Both of these assertions, that you need to overcome your contradictions for constructive communication, and that an authority role is against the purpose of dialogue, come together to create a strong sense of irony in Bohm’s On Communication. If an aim towards Collaborative Truth is sought, then the use of a written essay to best explain that one-sided dialogue is the “problem of communication” (On Communication) is hypocritical.
As a learning activity for this dive into communication, I was assigned a partner to fulfill a listening activity with. This meant meeting up with Zac Shields to spend 30 minutes attempting communication. The stipulations of this activity summarize the issue that each of the three authors we have analyzed ran into, a limitation on the role of the listener. In the instructions we were told to take turns, one partner spends 15 minutes talking about themselves, with the other partner not able to respond in any way but to talk about the speaking partner, and then we switched. The idea of Collaborative Truth, which each of the philosophers reached the conclusion of, and we gave a name to, needs listening to be a tool of communication, not a role. In the case of Plato, Mill, and Bohm, each contradicted this idea in a slightly different way. Plato and Mill created a hierarchy that would exclude perspectives that would be vital to the collaboration process. This is reflected in the limitations placed on the listener role in the activity, any response had to be attached to the speaker’s own ideas. In Bohm’s case he contradicted himself by emphasizing the importance of shared, created truths in the form of a written work. His essay was genuine, yet lacks so much nuance that could be found if only there could be response and communication in order to develop further ideas. This is shown in the strict, one-sided role of the speaker in this activity. Rather than exploration and discovery of further, or even new ideas, the speaker has to spend 15 minutes just speaking on their own thoughts. While the activity was a successful exercise in focus and attention on another person’s ideas, it was in contrast to the ideas of what Plato, Mill, and Bohm all agreed meant effective communication.
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