Conversation and Text in Community

An individual is continuous with their communities in ways that are so taken for granted, we are prone to overlook them. A lobotomy is less mentally crippling than living without community. Yet the image of the individual rationalist arriving at truth through the lonely and disciplined application of reason lives on. Our ability to learn from books seems to be the strongest case for that particular picture. Sure, we need communities to learn language and literacy. But once we’re there, haven’t we got the tools to go the rest of the way on our own? Especially if enough books exist on a wealth of subject matter.

In what follows, we will explore the ways in which both individuals and texts are embedded within communities. What will emerge is that written text creates more possibilities for their readers and commentators, even when those texts are grossly misunderstood.


Heidi Grasswick is one of many feminist theorists who found the rationalist model wanting. In a valuable paper, she asks who the knowing subject is. A common feminist counter-theory is that the community itself is the subject of knowledge. The evidence for this theory is that it is clearly in communities that standards of evidence and other public standards of knowing reside.

Grasswick presents an alternate model, which she calls “individuals-in-communities.” The individual in this scenario, rather than standing alone in his knowing, is situated and interactive. Situated, because we are always acting within communities which shape how and what we know. Interactive, because we are members of multiple communities, and capable to some extent of bringing the resources of each to one another.

Grasswick builds on the developmental work of Annette Baier and Lorraine Code:

Baier has argued that as persons, we are primarily ‘second persons,’ meaning that our sense of personhood and self is intimately tied to our abilities to engage directly and interactively with others. It is the second person pronoun (“you”) that we use when we directly engage with other people, and there is a reciprocal nature to this engagement. For Baier, it is only through a historical process of mutual interaction with others that we are able to acquire the self-consciousness characteristic of persons. In explaining the primacy of the second person pronoun, Baier writes: “If never addressed, if excluded from the circle of speakers, a child becomes autistic, incapable of using any pronouns or indeed any words at all. The second person, the pronoun of mutual address and recognition, introduces us to the first and third pronouns”.

Additionally, Baier suggests that it is through our interactions with others that we gain certain skills or “arts of personhood,” such as reasoning, communicating, and forming and acting on a variety of relationships with other persons. These “arts of personhood” are what allow us to participate successfully in the social practices of our communities. As Baier expresses it, “A person, perhaps, is best seen as one who was long enough dependent upon other persons to acquire the essential arts of personhood. Persons essentially are second persons, who grow up with other persons”. It is because we take our place within a historical series of persons that we are able to develop both the agency and the particular skills of personhood.

Lorraine Code applies Baier’s ideas more directly to the epistemic realm, arguing that our cognitive skills are appropriately viewed as some of those socially acquired “arts of personhood.” For example, Code notes that “even the ability to change one’s mind is learned in a community that trains its members in conventions of criticism, affirmation, and second thinking”. According to Code, if we apply Baier’s model of second personhood to the case of knowers, their deep dependence on each other is highlighted rather than shadowed, with this dependence extending to the shaping of particular reasoning capacities that have been understood by many (such as those who hold the atomistic view) to be individual cognitive capacities.

What the individuals-in-communities view does is extend these insights beyond “isolated cases of interpersonal relations” to relations that are “organized in networks of communities.”

We are, in fact, brought up in communities of various sizes, and the historical series of second persons to which Baier refers are organized in networks of communities with partially shared goals, interests, and ways of living. Communities, after all, aren’t simply collections of individuals; they are groups of people who share various connections with each other, though these connections are always partial. Furthermore, authority within communities is rarely distributed evenly; complex power structures at work influence how a developing epistemic agent within these communities acquires particular skills.

But beyond our development, communities shape what we are able to know even as “fully formed” adults:

The history of having lived within specific communities, and having learned a wide range of epistemic skills within those communities contributes to the “particularization” of individual knowers and differentiates them. These specific locations and epistemic skill sets limit the individuals’ capacities to know the world on their own. Hence, they must (and do) engage with others in order both to know and understand a reasonable amount about the world, and to provide a check on their own contributions to knowing. This tenet of the [Individuals-in-Communities] view is stronger than an empiricist’s acknowledgment that we only have access to a limited amount of evidence from any particular empirical location. According to the [Individuals-in-Communities] view, knowers are also limited by their social situatedness in the very tools they have available for interpreting that evidence. Such tools are broad ranging, and include informal patterns of reasoning, current standards of evidence, currently accepted theories and background assumptions, and particular techniques of measuring and investigating, all which are particularized according to one’s specific communities. Thus, according to the [Individuals-in-Communities] view, the significance of a knower’s epistemic location runs much deeper than a traditional empiricist will admit.

Richard Moodey expresses a similar point when he says “persons perform acts of knowing in social settings. Even if the person who performs the act is physically separate from other persons, others are virtually present.” They are “virtually present” because, as Grasswick puts it, the individual performance draws on collective resources.

And this brings us to the resources found in books.

Communities of Letters

Imagine a conversation as a game. A quote from Hans-Georg Gadamer may help:

If we find in Plato’s dialogues and in Socrates’ arguments all manner of violations of logic—false inferences, the omission of necessary steps, equivocations, the interchanging of one concept with another—the reasonable hermeneutic assumption on which to proceed is that we are dealing with a discussion. And we ourselves do not conduct our discussions more geometrico. Instead we move within the live play of risking assertions, of taking back what we have said, of assuming and rejecting, all the while proceeding on our way to reaching an understanding.

A conversation is a game in which the “live play” consists of asserting, taking back, rejecting, and numerous other “moves”. The freedom of play is that we cannot know where it will take us. If we knew where a conversation would lead us at the start, there would be no point to it. That there are recognizable moves we can attempt to anticipate does not weaken this argument. The same can be said of Chess, yet we do not know how a given match will play out. And the moves available in conversation are far more fluid than the moves of Chess.

For Gadamer, the game is the glue that holds together our social life and the key to unlocking our ability to understand texts from bygone eras. But what is a game?

A game is a move in a game.

Consider the conversation between two individuals, again. As Grasswick emphasizes, these are not isolated events, but organized within networks of communities which provide the resources for the conversation, as well as the unequal relations of authority and power which loom in the background. If I engage in conversation with my boss, the conversation is a game, but it is also a move within the game I am playing as an employee of the company. The game I am playing at the company can be seen as a move I am making in the game of my career, or place in the industry, overall.

Now, authors write books as moves in games within the communities of their day. But the books themselves are games to be played by readers and commentators. This may sound close to dissolving texts entirely, leaving them entirely matters of subjective experience. But that misunderstands the nature of games. Gadamer is very clear that “The player experiences the game as a reality that surpasses him.”

Play is more than the consciousness of the player, and so it is more than a subjective act. Language is more than the consciousness of the speaker; so also it is more than a subjective act.

Gadamer argues that the game itself is the subject of play, rather than the player:

The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players. Even in the case of games in which one tries to perform tasks that one has set oneself, there is a risk that they will not “work,” “succeed,” or “succeed again,” which is the attraction of the game. Whoever “tries” is in fact the one who is tried. The real subject of the game (this is shown in precisely those experiences in which there is only a single player) is not the player but instead the game itself. What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself.

I would change this to say that the subject is neither the player, nor the game, but the player-in-games—as Grasswick might put it.

The reader-as-player approaches a book with the resources of the communities of which he is and has been a part. These form what Gadamer calls his horizon. The book, as game, brings a horizon as well. This horizon is made up of the games the author—but also, as Gadamer emphasizes, the readers—made moves in by writing the book, or reading it, or writing about it. Less abstractly (perhaps), these “moves” consist in making concrete applications. Just as we interpret a law by applying it to a specific case, so too do we interpret any text—scientific, philosophical, fictional—by applying it within the field of the horizon we brought to it.

The “fusion of horizons” which Gadamer aspires to involves just this application, which transforms (and ideally, expands) our horizons, but also transforms the horizons of the text. For now the meaning of the text is altered by the context of this fresh application.

Texts are therefore just as situated and interactive as individuals. They are texts-in-communities, and the fact that individuals can grow by reading does not validate rationalist models of knowing any more than individuals’ ability to grow from conversation. All are “in-communities” as they interact and help one another to draw on the resources of each other’s’ communities.

The Creative Power of Error

Gadamer’s fusion of horizons is always incomplete, because we are finite, historically particular beings. As such, we always misread a text to a certain extent. But misunderstanding can generate new communal resources just as readily as understanding.

Jean-Paul Sartre read Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and went on to found French Existentialism. Afterwards, Heidegger rejected Sartre’s reading in the strongest possible terms. Yet even if Sartre came to see that he had misread Heidegger (and I’m not sure that he did), we still have French Existentialism as a result. That did not go away because of the misreading.

Along similar lines, I was struck by the analysis of Colin Morris in his book on the twelfth century:

There is one very distinctive element in European history which has few parallels among other primitive societies: the barbarian nations of the Dark Ages were heirs to a complicated and sophisticated cultural tradition.

The classical and Christian texts were often deeply misunderstood by twelfth century scholars ill prepared to place them in their historic context. Yet still, through a complex combination of understanding, misunderstanding, appropriation and creativity, these scholars were able to discover new possibilities through these texts. Their cultural inheritance helped them develop a historically original proto-individualism expressed in their arts and theology. This in turn was handed down to successive generations, providing crucial resources for more familiar developments in the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.

Individuals and texts in communities create possibilities, one way or another.

Featured image is St. Jerome, by Leonello Spada


One thought on “Conversation and Text in Community

  1. Pingback: Melting Away | Embodiment and Exclusion

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