The other side of listening

by Terence MacNamee

I have long admired Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s book on listening published thirty years ago. It was called Filosofia dell’ascolto, and it appeared in an English translation called The other side of language: a philosophy of listening. She was talking about listening as a neglected aspect of our philosophical tradition in the West. Socrates asked questions and thought of himself as a midwife for other people’s ideas, but from then on, philosophy focussed on argument and defeating the other fellow’s point of view. Throughout its history, philosophy has been combative in this way, a verbal war of all against all, a war of ideas and arguments. The same has happened in the sciences. In modern times, the social sciences talk endlessly about people as groups and individuals, without listening to what they might have to say for themselves.

Corradi Fiumara is persuasive as she describes the refusal to listen, the tactics to shut opponents up, and the tendency to turn people and groups into objects of study. She says that it is time to reclaim the activity of listening for philosophy and social science. If philosophy is a logos, a saying, a talk, could not this logos, which originally seems to mean something like “gathering in”,  include listening?

Thirty years later, I am beginning to see another point to the book, another application of it, which Corradi Fiumara did not think of at the time she wrote it. In the intervening years, there has been an unforeseen development: the political and economic focus of the world has begun shifting from West to East, and the East could soon become the centre of things on a world scale, supplanting the West. It is time, therefore, for the West to become receptive to the East, and if necessary, develop new disciplines to do just that. It is time for the West to listen to the East.

The trouble is that to listen you have to stop talking, which is a very difficult thing for us in the West to do. We are used to arguing with each other. Meanwhile the world of the book is giving way to that of audio-visual media, and more than ever our lives are filled with chatter, most of which we try to ignore, if we are not actively trying to get a hearing ourselves.

Yet it seems to me that receptiveness to Asia will be the major task of Western discourse at some time in the not-too-distant future. Did I say Western discourse? What may ultimately be called for is Western silence.

Listening is good, and we do precious little of it, that is, real listening. We can listen, though; and it is not all that hard to do amongst ourselves, when we are so used to hearing each other’s voices. But that is only half the story. Listening to Asia, the non-Western, the unfamiliar, the unknown, is going to be the other side of listening.