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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Listening

by Matt Qvortrup

More Songs About Buildings and Food was the title of a 1978 album by the band Talking Heads. It was about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. Tracks such as Rose Royce’s 1976 hit Carwash are the exception.

Philosophers, likewise, have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally the great minds stray from their home turf and write about buildings (Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

Are you listening? Okay, right. Here we go!

Philosophers are a verbose lot. Most of them, it is fair to say, prefer to speak rather than to listen. But sometimes they are humble and come to their senses.

Søren Kierkegaard, though he too wrote a lot, confessed he had “less and less to say… became silent, and began to listen,” and at this stage, “discovered in the silence the voice of God” (The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, p.19). So the Danish existentialist was rather in agreement with Shakespeare’s Falstaff that, “it is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal” (Henry IV, Part Two).

But what does it mean to listen?

Fundamentally, we need to understand that, in the words of Roland Barthes, hearing “is a physiological phenomenon. Listening is a psychological act” (The Responsibility of Forms, p.245). Listening is a social phenomenon in a way that mere hearing is not. This, of course, is not a new idea. Immanuel Kant too believed that “not to see will separate you from things, not to listen separates you from other people.”

Gemma Corradi Fiumara is perhaps the most perceptive of the contemporary philosophers of listening. Author of The Other Side of Language: The Philosophy of Listening (1999), her work centres around listening with an open mind:

“Openness exists ultimately not only for the person to whom one listens, but rather anyone who listens is fundamentally open. Without this openness to one another there is no genuine human relationship.”
(The Other Side of Language, p.8).

Hence, as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan concluded, “to listen to someone, to hear his [or her] voice requires on the listener’s part, an attention open to the interspace of body and discourse” (quoted in The Responsibility of Forms, p.255). Sadly, many people don’t like to listen because they are set in their ways and don’t want to be challenged. “Good words scarcely find any listeners,” wrote St Augustine in The City of God. But by not hearing others out, we deprive ourselves of the insights of our fellow citizens. The medieval philosopher Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342) realized this when he urged those in power to listen. For:

“…the less learned citizen can sometimes perceive something that should be corrected with regard to a proposed law even though they would not have known how to discover it in the first place” (The Defender of the Peace, p.80)

Okay, enough of my words; now over to you. In the words of Lacan, “perhaps I should simply listen to you in silence?” (Écrites, p.131).

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2021

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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