How to Have a Good Philosophical Conversation
Philosophy can be a difficult word to define. In the broad sense, it is the practice of rationally engaging the dynamics of existence. Philosophy is asking questions about beauty, morals and ethics, politics, thought, religion, science, the existence and nature of God, and so on.
Most people have asked themselves these types of questions in their lifetimes, though very few would consider themselves a philosopher, or one who engages in these questions on a common basis. Because philosophically natured questions very often cross our minds, we sometimes find ourselves in conversation with another person about a philosophical topic.
Philosophy can be a very engaging and rewarding hobby, and can even be conducted by yourself! But you may find it most exciting, and more rewarding, when you are exposed to the opinions of others.
If you would like to engage in a philosophical conversation with other people, there are a few things to consider, as well as some practices to go about whilst engaged. The more you read and discuss about philosophy, the better you will become at arguing your points as well as understanding the points of those around you. It is commonly believed by those who participate in philosophy as a hobby that doing so will make your life very enriched, so if you have even a slight interest in the subject it may be worth investing some time into.
The very act of the philosophical discussion is an art in itself. When I was about fourteen years old I suffered from chronic insomnia, so during the night I would go walk downtown in my city and try to engage random strangers in philosophical discussion. Homeless were my favorite. College frat students and coffee house intellectuals are also good targets, and after awhile I had developed a complex system for each of those archetypes. Coworkers, friends, and the person next to you on the bus are all great places to begin your discussion.
If you are an outgoing person, then you may want to try starting up a conversation with a total stranger. A good attribute about conversations with strangers is that you are more likely to be exposed to differing opinions and world views. You may even end up making a lifelong friend! To start off, you may want to try what I call "hook" questions. The great thing about these types of questions is that they will force someone to start a deep conversation with you or will make them politely turn you down, at least most of time. Some examples would be "What is your passion in life?" or "What is the meaning in life?" or "How do you know we aren't just dreaming?"
You might want to try to stay away from questions that near religion or politics. Although these two subjects can be very philosophical, most people tend to talk about them in a very personal or purely scientific way, and opinion ends up dominating the conversation rather than a want to learn, which is the ultimate fuel in any good philosophical conversation.
If you are a bit shy or maybe just want to try it out on someone you know first, then having a conversation with a friend or coworker is a good choice as well. Because you already know him or her, you can judge what type of questions or branches of philosophy he or she would more likely be interested in. You may also find it a lot easier to relate your discussion to a personal matter. Maybe one of your friends are suffering from depression over a recent breakup. This may be a good time to talk to him or her about the philosophy of love or happiness.
Perhaps you often butt heads with a friend on subjects like politics, economy, religion, or music. Try bringing up a typical conversation on one of those subjects, but slowly start to make it deeper than usual. Questions like, "What is the best form of government?" or "Should we feel guilty for starvation in Africa?" or "What makes Duke Ellington a better/worse artist than Justin Bieber?" can sometimes incite some well-thought out responses from friends you may have never thought to be deep thinkers.
What's really important in any conversation is to make sure to listen to what everyone else is saying. This is pretty easy in a conversation between just two or three people. But it can be difficult depending on your personality when the number becomes anywhere between five and twenty. I attend a monthly philosophy group in my city and quite often I get a bit impatient because I have to hold a response to a statement several minutes ago inside my head until I can wedge in a chance to speak. However, this is usually a good sign, as it means you have healthy and lively conversation.
And while we're on big groups, remember that in these situations that simply listening and not contributing, or contributing very little, can be a great way to learn and observe how people think and formulate their arguments in general. For people like myself this is very difficult, but more timid or calmer people may find this preferable to being in the conversation.
Philosophy requires no formal background knowledge, and only brain power and the ability to communicate, making it a very affordable and accessible hobby. Still, it wouldn't hurt to familiarize yourself with a little background on the practice.
Because of the nature of philosophy, there is practically a philosophy on everything, meaning this hobby can be applied to any hobby you may already have. Most people who are the best at what they do tend to have some interest in the philosophy of it. From predictable hobbies like fashion, art, law, medicine, martial arts, history, etc. to some unsuspected combinations like sex, video games, cooking, or pet grooming.
Philosophy is divided in different ways, but often philosophers divide it into branches based off the nature of the questions a specific branch asks. Most philosophers tend to specialize in a few or one particular branch, and certain personalities will find they like certain branches better.
The most commonly studied branches are:
Aesthetics, which is the study of beauty, art, and design;
Epistemology, the study of where knowledge comes from and how we learn;
Ethics, the study of morality and ethical decisions;
Logic, the study of the validation of conclusions and reason,
Political/Social Philosophy; the study of the origin of political power and social interactions, and
Metaphysics, the study of reality and existence.
Getting to know a basic history of philosophy and perhaps specifically the history of the branch you find yourself the most interested in will help you formulate your ideas better. If you find yourself very interested in philosophy, then you may even decide to pick up a book or two by philosophers who interest you.
You should also keep in mind that when engaging in philosophical discussions it is important to respect the views and opinions of others. You should listen to what they have to say and not try to finish their sentences. This doesn't necessarily mean to refrain from interrupting them, as wedging in your point at the right time can make the conversation more interesting than waiting after your fellow debater has finished everything they are trying to get across.
While the reasons to carry on a philosophical discussion may vary, one common mistake to avoid is to simply argue for the sake of your own ego. This is a problem I found in a lot of the coffee house intellectuals in my city. While they are usually knowledgeable and interested in engaging in philosophy, they tend to be talking with their egos, and not out of love for wisdom. What I mean is that when engaging in philosophical discussions we should do so for the following reasons:
The enrichment of our own lives;
The altruistic attempt of the enrichment of other people's lives;
To create a healthy system of evolution for opinions, a growingly important aspect in a growingly democratic world;
And to better understand the culture of other people and their ideologies and philosophy.
Plato, one of the most famous of the early Greek philosophers, claimed that until philosophers are kings, or kings have the spirit of philosophy, cities will never have rest from their troubles. This very statement in itself is worthy of debate, but it also makes a good point. Philosophy is a very helpful discipline, not only to our own lives but to the very enhancement of human civilization and is often overlooked. Philosophy is one of the most rewarding things we can do with our lives because it is ultimately the study of life in itself.
So go out and learn, discuss, and have fun with it. As cheesy as that may sound, you will probably enjoy yourself once you have found a group of people with whom you feel very comfortable with in philosophical discussions.