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Talking the talk

07 September 2012

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IF IT is good enough for the royal family, it is good enough for everyone. The art of conversation, advises Stephen Fry - who apparently got the tip from a royal - is to pick up on the last phrase uttered by your interlocutor, and turn it into another question. Thus the description of a sewage-filtering system leads to a further question about the type of chemicals required, where they are sourced, etc. It is the recipe for an infinitely extendable exchange.

The problem with this approach to dialogue is that, while it appears to be generous and unselfish, it is, in fact, aggressive and domineering. A proper conversation, as the philosopher Theodore Zeldin explained in Fry's English Delight (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), gets going only after about an hour: when, we assume, most of the strategies that we have cultivated for social situations are exhausted.

There would - if you had the honour of meeting the Queen - be an imbalance of expectation on the part of the two parties: one pretending that she is engrossed in sewage filtration; the other desperate, but unable, to ask what kind of lavatory paper they favour.

While Fry talked of conversation as an art, it was again Zeldin - stressing the importance of the environment for discourse: the salon, the conference corridor, the bar - who seemed to understand the organic nature of the best conversations.

There was nothing organic about the encounter between Iris Murdoch and David Pears in Head to Head (Radio 4, Monday of last week), the programme in which famous debates of the past are revisited. Most unnatural - and extraordinary, judging by the state of the American media nowadays - was the fact that this philosophical exchange about moral freedom was broadcast on US television.

Thus the dialogue is clipped, and the arguments appear semi-scripted. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating piece of archive material, not least since it is a chance to hear Murdoch as a philosopher at the height of her powers.

This was 1972, and Murdoch had already published more than a dozen novels. Yet this debate reminds us that she occupied illustrious philosophical as well as literary circles. And, as we heard, Murdoch is, in the 21st century, regaining her reputation as a philo-sopher. In this respect, her virtuosic use of language serves her well. The moral task, said Murdoch, was to see the world as it is, using the twin processes of attention and imagination. The enemy in this pursuit is "the fat relentless ego".

I am not sure Murdoch would have felt particularly at ease in The Philosopher's Arms (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), where philosophical problems are addressed in a mock-up pub. I won't go on again about how irritating this is; suffice to say that the presenter, Matthew Sweet, had to apologise to his Edinburgh Festival audience at the start of last week's show for the fact that it was not comedy, despite its billing.

What it was, when the guest experts were allowed time, was a discussion of the morality of obeying the law. It was particularly revealing to hear from the German criminologist that the Germans are far less law-abiding than the Brits - and let's not even start on the Italians.

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