On talking to think better

Here's Tyler Cowen wondering which habits of talking are good for your intellectual health and development.

Taking his last question first: what's already written about this? Tyler's insinuation here is too pessimistic. I'd turn to:

  1. Negotation literature, especially Never Split the Difference. Negotiators are experts at talking in ways that (i) keep information coming, (ii) keep it high-quality, and (iii) make it actionable.
  2. The Socratic legacy of communcation-as-thought and discursive hygiene.
  3. The traditions of radiotelephony procedure and military communication: it is the state of the art in communicative clarity and error-avoidance.

Let's start with the Callardian Socrates. See, e.g., here, here, and here (and I expect her forthcoming book to be excellent), but also go read the dialogues! That picture of communication and intellectual development has these lessons:

  1. Talking with other people is the fundamental manifestation of human thought. What we do in our own minds by ourselves is a derivative form of multi-person thinking (paradigmatically, talking), not vice versa! So, yes, take talking seriously.
  2. Talking-and-thought organizes itself into question-and-answer, conjecture-and-reply, assertion-and-refutation, call-and-response, or what have you. So (i) study good questions, (ii) be willing to be the respondent, and (iii) know which of the two roles you occupy at a given time.

Sarcasm, litotes, and cheap humor are enemies of intellectual development. In Socratic terms, they are all ways of dodging a question.

Don't translate something (a question or an assertion) into other terms unless (i) you're simply correcting a mistake or (ii) you can give some concrete intellectual benefit to that translation. Some very smart people with favorite theories too often start by translating a subject into the terms of that theory.

The same goes for abstractions and generalizations.

Pauses (of a couple seconds) are underrated. They give the other person a chance to finish and yourself a chance to overcome an initial surge of emotion. But pauses longer than this can indicate (and over time cause) an unwillingness to locate exactly what is confusing or troubling you.

Saying precisely what you mean, and resist the urge to qualify it or substitute a cliché or meme, is healthy and rare. Ironically, this one of the best ways to cultivate weirdness.

Include quantitative estimates. If, say, the population of France is relevant, say what you think it is. Perhaps you don't know, but being clear about your (implicit) assumptions is better than hiding them. And if you can't get within an order of magnitude, what does this say about what you're saying? Over time this encourages quantitative accuracy and, more generally, learning about the world.

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