Being Conversant

In so far as we take the ‘organic’ character of language seriously, we cannot accurately describe the first steps towards its conquest as learning part of the language; rather it is a matter of partly learning.

Donald Davidson

In an academic setting, you don’t know something if you can’t participate in a conversation with other knowledgeable people about it. That is of course a very pragmatic requirement and what Davidson says of language learning certainly also applies to learning about the world. We don’t know something or not; we know something to an extent. Likewise, it’s not that we can or cannot talk about something; but we are more or less conversant about it.

But, if conversation can be a test of our knowledge, can it also be a source of it? As I said the other day, my gut says no. If we talk to a knowledgeable person, we can often feel like we have learned something, even a great deal, but when we then go on to either use that knowledge or talk to others about it, we find that there is something crucial we missed. For academic purposes, especially, we don’t really know what we’re talking about until we have checked the sources we have heard about. A conversation may, thus, occasion learning but cannot, in itself, accomplish it. It is not until we have read about or experienced it, or perhaps even just thought very carefully about it, ourselves that we can truly say we “know”. Such is the case, anyway, at university.

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