Between Scientists & Citizens

Some communication principles for an e-salon

with 11 comments

There are going to be a thousand diverse ways to run a worthwhile blog on a controversial topic.  As long as the blog community is willing to try things out, reflect on their experiences and then enforce their own standards through modeling and (civil) correction, I think they’re likely to come up a with their own workable practices.

Judith Curry in 1688?

Still, it’s not like the online world is completely separate from the world of face-to-face communication, and the blogosphere can draw from communication skills already well-developed and understood in “meat-space” contexts.  I’ve done a series of posts, for example, on how debate can work online (here and here).

Similarly, in a very interesting post, Judith Curry has identified her objective on her own blog as translating an old communication activity into a new setting:

I am striving for something different, sort of an e-salon where we discuss interesting topics at the knowledge frontier.

Three hundred plus years ago, another prominent woman wrote extensively about salon communication;  let’s see what we can learn from her.

Madeleine de Scudéry is often credited with organizing one of the first salons, bringing together men and women across at least some class boundaries to share a pleasant conversation of the topics of the day.  Her novels centered around long conversational set-pieces, which she also collected and extended in multiple volumes of Conversations.  These works not only provided models for salon wannabes;  some of the Conversations conversations were about conversation, and can serve as instructional manuals of a sort.

Warning:  I am no Scudéry expert. Students in an overview of rhetorical theory class persuaded me that she was worth teaching, so I did.  Take the following only as what I learned from reading a bit of Scudéry, largely with an eye towards contemporary theory and applications.

Being mixed up

There is one thing that all the characters in Scudery’s dialogues agree on:  Conversations must include both men and women.  All-female and all-male conversations are deadly dull.  Difference drives interest–but only if it repressed. Sex is thus a constant subtext in every conversation.  Never openly discussed, nor even often openly acknowledged (flirting would be self-indulgent), but adding a bit of spice or tension to the talk about other topics.

Maybe policy/ideological/etc. differences should be treated in the same way in the e-salon?  No humping on the tea-table, but still everyone is looking each other over out of the corners of their eyes?


Madeleine de Scudéry in 2011?


The primary aim of conversationalists should be to keep the conversation going in a way that’s enjoyable to all.  This requires some suppression of individuality:  no long lectures on one’s own children or merchant ventures;  no insistence on one’s own views of some novel.  At the same time, everyone has to have a unique perspective to contribute to move the conversation forward. And Bizell & Herzberg (The Rhetorical Tradition, 2nd Ed.) provide a nice summary of where conversations are supposed to end up:

Harmony among conflicting viewpoints, not the victory of one of them, should be the ultimate goal (and the topics discussed in Scudéry’s conversations are usually left unresolved for that reason).

Note that “harmony,” unlike “consensus” requires diversity.  We do in fact have to live with irresolution in the blogosphere.  But can we come to like it?


One can’t openly “win” a conversation without breaking it.  But there is still plenty of room for competitive self-display, in the manner one expresses one’s points.  Getting the right word (we still stay it in French–le mot juste);  constructing prose that is clear, flexible and maybe even a bit fancy;  managing interpersonal relations in a subtle way:  the conversationalist can win on style points where outright victory is denied.

Achieving this on the spur of the moment in the course of conversation was a high art;  it had to look mannered, but not labored.

Now this would certainly be a nice thing to see more of in the blogosphere!

Written by jeangoodwin

August 5, 2011 at 11:28 am

Posted in in theory

Tagged with , ,

11 Responses

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  1. The art of communication is probably easier to explain than the science.


    August 5, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  2. I agree with Madame Scudéry about the importance for mixed conversations. After watching this 5-minutes presentation by Philip Zimbardo:

    learning to converse could help fight social akwardness, in e-salons and hopefully elsewhere.


    August 9, 2011 at 9:01 pm

  3. Hi Jean, all:

    Ooh, exciting!

    If “Harmony among conflicting viewpoints, not the victory of one of them, should be the ultimate goal (and the topics discussed in Scudéry’s conversations are usually left unresolved for that reason)”… then:

    (a) the word our rhetorician friends are looking for isn’t even harmony, it’s counterpoint,
    (b) JS Bach is the preeminent master of contrapuntal thinking and we should be studying how he does it,
    (c) we’ll find the notion of polyphony (Gk: many voices) helpful, too,
    (d) the Bach specialist Glenn Gould was in fact thinking along these lines in devising his radio-plays,
    (f) as was Edward Said in terms of the Palestinian Israeli issue,
    (g) oh but I could go on and on… Shakespeare on the stage, Bakhtin on heteroglossia, David Bohm on dialog, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel on Madhyamika and the power of an open question..

    What’s interesting, though, is to move this in a practical direction, and come up with ways of scoring complex discussions.

    One of the classic methods would seem to be the Mishnaic and Talmudic pages, which contain the disputes and commentaries of a variety of rabbis — the Tannaim, the Amoraim and later commentators – whose process is detailed by Rabbi Segal:

    The distinctive character of the Talmud derives largely from its intricate use of argumentation and debate. Some of these debates were actually conducted by the Amora’im, though most of them are hypothetically reconstructed by the Talmud’s redactors (“This is what Rabbi X could have argued…”) As in the Mishnah, the Amora’ic Rabbis encouraged multiple opinions and interpretations. Whereas the Mishnah usually limits itself to a brief statement of the conflicting views, the Talmud tries to verify the integrity of the positions of the Tanna’im and the Amora’im. Prooftexts are quoted to corroborate or disprove the respective opinions.

    Here we have an ancient typographic convention – itself, interestingly, a precursor to hypertext – specifically designed for the notation of discussion.

    The scoring of conversations is something I have been exploring from time to time over at Zenpundit… My guiding principle here is that devising suitable forms may well elevate the content poured into them…

    Charles Cameron (hipbone)

    August 15, 2011 at 5:27 am

    • Interested readers may want to check out A Page of Talmud to see what Charles is talking about.

      A friend of mine indeed teaches argumentation by making students write Talmud pages around a central position. It would be a pleasure to have blog comment sections laid out that way, although one would likely need a very, very big monitor to make it work. Thanks for bringing this to our attention!


      August 15, 2011 at 7:07 am

      • Thanks, Jean:

        I’ve posted two formats that can be used for considered debate, one inspired by the Talmudic page layout, the other specifically for bloggers, and based on my “glass bead game” variants, the HipBone Games:

        Charles Cameron (hipbone)

        August 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm

  4. I just stumbled upon Aracaria:

    It’s Java, it’s free, and it comes with an XML specification of arguments.

    This should make arguments less expensive…


    August 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    • Araucaria, of course.

      Since we’re here, let’s note the database of arguments:


      August 18, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    • Hi, willard! Actually, I think that tools like this (and other methods of mapping/diagramming arguments) are likely to make arguments more expensive. They aim to increase clarity, which should make it easier to spot flaws and hold the arguer responsible for making such a poor argument. If an arguer wants her argument to survive being mapped/diagrammed, she is going to have to put in extra effort.

      If you like Araucaria, you may want to check out: DebateGraph (they have a sample AGW debate map); or Can Computers Think, a massive map of the AI debate, drawn by hand.

      But then I get curious: what would it take to map out the comments to even one post on one blog, much less hundreds of posts on dozens of blogs?


      August 18, 2011 at 9:33 pm

      • I’ll take a look next week. Thanks!


        August 19, 2011 at 8:13 am

      • Jean,

        You’re right: clarifying arguments makes them more expensive, because the value of the arguments that have currency would increacse. They would also be cheaper, as it would cost less to come up with stronger arguments. I like the idea that arguments cost something: I find it very constructive.

        After a bit of thinking, I came to the conclusion that while these graphs are interesting, I would NOT use them myself to build a case base for arguments. As vizualization tools, they show great potential. For instance, one could use them to create a “tag cloud” of instances of arguments. Memes (e.g. “Yes, but Climategate”) and fallacies (e.g “Et tu?”) would then get very big clouds. This seems like an intuitive way to represent multigraphs.

        As means for diagrammatic reasoning, I have doubts. The semantics for arrows is quite blurred. Sometimes, it means “is countered by”, sometimes it means “is supported by”. This might explain the need for color conventions, letters, and everything that goes against the simplicity of using graphs in the first place.

        So here’s what I would advise to to. First, use a simple Mindmapping tool to create graphs of arguments. Freemind is quite popular, free, robust and stores maps in XML:

        This should be enough for hurly burlies, like the one blog post you mention. To test te idea, it might be more interesting to analyze a high-level debate first, like the recent one between John Nielsen-Gammon and Roger Pielke, Sr.:

        Second, I’d be tempted to use a wiki to store debates. I believe a wiki can be considered as a graph. This kind of representation would help abstract away the specific formulations of the arguments. There are so many ways to say “Yes, but Climategate” we should be able to collect them all under one page. It would also be easy to list all the relevant arguments in one page, while collecting commentaries in others. To see what I have in mind, imagine the “Can computer think” map as a wiki.

        In fact, mindmaps and wikis would complement very well one another.


        August 31, 2011 at 4:29 pm

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