Communication skills are considered a good thing and are taught in various professional areas from medicine to marketing to politics. The idea that 'communication skills' could be a subject taught in different areas of higher education and professional training may seem a 20th-century innovation but it was a subject of great importance in the world of the ancient Greeks. Athenian democracy relied on it; it was known as 'rhetoric'.
Rhetoric had its own very successful teachers – the equivalent of our teachers of communication skills. They were known as Sophists. Sophists were heavily criticised by Plato on the grounds that their concern was with persuasion rather than truth. Nevertheless, writing on rhetoric continued in the Greek world – Aristotle, for example, has a treatise on it – and it became a popular topic of writers in the Scottish Enlightenment.
Most of the literati of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment were professors, ministers of the church, or lawyers whose positions depended on their skills as communicators. Some of the major philosophers of the period, such as Adam Smith or Thomas Reid, wrote on rhetoric, but the writer who offered the most detailed study of rhetoric is not so well known nowadays – George Campbell. His account in The Philosophy of Rhetoric
brings out the sinister power of rhetoric. He writes that the orator's power is greater than that of the despot, for the despot enslaves only the body, whereas nothing is exempt from the power of the orator: 'neither judgement nor affection, not even the inmost recesses, the most latent movements of the soul'.
It was this sinister power that Plato objected to. He discusses rhetoric in several of his dialogues, and moves from the position in the Protagoras
that it has a limited role to outright condemnation in a dialogue such as the Gorgias
. In that dialogue, the great sophist Gorgias is depicted as a quack. Plato believed that underneath the rhetoric there were false principles. The orator valued and taught others to value external success rather than sound policy; they indulge the whims of the people so that the people may indulge their appetite for power. Plato accuses even Pericles, the greatest figure of Athenian democracy, of this populism. In the end, the people turned against Pericles because affairs were not going as they wished. Boris Johnston is an admirer of Pericles so let us hope he is aware of the outcome for Pericles. Plato, on the whole, condemns rhetoric and indeed his condemnation has stuck with the word 'sophist' to this day.
George Campbell, on the other hand, can see the value of rhetoric properly used, and he provides a detailed account of how it works and the 'passions' it can successfully arouse. For example, he writes of passions which 'elevate the soul and stimulate to action. Such are hope, patriotism, ambition, emulation'. But he also observes that that these 'must concur with arguments
[my italics] exciting to resolution and activity'.
'Spin' is in the same category as George Campbell's version of rhetoric. If spin involves putting the best gloss on an argued position then I don't see a moral problem. It is the glass half-full or half-empty issue, and perhaps politicians must try to keep our spirits up by stressing the half-full interpretation of events. But the glass must actually be half-full or spin is open to Plato's trenchant criticism of rhetoric. For example, we were assured by the Health Secretary that there would be 100,000 tests per day for coronavirus by the end of April. He claimed to applause from the Tory press that this had been achieved but it now seems that, like the famous cheque, many were just in the post.
This takes us to bullshit. Two distinguished American philosophers have written of what they see as a prevailing tendency in American politics. Max Black writes about the the prevalence of what he calls 'humbug', and with the same import Harry Frankfort uses the more down-to-earth term 'bullshit'. 'Humbug' has a Pickwickean charm but I shall concentrate on bullshit.
Bullshit is not the same as lies. Liars know what the truth is and deliberately deceive because they don't want others to know. On the other hand, bullshitters have no interest in the truth; they have a variety of other aims such as concealing the fact that they don't know what they are talking about, or appearing more prescient than the rest of us.
Politics is an obvious area for bullshitters. The reason is that a politician's main aim is not with the truth of situations but with appearing in command of them in order to appeal to voters. This does not mean they are necessarily insincere but just that they are purporting to have foresight or to be in control of events when this may not be the case. Indeed, nowadays modern technology and mass media platforms make it easy to spread bullshit, or in a more recent term, to spread fake news.
Plato would not have been surprised at this. In his allegory of the cave in the Republic
, he anticipates it. He asks us to imagine prisoners locked down in a cave so that all that they can see is the back wall of the cave. Behind them 'clever men with mean minds' are causing shadows of people and events to appear on the back wall. The prisoners take this for reality and don't want to be released from their lockdown in the cave. When forced to leave, they reject the true state of affairs in the world outside the cave.
Communication skills are most usually seen as relevant to the face-to-face situation. Of course, bullshitting can occur there too, as no doubt many young women can testify from their experience of 'chatting-up'. But there is a widespread belief in circles concerned with the training of professionals that there are skills in communication and that they can be taught.
The word 'skills' is unfortunate. In the context of human interaction it has a hint of the manipulative. Nevertheless, if a psychiatrist is dealing with a disturbed patient, the objectivity suggested by the word 'skills' may be appropriate. But GPs dealing with average patients are likely to get better responses if they adopt the sort of approach we might have to friends and acquaintances. We ask how they are feeling and so on. Some doctors might be better than others at that, but that 'better' does not derive from learning skills but from being a certain sort of person, a mature human being with the range of feelings and concerns of normal human beings. And from that maturity, perhaps enhanced with some exposure to the arts, there will come not skills but humane insight and judgement.