In the letter from Pamphilus to Hermippus that begins David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Pamphilus remarks concerning the limitations of the form of writing for expressing the content desired.
Dialogue was the preferred form among the ancient philosophers. Even Aristotle is supposed to have written in dialogue form. What we have left of his writings are considered to be lecture notes. Moderns who attempted to write in dialogue sorely missed the mark, according to Pamphilus. It takes a certain talent to appropriate that form in a way that is clear, concise, and accurate. Plato was a true artist of this literary form.
For whatever reason, modern philosophers in the time before Hume found it much more preferable to write in a didactic form, presenting their ideas straightforwardly in a logical progression. What this does, however, according to Pamphilus, is change the whole cast of characters. We move from conversation to lecture and the consequent change of relationships from friend-friend or citizen-citizen or senator-senator (Cicero) to Author-Reader. The ideas become a SYSTEM to encounter once and for all – coherently put together and soundly argued. Whereas in dialogue uncertainty still remains. The danger Pamphilus sees as possible in dialogue is the shift from Author-Reader to Teacher-Pupil which has pedantic patronizing potential.
The epistemological difference is inherent in the form of writing. “To deliver a SYSTEM in conversation, scarcely appears natural.” If a conversation is present there is always another side to the debate that is alive and well, presenting possibility. If a lecture is given the other side has been silenced and the argument is given full certainty and power. Of course, question and answer times following a lecture provide space for a certain amount of uncertainty – but the person at the podium is still in the position of power and authority. Dialogue allows for accountability to the one who presents an argument or hypothesis.
Of course it is plain to see that all dialogues have a position which is expressed through the dialogue form. Plato’s dialogues probably had a purpose of functioning as a springboard to bring one closer to an understanding/experience of the deeper reality of things. To talk plainly about the forms would be to cheapen them. To question and answer concerning the the deeper realities of the world allowed each interlocutor the possibility of experiencing KNOWLEDGE themselves. But inherent in that method is the possibility to opt out, to leave the conversation physically or mentally like Anytus in the Meno.
In lecture, however, the truths are presented explicitly and wrestled with – knowledge is like a commodity presented for sale. The existential possibilities are diminished.
Pamphilus breaks dialogue writing into two different possibilities – the dialogue can create a “Pedagogue and Pupil” climate – a conversation which is more laid back and varied in its topics (much more like normal conversation). The weakness of the former is that it creates a very off-putting intellectual atmosphere – unless one is severely humble being treated like a pupil is quite obnoxious. The weakness of casual conversation is that it seems to waste time since it involves so much extraneous detail. Both of these dialogue possibilities provide good argument for the supremacy of didactic style, according to Pamphilus.
Dialogue should rather be used for topics that are accepted as true so that more light can be shed on their nature, and the overlooked possibilities can be explored.
Any point of doctrine, which is so obvious that it scarcely admits of dispute, but at the same time so important that it cannot be too often inculcated, seems to require some such method of handling it; where the novelty of the manner may compensate the triteness of the subject; where the vivacity of conversation may enforce the precept; and where the variety of lights, presented by various personages and characters, may appear neither tedious nor redundant.
I suppose the understood distinction made between lecture and dialogue is that the former is more suited for discovery and the latter more suited for analysis (in this case of that which has already been put forth as discovered). Many of Plato’s and Cicero’s dialogues are concerned with discussing established positions and definitions. Pamphilus goes on, however to say that the best place for dialogue is where the subject is of an obscure and uncertain nature. This is the most natural starting point for a dialogue. There is no clear authority concerning the matter and therefore the many are able to participate in the search.
When the subject is obscure and uncertain, the reader can read with a certain amount of amusement at the attempts of the various interlocutors to grasp at the ungraspable. If no enlightenment is attained from the reading of the dialogue, there is at least attainable some enjoyment from the presence of “the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life, study and society.”
So the two subjects which make dialogues worthwhile and advantageous for philosophical writing are both the established as certain and that which resists such establishment. The topic which (paradoxically?) embodies both characteristics, according to Pamphilus, is Natural Religion. What is more established (in 18th century Scotland) than the existence of God? And what is more uncertain than the rationale of his ways (how unsearchable are his judgments…) or the nature of his Being (not that exists, but in what way he can be said to exist). These uncertainties concerning the established as true provide fertile ground for an intriguing (though possibly conclusion-less) inquiry.
“These are topics so interesting, that we cannot restrain our restless enquiry with regard to them; though nothing but doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction, have as yet been the result of our most accurate researches.”
Pamphilus thus begins recounting to Hermippus the conversation he had witnessed concerning this very subject while he was spending time with a friend, Cleanthes. Cleanthes is said to be a philosopher joined in conversation by Philo, a careless skeptic, and Demea a “rigidly inflexible orthodox [Christian].”
Thus begins the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
One is reminded of Cicero’s academic skepticism in the tone of this introduction. Plurality of opinions and delight in uncertainty.
I think the main issue at stake here in the introduction to Hume’s work is the relationship of style to epistemology. If we know for certain there is no need to establish it as true. But there is benefit in poking around and finding new consequences of the established-as-true. Likewise if there is no possible way of knowing a subject – there is also security in poking around. There is no ground for violent defensiveness since one is certainty and the other unable to ever become so.
Didactic argument style is for the realm of that which is not established but can be.