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The Chattering Mind

A Conceptual History of Everyday Talk

From Plato’s contempt for “the madness of the multitude” to Kant’s lament for “the great unthinking mass,” the history of Western thought is riddled with disdain for ordinary collective life. But it was not until Kierkegaard developed the term chatter that this disdain began to focus on the ordinary communicative practices that sustain this form of human togetherness.

The Chattering Mind explores the intellectual tradition inaugurated by Kierkegaard’s work, tracing the conceptual history of everyday talk from his formative account of chatter to Heidegger’s recuperative discussion of “idle talk” to Lacan’s culminating treatment of “empty speech”—and ultimately into our digital present, where small talk on various social media platforms now yields big data for tech-savvy entrepreneurs.

In this sense, The Chattering Mind is less a history of ideas than a book in search of a usable past. It is a study of how the modern world became anxious about everyday talk, figured in terms of the intellectual elites who piqued this anxiety, and written with an eye toward recent dilemmas of digital communication and culture. By explaining how a quintessentially unproblematic form of human communication became a communication problem in itself, McCormickshows how its conceptual history is essential to our understanding of media and communication today.

Author Information

Samuel McCormick is associate professor of communication studies at San Francisco State University.


“Ambitious, absorbing, and continually delighting, The Chattering Mind is gleamingly argued and studded with arresting insights. McCormick beautifully makes a case for seeing the history of attitudes toward chatter as essential to the understanding of media and communication. His readings of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Lacan show that, far from being identifiable with alienation and vacuity, speech that is poor in information turns out to be rich in the communication of a sense of community. McCormick’s tact, brio, and assurance are hugely impressive and highly engaging.”
— Steven Connor, University of Cambridge

Audience: Professional and scholarly;