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  • Do we understand others?

    vendredi 26 juin 2015
    Iva Apostolova

    What happens when we communicate with one another? And can we say at the end of the conversation that we have truly understood the other person’s message?

    The later Wittgenstein famously proclaimed in his iconic Philosophical Investigations, ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him’ (§ 327). Buckets of ink have been spilled over what exactly Wittgenstein meant by it. Some claim what he had in mind had to do with not sharing the same linguistic space with the lion: we are not part of the lion’s language game and, respectively, form of life which requires understanding the speaker’s cultural context, among other things.

    But the interpretation of Wittgenstein’s dictum aside, it does make one wonder what happens when we speak. Where do words go? And what do we do with them? 

    One of the greatest philosophers of 20th century, a MI 6 employee during the war, and my personal favorite, John Austin, called language an act, a type of performance. We all know what happens when we describe things but what about when we apologize, ask for forgiveness, swear, or thank someone? How can we guarantee that the message, that is, not just the order of words but also the tone, intonation, etc., will carry over to our audience?

    Even worse: what happens when someone lies? Is it that, if I believe the lie, I have no comprehension of the words uttered by the speaker? Or is it that I do not, actually, understand the speaker herself? In other words, how am I to connect the dots between what one says to me at a given time, and what one has done or intends to do with those words?

    When we claim that we understand someone, what we claim, in essence, is that we have access to their thoughts, is it not? Now, the trouble with thoughts, as John Locke had noted long ago, is that we can’t simply lay them out for everyone to see. We need to tease them out and make them accessible to our interlocutor, even if that interlocutor is us. Arguments, particularly the formally structured ones, are such tools for extracting, predominantly, rational thoughts.

    But we are more often than not, not rational.

    So, what happens with our other thoughts?

    There is no direct or easy answer, of course, but the word on the street for the past few years has been that empathy is an invaluable tool to access one’s beliefs, thought processes, and motives for action. To empathize is, at the very least, to make a serious attempt at understanding what the other person is trying to do with her words.  

    To paraphrase Erich Fried’s poem:

    It is nonsense
    says reason
    It is what it is
    says empathy

    It is impossible
    says experience
    It is what it is 
    says empathy

    (Erich Fried, Was es ist)

    Erich Fried


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