Will we ever come to understand one another?

When I pause to consider some of the obstacles to people understanding each other, I’m intellectually overwhelmed. Just enumerating them is a daunting (and frankly, depressing) task. There are so very many reasons I can’t understand you, and which apply also to you understanding me. I’ll begin with three.

For one thing, there’s a whole lot more in my head (just as you would say of yours) than I can possibly peck out here. People have written multi-volume tomes, the writing of which spanned decades, on softer philosophical questions than this one. I guess I’m hoping that, over the course of the thread, some things will emerge that are meaningful to all of us, even if in different ways.

Another problem is the fact that our perception filters are all so different. We are going to be influenced, I believe, by our life experiences. And this is going to shape our understanding of what someone else is trying to say. The only way for us really to understand them is to be them. That’s the only way to capture every nuance of meaning that is behind every word.

And finally, there’s the problem of defining — and by implication understanding — the term itself. Even if I define “understanding” very precisely, it could still be the case that you have a different understanding of it than I do. Partly, that’s because of the nature of language. Agreeing on a set of words to describe what we mean doesn’t do us a lot of good if we have a different understanding of the words used in the description.

There seems to be no way to escape misunderstanding one another.

I’m not even sure if we always understand ourselves. For example, sometimes I assert that I understand atheism. But do I really? True, I used to be an atheist, but my understanding of my past is surely colored by my more recent and current experience. That fact is that I do not understand atheism (assuming, just for argument’s sake, a cohesive body of philosophy to which we may refer — I do realize that there are as many different kinds of atheism among atheists as there are kinds of theism among theists.) What I really understand is ex-atheism, and even then only my own.

What are the metaphysical implications of all this? Is solipsism, in the end, a faithful representation of reality after all? Or do we all exist, but live in a world of Babel, where you may as well be speaking Zulu as English for me to understand you? Or is there some tenuous web of reality branes, loosely connected by experiences that are similar but not identical? Or something else?

What are the epistemological implications of it all? Is our knowledge so hopelessly tainted by our understanding that the more specialized it becomes, the harder it becomes to communicate? Is knowledge more or less deontic in nature — an expression of belief more than knowledge, rooted in what we have experienced to be true? Isn’t even a priori knowledge tainted by experience? Do I have a different take than you have on a mathematical equation because I read something differently into each of its particulars than you do. Or is it that for every experience, I know and have known only what it was necessary to know? Even a newborn infant knows all that he needs to know about life — just breathe.

The ethical implications are mind boggling too. Setting completely aside any particular ethical code, is it really fair to codify behavior when no two people can understand the code the same way? Can one man ever make a reasonable plan on behalf of another — meaning by reasonable, what is reasonable to the man who must live it out? Won’t someone suffer as a result of every central plan, no matter how well intended it may be? Won’t there always be unintended consequences to every rule and regulation?

And what about aesthetics? Isn’t this, finally, what colors it all? Don’t I really have a different understanding than you of this or that word or phrase simply because I value different things (and the same things in different ways) than you do? Isn’t it the case that you can never understand me simply because your own evaluations are different from mine? Is free moral will a question of aesthetics after all? Foundationally, isn’t morality a matter of aesthetics rather than ethics? If ethics concerns a man’s relations with his fellow man, then morality concerns a man’s relations with himself. Guilt is not something other people feel when I do wrong; it’s something I feel. And no one else can feel it in exactly the same way.

Here’s my take on it. And no, the irony hasn’t escaped me of the futility of spelling this out, given my overall thematic gist. But I believe that the notion of understanding each other captures the very essence of subjectivity. Since no two people can experience the identical thing in the identical way, owing to the nature of electromagnetism and time, no two people can ever really understand each other, if by “understanding” we mean Kant’s “original synthetic unity of apperception”.

When we combine my understanding and your understanding, we don’t get a mutual understanding consisting of a set of things commonly understood by us both; rather, we get a set twice as large as our own, consisting of contrasting things. They don’t (and can’t) unify because you and I will understand the merged set differently. So, even the act of merging our understandings leaves us understanding things differently. There really can be no understanding between us.

Sorry, I don’t get what you’re saying.


In a word, No.

Humanity is far to much wrapped up in ideological differences to ever understand his fellow man.

Dispense with religion and we may have a chance, until then…:frowning:

While the scope for human misunderstanding is indeed vast, I think the OP exaggerates the problem. The ability of writers to create believable characters, even if they have vastly different world views from us, shows that we can undestand each other ‘well enough’.

The premise that we have the same basic wants and needs is a good starting point.

I doubt that worms have much in the way of consensus. Ants might be said to share a point of view, but it seems to me to be limited, and basically chemical. Bees transmit information on food sources, and such with some level of accuracy. Birds sing for more or less the same reasons, bird to bird. Is that a common understanding?

If I describe a glistening scoop of fresh peach ice cream, slowly melting and dripping over the edge of a crisp cone, and onto the sticky hands of a delighted child, in some cases people reading the lines will imagine visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and emotional elements from the words alone. The issue you have ignored in your own assessment of the apparent limits of understanding is that you understand that the limits are there, and cannot possibly have that understanding from experience limited to your own perception. To know that my understanding is qualitatively variant, you must have an estimation of what my understanding is. Now consider for a moment the information gulf you know you have already crossed to reach that level of understanding.

Words are not walls, or roads. They are ripples. Dropping one between us makes ripples pass between us.


Lib, you seem to be focusing on perfect understanding. Do you disregard the idea of near- or partial understanding as one might disregard the idea of a near- or partial pregnancy? What would you conclude if you knew that a perfect epistemology was and always will be impossible?

All we really need for a working understanding is a mutually agreed upon construct.

Since our “knowledge” is but a construct itself, the system often works fairly well.


Seriously, I don’t think we will ever come to that kind of understanding. But I don’t see how we could; if i were to understand your ideas of ex-atheism fully, then I might become an ex-atheist myself. But that would mean you wouldn’t understand my prior atheism. If I understood your ideas fully but still disagreed (and thanks to my understanding, explain my disagreement well) you might become an atheist… and I would lose understanding of your ex-atheism. And the same is true the other way around.

Understanding someone’s point of view would mean taking on that point of view and so losing knowledge of your own. Understanding someone else totally would mean essentially* becoming * that person, or they becoming you. So really, every gain in understanding would mean a equal loss of understanding. That’s not necessarily bad… but it means we can’t ever understand every P.O.V…

Through empathy we can achieve a better understanding of one another. Would you go further and want to live in tolerance and peace with one another. Here we will need agreed boundaries that no one may cross. Is understanding what you want or peaceful living?

Believe it or not, there have been misunderstandings between non-religious people — from grand historical scales like the USSR vs the PRC, to small scales like feuding atheist Dopers.

Even giving you your premise for the sake of argument, I’m not sure it really matters. Suppose there is an event in which we’re both dying of thirst, but there is only enough water for one of us. We both need water to survive, but only one of us gets it. Even though we ostensibly share the common need, how can we both understand the event in the same way? The person who is deprived of the water might not be so understanding of the person who succeeds in getting it.

No. In fact, I mentioned the epistemological possibility that there could be loose connections of partial understanding. But for purposes of a transcendent apperception, these are like partial pregnancies.

I would conclude that God has created a perfect context for the exercise of free moral will. It guarantees subjectivity among free moral agents.

It seems that you and I essentially agree. As I wrote:

And this is going to shape our understanding of what someone else is trying to say. The only way for us really to understand them is to be them. That’s the only way to capture every nuance of meaning that is behind every word.But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, as we began to examine each other’s take on it, we began to diverge.

Except that I don’t need to know that your understanding is qualitatively variant — I need only know that my understanding is qualitatively variant.

When everybody speaks English, I guess we’ll be a step closer.

Variant from what?

You cannot have a variance of one thing, unless you have at least a mental model against which to compare it. The existence of the model is proof that some sort of understanding has happened, even if it is only flawed memory of your own prior mental state. You do know that man. You do remember his thoughts and feelings. You do have some level of understand of everyone you communicate with, even if the communication consists of nothing but self assertion and name calling. Inevitably that understanding is inaccurate in some aspects, but just as inevitably some of it is accurate.

Think of is as a parallel in communication to the Uncertainty Principle. (Man the physics guys are gonna hate that one.) The details must be approximates, but the general phenomenon deserves the name of understanding.


“As I know more of mankind, I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man, upon easier terms than I was formerly.” ~ Samuel Johnson, 1783 ~

I liked that. Let’s work on that distinction.

We’re pretty good at partial understanding. I mean, I think I understood the OP (at least roughly), though perhaps I am less certain about context: Why did Lib write it anyway?

But I also know that he has a philosophical background and a little more besides. I guess I have an imperfect model in my head of Lib’s take on the world, so I could speculate a little on context.
But empirically oriented analysts who don’t see the world in almost the same way that I do puzzle me. (Sort of: I mean in the sense of the OP.) Here on this board, many of us adjust standards of proof depending upon how personally awkward certain arguments are. I suppose there are underlying evolutionary incentives to make one display or another. We choose ethical systems that show our personalities in a favorable light, which might explain conservative shop-keepers of modest means and that smaller share of liberal New York investment bankers.

As with most philosophical discussions, I run out of steam rather quickly. I know: I’ll provide a link! That blogger claims that the literature on Kantian apperception is a mess, and that furthermore there are at least 7 different ways of thinking about it.

So I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s confused.

Yes, but I’ve already stipulated that there can be partial understandings, but I see that as a compound word, not a qualified one. Besides, the only mental model against which I need to compare is an abstract one; i.e., I know that sometimes I am alone — no one else can understand those times because no one else was there.

I’ll just note that probably most of the problems of the world come from understanding our fellow man, not the other way around.

I understand perfectly well, I just don’t approve.

In the sense that that’s the sort of “partial understanding” that isn’t at all actual understanding, I think you’re right. If I partially understand a man, just enough to make me fear or despise him, then the context for problems is set. Likewise if I partially understand him, just enough to trust him, then I stand to be betrayed by him. And in a strange way, I think that’s sort of what forgiveness is all about — consenting to just let go of that which we don’t understand.

I think he and his cite are over-complicating it, really.

Honestly, in my opinion, with the phrase “original synthetic unity of apperception”, Kant is finally being coherent. We know that by “original”, he means unencumbered by experience; i.e., that which we essentially are, our essence. By synthetic, we know that he means that which we glean from our experience. Since he is modifying “synthetic” with “original”, he means experience that is a part of our “I think”. In other words, “original synthetic” operates as a synonym for “subjective”. The “unity” implies an objectivity, or something that knows itself, and by extension every element of itself. So, unity is an improper subset — a collective “one”. What Kant means by apperception is a perception that is aware of itself. And so, all put together, understanding is the set of all objective and subjective self-awareness.

The beauty of it is that it implies that it really is not enough that I be you in order to understand you. It reality implies that I must be you *and everyone else as well * in order to understand you or anyone else. Kant may well be right.

“There seems to be no way to escape misunderstanding one another.” That’s all for the good. It seems to me you’re talking about one consiousness for everyone. What fun would that be? We’d still be on all fours if that were the case.

I do think that understanding is a part of consciousness, but I don’t necessarily think that all consciousness is understanding.