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.