Sometimes I am surprised that some phenomena get hardly any attention in philosophy. Take for example “waiting”. We spend a lot of time on it and I think that it is one of the basic aspects of life. I also think that the meaning of waiting differs from culture to culture. It should be interesting enough to draw the attention of many philosophers. It doesn’t. However, here I don’t want to talk about waiting. Once I devoted already a blog to it (my blog dated 2 June 2009). Here I want to write about another neglected phenomenon in philosophy, one that I mentioned already in my blog last week: Misunderstanding. One might expect that it would have received much attention in philosophy, especially in analytical philosophy, but I found only one article on the theme and this article had even been published in a medical journal (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20871003). Also Wittgenstein hardly mentions the phenomenon and he doesn’t analyze it. Actually we can learn more about what misunderstanding is from psychologists; for example from Frith.
Misunderstanding can be an individual affair, but more interesting are misunderstandings in relations with others (and actually many individual misunderstandings in fact are of that kind). Seen this way, misunderstanding may be better described as miscommunication, for misunderstanding mostly arises because I have an idea in my head and you have an idea about the same in your head but your idea is different from mine; however, we cannot bring them in line and – and that’s the point – we don’t realize that they are not in line; at least we don’t realize it in the beginning. So we think that we are talking about the same thing while actually we are talking about different things.
Frith (I mentioned him already in my last week’s blog) nicely describes how it works: I have a model of your idea in my head and from this I predict what you will say next. But you, of course, have a model of my idea in your head and you predict what I’ll do. Based on our ideas of the other we talk, adapt our mutual ideas, etc. It’s called the communication loop. It’s very different from “communication” with the physical world. In that case, the communication is one-sided, for the physical world has no ideas. It just is, so there is no communication loop (and here we find the origin of individual misunderstanding, which is a kind of false interpretation of the physical world). However, in human communication you give me feedback and I give you feedback, and so our models in our heads describing the ideas in the head of the other are adapted and developed. In this way, “in a succesfull communication”, so Frith, “the point is reached where my model of your meaning matches my own meaning”, and the same for you. When there no longer is discrepancy between my model of your idea and your model of my idea, “mutual agreement communication has been achieved.” And, Frith continues, which is very important: “By building models of the mental world, our brains have solved the problem of how to get inside the minds of others.” So far Frith, for what Frith doesn’t say here is that this building of models in our heads of what others think is also the foundation of possible misunderstanding. Although I have a model in my head of what you think, it is a model of what I think that you think (and the same for you, the other way round). When communication ends, for instance when we think that my model and your model match, there is no guarantee that our models really match. And alas, too often it happens that our models do not match while we think they do. If this happens, we have a case of misunderstanding. Happily, many misunderstandings don’t remain hidden for a long time. Sooner or later we are going to act on the base of our false ideas and then it will come out that they are false. Then it comes out that my idea of what you thought is not what you really thought. If that is the case, our misunderstanding can be solved as yet.
SourceChris Frith, Making up the mind. How the brain creates our mental world. Malden, MA, etc.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007; p. 175