Coming to an Understanding
Once upon a time I read these words by Suford Lewis in APA:NESFA, “My basic reason for doubting that you understand history is that you have added nothing to my understanding of the events that you have discussed.” I thought her words worthy of comment and commented thusly:
Now there is a pregnant sentence. It contains implicitly a philosophy of history and a prescription of a purpose for it. Unfortunately it leaves open the question of why nothing was added. One possibility is that the speaker (i.e., the one supposedly imparting history) has no understanding. The other possibility is that the listener either cannot or will not what the speaker is saying. (I am, by the by, considering the sentence alone, out of context.) Example: You write a book on relativity – a scholarly treatise. I, unfortunately, never quite mastered long division and algebra is an incomprehensible mystery to me. Your book is totally meaningless to me. Example: I write a paper purporting to show that the reformation was caused by the venality of the popes and the clergy. You, being a militant Catholic who will hear no evil spoken of the clergy, find my paper outrageous and incomprehensible.
I think you will concede that, on its face, the sentence is logically faulty. (It says, in effect, “there was no transfer of information:, therefore “there was no information to be transferred.”) Now the case where no information was there to be imparted is uninteresting; the interesting case is the case in which there is information to be transmitted but none is. That is, what if the communication lines are blocked. If A wishes to impart something to an audience and nothing gets through, whose fault is it, and what is to be done. If A has nothing to say and only thinks he does, then obviously the problem is on A’s end. But if A does and B doesn’t get it, what then. It is natural and human for A to say “It’s all B’s fault – I presented the information and B failed to get it.” It is natural for B to say, “It’s A’s fault – if he wishes to impart information it should be done in a manner so that it can be received.” Now it seems to me that it is all a matter of cases. If I want to tell something to someone who only speaks Spanish and I insist on speaking English, even though I know Spanish, then I am clearly a boob. If I want to learn something from someone who only speaks Spanish then it is incumbent upon me to learn the language that he speaks. In most cases the fault is more evenly distributed; A has failed in gearing his presentation to his audience, and B has failed in not being willing to make an effort to understand what A is saying.
I opine that I was being a bit superficial here. The point I made is clear enough, but the “most cases” need explication. For example, in an open forum such as an APA, a usenet group, or a bulletin board, the ego needs of the participants are constantly present, and frequently make for communication problems. Thus A’s presentation may be influenced by his need to be perceived as being clever, or by the displacement of his psychological problems onto the topic of discussion, or by the need to give voice to his inner grandfather. B, on the other hand, may be so driven the need to be right that he cannot hear evidence against his views, or he may strongly need to put A down. It can even happen that there is no communication at all other than the interplay of a psychodrama. Then again, confusion and misunderstanding can be overcome if there is a genuine mutual desire for communication.
This page was last updated March 1, 2005.