Is ignorance an integral part of communication? On the difficulty of taking someone on their own terms

“What we do is never understood, but always merely praised or blamed.” Nietzsche

Do you know this? You have said something or written a text, and most of your interlocutors seem to misunderstand what you say? It happens all the time. If you ask me, it is so widespread that I sometimes wonder whether misunderstanding is a mode of communication rather than its failure. Now you might think that I am just being cynical, but no: I am sincere. I think it’s worth considering that understanding someone else is not the crucial part of what counts as successful communication. Let me walk you through a few examples.

If you’ve witnessed academic talks, you will be familiar with the following phenomenon. Some established academic sleeps through the talk of a colleague and then raises their hand first for asking a question. This kind of academic ‘exchange’ is often reported with a mixture of amusement and awe. How does it work? Well, I guess there are two standard ways: If the sleeper is sufficiently established, whatever they ask will carry enough weight to count as pertinent. Even if it is just remotely related to the talk. The other strategy is to pick on one item, an example or phrase, and pull it into a different context. If you’re a lucky sleeper, yours will be taken as a refreshingly original perspective. ­

­­­Now compare those strategies to more genuine questions. Typically, these will be way more cumbersome. Even if people are quick on the uptake, following an argument for the first time is really hard. Already trying to rephrase it in your own terms might bring out differences that need further discussion. The upshot is that questioners remaining on their own territory come across as clear or original, while those honestly struggling to take the talk on its own terms often lack time to even establish a mutual understanding. At least my anecdotal evidence tells me that sleepers are seen as more clear and original than the genuine listeners. I guess it’s not really surprising that this strategy works. Ignoring a speaker is not read as a display of ignorance but as a “power move”. (Can you have philosophical exchanges on Twitter? With such a small amount of signs? Of course you can! Mostly because what it takes is not understanding but making a clever move.)

Although the rules of the game might differ in different settings, similar patterns can be witnessed in other public exchanges, especially on politics. Again, I don’t have anything beyond anecdotes right now, but I would bet that the most common kind of frustration is that the interlocutor “fails to genuinely engage with the actual arguments”. Now what is behind this phenomenon? Going by my own experience, I think that the lack of actual engagement is often real. The reason is that we often rely on fairly general categories when trying to categorise our interlocutors. Before we engage with any argument, we will ‘know’ that our interlocutor is a “Leftie”, a “Kantian”, “a first-year student”, “a stranger (to the familiar customs)” or what have you. Once these evaluations and categories have kicked in, it’s not impossible but very hard to do what is called “engage with the argument” in the mode of genuine listening. However, since lack of engagement is read as a power move, perhaps even as a stable position, ignorance can be a winning strategy in all kinds of exchanges. Trump’s handling of his ignorance bears witness to this.

But what about personal conversations? My guess is that these strategies don’t really work in private settings. Try sleeping through a rant by your partner and then impress them with a pertinent question! Although some people might try to get away with it every now and then, it doesn’t really work in the long run. But why doesn’t ignorance work in private settings? A great number of reasons comes to mind. A crucial factor might be that understanding can’t be replaced by approval of the onlookers. In a public conversation the approving nods of others might be sufficient; in a private setting each interlocutor sets the standards. I’m not saying that private conversations are thriving on understanding; I’m saying that they are much harder. Of course, we might try the same clever moves that we get away with in public, but they don’t count for anything unless our interlocutor approves of them as sincere attempts at taking them on their own terms.

That said, the difference between public and private exchanges is not that the latter have to rest on genuine understanding. It’s that in private settings the interlocutor has to accept our moves. Convincing or understanding one individual is just harder if you cannot rely on the applause of a larger group. But the crucial point is not that we understand the other; it’s that the other accepts our move. Imagine that you are trying to console someone who is crying: What will make the situation work? That you really understand what moves your interlocutor to tears? Or isn’t it rather that the other accepts your engagement as a sincere attempt to console them?

The upshot for both cases, public and personal communication, is that our exchanges largely rely on accepted moves rather than genuine understanding. Genuine attempts at understanding, by contrast, will often feel cumbersome and take time. Paradoxically, then, attempts at understanding each other will feel like unsuccessful communication. The reason is not that we are stupid; the reason is that genuine understanding doesn’t (for the most part) rely on accepted moves or general evaluations. It simply takes time to follow an unfamiliar line of reasoning or to really put yourself into someone else’s shoes.

What does this tell us about communication? I talked about “genuine understanding” as if it were a great achievement. But I doubt that it is crucial for what counts as successful communication. What makes communication successful is some sort of acceptance by the audience or interlocutor. That something is understood might be a by-product. Or to put it in Wittgensteinian terms, the content of what is actually said might drop out of consideration as irrelevant.

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