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The Problem of Communication

Derrick Grover considers the communication of contemplation.

My questions concerning communication arose after reading some philosophy, sociology and psychology papers that seemed endlessly repetitive. One paragraph followed another, repeating much the same thing with an increment added. I reckoned that they could have been condensed to about 10% of their length without losing value. Having been brought up with the idea that the shortest proof is the most elegant one, I wondered if language is the most suitable form of communication in some of the humanities.

So how does philosophy fare in this respect? My impression of some philosophy papers is that they are the products of a wandering mind moving backwards and forwards as whim takes them. Could such minds be usefully disciplined to make clear-cut points, divided into sub-sections if necessary, before wandering off on another tangent?

One of the problems may be that philosophers try to make all-embracing statements about the world. It is very difficult to make a true statement that applies to every situation. This is perhaps why philosophical statements need qualifying, hence becoming more difficult for the reader. It is comparatively easy for authors to write a sentence with various clauses, and sub-clauses within clauses, since they know the theme of the sentence and can stray off to deal with side issues whilst keeping the theme in mind. The reader, in contrast, does not know the theme until reaching the end of the sentence, having been diverted by various qualifications on the way. On reaching the end of some sentences you may have forgotten how they started!

It has been reported that advances in mathematics have often awaited the invention of a suitable notation. Presumably Roman numerals hindered the development of maths in ancient Rome, although I understand that such numerals are compatible with the abacus, and presumably well suited to counting columns of soldiers. Calculus benefited from a suitable notation, and geometry would be more difficult if it were only described in words.

A graphic example of the limitations of language was illustrated by the experience of a colleague who sat on a jury for a case concerning a car accident. He said that the lawyers had been making their case all morning but the jury still could not make out what had happened. Then one of the jurors went to the scene of the accident during the lunch hour and drew a map. On seeing the map, the whole jury understood the situation completely. Evidently words were an unsuitable medium to adequately describe the event. On another occasion I wrote the financial terms of a licence as two lines of simple mathematics. Our solicitor declared that it would take three pages of legal text to describe them. Granted, the terms in the equations would have to be defined, but nevertheless my formulation could be kept well within a page.

Another area that suffers from the difficulty of words is in patent filings. Inventors may have great difficulty in recognising their own inventions by reading the words describing them. In this case, however, it is usual to include diagrams of the invention to aid comprehension. Indeed patent agents usually turn to the diagrams first before reading the words. An electronic circuit diagram would be nearly impossible to understand if it were just described in words. A graph is a more efficient way of imparting trends than a column of figures. Can we apply any lessons from this to the humanities? I suggest that half the work of philosophy (perhaps more) lies in defining the meaning of the words we are using. Definition is a necessary precursor to discussion; but similarily, thereafter a block or flow diagram might be more communicative. Or it may be that communications in sociology and psychology are better performed by drama, where there is the added information generated by an actor’s demeanour. An experiential session involving psychodrama can enable participants to understand a situation much better than a typescript.

Clarification by examples is recognised as a good way of explaining difficult concepts. In the realm of philosophy, the lectures by Prof. Michael Sandel to Harvard University students provide an example of good presentation, particularly due to his interaction with the students to explore both sides of a question.

In the 1970s, criticism of scientific papers on computer graphics data structures sometimes declared that the authors were being intentionally opaque to hinder the further development of their work by others and maintain their precedence in the field. I sometimes feel that this hindrance is achieved in other spheres by making the text too tedious to read.

So I leave you with the following questions: Are we communicating in the most efficient manner, and if not, what can we do about it? For example, would it be beneficial for philosophical texts to be written so that the theme of a sentence is presented first, and then qualifications to that theme listed in a logical order? It would be more difficult for the author, who would need extra discipline to clarify the thought, but easier for the reader to comprehend.

© Derrick Grover 2015

Derrick Grover runs a philosophy group for the Haywards Heath U3A. He is a physicist and author of Taming the Vicious Circle, published by feedaread.co.uk.

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