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Question of the Month

How Do We Understand Each Other?

Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the entrants not included.

Can you conceive of something of which you’ve had no prior experience? I cannot imagine any human being capable of doing so. This is a key to how we understand one another, because it exemplifies our reliance upon a pre-existing stimulus for thought. And if human thought is founded upon experience (see for example, David Hume), so too is social interaction. For example, if someone informs another that they fancy a sumptuous banquet (as, dear reader, you often find yourself doing), the receiver might conjure up an image based upon past attendance of banquets or knowledge of the constituent parts. Abstract concepts such as ‘love’ seem to exist in the entities which harbour them, as they are in many ways incommunicable through experience of the physical world, and are transferable only through language. But in these ways a conversational understanding is reached – much as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

However, the more impressive feat is that of emotional understanding between individuals, commonly called ‘empathy’. Although understanding appears to be reached in much the same fashion with emotions – one understands trust because one has trusted, love because one has loved, hatred because one has hated, just as Aristotle noted – emotional understanding is a quite distinct category. Indeed here the term ‘understanding’ is not enough, and must be replaced with ‘insight’ or ‘empathy’, etc.

G.E. Moore’s thought concerning the colour yellow supports the idea that some experiences are beyond normal language. He reasoned that one can successfully identify the colour yellow without being able to provide a meaningful definition of it (or word). But one cannot truly comprehend the colour without seeing it. So some form of experience is key to understanding here, too.

Through a combination of physical/literal, abstract and emotional understanding, human beings can interact through the shared experience of what it is to be human, or merely to exist.

Natalie Borenstein, Birmingham


If you say to me, ‘That’s OK’, you could be praising me, criticizing me, expressing exasperation with me, encouraging me, or even saying you’re disgusted with me. How do I understand what you mean? The older Wittgenstein taught us that we do so by learning how to play particular language games in specific situations. That’s how we understand what ‘That’s OK’ means in a given time and place. Is that enough?

It isn’t. If I am to understand what you mean by ‘That’s OK’, I must have not only a socio-linguistic chip, but also an emotional one. If you are angry, I understand you’re angry via fellow-feeling, as I too have been angry. If I get that you’re complimenting me, I understand this because I too have complimented someone. I may not agree with your emotional response in a situation involving me, but I will never ‘get’ what you mean by otherwise anodyne words without fellow feeling.

In some ways the great philosopher of social communication is not Wittgenstein but Adam Smith, who in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) argued that fellow feeling is both the cause and the result of humans being social creatures. Shared sentiment is why we can understand what is meant by ‘That’s OK’, and why we’re gladdened when a perfect stranger smiles at us. It can even be the basis of personal morality – as Smith posits with the psychological metaphor of ‘the Spectator’ deep inside us – that other self who reminds us before acting that we should ask ourselves if we could justifiably incite the same feelings of pleasure and pain in ourselves as our action would produce in others. Fellow feeling and the Impartial Spectator were, for Smith, the basis for benevolence, cooperation, justice, and understanding. Empathy promotes reciprocal altruism, and in that sense is in our self-interest.

Tom McBride, Janesville, Wisconsin


Can we ever understand another human being? Do we even understand ourselves? We can get along with each other by using a common repertoire of signs: I know in general that we sob when we are sad, grunt when disgruntled, smile, chuckle, laugh when happy, as it is what I do myself in similar circumstances. But signs should not always be taken at face value. A baby’s smile is natural – babies don’t have the capacity to deceive. But adults do: think of the smile of a man trying to sell you something. Laughter too may be false or hollow. Sometimes we want to persuade not only others but also ourselves that we are happy.

So too with words. Take the simple phrase ‘I love you’. We know what the words mean generally, but not necessarily what the speaker means by saying them right then. Typically we look for extra-linguistic signs, say, by peering into the other’s eyes: if they flinch away you will be reluctant to believe them.

We can peer into another’s eyes, but we can’t peer into another’s mind. Indeed, we can’t even peer into our own with any confidence; sometimes we only become aware that we are jealous when someone else points it out to us on the basis of our behaviour.

Understanding a human being is not like understanding, say, a mathematical proof, such that once we have mastered it, there’s nothing left over for us to know. To claim that we can read another person like a book is necessarily false. A person’s identity is fluid, imprecise – we change over time and with life-experience. Even in the context of a long-term relationship, our partner will continue to surprise us. Sometimes we even surprise ourselves.

Notoriously, actors who take on many roles can suffer a loss of identity and are at a loss when they have to play themselves. But not only actors: many people can live their lives without ever quite knowing who or what they are. (The present writer is one of these people.) The paradigm of intellectual understanding is inappropriate for humanity. Perhaps the best we can say to our partner is: I don’t understand you any better, but I’ve come to appreciate you more.

Roger Caldwell, Wivenhoe, Essex


Do we understand each other? Some doubt this, given the misunderstandings that can occur. But the fact of identifiable misunderstandings demonstrates that these take place against a background of good understandings, in much the same way that optical illusions do not disprove general accurate perception.

Let’s take understanding as a given. Why might anyone think it impossible? There’s the idea that as mental beings we don’t seem able to get out of our own consciousnesses, and literally put ourselves into another person’s mind. The very idea seems to be a logical contradiction: your mind is either yours, or not yours and you can’t think its thoughts. Wittgenstein’s profound reply to the question of how two people could know they experience the colour blue in the same way, was, what on earth would it mean to say that they had the same experience? Yet we can understand others and feel sympathy for their illnesses, and elation for their success. How can this be, given our essential aloneness?

The answer is a perfectly valid (though logically weak) inductive analogy that is so powerful it is confirmed for us every minute of our lives: we work out what people mean from perceived behaviour. I cannot feel your pain, but I’m pretty sure you have some when I see you jumping up and down holding your thumb having just accidently hit it hard with a hammer, because that is what I do when I hurt. Only a trained philosopher would doubt this for the second it takes tears to well up in the eyes of a child scraping their knee on a paving stone.

No doubt Wittgenstein and other philosophers of language are correct that we learn to communicate about essentially private experiences through common languages developed by communities. Our understanding, however, goes beyond words. It is predicated on our physical similarity, and the analogy that I believe you’re experiencing something similar to me when you behave the way I do when I have that experience. That behaviour may be an involuntary action or socially learned: either way it is the clue that enables us to answer the needs of others as we would have them answer ours.

Peter Keeble, Harrow, London


How does a dog get me to play Fetch? We don’t share a common language, and we live only at the periphery of each other’s culture. He stares at me, he whines and yaps, and kneels at my feet with an increasingly slobbery ball in his mouth. I have to guess: A walk? Dinner time? A treat? It must be trial and error to find some sort of behaviour – some coincidence of actions and desires – that gets his point across the gulf between our species. But it’s not until I react at all that he has managed to communicate; and only if I make the correct reaction do we understand each other.

Let’s say that I successfully figure out that it’s time to throw the ball. How much of what the dog communicated was necessary to achieve this? Was it the whine, the ball, or the pheromones in the air that any dog would have picked up on instantly; something else; or some combination of things? Only time and animal psychology will tell.

Next time, the dog will have to recall these actions, or try a different combination of tricks; but with perseverance and patience, working together, we will eventually get Fetch down pat.

Michael Barlow, Stratford, Ontario


As many couples, work colleagues, and members of opposing political factions would testify, understanding each other does not always come naturally. Examining the many layers required for mutual comprehension may explain why this seems to be the case.

The first component needed to understand each other is our main means of communication – language. This need is amusingly illustrated by two individuals who don’t speak the same language, when communication becomes a useless exchange of noise.

However, if a common language were sufficient for understanding each other, then comprehension among citizens speaking the same language would be guaranteed. This is clearly not the case. To aid understanding, language needs to be coupled with some common ground between interlocutors, or similar perceptions of particular situations. In this regard, being part of the same culture becomes helpful for understanding each other, as it can provide a common framework and a foundational set of values and principles to build understanding on. But there are many levels to this. Two individuals can be from the same country, but wide apart when it comes to their socio-economic status or childhood upbringing. This suggests that to enable understanding between individuals it is beneficial to have similar past experiences and live in a comparable environment. This is a scarce condition among humans.

Yet this is still not enough, as diverse genetics can lead to disagreements and misunderstanding. For example, a 2014 study of political beliefs revealed that the development of political attitudes depends approximately 60% on environment and 40% on our genes. So to sum up, similar genetics, comparable past experiences, a shared culture and environment, as well as a common language, are required to have the best chance of understanding each other. Is it a surprise then that reaching mutual comprehension seems so elusive? So if I failed to make you understand my answer, that’s completely understandable.

Alexander Clackson, Birkenhead


Understanding begins when I decide to put my existing assumptions aside and do my best to grasp your point in your terms. This involves active listening (or reading), asking clarifying questions and not jumping to conclusions. With such a tedious process simply to understand each other, how do we ever get anything done? It’s here that assumptions and various mental shortcuts help us out, and sometimes lead to confusions.

I heard someone put very nicely why people struggle to understand each other: ‘They grew up watching different cartoons.’ The broader context of social and cultural influence shapes our assumptions, values, perceptions. The more we have in common, the bigger the chance that our general assumptions about life are similar and we’ll more readily and quickly understand each other. We will most likely not even notice because we unreflectively put similar meanings into the same words. This ease of understanding, however, can be deceiving. I can get so used to my assumptions being the same as those of my friends that I may expect them to be universal. It is here that I risk running into the trap of misunderstanding. Working in an international environment, I notice this almost daily. People from different contexts come together and often expect their understanding of things to be the only one. Misunderstandings are guaranteed.

It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that we all have assumptions, and they’re often pretty diverse. So, to understand each other, it pays to put in the conscious effort to establish common ground at the outset of any communication. This may feel cumbersome at the beginning, but think of all that we could collectively achieve when we truly understand each other.

Natalija Cera, Munich


Humans are knowing subjects who inhabit both an objective and a subjective world. No one else possesses my thoughts and feelings (subjective); I also have thoughts and feelings about things outside of myself, such as trees, bees, and faces (objective).

Knowing impersonal facts is one thing, understanding persons is another. Blaise may live in an earthquake zone (geology), on a mountain (geography), and have O-negative blood (chemistry). This does not reveal his person. What about the subjective features of Blaise which largely constitute his being?

First, we can refuse to reduce the subjective to the objective. Blaise is not a collection of material and empirical states, he is a self-in-the-world the human way of being. Some philosophies try to eliminate the subjective, saying there are no experiences, but only physical states. Do they think about their own theories?

Second, we can develop skills to understand other subjects. We look to axiology, or the study of value: Persons such as Blaise are worth knowing, and treating appropriately. Their being-in-the-world is as important as my own. Persons merit attention.

Next we look to epistemology. To understand other selves, I must deny myself. As Simone Weil says in Gravity and Grace, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. A Biblical proverb teaches that “To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.” To know Blaise, I need to listen to him, and must keep quiet. In silence, speech can be heard and feelings can be felt.

Third, knowing others calls for personal narrative. You cannot know someone by quantitative measures, such as IQ. Your story needs to overlap with theirs by sharing time and place, words and silence, smiles and frowns, tears and laughter, regrets and successes. Then, perhaps, you may know and be known.

Dr Douglas Groothuis, Denver Seminary, Colorado


I have found one clear thing in common when it comes to understanding people and languages: everydayness.

To learn how to speak Italian I had to live it. Similarily, to understand my friends and relations, I need to spend time with them – not only extraordinary time. like in a class, but time in simple things. Me and my brother had difficulties: we’re both a bit crazy, he is eight years older, and I am in Italy and he is in Poland. All those things seem to make mutual understanding too far to reach. To begin with the heavy artillery – problems, suffering we have, situations from our past, etc – is impossible. So, we started to play chess together. Wow, after some time it started to work. We began to learn about each other, to see how we react, what we say, and, finally, we started to learn how to respond. We’ve got onto a real, practical way of understanding.

Just as there are too many languages to understand them all, so it is with people. To try to know everybody will end with knowing no one. Secondly, people mean much more than a language. Thirdly, language is an object, a tool; while people are subjects, ends, for whom a fundamental respect is needed.

Stanisław Książkiewicz, Koziegłowy, Poland


“She looked upon all who came
close to her as if she were seeing God. It was
hard to believe the welcome she gave…”
– Hafiz, from his poem Recognition

In just three exquisite lines, the Persian poet Hafiz (1315-1390 CE) illuminates with great beauty how humans come to understand each other. This involves a two-fold movement of attention – a ‘turning towards’ and a ‘beholding’ – carried forward in an atmosphere of presence and regard. The poet brings us immediately into this atmosphere when he says, “she looked upon all”. This act of attention begins when we turn towards another individual; when we turn away from our own projects and preoccupations and stand face to face before another. Having made this crucial turn, the second movement is a ‘beholding’ – the act of attention per se. Hafiz captures this movement with lapidary brilliance, when he says that it was “as if she were seeing God” – a marvelously compact and expressive image that marks well the existential depth of this kind of attention. Once again, Hafiz highlights the exceptional generosity inhering in this conception of attention when he says, “It was hard /to believe the welcome she gave”. All understanding is a welcoming, an ‘up closeness’.

The notion of attention was foundational to the moral philosophies of Simone Weil (1909-1943) and Iris Murdoch (1919-1999). For Weil, attention is “the rarest and purest form of generosity”. For Murdoch, attention expresses “the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality”. She believes it to be “the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent”.

The species of attention Weil and Murdoch espouse is exceedingly demanding, for it is grounded in a commitment to ‘read’ others without partiality or preconception, and, in every instance, to read them ‘differently’. As Weil said, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” In light of this, she wonders, “Who can flatter himself that he will read aright?” But these are the sturdy and enduring cornerstones of our deepest understanding of each other.

Rick Visser, Longmont, Colorado


Long ago, in the cave known as silence
Man lived in harmony:
song-less, muted, free
Only a hand-print on a wall
Then a distant human call
Would shatter that primal unity.
By day he’d pray to earth and sky
Heed the wisdom of the ancient trees
At night he’d dance ‘round moon and fire
Take solace in the infinite seas.
Gesture would mimic conversation
Silent ritual his only Lord
Collaboration, sweet simplicity
Love in the dormant vocal cord.
But the end came in the name of word
Sending echoes through that cave
Until man’s world became as thus
And the soul met a shrieking grave.
Man lost something upon that hour
Lost intuitive understanding
The human tongue tore man from man
When wordless truth succumbed to speaking.
Confusion, division, language, war
Born upon that single rasping roar
Until misunderstanding between one and all
Beleaguered man forevermore.

Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon

Author of Sleeping with Dictators


Next Question of the Month

The next question is: Does History Progress? If so, to what? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 12th October 2020. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.

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