welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Bits In Between

John Shand reads between the lines.

Ever had the feeling that you can’t get on someone’s wavelength? This is more than disagreeing with them about something, even something quite important, such as whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, or whether Haydn or Delius was the greater composer. Indeed, not being on someone’s wavelength may not involve disagreeing about things much at all. It’s about how things are viewed in a more general sense – about what is salient, or important, to each person. But this may explain why it sometimes seems impossible to get someone to see one’s point of view, no matter how much you argue things out or whatever rhetorical devices you use. Here is one possible, but I think far-reaching, explanation for one not being on another person’s wavelength. It’s about something that divides people – albeit as a matter of degree – into two sorts of people.

There is a view of language that makes it analogous to a kind of net. We trawl it through reality, and the net delivers up to us intelligible labelled chunks for our contemplation. We may then see the primary task of understanding as working out the connections between these chunks; what causes what, for example. But no matter how fine we make the net, something, the bits in between the filaments of the net, slips through. This something is clearly there, but yet evades language. Apart from some examples of exceptional poetry, the attempt to capture it in language seems crass and clodhopping.

Some people are content with reality as delivered up by language, as articulated and conceptualised by the structure given by language: it satisfies their sensibilities. Call them the Net People. The language in question need not just be that of the mundane; it may also be that of mathematical formulae, drawing in the whole apparatus of science. Others, however, seek to be aware of what gets away, between or through the filaments of the net. Call them the Gap People. People who are one way inclined rather than the other find it hard to get on the other’s wavelength. As a consequence of how they are inclined to think, what they feel about the world just isn’t the same – to each it is to a significant extent a different place to be. The distinction, through its resting on language, is thus tied to something metaphysically significant, something cognitive, rather than just noting a brute psychological difference. Net People and Gap People see or think about the world differently: to a credible extent, it might be said that they live in different worlds.

The differences between the Net People and the Gap People manifest themselves in a multitude of ways. Always bear in mind that I’m talking about matters of degree: but if the degree is great, you have the idea that you’re never going to get onto someone’s wavelength. In the extreme, the Gap Person might feel that in talking with a Net Person he has been through the conversational equivalent of watching someone do a Rubik’s Cube, while the Net Person might feel that somehow the discussion hasn’t got anywhere and has been about something whose value he can’t grasp.

I have a friend, call him Guy, an admirable Net Person, and we agree about all sorts of things. Compared to him I’m something of a Gap Person. Now, if you made two lists of facts and opinions, one for each of us, you could fill in each side with virtually the same things. Guy has a deep scientific understanding of reality, and is an excellent mathematician. (I’m not the slightest bit anti-science, nor should anything I’m saying here be taken that way.) But Guy seems to have little interest in the bits in between. One way of putting this is that he over-intellectualises things. Of course, he wouldn’t see it that way, nor would the suggestion be offensive to him. Science, the apogee of the language net, captures reality, and if it can’t be captured by science, or has no prospect of being so captured, then it’s probably something highly dubious to be explained away. What’s left certainly seems to have little chance of explaining anything, and therefore is of little use. Indicative of this attitude is the fact that it appears that Guy, unlike me, is not really interested in music. Music is an archetypal case of the straining to capture the bits in between – the texture of the world, how the world feels in the particularity of experiences. Of course it doesn’t capture the bits in between the way language does – it rather evokes them, acts them out, shares them with us. You may say Guy must be tone deaf, but I know this isn’t the case; he’s made modest steps to play an instrument. He just can’t really see the point of music: it isn’t really important to him as something to carry with him through life. He can’t really see any value in what it is trying to do. When he looked into music, the only way he could come to terms with it was to understand it mathematically. It’s one way of course. But on this basis the sensual, visceral aspects of it seem superfluous, unnecessary.

The difference expressed here between the two approaches of the Net People and the Gap People may appear in the realm of music in a more subtle way. One person might find he likes music whose primary shaping force is more intellectual: Bach perhaps, where the sensual, experiential aspects are in a sense secondary. Bach himself was forever transcribing the same piece for different instruments, the transition between them in no way affecting the essence of the music. On the other hand, the same couldn’t be said of Debussy. Of course, it would be a huge mistake to go to the other extreme and suggest that Debussy’s music is unstructured cloudiness: far from it; but what is true for Debussy is that the particular mode in which the sounds appear is essential to what the music is.

To show that the key issue here does not hang upon what one thinks about music, consider another analogy. When they take a country walk, some people like to carry with them a book classifying plants, or a book identifying birds, or a book of geological forms, and the walk involves alertly looking for things, articulating what they see. Of course anyone, even the Gap Person, might do this; but the Net Person enjoys the walk better this way. Others, the Gap People, are content on the walk to soak in the atmosphere, sensitising themselves to the bare phenomenology of the world in their experience, making themselves acutely aware of the exact nature of the feel of the wind on their faces and the ambient sounds, without articulating them. They positively don’t want to capture these experiences in language. The Net People consult guidebooks while looking around unknown foreign cities and feel naked without them, ticking off the important sites they might otherwise miss; whereas the Gap People are just content to wander around getting a feel for the place, what it’s like to be there. Remember on school trips when you were given a clipboard with things you had to notice, on what was otherwise a country walk? Were you the kind of person who enjoyed the clipboard part of the trip, or did it spoil your day out, distracting you from the pleasure of just being outdoors? And one activity interferes with the other; there is a dissonance between them, just as there is between the people preferring the one or the other. Do you like to follow a guided party with a knowledgeable leader around a country house or cathedral; or do you like just wandering off on your own? Are you essentially a Net Person or a Gap Person? Of course, Gap People can be Net People for certain purposes – changing a plug for example, where getting it right rather than what it feels like doing it is what is best focused on – or understanding how the sun works, where one is interested in the facts rather than the feel of it on one’s skin. Net People may even have flashes of the world as it is to Gap People. But overall the approach is different, as is what satisfies these groups in their dealings with the world.

Talk of ‘particularity’ earlier gives us another way of understanding what is going on here. The net of language deals in universals. In order to make things intelligible, it captures things as universal kinds: chairs, stars, neutrinos. The Net People find that this way of capturing things satisfies them. Nothing more can, after all, be said. Others find that what captivates them is the particularity of time and place, a mode of experiencing the world that is unrepeatable in an identical form. When all is said, there is something left over which is important to experience about the world that matters to the Gap People. It’s analogous perhaps to the silences between the notes. One might take the view that they are all the same – silence, nothing; but of course the character of the silence is affected by the sounds that act as its auditory bookends.

It’s very hard for these two sorts of people, the Net and the Gap, to get on each other’s wavelength. Once it is understood what is going on here, however, it should be easier for them not to become annoyed with and critical of each other. The difference is almost certainly just a deep difference of temperament. An understanding of what brings about that difference is not so important as an awareness that it exists. But perhaps that in itself expresses a Gap Person’s, rather than a Net Person’s, sensibility.

© John Shand 2007

John Shand is a Netty/Gappy type of guy. He is an Associate Lecturer for the Open University and an author and editor.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X