Humanities Forum Lecture Touches on Understanding in Communication

David Rosenthal
David Rosenthal

Understanding between individuals forms the basis of productive communication. We rely on mutual understanding in conversation, argumentation and reading. For this reason, it is highly surprising to consider that perhaps no two people can ever understand one another completely.

David Rosenthal, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and coordinator of the Graduate Center’s Interdisciplinary Concentration in Cognitive Science, spoke of the process of understanding in a Humanities Forum lecture on Oct. 17.


In everyday conversation, it’s easy to assume that two parties share a mutual understanding of the subject at hand. However, any attempt at understanding is actually a complex process in which listeners translate words into their own frame of reference. According to Rosenthal, misunderstanding is much more common than one might think. In fact, he stated that oftentimes, intractable disagreements stem from a misunderstanding. In other words, when a disagreement fails to lead to rational discussion, it most likely is a result of misunderstanding. Rosenthal pointed out that these sorts of disagreements are very commonplace; for example, the recent Republican debates were rife with disagreements that arose from misunderstandings.


Unfortunately, misunderstandings occur in situations outside of disagreements; two people may not understand one another and still agree, or the listener might have a different interpretation of individual words than the speaker. But why does misunderstanding happen so often among those who speak the same language, even when the speaker uses seemingly simple vocabulary? The answer lies in the complex ways in which individuals process language. Rosenthal explained that each person understands his or her unique “dialect” of a language, called an idiolect, and when we hear any combination of words, we translate it into our own idiolect, often subconsciously, and use that translation to form our understanding. When the translation is faulty, a misunderstanding occurs.


Rosenthal laid out three principles to outline how we translate speech into something that we understand. Each principle stems from the principle of charity, a philosophical concept, in some way. The principle of charity requires that listeners interpret an argument to have its strongest possible meaning. In other words, listeners should be charitable to speakers and give them the benefit of the doubt, within reason.


Rosenthal’s first principle is that when translating, we automatically construe the words we hear or read as “truth,” or conforming to our version of truth as we see the world. The second principle is that we construe others as using words “correctly,” or in the same way we use them. Finally, the third principle states that we construe remarks so that the speaker’s reasons for saying anything are both germane to the conversation and compelling.


These three principles relate very closely to three different units of language. The principle regarding truth has to do with sentences, the principle about words relates to individual words, and the principle of relevance deals with combinations of sentences. The principles are also independent, and so they may conflict and fall into imbalance with one another. For example, a listener may construe a statement as being both true and rational, but mentally alter the meaning of the words in the process. When there are alternative ways to balance the three principles, it may very well be that any one interpretation is no better than any other; in this situation, a misunderstanding is highly likely.


Rosenthal also touched on the complexity of individual words: it is highly difficult to know exactly what somebody else means, especially in the absence of context. For example, Rosenthal presented a simple example about the word “rabbit.” In some circumstances, a “rabbit” and an “undetached rabbit part” mean the same thing. If somebody says “there’s a rabbit in the room,” it is would be true to interpret that as the animal “rabbit” or as an “undetached rabbit part.” The purpose of the example is to illustrate how difficult it would be to “find a reason why one interpretation would be more correct than any other.”


Though we devote little conscious effort to it, we are all constantly translating and interpreting the language around us, construing words, sentences, and combinations of sentences as true, relevant, and being used correctly. We constantly make the assumption that we share mutual understandings with those around us, even though no such understanding is actually guaranteed. Rosenthal’s lecture helped shed light on some surprising and even puzzling concepts that we often take for granted.

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