Law in Contemporary Society

Meaning and Communication

-- By GregOrr - 17 Apr 2009

In Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, a group assembled from Austrian society is given the opportunity to choose an idea to spur the world to a better future, but they cannot reach consensus because subgroup perceptions and interests are desperately incompatible. This provides foreground to a personal search for answers by the title character, Ulrich, who sees two sides in everything. Situations have contrasting components, and even individual components evoke contrasting interpretations, “Like watching someone eat silently, without sharing his appetite: You suddenly perceive only swallowing movements, which look in no way enviable.”

He concludes, “Meaning lies roughly halfway between reasoning and capriciousness,” with common forms of capriciousness including “how we privilege particular interpretations through cultural or personal preunderstanding” and “how we unquestionably seek the firm and solid in life as urgently as a land animal that has fallen into the water.” Ulrich further interrogates conditions of semi-certainty by seeking contrary and unaccounted for internal and external evidence in hopes of greater truth. Yet reasoning appears, even in its best light, to be asymptotic, and some level of capriciousness always contributes to decisions that are made (or not made) in finite time.

I intend to further explain the structure underlying these ideas and consider implications. I will argue that misunderstandings are pervasive and often insidious, and people can become more ‘creative’ through openness and reflection in communication, though this leads to a problem of parsimony.

Intersubjective Reality and the Communication Problem

In a definition of reality, I would include the objective world (I assume this substratum exists, given its stubborn consistency) and the subjective worlds of all consciousnesses. Each subjective world contains unique perceptual data and is hence additive to the whole. Because each person only has access to a subset of the whole, however, one naturally operates with assumptions, interests, understandings, and meanings that differ from others’.

The machinery of the mind complicates the issue, producing internal inconsistencies and delicate expressions. Within the mind, one’s attempts to generalize fail to achieve complete consistency because perceptual data is contrasting and flawed, tools of rationality are bounded, and views are formed in finite time. Imperfect pre-linguistic notions are given form in language with a further loss of fidelity, attributable to the boundedness of language itself and an individual’s incomplete facility with it. Also, when a person says something, there is usually an element of speculative hypothesis in it looking for confirmation or some other means to resolution. In total, a linguistic representation might always be characterized as a metaphor: a signal that provides a reference that points to the underlying mental condition. Layered on top of this are supra-linguistic cues such as context, structure, tone, and irony, which further refine the message to make it a more precise pointer. Non-linguistic statements, such as facial expressions, body language, and visual arts, may be further added or stand on their own as expressions that can be characterized in the same general way.

It is hard to express oneself, and a person’s expression, then, is hard to understand. It conveys something about his subjective world and becomes additional perceptual data for others. The more instinctual and capricious mode of evaluation interprets the metaphor to be as consistent as possible with one’s own pre-existing subjective world. One tends to lock into what is perceived as common between oneself and the communicator and reject, ignore, or not hear the rest. Though it’s usually an unconscious process, logically this may involve imputing to him underlying assumptions and experience similar to one’s own or identifying which communication script one is familiar with that he seems closest to following. Responses then start with this interpretation while adding some related expression of one’s own. What can be funny or tragic is that the first communicator will often interpret the response under the assumption that the other has understood the first expression as intended, and follow-up can be further confused. This is what we call talking past one another, which I think is always happening to some extent, even when people don’t realize it.

Creative Communication

Nietszche said, "Woe to him who hides wastelands within." Ideally, we would trust each other enough to make our inevitably flawed expressions, especially those exposing misunderstanding. Heidegger said, “We ourselves are pointers pointing toward what calls to be thought about.” While we can't quite say what we hope to say, we at least point the direction.

Openness to changing one's views coupled with active reflection on others' expressions allows access to a greater slice of intersubjective reality, which leads to new and more complete ideas. Moreover, greater empathy to others’ expressions helps one to be a clarifying and productive communication partner.

Reflection on the processes of constructing expressions allows more accurate and productive interpretation. What’s his situation? What are his interests? What’s his intention? What’s the tone? Is he earnest or ironic? What’s there that I haven’t incorporated? What seems to be missing? What do I know that might be relevant? What don’t I know that might be relevant? What kind of mistake might he be making? What if I’m making the mistake and not him? What might a third person have a frustrated urge to tell me about it? What might be the next step?

In this way, interpretations can veer from one thing to another, or from a thing to its opposite. Ideally, open and reflective communication finds its way to increasingly robust understanding.

The Parsimony Problem

A reflective orientation increases one’s range in the spectrum of reasoning and capriciousness, and one’s placement on that spectrum becomes an overarching risk/return tradeoff. On the razor's edge of interpretation, we accept some level of capriciousness in order to make choices when faced with practical needs. The mix of rationality and irrationality always manifests two-sidedness in results, however, and we are sometimes shocked by bigger misjudgments.


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r9 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:36:00 - IanSullivan
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