Ask the Philosopher:
Can We Say What We Mean?
“That’s not what I said.”
“But, that’s what I heard.”
“What you heard is not what I meant.”
All of us have had similar exchanges. And yet, we often ask ourselves, why does this happen? Why the misunderstanding? The obvious answer is that either the person who was speaking wasn’t clear, or we weren’t listening carefully.
But, if the speaker was clear and we were listening, we have just encountered a deeper source of confusion. To understand this deeper level, we have to ask how is it possible to have meaning in our lives at all? How do we recognize meaning?
Meaning is found in our capacity to formulate, use, and understand symbols. In terms of language, a symbol is not the thing itself, but a verbal or written stand-in for that something. When we think of meaning this way, it becomes obvious that the word dog is not something we can pet. The word house is not something we can live in. Rather, words are a way of naming things without requiring the thing’s actual presence.
This gives the extraordinary option of me speaking about an elephant or a tiger, and you knowing what I mean without having to go the zoo or the jungle and tracking down elephants and tigers in the flesh.
Things get much more complicated when we move beyond easily recognizable objects and attempt to communicate about “things” like justice, love, beauty, truth, reality, feelings, knowledge and a whole host of other difficult abstractions that are not so clear and obvious in their meanings as dogs, houses, elephants, and tigers. When we talk in more intangible domains, communicating clearly is a more difficult process. Since, we can’t see into anyone’s head, a major source of confusion is how we experience our lives and how we communicate that experience.
I grew up near the Atlantic Ocean, and if I attempt to communicate what an ocean is like with someone from Kansas – who grew up amidst wheat fields and has never been to the ocean – their experience of listening and my experience of telling will be dramatically different. If I try to communicate about the seasonal “moods” of the ocean, the angry gray of a winter storm, for example, my midwestern friend may have difficulty following my train of thought, or even lose interest. If she has experiential insight about her wheat fields, she may lose me in the telling. But, if, in our sharing of experience, we communicate the vastness of the ocean and wheat fields, we may have achieved the elusive goal of saying what we mean and being understood.
Human beings can only fully communicate with each other when we have shared experiences. And where our experiences diverge, so too will the mutuality and clarity of our meanings. Our ability to understand what each other means will be at risk.
Shared experience is the core necessity for understanding others’ meaning clearly. So, if what we mean emerges from the many contexts of our experience, we need to be careful how we tell our stories.
And if we don’t understand what our friend is telling us, we may wish to reframe our questions.
Thus, instead of asking, “What did you mean?”
Ask, “What is your experience?”
William Cole-Kiernan was a full time philosophy professor at St Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey for thirty-three years before he retired. Now a Professor Emeritus at the College, he continues to teach part time. The main goal in his teaching has always been to teach philosophy as a context for students to expand their consciousness and learn to think for themselves.
His undergraduate work was at New York University, where he completed a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. After college, he served three and a half years in the United States Army as an officer and a pilot flying reconnaissance and light cargo aircraft.
Returning from the service, he switched directions from engineering and started his study of philosophy. He has a Master’s and a PhD from Fordham University, and specialized in American Philosophy, especially focusing on the thought of William James and John Dewey.
He lives in Lambertville, New Jersey with his wife Barbara, and has four grown children and six grandchildren.