Monday, January 15, 2018



D. R. Khashaba

“The more I think about language, the more it amazes me that people ever understand each other.” Gödel


The phrase ‘understanding others’ can be taken in either of two distinct senses; (1) the moral sense; (2) the semantic or epistemic sense.

In the moral sphere ‘understanding others’ relates to the aptitude of human individuals to appreciate the feelings, motives, aims, and interests of their fellow humsns. All normal, wholesome human individuals have a measure of this faculty. Many species of non-human animals show empathy with other members of their own species and sometimes with members of other species.

No aggregation of humans – family, tribe, society, etc. – can function and survive without a minimal measure of fellow-understanding. But individuals differ widely in their gift of understanding others. Practically all tension and strife within human groups – families, societies, countries, and even between one country and another – are fuelled by failure of understanding the other.

Persons endowed with a generous share of this gift may, outwardly, be unfortunate; they may be fated to give more than they receive; but inwardly they are abundantly rich, even their sorrows are precious.

When we hear about atrocities committed by deformed and depraved characters – rape and slaughter and torture – we tend to feel that such characters deserve the severest of penalties but in fact they have their punishment in the very deed; inwardly they are putrid and miserable. Of course society has to curb their evil to protect its members, but no punishment imposed on them can equal the death-in-life they bring upon themselves. Oscar Wilde presented an apt metaphor in The Picture of Dorian Gray.


Coming to the epistemic sphere, let me start by making a shockingly paradoxical assertion. Strictly speaking, no one ever can understand an other one. The phrase ‘understanding others’ which in the moral sphere can be given a meaningful and vital sense, in the epistemic sphere is strictly nonsensical. The understanding is not a neutral vacant receptacle into which ready-made meanings can be fed from the outside as a warehouse receives ready-made products from the outside. Locke’s basic error – which was to breed much nonsense when the Empiricists naively took it literally, was to assume that the mind passively received what was imported into it from outside. The apt metaphor for the mind is not the warehouse nor the blank slate, but the living body which processes what it receives from the outside and fashions it and integrates it into its own organs and activities.

Strictly, the mind does not understand the other but understands its own interpretation of what it gets from the other. This is true on all levels of interaction between the sensate individual and the individual’s surroundings. What we take to be simple perception is an actively fashioned interpretation of the dumb sensuous inflow. On all levels all understanding is active, creative interpretation.

Apart from empy formalities and trivial sayings that are spoken almost unconsciously, every sentence issues from the speaker’s subjective world, drenched in associations and emotive hues, trailing undertones and overtones of its own; it is received in a different subjective world to be clothed in different associations and overtones and undertones. ‘To understand the other’ is a fiction, an empty shell. We do not, we cannot, understand what is spoken to us. What reaches our understanding is our interpretation of what is spoken to us. Hence the misunderstandings and failures to understand when the subjective worlds of speaker and auditor are wide apart.

Moreover, language, any language, is basically a skeletal system of generalities. For every individual and for every group of people the skeleton is fleshed out by living experience. But the words of any living language have to remain fluid to fit the nuances and peculiarities of concrete instances, no two of which are perfectly identical. Hence Leibniz’ dream of a ‘universal characteristic’ remains an unattainable dream. Its putative realization in the system of Symbolic Logic, like its predecessor the system of numbers, gains universality and fixity at the cost of barrenness. When it borrows actual content from outside the formal system the outcome is necessarily an approximation. Scientists generally slur this truth but two great thinkers of the twentieth century saw it clearly. Wittgenstein concluded that Logic is empty, “says nothing” and Einstein insightfully said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

D. R. Khashaba

January 15, 2018

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