Thursday, 25 September 2014


When in an everyday sense and setting I understand you, I can be said to see how your thoughts and deeds ‘make sense’. Perhaps I can ‘find my feet’ here, 'relate to' your thinking, 'grasp' or 'get' what you're saying. I find what you say and do intelligible and, often enough, reasonable. This reasonableness is sometimes a function of the valid inferences it articulates - I can see how this ‘follows’ from that. Yet just as fundamental to my making sense of you as my appreciation of the cogency of your conclusions - the thises - is the intelligibility to me of your premises - the thats. Thus we are concerned not just with how someone got to where they arrive at, but with getting a sense of where they are coming from.

It bears pointing out, however, that, for by far the majority of the time when you understand me, you are neither in the business of tracking my transit through rational space, nor reconstructing where I must have set out from. You are, instead, already there alongside me. You ask me ‘do you know what time it is?’ and, because we already inhabit what at risk of pretension might be called the same ‘horizon of meaning’, it does not occur to me to disrupt my comfortable repose in our discussion with the consideration that you could be meaning ‘…in Timbuktu?’ or ‘…that we have to go to bed?’. Instead you want to know what time of day it is now, here, where we are - and neither I nor you needs to have thought about this in order to rightly be said to appreciate that the intended meaning of your question is constrained in such ways. My appreciation, my grasp of what you intend, consists in my already walking in step alongside you on the same socially prepared road. Typically we needn't strive to reach out to the meanings that are imminent within your action, expression and conversation - instead they are already within our grasp. Etymology supports our intuition here: comprehendere (Latin) meaning to have completely caught hold of, understandan (Old English) meaning standing in the midst of, among, or being close to.

At this juncture someone might ask: ‘Well, ok, for the most part to understand you is not itself to track or reconstruct, to reach out or foot-find, despite the fact that sometimes this must occur before understanding arises. But etymology is hardly the most reliable guide to semantics, and much of what you are offering here (standing, grasping, finding our feet, getting) is merely metaphor. So, then, what is it for me to understand you? What is it to get, when what I get is your drift?

One now-famous way to mislead oneself whilst answering this question is to begin by tacitly making the prior, unfortunate, options-constraining assumption that words, especially nouns and verbs, inevitably gain their meaning by standing for something or other - some state or entity or process. With that referential assumption about meaning in place it comes naturally to assume that the word 'understanding' must refer to some or other thing or state or process  - and, since the word does not refer to my speech or action itself, perhaps instead it refers to some state or process obtaining inside me. It may also come to seem that the meaning of what someone says, which meaning is of course not their words themselves, must also be some or other thing - some thing behind the words perhaps, some thing 'in the mind' of the speaker. By misleading oneself in such ways, the living unity both of meaningful discourse and of listening with comprehension soon come apart in one's reflective comprehension, so that both are now seen as composed of two separable components, the one 'outer' (speaking, listening) and the other 'inner' (meaning, understanding). [for book only not blog: I labour here this particular possibility of cramping one's reflective grasp of the relation of meaning, understanding and discourse since it will reappear later as a key driver behind an appealing and hopeful, yet misleading, idea regarding schizophrenic discourse. This is the idea that whilst in schizophrenia we may meet with garbled discourse, this need not be taken to indicate that the speaker's thinking is itself garbled. If, in our theoretical reflection, the being of thinking has been constitutively divorced from our discourse, the hope opens up that even garbled discourse may be cloaking intact thought which, with the right interpretative apparatus, could yet be reconstructed.]

Another option for misleading oneself is to begin with an assumption that when understanding something one always does so by relating it to something else. For example we might imagine that to understand what someone says is to trace rational or causal relations between what is said  and something else - e.g. other things that are said, beliefs and desires, etc. Yet whilst causal explanation and rational reconstruction are important aspects of a broad-spectrum approach to humane understanding, the particular focus we have here is on, for example, your simply understanding this sentence of mine. And it is not obvious that you understood it, assuming you did understand it, by relating it to anything else. At any rate, presumably one would also have to understand this something else, and the relation - which itself casts doubt on the idea that an ability to relate this and that in causal or rational ways is the essence of understanding itself. So our question remains: what is it for you to understand?

Let's now broaden our options regarding what meaning amounts to, so we can take in the full range of relevant facts regarding what is generally true of someone if they understand something, and not merely consider facts about referents. That is, rather than configuring our investigation into what it is to understand something in the way invited by the question 'what is understanding?' we will instead configure it along the lines of 'what is true of someone if they understand something?' And now what most immediately comes to mind are the diverse abilities that a person who understands someone and their utterance has. Thus if you get my drift then you may well be able to anticipate what I will say next, know how to react to my questions or instructions, pick up where I leave off, paraphrase and explicate what I say, fluently come back with the next move in the conversational dance, repeat what I say in new appropriate moments, etc. To be sure, understanding is not itself any single ability to do any single thing, yet in any one instance of understanding we find we can readily specify the kinds of abilities which would speak for attributions to someone of understanding and the kinds of inabilities that would defeat such attributions (see Wittgenstein PI paras 143-242; Gordon Baker & Peter Hacker, 1992, ch. 16).

It is sometimes suggested that an approach focusing solely on the abilities and dispositions of the one who understands risks leaving out the living substance of understanding itself. Thus we might imagine that someone learns to do what we rightly call merely feigning understanding by: in apt moments parroting responses they have heard others make at such times without understanding them himself, learning and following rules for interaction without understanding what the rules are about, or in any other way taking a merely mechanistic, stimulus-response approach to communicative situations. John Searle's (1980 ‘Minds, Brains and Programs’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3: 417–57) famous Chinese Room Argument has him sitting in a room responding to notes written in Chinese and slipped under the door. Searle makes use of a rule book written in English which, without alluding to their meaning, documents what strings of Chinese characters he should use in response to the strings of characters appearing on the notes. The notes he passes back out under the door satisfy his Chinese interlocutors, who assume that the person in the room understands Chinese. However it is clear that Searle does not understand Chinese: he can make nothing of the symbols he reads or writes. The argument, then, might have it that such examples show that something more than mere behavioural ability is required of someone who genuinely understands what she encounters; without this something more, we cannot distinguish true from artificial or feigned comprehension. And if we are already guided by a conception of meaning and understanding as inner phenomena it will be natural to suppose that the something more in question is an inner state or process.

However, before we let such a use of the concept of 'the inner' run away with itself, let's consider an alternative response. This alternative starts by reminding us of the originary unity of meaning and action in the expressive life of the human animal. It reminds us too of the fact that when we understand what someone says this is not typically taken to mean understand the meaning of what they say as opposed to, simply, what they say. And it diagnoses the source of that deficiency in understanding manifest in the cases considered in the last paragraph not in terms of a lack of supplementary inner mental processes or experiences but in terms of a lack of uncontrived spontaneity. I shall now explain what I mean by this.

Consider an android. Such an automaton simulates human understanding but in fact has merely been programmed to respond in particular ways in particular circumstances. The programmers have codified certain aspects of humane understanding in a set of rules which are then implemented in the causal processes controlling the android's responses to environmental inputs. There is however nothing uncontrived about such responses, and the artificiality or unreality of the intelligence on display is evident in the way that such behaviour is not spontaneously adaptive beyond a restrictive domain. Regardless of how clever the programming is, in taking account of diverse possible responses in diverse possible situations, the fact remains that we have to do with merely artificial intelligence, with a response that is not spontaneously generated but is instead programmed. The intelligence on display here belongs not to the android but to the programmers.

Consider next Searle stuck in his Chinese room receiving and responding to messages he doesn't comprehend. Essential to our estimation of his lack of comprehension is the fact that he cannot simply respond to the messages but must instead deploy a rule book. It is not that we meet with no understanding here - after all he understands perfectly well how to use the rule book. The thought experiment trades on the contrast between the comprehending conduct of Searle's use of the rule book and his uncomprehending relation to the symbols. He cannot spontaneously make use of or respond to such symbols, whereas his ability to use the rule book is taken up in his living frame in its spontaneous responsiveness to the items with which he is dealing. Searle does not understand what his symbols mean; his use of them is merely mechanical.

It is sometimes suggested that the use of accusations of mechanism as defeating conditions on ascriptions of understanding is unsatisfactory because it implies an anti-naturalistic prejudice. 'After all we are all of us biological mechanisms', the objection goes, 'and there is no spiritual supplement to be had to our corporeal frame. Nevertheless it is we, these fleshly machines, who understand. To deny understanding on the basis of mechanism is, absurdly, to deny understanding to all of us for all time.' 

Against this it can be noted that such a criticism plays fast and loose with the concept of 'mechanism'. To be sure, we are all biological beings through and through with no ghostly supplement, yet typically we only count certain of the biological or other entities in the natural and social world as mechanisms (which contrasts are what gives the concept of 'mechanism' its significance). A mechanism or device or contraption, however, is something which can be employed as a means to contrive some or other end. Mechanisms effect

And this takes us back to the heart of our explication of what understanding consists in. What counts against Searle or our android understanding what they are writing or saying is the fact that their behaviour is contrived. Far from their responses to their interlocutors flowing spontaneously from their living frame, they instead arrive by means of a contrivance. In Searle's case the contrivance is his, in the android's case it is its programmer's. By contrast with his uncomprehending relation to the Chinese characters he produces, Searle's genuine understanding of his rule book shows itself in his spontaneous actualisation of his abilities to match symbols, draw what is suggested at the right moment, turn to the right page, and so on. The point is not that such spontaneous behaviour is behaviour which flows from something beyond it, something within - but rather than such behaviour does not flow from anything else at all. That is what makes for true understanding being manifest by such genuine rule-book comprehension - precisely the absence of a distinction between inner and outer.

It is important to note that the notion of spontaneity I am calling on here is not intended to articulate any kind of immediacy with which genuine understanding is to be said to be gained. True understanding is of course sometimes hard won. Nevertheless once one can understand something, such an understanding makes itself manifest directly in our living engagement with that which is comprehended. I hear what you say, and in hearing it grasp your meaning, and in grasping it am able to respond appropriately without having to do anything to effect such responses. We do not meet here with three separate events or stages. Whilst we may separate off, say for individual physiological examination, the domains of sensory input, central nervous system activation, and motor processes, nothing in such a scheme legitimates a transposition of its tripartite structure onto the living unity of the comprehending agent (Susan Hurley, ****). In fact, what I have been suggesting here, as a way to recognise the distinction between the true comprehender and the mere contriver, involves precisely the absence of any such distinction in the life of the former. On this reading to relegate understanding to a domain of inner processes, to frame it as residing behind its expressive manifestations, or see it as effected by mechanism is, far from doing naturalistic justice to the corporeality of the comprehender, to occlude the essence of understanding itself. To get you, to grasp what you are saying: I am, in my responsiveness, spontaneously there alongside you, able to respond appropriately precisely without deploying inner or outer means - other than paying attention.  I need not empathically put myself in your shoes, or find it in myself to agree with what you are saying, or develop some worked out account of how what you are saying now fits in with what else you say. Far from constituting my living understanding, as manifest in my direct and uncontrived apt responsiveness, such procedures of mine may even stand in our way, as I become instead related to my inner experience or thought rather than directly, in my engaged interaction, to you.