On the miracle of mutual understanding

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””]…one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. [/feature_headline]

Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.
Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.

Have you ever wondered what a miracle it is that we are able to understand one another at all, even if imperfectly, when we talk about inner, invisible things, about the contents of consciousness?
I used the word thing in the previous sentence, even though these inner states and events are not really things at all, and herein lies one aspect of this mystery. The words of our languages are well-adapted to point to something in the outer world (and, come to think about it, we ourselves are well-adapted to orient ourselves in this world). But when the mind turns upon itself, it all quickly grows increasingly confusing.

Consider how a child learns a word like table or tree. In understanding the meanings of these words, she is helped along by all the tables and trees she sees around her; she only has to understand that that is what the adults are “pointing to” with these particular words (and children are really good at it, that is how we are able to acquire our native languages so easily). And so these words are able to re-create themselves in newly arriving brains with a high degree of what geneticists call fidelity of replication: you can be fairly sure that the word table in your child’s brain is a good, faithful copy of the same word in your own brain.

But what about love, or shame, or courage? The faculty of language acquisition we are born with ensures that a child would guess that there is an inner state such a word must point to, and try to identify this hypothetical state with something she feels in herself. Nowadays, parents are often advised to try and understand what their child is feeling and name these feelings for them. I am not sure how many parents actually try to do that, and how accurately they are able to identify their child’s feeling even if they do. But it certainly wasn’t a common parenting practice over the course of our languages’ evolution; most children are, and have always been, on their own in this daunting task.

It doesn’t help that some states of mind are supposed to be experienced much later in life, when the normal age of language acquisition is long since over, and we have lost the childhood’s natural ability to acquire language as though by osmosis. How many times was a youngster’s question about love answered with something like “You’ll know it when it happens”? (And then, when she finally believes that she knows, she is quite likely to be told that what she feels cannot be “real love”…)

And languages differ wildly in what a child is supposed to be able to understand and experience. In Russian, for instance, the word for conscience was borrowed very long ago from Greek by translating its components, as co-knowledge (Russian, со-весть) and belongs by now to a very basic vocabulary: generally, a Russian child is supposed to infer, at a very early age, that she is expected to have something within that is able to tell right from wrong (and in exactly the same way, I might add, that it does within her parents, because, obviously, the word is most often mentioned when a child misbehaves in one way or another). And if she doesn’t feel that she has it? Well, it’s just too bad to even think about.

But there is more: the faculty of language acquisition works in such a way that a child must believe that different words must point to different things; it really helps in learning words like apple and pear; in the domain of mental states, this leads one to the unconscious assumption that there are as many distinct feelings, states of mind, mental faculties, etc. as there are words in one’s native language for them. Can this be true, in view of how widely languages vary even in size (let alone the details) of their mental and emotional vocabularies? Frankly, I am not sure.

It’s no wonder, perhaps, that there is now a new word, alexithymia, for inability to name one’s own emotions — a personality trait supposed to characterise about ten percent of the general population (it would be interesting to learn whether this percentage depends on the native language). All in all, it seems stranger that most of us somehow succeed in this seemingly hopeless endeavour of establishing a correspondence between the words of our languages and our own states of mind, at least enough to go through life believing that we actually do have shared meanings for these words (in spite of constant misunderstandings and failures of communication).

But even if we do succeed, it seems clear that the fidelity of replication must be much, much lower for mental and emotional vocabulary: one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. I ran into this problem the other day, when I was trying to write about Titian’s “Man with a glove” (it was the original plan for this day’s post). I knew that the word compassion is a key to my relationship with this painting, but suddenly realised that I might have a completely idiosyncratic variant of this word living in my head.

It’s partly a matter of language interference (two languages coexisting in one brain make things even more complicated than they normally are), but not quite: at least as much, I believe, this particular mutation of meaning is part of my life’s story, and it may be more essential for the whole “Sonnets in colour” project than I understood before. And so I’ve decided to spend some time exploring the very concept of compassion, and my own mutated version of it.

I would so much like to know whether this means I also have a mutated experience of compassion, but that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? We have very limited ability of comparing our experiences directly, without the mediation of words. Or art…