As part of my indictment against language and its insufficiency to facilitate precise and accurate transmission of abstract concepts, I happened upon a quote by Karl Popper:

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

—Karl Popper

“However, the problem still remains: what should we do in order to make our meaning clearer, if greater clarity is needed, or to make it more precise, if greater precision is needed? In the light of my exhortation the main answer to this question is: any move to increase clarity or precision must be ad hoc or ‘piecemeal’. If because of lack of clarity a misunderstanding arises, do not try to lay new and more solid foundations on which to build a more precise ‘conceptual framework’, but reformulate your formulations ad hoc, with a view to avoiding those misunderstandings which have arisen or which you can foresee. And always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstand you. If greater precision is needed, it is needed because the problem to be solved demands it. Simply try your best to solve your problems and do not try in advance to make your concepts or formulations more precise in the fond hope that this will provide you with an arsenal for future use in tackling problems which have not yet arisen.

— Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, Karl Popper

Popper’s point here is more that some people won’t understand what you are saying, which differs from my concept that some ideas just can’t be conveyed. Some people will assume their interpretation is the true meaning, but this assumption may be incorrect. Even more problematic is when different people assume to know the true meaning, yet their definitions differ materially.

Charles makes another point commenting on this quote on his Thing Finder blog.

And there will be even more who deliberately choose to misunderstand you. The man in search of truth will always be at risk from the man of conviction.

Charles Bayless, Thing Finder blog

Some if not most of this deliberate misunderstanding is captured in Upton Sinclair’s quip:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

—Upton Sinclair

But this still doesn’t capture the point the some concepts are actually nebulous; there is nothing there there.

I’ll leave this post with a quote from Le Petite Prince:

Language is the source of misunderstandings.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Indeed, language is simultaneously expanding and limiting, but like faith in technology, faith in language may lead to an untimely end.

One thought on “Misunderstanding

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