Saturday, August 27, 2016


278. Talking to the natives

How can one talk to the natives? How to understand people who are native to a different culture or tradition, rooted in a different language game concerning life, humanity, reason, society, or justice?

Here I return to the theory of language and meaning that I used in this blog. There, I employ the notions of reference and sense, but with a twist. In reference one intends to refer with words to some thing or some class of objects. I rendered the notion of sense as the way in which one arrives at reference, at identifying something as an individual or as belonging to a class.

An underlying problem is that of realism. We aim to refer to things in the world but we cannot know them as they are in themselves. Our concepts are constructions that are realistic only in the sense that they arise from success experienced in coping with the world. Thus, people coping in different conditions conceptualize the world differently.

Reference is social and sense is individual. We achieve common reference from sharing practices, mutually correcting language use, in a shared language game. Sense consists in features one associates with things, collected from experience along one’s individual life trajectory. So, while reference is largely shared, underlying sense varies between people  even within a community.

Commonality of meaning, in shared reference and overlapping sense, decreases with differences between traditions and the contexts of their development. This can yield incommensurability: reference that mutually does not make sense.

Now I bring in another part of this theory of language. Concepts arise in generalization from individual cases and abstraction from specific contexts. In the process, they lose specificity, richness of detail. To apply the concept, richness of specific context needs to be added again. Then meanings move from the general to the specific in connections between words in the structures of sentences in action contexts. Meaning of the parts depends on the meaning of the whole. Meanings are not the same between different contexts. Intersubjectivity, in common reference, is preserved when contexts of application are shared. Nothing works better for mutual understanding than shared projects.

Even within a culture, meanings shift in their application, moving from one context to another. In this blog I analysed that in terms of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (in items ….), and I will not repeat that here. I have indicated poetry as the most salient case of upsetting, cutting adrift, twisting or shifting established reference in surprising constructions of sense.

Given all this, then, how can one talk with a native from a different tradition?

Read what he/she says as you would read a poem. If you do not grasp intended reference (‘what is he talking about’), delve for underlying sense: what connotations does it carry along? And see how that moves with context. See how the hermeneutic wheel turns there, in moving from context to context.

As I indicated in the preceding item in this blog, that is greatly helped by participating in practices in the native context. There, what is tacit or hidden in sense is likely to shine through.

In trying to embed your own concepts, abstractions, in local context, witness how they fail to fit, and glimpse how native concepts work better, arising from local contexts.

Then, in trying to build up communication, use metaphor that fits local practice, trying to explain one’s concepts in terms of those of the native.

Be careful with judging the native before you have done all this.