The Difficulty with Understanding

Within epistemology comes the more versatile area and less theoretical portion: Applied epistemology. Applied epistemology seeks to understand the generalities of epistemic concepts in order to have applicable purposes. I want to talk about understanding or a general ability to get what someone means. We could also call this understanding of others a kind of wisdom of the times; an ability to grasp the meaning of what someone communicates around us. We make mistakes and misinterpretations all the time in every area of conversation and communication because we lack proper means of understanding one another.

Setting up the argument, many people see that we have a proper understanding of a lot of areas. Areas that can include a vast area of topics that are so expansive that it is difficult to choose a place to start. For Richard Mason, humans have the ability to understand in many areas of life: the self, everyday people, people in the past, cultures, religions, laws, texts, languages or meanings, significance, moralities, stories, arts, and mathematics.[1] However, there are difficulties that all human people share with one another when attempting to understand one another. For Voltaire, the problem can be described as such:

When a diplomat says yes, he means ‘perhaps’;

When he says perhaps, he means ‘no’;

When he says no, he is not a diplomat.

The difficulty lies in attaining a personal and outward understanding of meaning. Many people communicate all kinds of meanings, attaining those meanings becomes the goal. Not only attaining those meanings but communicating the meaning clearly. This common day problem of misunderstanding occurs everywhere and happens all the time, but what is it that makes these difficulties occur?


Several explanations can be supplemented as answers: Body language, stereotypes, idioms, presuppositions, and many of these combined. In using Richard Mason’s areas of understanding, body language creates many issues of misunderstanding. The interaction that takes place among people most often occurs in the usage of bodily movements to give emphasis, communicate mood, or pronounce danger. Having the body language of tucked in shoulders and a crouched stance does not say much if that same person is speaking on bravery or courage. It would look more like sarcasm for those watching. It is appropriate, almost necessary, to have knowledge of body language in order to understand that form of communication.

Stereotypes create misunderstanding throughout all cultures both in communication and hearing. People who have stereotypical methods of thinking will have two functions to them; they either subconsciously stereotype or consciously stereotype someone. Subconsciously, they would have difficulty in understanding a person because their subconscious expectations of what they are going to hear will throw them off what is being communicated to them. Consciously, that person will simply create a brick wall of ignorance for themselves to only choose what to hear for themselves when speaking to the person they are stereotyping. Stereotypes and body language are only two examples of what keeps people from understanding one another, there are many more that simply won’t be discussed here along with every solution.

The Main Issue

The boiling point for having misunderstanding comes down to two key issues: What and how something is communicated, and the difficulty of having access to the meaning from any given information communicated. Being the communicator, what and how a message is communicated is a very large key because the communicator must overcome the obstacles that were previously brought up: Body language, stereotypes, etc. Those obstacles affect and determine how something is communicated. How it is they are communicated involves these mediums. These mediums create difficulty in what is being communicated. This then limits the number of options available to what is communicated. How it is spoken certainly affects how a person views the topic at hand. Penn Jillette screaming, “I love you dog!” to a small chihuahua is both entertaining and a good example as a limited medium.[2]

The other difficulty lies in the inability to having access and the ability to communicate the meaning of the what. The how plays in some aspect in recognizing the meaning of the what but the what still creates difficulty if it itself (that is the subject of the what) is not grasped. Sometimes as a speaker in an everyday context, attempting to communicate a thought that has not been fully formed yet can get in the way. When it is communicated, the full idea is never met, and confusion is created. More so, the what requires background knowledge in order to accomplish the task of grasping the meaning of itself. Being a part of the culture of the speaker certainly helps with gaining the meaning of jokes or types of idioms used. Understanding Canadian humor that makes fun of themselves all the time can be really hard on a self-entitled American, who finds much pride in where they are from.[3] Not just having the correct background knowledge counts either, having the ability to comprehend and think critically is important as well when comprehending the what. A layperson would find it very odd to listen in on the topic of theology and philosophy if they have no ability to comprehend the language and thoughts being used.

Analogous Difficulties

When it comes to understanding others, a boyfriend and girlfriend analogy suits wonderfully. Todd and Sarah have been dating for two months. Todd finally has found some time to himself after a hard week of doing college homework to finally spend some time with the boys. Sarah has been looking forward to seeing Todd after his long week and has been attempting to give him subtle hints for him to take her out on a date and she is expecting him to take her out on the same day he planned to hang with the boys. Todd and Sarah meet to talk on the break day, and Todd reveals to Sarah that he is going to go hang with the boys tonight. Sarah is incredibly, somewhat visibly, upset. Todd notices and asks her if that is okay. She replies, “that’s fine.” Todd does not notice this as a sign of her being upset but instead reads it as “it is cool with the girlfriend to hang with the boys.” This instance only makes Sarah angrier.

A Buddhist monk and a Baptist pastor walk into a bar.

A man from Scotland and a man from Louisiana come to meet each other to have a conversation one day. The Scottish man has a very thick accent from where he comes from as well as the Louisiana man with his southern Bayou dialect. There are many instances of conflict between each other that simply make it difficult to understand one another. The Louisiana man’s use of his southern Bayou dialect and accent makes it difficult for the Scottish man to understand him. The same can be said of the Scottish man’s thick northern dialect and accent makes it difficult for the Louisiana man to understand him. Both must ask one another to repeat what they had just said several times in a row. They simply get frustrated with one another and give up, not because they hate each other, but simply because they cannot understand each other.

How about attempting to understand the Constitution of the United States of America? This seems simple enough but stopping to look at and think about when it was written and how it applies in today’s context is difficult. Look at the second amendment of the Constitution: the right to bear arms. If we look at this today, this clearly applies to us and our own Americanized weapons. However, the arms that were only attainable in the 1700s colonial America were muskets; guns that took time to load were somewhat inaccurate and were incredibly clunky. Today’s guns are compact, excessive in firepower, and easily accessible wherever there is a small town located. They are fast and highly dangerous, did the founding fathers account for this in their day? Of course not! They were not fortune tellers or mediums. Therefore, the second amendment can be mistaken to be speaking about today’s modern rifle than with the pasts musket.[4]

The same could be said for freedom of the press. The kind of access and type of voice that the press had then has evolved into something completely different than in colonial America. The news today is all-pervasive, and the access that they are allowed is more freeing than what could ever be expected from the founding fathers. News channels run 24/7 announcing new and upcoming information the moment they can get their hands on it. The access to information is widespread, so much so that it is difficult to distinguish what constitutes “the press.” Is it only the news stations that are allowed access to such freedoms? Or can the tabloids have even more information? A freelance press person could come across some of the craziest stories that could never be believed by the most average people. Understanding that there are obstacles of culture and time between today and yesterday shape the way laws are binding on the average U.S. citizen.

Finally, let’s use a favorite game of many people around America: Charades. The game of charades is based on the idea of having great understanding and good communication skills. There is only so much of a method that can be used until it starts looking like abstract forms of interpretive dance to teammates. A person who goes up and tries to communicate Sharknado without using any language will come across more than enough obstacles that make it difficult for anyone to understand what is being communicated. The movements and motions make it difficult enough to communicate, but the shouting of fellow teammates and the attempt at trying to understand abstract interpretive dances prove to be both confusing and difficult.

Understanding seems to be nearly impossible to attain when it comes to others because of how many obstacles there are. It could then be argued against that this position of difficulty to understand has no viable grounds and is pointless information to have, and that it would seem any form of communication could never be understood between two people. This is not true. The position of this paper is not to prove that understanding could never occur for anyone; the position is to show the obstacles and the difficulty of attempting to understand others. This can certainly be overcome, one manner of accomplishing this is to tell stories. Stories are the best way people can come to understand subjects and ideas when pictures are able to be placed in their heads through communication.

Diligence is another solution to the obstacle of understanding one another. When it comes to misunderstanding other persons, it is wise to have an open mind and patience to understand what is being communicated. Asking the question, “could you repeat that,” “what do you mean,” and sharing what you think are great ways to have a better understanding of another person and for the self. Taking the time to sit down and dialogue with one another and using that time to really listen to what another person means is simply virtuous and seems to be the right way to go about understanding another person.

Mistakes and misinterpretations are made by us all the time in everyday life because we normally lack proper means of understanding one another. This occurs because of barriers such as idioms, language, body language, stereotypes, etc. The list could continue for a long time because so many people struggle with different obstacles. However, it does not stop us in attempting to understand one another (or this paper). Taking the time and diligence to have a good conversation or acquiring more information on the topic of discussion helps us to come to a better understanding of one another.

[1] Mason, Richard. Understanding Understanding, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), 7–19.

[2] I highly recommend watching that small clip.

[3] Am I being sarcastic enough?

[4] This is not an argument against the second amendment, just an observation.

Mason, Richard. Understanding Understanding. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003.



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Collyn Dixon

Collyn Dixon

Student at New Orleans Theological Seminary. Philosophy, Theology, Christianity, and Phenomenology.