Communication is inherently ambiguous. Not just a few writers have at one time or another either commented on or made use of the inherent ambiguities of language. Bertrand Russell is credited with arguing that ambiguity is inherent in humor and logicians have long debated imprecision in sentences. However, what’s not always clear are the ambiguities and evolving understandings that exist when we’re communicating.
We’ve all found ourselves in that position where we hear someone saying what we thought we’d been saying as their idea. Sure, it can take time for the penny to drop but, haven’t you at least once thought “come on! Am I speaking English?” Well, yes you probably are. What’s not always clear however, is the role of perspective on the things we’re talking about. Perspective is something that is often worked out, developed. I believe that sometimes also, there is a relationship between what is implicit and what is explicit in communication. That relationship, between what is known and stated and what is assumed and stated is what this post is about.
A lot of what we think we mean is implicit. Ideas evolve as we have dialogue with others and in that dialogue it’s pretty hard to say where ideas, as they evolve come from. The truth is; it’s hard to really say who ‘had’ an idea unless they’ve actually said it explicitly. Often times we skirt around ideas, in some respects one might even argue that in many studies (like philosophy for example) much or most of the work supports the evolution of only a handful ideas. It’s as if there really were only a very small tide with a large current to support it.
That relationship between what is explicit and what is implicit is a hard one and it governs all the parts of our lives in which there’s more than us in the room (and if we’re talking to ourselves then it effects us all the time.) The relationship between them however, is very important. It’s as important as being able to tell background from foreground, knowing when something is peripheral or concrete. More importantly I think, knowing the difference between the two allows us to understand and see where background and foreground belong together. We do that every time we trace an idea or development. Knowing the difference between the two is important and it comes down to meanings and coherence.
Recently I’ve been reading a book about the unity of human experience. What this really refers to is the fact that for the most part, or at least as far as we can really know, when we are conscious that experience is a whole. A whole composed of many little parts.
For example, reading this sentence (any sentence in fact), there is punctuation, letters and words in front of you. These themselves are made up of little parts. Take the letter ’T’ for example, it has two lines orthogonal to each other. In addition the letters have positions relative to each other and to everything else around you. Somehow these all come together and you, the reader can parse some meaning. You get something from the sentence.
There are several things going on in this instance that are important. One is that a whole is formed, second that the whole carries meaning and third that the various meanings communicate something relevant to someone. They make a statement of some kind. It’s this third point that distinguishes what is implicit from what is explicit.
In the book I’ve been reading Dienes and Perner give the example of a bee’s dance. We know that the dance tells other bees where to find some nectar. But, there is nothing in the dance that is actually about nectar: that is, there is nothing in the dance that signifies nectar itself.
We know from studying bees that direction and distance are signified but, that’s it. As human beings on the other hand we can infer; if we were the bees, that little hop and skip that Bob’s doing would tell me where I’ll find the good stuff. But, again that is because we infer meanings beyond what is literally in front of us. We assume a context and that the things communicated within that context are about something.
Meanings, what is meant, these are the things that should be the most direct and obvious. What is confusing is that what we mean to say doesn’t always cohere with what we said and sometimes when it does it’s not the most obvious aspect of what we’re saying. When that happens there’s an ambiguity between what we said and what we intended to be understood.
That’s the sticky bit. Unlike bees we can mean nectar but, we might be talking to an elephant who infers from our seeming good intentions that we mean water. He’ll get the direction and distance right but, he’d be a little confused when he ends up in a field of flowers.
What further distinguishes us from bees is that we can represent abstractions. When we’re communicating abstractions can carry representative weight. Steven Pinker makes the point (In ‘The Language of Thought’) when he distinguishes the two sentences:
- The hay was put into the cart
- The cart was filled with hay
Both of those sentences say approximately the same thing but, they also have two clearly different objects. The way the sentences are filled focuses you the reader on different parts of the statement being made. It’s as if we, observers of those sentences are given different priorities to attend to. In the first, the hay and in the second, the cart.
Two implications stand out. First, that as human beings we represent structure. That structure has a communicative or representational significance. This is in some sense what is implied (or connoted.)
Second, that what is given the most focus in the structure of what we communicate is what is least vague or general. It is that which is being made clear and therefore what is clearly meant. In some sense we can think of what is implicit as a container, albeit one in which the recipient of the contents of that container has a certain latitude to interpret what we mean (if we consider the analogy of the bee talking to the elephant above.)
And so I would like to come full circle. When I said that coherence and meaning were two of the most important aspects of communicating what I mean to say is that the way in which our ideas cohere, both within themselves and within a given (wider) context sets the parameters for what we mean. As far as what is communicated is concerned, it is how the structures we use relate to what to what we mean that determines what’s understood. That is what makes communicating clearly hard.