Lesson 12 Understanding Others



    Everyday we meet family, friends, neighbours, people.  We recognise other people from how they look, their voice and their personal qualities.  Other people are familiar to us.  We live with them; our environment is one of relationships.


    In spite of this, we do not understand other people.  Very often they take us by surprise.  Those we believed akin to ourselves always reveal themselves to be different from what we first thought.  Our experience of others is a familiar one, but it also confronts us with a puzzlingly great diversity; it makes us aware of how oddly particular we all are.


     Yet what do we mostly do in order to know?  We use categories valid for everybody, ready-made categories.  We say of Jack that he is a “musician”, “depressive” or “childish”; of Jill that she is “brazen”, a “bitch” or immensely “kind”.  The terms “musician”, “depressive”, “childish”, “brazen”, “bitch” and “kind” would equally apply to people other than Jack and Jill.  They don’t describe what Jack is, what specifically qualifies him or makes him different from John or Jill.  Aristotle says that only the general is known and only the particular exists.  How could we overcome this obstacle?  What enables us to understand others?


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A.  The Role of Inter-subjectivity



    We are accustomed to understanding things according to certain sets of rules: for us, to understand is first of all to grasp an idea, or a concept.  From the point of view of knowledge, to understand a phenomenon is to be able to explain it using concepts.  Nevertheless, is understanding exactly the same as explaining?  Does not the word ‘understand’ have a very particular meaning when applied to other people?  One would rather say that we understand someone, but we explain something.  We cannot say that we “explain someone”, because the word ‘explain’ supposes an analysis, requires a narrow reply, an “explanation” and we all know that a person is always something complex and that we cannot sketch him out in a ready-made “explanation”.


        We can take this further.  Indeed what do we mean by a scientific explanation?  It is a set of representations enabling you to account for an objective phenomenon. An earthquake takes place in Peru.  Specialists are rushed to the place and expected to give explanations, explanations resting on a specific theory such as geological Tectonics.  Scientific theory invokes causes, antecedents, laws; in short a connection pertaining to phenomena one can account for through measurement and through a procedure of repeated experiments.  What stands out in explanations is their completeness: once one is in possession of a valid explanation, one deems one has encompassed the topic and given it its allotted place in the realm of knowledge.  In this sense the explanation is the paradigm of objectivity, the general paradigm of the Natural Sciences.


            Understanding others is visibly a very different matter.  To understand is to grasp intentions, discern the motivations that made another person do this or that.  I can understand the reason Napoleon took the crown from the hands of the bishop on his coronation day.  He wanted to assess the supremacy of secular power over religious power.  A biological explanation of his gesture would be of no interest.  I always understand from within and I understand from within what pertains to the mind.  On the contrary, I cannot strictly speaking say that Physics helps me “understand” a natural phenomenon, such as the falling of a stone.  It explains it.  The Natural Sciences don’t enable you to understand Nature, but they enable you to explain it.  Understanding Nature would imply attributing intentions to it, meaning consciousness and motivations, which for a scientist would be most audacious.  This kind of error is commonly called anthropomorphism.  It implies taking Science to be a kind of subjective interpretation!  However we do just the opposite.  On the contrary the Human Sciences should give us the key to understanding human nature as that of a conscious being determined by motives.  The paradigm of the Human Sciences is therefore founded on understanding.


To sum up, there appears to be two realms:


Realm of the Object

Realm of the Subject



Scientific explanation

Understanding others

Cause/effect: causation in Nature

Means/end: intentionality of consciousness

Laws, antecedents and consequences

Motivations, goals, aspirations

= perception of things

= encounter with persons

Natural Sciences

Human Sciences


      This point of view is that of W. Dilthey, a theoretician in the field of the Human Sciences influenced by Hegel.  From these distinctions it is clear that the objective approach to knowledge does not enable us to deal with the problem of others.  The existence of other people has always been a scandal for objective thinking.  It involves a factor objective thinking is eager to eliminate: subjectivity.  On the contrary, the subjective approach makes us partake in other people’s mind and motives, and these fall outside the all too rigid mould of causal explanation. 

      Let us develop this idea.  When do we have the impression of being understood?  When our true intentions have been recognised.  We show our ability to understand others when we manage to grasp their intentions; this means when we succeed in feeling through sympathy that something can be a reason to live and act.  Then the other person is no longer just another specimen of a class, but a conscious human being like myself, someone whose affections I can feel as my own.  To express this one also uses the term empathy.

       Understanding others is therefore a much more delicate process than explaining a physical phenomenon, because a mind cannot be reduced to a thing.  Leibniz says that the soul is infinitely folded.  It is not easily circumscribed: the mind is a fountain alive with meaning.  It cannot be reduced to the water flowing from it.  Explanation is a process enabling one to objectify knowledge; yet objectifying others is also reducing them to the status of objects and disregarding them as subjects.  This is what happens for instance when one leaves out the dimension of consciousness to consider human behaviour only from the point of view of response to stimuli.  One no longer views mind as the creator of its world, but as a “thing” reacting to interactions and moved by causes.  Knowing others is to discover all the depth of a mind, the meaning of an act or attitude.  Understanding others is a process, which is just the opposite of the reduction to a thing [1]operated by an objective explanation.  Understanding must be done from within, through participation in the other person’s mind; explanation on the other hand is done from outside, by laying out the causal connections.


B.  Knowledge by conjecture



     How then does the understanding of others work in everyday life?  Mostly we deem we have understood another person when we have managed to put ourselves “in his place”.  We say things like: “in his place, I would have done this or that”.  What happens next?  We judge the other person, we reconstruct his thoughts, that is, we make a guess as to the content of his mind in order to understand him.  We shall call knowing through conjecture a mode of understanding which rests on guessing how the other person thinks.  In the natural attitude we trust in this kind of reconstruction of the other person’s mind.  And this to an extent such that when one considers oneself misunderstood one says “put yourself in my position!”  In other words, imagine how I, myself, see things. Conjecture ought to enable one to transpose oneself to the mind of the other person by recognising his thoughts and reasons. Thus it is a way of indirect knowledge.  This procedure is one we use especially in the other person’s absence when we try to imagine what he goes on in his head.  Were it only a matter of knowing oneself, we would use a kind of introspection; however one can only know oneself through introspection.  Other people must be known differently.  Hence it is tempting to regard knowledge by conjecture as the counterpart of introspection in the domain of the knowledge of others.



    Let us examine how this reconstruction works.  Already at the start there is a difficulty.  I simply cannot put myself at the place of Jack or Jill to know what they feel.  It is illusory even to think that I could inhabit the mind of another.  The formula “to put oneself in another’s place” is absurd.  It is however possible to try to guess the thoughts and feelings of another person.  For this to be possible I have to conjecture on basis of some reference and make a comparison.  For example, knowing from experience that in my case tears are an expression of sadness, I conclude that Jack weeps because he is sad.  I make an inference from a particular case, myself and my sadness, to another particular case, Jack.  I make the supposition that what in my case causes tears will be cause for tears in the case of other people too.  I believe that everybody is the same; above all I postulate that other people are like me.  By extrapolation I reconstruct the intentions at work behind different attitudes, on the assumption that “in his place I would have reacted this way…”

      And more than often experience proves me wrong!  “The knowledge we have of other men is much prone to error if we only judge them by the sentiments we have of ourselves”.[2]  It is one thing to think that what I have in common with others is human nature; it is another to postulate that my individual aversions, desires, tastes and distastes, are the model of human nature.  However our model of comparison is precisely our own self and this is where we are mistaken and where we go wrong.  In reality, it is the very idea of a comparison between myself and others which is a mistake.  If I do that, all I do is either look for what I wish to find in the other or for what I fear might be there.  I will project on him what is fact myself.   Mostly, the evil I find in others is the very one I  have been looking for in my own narrow vision of them.

            In addition, conjecturing implies a monovalent interpretation of a sign I have seen in the other person.  However an interpretation must be polyvalent if it is to respect the other person’s complexity.  Is it true for instance that tears are invariably a sign of sadness?  Is laughter always a sign of joy?  No.  An extreme inner tension can be released in the form of a nearly painful spasm in the form of laughter.  There is “nervous laughter” which has nothing to do with laughing with joy and which does not really manifest gayness.  On the other hand some tears are tears of joy.  It would be arbitrary to chose an interpretation a priori simply because it would be my own reaction.   To make things even more difficult, human beings are perfectly able to dissemble.  The introvert will not reveal his true feelings easily; there are times when all he gives away of his trouble is the soupcon of a blush.  In such circumstances how can one make correct inferences?  We may also have to face pretence.  We know from ordinary experience that each one of us can appear in the guise of all sorts of different characters.  You are not the same with your boss as with your employee, with your wife as with your friends, your brother or the cashier at Wal-Mart.  We are able to simulate artificial feelings that we do not have.  We have the ability to simulate artificial attitudes that we do not really feel. If another person is pretending and if I do not realise that he is and mistake his artifice for the genuine thing, then, trapped by appearances, I am deceived.

            Out of caution, better be radical:  other people are never as we imagine them; they always differ from our mental models of them.  Our mental reconstructions of others are risky.  Occasionally our guess is a good one, but mostly we are wrong.  In any case making conjectures about others is not seeing others, it is not understanding them; it is only imagining them and representing them to our minds, which is a very different matter.  Of course conjecture is not a form of “thingification” of others since it is something which takes their intimacy and subjectivity into account; however it is not either a comprehension of other people.  To know others demands that one ban both conjecture and comparison.



C.   Immediate knowledge



         We do not spend all our time making conjectures about other people.  Mostly other people’s presence prevents us from doing that; it fills us up and leaves little space for our imagination.  It is only in the absence of others that we make wild conjectures about them because when they are not there, then nothing obstructs the mechanism of projection. But in front of them?  Is it really possible?  The experience of another person’s presence is so much more pregnant than that of things.  I am not disturbed by the presence of the jam-pot on the table, the pictures on the wall or the clock on the shelf.  They are easy to ignore.  The cat watching me does not trouble me much either. On the contrary another person watching me cannot leave me indifferent.  His look puzzles me, worries me, attracts or repels me.  The other person is there, I cannot do what I want with him.  His presence is so provoking that it is not as easy as it might seem to form an idea of him.  To take the knowledge of other people to be mere conjecturing is to ignore that direct apprehension plays a greater part in our understanding of them. 

            Let us consider for instance a child.  Can one reasonably believe that a child conjectures in the same way as a grown-up?  No.  He is more sensitive and spontaneous, his dwells in the immediate donation of the presence of others and this in all innocence.   Indeed the child perceives other people’s expressions, grasping it straight away.  He sees the intention behind a gesture; better still, he perceives the intention directly, and he is not even able to dissociate truth and appearance.  A closed face is anger, a smile tenderness.  In teasing there is the intention to play.  Pretence is the same as reality because the child takes people at face value. It is most astonished when one explains to it that one wasn’t angry “for real”.  Its eyes wide open, it wonders how one can be different from how one seems.  This limits his intuitive grasp of others: he does not detect artifice, make-believe, dissemblance.  What is certain is that his knowledge of others is founded on immediate impressions and not on inference.

            In addition we find in grown-ups’ perception of others forms of recognition that do not rely on inference.  This applies to all spontaneous identifications we detect in habits.  Here we can distinguish: cultural signs and signs of action.

            1° From the start our perception of others is outlined by cultural landmarks that provide us with ready-made interpretations.  In each country we find codes of politeness which demand that one greet in a certain manner, that one address one person in a different way than one would another.  Be the ceremonial religious or secular, its purpose at the outset is also to confer a meaning to a gesture.  For a Christian the priest’s gestures have a very precise significance that does not require any inference for its interpretation. We only realise the important role of these cultural references when we go abroad.  This is precisely where we lose our references and we have to get used to a very different code.  In Greece you shake your head to say yes and nod in disagreement, just the opposite what we do in France and Britain.  If we think it is a good thing to shake hands when greeting, there are countries however in which such a gesture would be considered rude and vulgar, and greeting is done by bowing and positing your hand on your chest.  It is when we are confronted with this kind of situation that we become aware of the weight of our cultural conditioning.  Abroad, we must do without a very important element of direct knowledge of other people, which is available to us in our own country.  The result is that other people become a mystery that will not be solved until we have come to understand the customs of the country we are visiting; then we will once more be familiar with other people’s behaviour in the same manner as we were in our homeland.

            2°  However does there not also exist a body language and expression which is universal?  Look at what the mimic is doing.  The mimic uses signs that everybody instantly recognises.  The mimic Marceau could present his shows all over the world without translator.  The traveller on the bus, the violinist, the man hurrying to work, all these human characters are easy to identify.  In mime one can construct very complex stories using signs that the audience will recognise, unassisted by any form of speech.  The worldwide success of mimes shows that there must exist a universal language of gestures, a natural language of the body which we recognise without the aid of complicated guesswork.  So the signs of activity are not only a matter of this or that culture, or this or that social convention.

            The mimic takes most of his art from a more general phenomenon, which is that of the spontaneous passage of interiority to exteriority.  Any feeling leaves an impression on our body.  Sadness has its face, as do fear, surprise, admiration, joy and so on.  The mimic uses this relation with such expertise that the spectator, far from having to make any inferences, immediately grasps the feeling or emotion, which at a given instant takes hold of the entire body. 

            Nevertheless our tradition has taught us to distinguish and oppose interiority and exteriority.  Common sense reasons in terms of a duality of soul and body.  Thus we hear things like: “One must not trust appearances” or “Clothes don’t make the man”!  One means then that the appearance of a person stands in contradiction with what he is in reality.  When facing another person I ought therefore to reject what is given as such and think of him as entirely different from how he appears. Yet is it not absurd to want to separate a feeling from its physical expression? A face is a mood, it is the mirror of what goes on inside.  Thus Raymond Aron writes: “Mind cannot be separated from body.  It is in some way present in the face; in other words it is the intention”.  Of course we have to be careful not to fall for dissemblance; on the whole however, the principle of the natural passage of inside to outside is true.  In spontaneity appearance is always an expression of the genuine.  What we are is reflected in our expressions.  There could not be a sharp duality between soul and body because the body is not a simple thing existing apart from and outside the soul; the body is itself animated by consciousness, it is a living body.  An exact representation of the relation of interior to exterior would be, not the ribbon closed on itself, but rather Moebius’ ribbon, in which the extremes are reversed in such a way that the external side communicates with the internal side and conversely the internal side influences the external side.  It is non-duality which best explains the expressive power of consciousness and not the dual position.  In the end is not rather a superficial advice to tell us not to trust appearances?  Why saw off the manifesting phenomenon from the being that manifests?

            It follows that physiognomy is meaningful and that the psychologist does not need to be some sort of sly detective; on the contrary he should be a careful observer.  To observe is to receive as such the gift of another person’s presence, without interfering in any manner with what gives itself – without comparing, without judging.  It is in there that we find the possibility of an intuitive knowledge of another person.  If we carefully return to the experience itself, we shall see that the other person anyhow imposes himself to us and that this is what constitutes the encounter with another. He gives himself as he is with his strength, his weakness, his aggression or his suspicion, his kindness or his anxiety, his narrow or limited intelligence.  The other person is given in the totality of his manifestation as a person.  He is what he seems and he is also more than he seems, referring to his abilities, his potential.  From this point of view the formula “one must not trust appearances” is therefore very superficial; it is only a warning against deceit.  Someone more lucid could very well see through dissemblance and faking.  Nothing is more obvious than an artificial pose; reticence is a mask which more than once gives itself away.  Does not a trembling hand often tell us much more than words that would want to reassure?  Nature in general moves in the direction of expressing itself.  This does not mean that one should blindly trust appearances.  We must also be careful with what we allege are others’ “intentions”.  Indeed, who knows if we do not take our own fears or expectations to be “intuitions”?  Intuition is not a form of projection.  Yet can we sort our own emotions and expectations of the other person from our feeling of him?  To do this we would need to know ourselves better in order to avoid mixing up these two orders and take the one to be the other. More than often what I believe I understand is my own interpretation, its source is in me and it is not true seeing.   It requires all the sharpness of intelligence for intuition to recover its true value.


D.   Knowing how to listen, knowing how to speak



        This is why the gift of the other person’s presence is not enough; from there we need to proceed to speech in order to try to understand him.  Only, at this stage many difficulties are awaiting us.

         It is true that being able to speak to someone should make one better able to understand him.  Yet what exactly do we mean by “speaking”?  It is not enough to “speak” in order to engage in dialogue.  There is dialogue when speech is alive and that many conditions are fulfilled: 1) the presence of two people 2) mutual understanding 3) a common ground 4) something meaningful to share.  Dialogue is only a way to understand another person when it is authentic, which may be more complex than one thinks.

            Talking to somebody is not just trying to make oneself understood.  Dialogue can walk astray and off the path leading to an understanding of others.  1) One may slip into mere information; in this case only the person talking understands what is being said.  Exchange never takes place, yet this is required for dialogue.  To have a dialogue it is not enough to find a willing listener with the patience to put up with your talking, but to whom you yourself will not be listening.  2) There can also be a misunderstanding when two people don’t attribute the same meaning to the same words, so that each one of them speaks at different levels.  The common ground is then missing.  3) Dialogue can degenerate into mere chatting.  Chatting appears to be a dialogue, but the people talking are not present in what they say: the content of their speech is as insignificant as it is repetitive.  Speech does not aim at the other person’s understanding it; it is only there to substitute for a real presence and above all to avoid silence.  A dialogue is only useful to understand others if it makes possible an intimate exchange with them.  4) A dialogue can degenerate to polemics when one wants the exchange of a dialogue, while refusing to make any effort to understand the other person’s position.  Each person then sticks to his position and instead of exchanging ideas one struggles to uphold this or that conviction.  Polemics replaces the confrontation of points of view by the opposition of individuals.  We see this when spokesmen fire off all their weaponry to criticise a viewpoint, then retreat into muteness, and pay no attention to the objection of their adversary.  5) Dialogue also self-destroys in lying. As soon as lying makes its way into the dialogue, speech loses its true purpose.  There can be no comprehension without truthfulness and without a genuine intention to have a dialogue.  Have can we understand one another if we are not sincere?

            Supposing that these obstacles are overcome in mutual sincerity, the dialogue allows one effectively to open up to the other person and hear what the other has to say. Understanding means to grasp intentions and motives; this is best done when we listen to the other person and do not make conjectures from outside.  To listen to what the other person has to say is also to help him find his way in language, to find the words in which to put what he needs to say in order to make himself understood.  To understand someone is to listen to a conscious presence, to someone expressing this presence with his own words and this sharing can take place in dialogue. 

            Nevertheless, if intentions develop inside words, they also appear between them.  If discourse is meaningful, so too is silence: the gaps between words also have their eloquence.  To understand the other it is not enough understanding what he says; it is also understanding what he does not say but what his presence expresses all the same.  The other person gives himself just as much in what he says as in what he doesn’t say; he is this undivided totality.  In other words, understanding supposes at once what is said and what is left unsaid.  Our gestures often say as much as our words.  According to psychologists, only 7% of communication is through words, 38% is via the tone of the voice and 55% pertains to body language.  There is often a discrepancy between conscious discourse and unconscious discourse, the one expressed in a face, an attitude, and then the internal consistency of communication is broken.  For instance someone’s speech may be artificially playful, yet his body expresses embarrassment at first, then self-defence, then lying and concealing of inadmissible truths.


            To understand others one must also therefore have the capacity to allow him to be himself, without judging him, and listen to what he says in his presence.  And this is difficult because we are just as unable to give time and attention to other people as we are unable to listen to them.  To understand another we must be totally available to him here and now.  We must neither condemn him nor identify him to ourselves. Understanding is not judging, yet it is so easy to form prejudices about other people, much easier than trying to understand!

            One often hears that dialogue enable people to understand one another.  It is of course desirable to praise dialogue, especially in a world of incomprehension, such as our own, yet this also means that it has to be genuinely there, otherwise the apology of dialogue is no more than empty words.  What is at stake is to know how to listen, and this comes before knowing how to talk.  The art of speaking supposes a respect of others’ expectations, the art of finding where they stand in order to give them whatever answer can be given and share whatever can be shared.  It is an art founded above all on the art of listening.  Yet, listening to others reveals differences that are do not always make it easy sharing in dialogue.  One must of course drop conventional etiquettes; behind the etiquettes there is each human being’s unique personality, which defeats all comparison.  The prerequisite of all authentic understanding is therefore to throw away the image one has of the other person.  A dialogue is  -beyond conventional discourse and empty speech – to partake in somebody’s intimacy, an intimacy which is neither our own, nor anonymous.

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            We all too often forget that any human relation is nourishment both for heart and mind.  We constantly need to learn from others and this is why we must keep an openness allowing for surprises.

            Intuitive understanding makes us partake in the other as by successive waves.  As we know another person better, little by little we get closer to an original intimacy, which nevertheless also remains a mystery ever renewed.  Understanding others is not a matter of reasoning and conjecturing.  What I imagine the other to be is not how he is, only an image of him.  If we relate to others via images this both corrupts this relation and prevents direct understanding.  Even more so, the knowledge founded on objectivity is more inadequate still to do justice to the knowledge of others.


Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm

[1] Translation of chosification, literally “thingification”.  The term is borrowed from Jean-Paul Sartre, in whose works chosification is the attitude in which we treat other people as means, things, and disregard them as minds or subjects.

[2] Malebranche, Search after Truth.   Malebranche is a French Philosopher, contemporary with Louis XIV (1638-1715)  His philosophical writings are inspired by Descartes.