Misunderstandings are one of the typical features of being human. We can be confident in declaring that every person who has ever lived has misunderstood others and was misunderstood by others at least once in life. This reveals the interpretive structure of our thinking and the fundamental role understanding plays in our lives. Understanding is how we grasp the meaning of something. If so, and if this human trait seems obvious to us, then why do we still misunderstand each other?
Of course, none of us is perfect. Even if I realise and agree with the self-evident importance of something, I can still fail at it sometimes. Examples that immediately come to mind are eating healthy and exercising regularly. At times we are doing our best. At other times – we are simply lazy. In other words, we are human beings. However, there is an interesting parallel we can draw here with at least some misunderstandings. What I have in mind is our frequently unconscious preference for simplicity. It can become a trap, as with any presupposition we are unaware of.
Whenever we face multiple ways of understanding something, the simplest one often appears most inviting. Simplicity as such is not a negative thing, and unnecessary complication is, by definition, excessive. However, when we feel attracted to a particular interpretation because of its straightforward clarity, it would be reasonable to pay extra attention and assess other merits of this “easy way” before granting it our support and agreement. That is, if the circumstances allow for such reflection. Here is one example.
Heraclitus: a case of oversimplification
Heraclitus lived around the turn of the 6th and the 5th centuries BCE (before the common era). He is one of the so-called “pre-Socratic” thinkers (those Ancient Greek philosophers who were active before Socrates). If you have heard the famous statement, “You cannot step into the same river twice”, you have heard something of Heraclitus – this remark is attributed to him. What is Heraclitus saying here? The first interpretation that comes to my mind is that everything constantly changes, that change and flow are all there is and that nothing ever persists. This is simple enough, and if I discussed it with Heraclitus, I could nod and say, “I understand what you mean”. But do I?
What other interpretations might be revealed if I do not stop at this simple answer? If I think about it, does the river really change? For instance, isn’t the river Nile the same today as yesterday? If not, and it is a different river every moment, can we keep calling it by the same name? What exactly was the argument of Heraclitus when making this statement?
To consider the philosopher’s point closer, it is worth looking at another version of his river-statement: “Different waters flow over those who step into the same rivers”. Here, Heraclitus asserts explicitly that the rivers are the same, but the waters change. Moreover, what he is pointing out is the concept of simultaneous opposition. I understand the Nile to be the same river today as yesterday and to have different waters flowing in it every instant. How can this be? If something is the same as it used to be, how can it simultaneously be different?
Here we come to the understanding of Heraclitus’s main argument that was not revealed in the initial, simple interpretation. Namely, Heraclitus argues that reality is a unity of opposites. With this core principle in mind, it would not be enough to interpret the philosopher’s river-statement as a claim that there is nothing but constant change. Such interpretation would be skewed and lead to a misunderstanding because it would not include any focus on opposition – something that was central for Heraclitus.
What is the opposite of change? Stability. The river is simultaneously the same and different. The fact that we can perceive only one side of the opposites (either/or) demonstrates to Heraclitus that our understanding of reality is limited. His idea is that reality is, in fact, a diversity of various opposites that are united, all at the same time. Heraclitus offers helpful examples of this unity of opposites: seawater is at the same time suitable for fish and dangerous for humans; gold is at the same time useless to donkeys and valuable to humans; road up is at the same time road down.
Importantly – in all these examples, the state of affairs does not depend on our perspective; it is not a relativist position. For Heraclitus, the road is simultaneously a road up and down, regardless of whether I am on that road and which way I am going. Just like we fail to notice that a bow is held together by tension, our understanding also struggles to comprehend that the tension between the opposites makes up reality as a unified whole.
Complexify to reduce oversimplification
The case of Heraclitus serves to stimulate our thoughts about the ultimate nature of reality and show how we can misunderstand others due to our preference for simple interpretations. Simplicity is highly valued in various contexts of human life. For instance, the well-known law of parsimony, also known as Occam’s razor (attributed to the 14th-century Scholastic philosopher William of Ockham), is a principle used in science that prioritises simplicity: “of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred”. Although it must be utilised carefully, this principle involves deliberate reflection and is not the uncritical inclination to oversimplify explored above.
In his recently published book “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain”, writer George Saunders captures the significance and difficulty of staying open to new ways of understanding, new perspectives, and new interpretations. It comes at a high cost of facing uncertainty with courage:
“It’s hard to be alive. The anxiety of living makes us want to judge, be sure, have a stance, definitively decide. Having a fixed, rigid system of belief can be a great relief… Reconsideration is hard; it takes courage. We have to deny ourselves the comfort of always being the same person, one who arrived at an answer some time ago and has never had any reason to doubt it. In other words, we have to stay open (easy to say, in that confident, New Age way, but so hard to actually do, in the face of actual, grinding, terrifying life)… In a world full of people who seem to know everything, passionately, based on little (often slanted) information, where certainty is often mistaken for power, what a relief it is to be in the company of someone confident enough to stay unsure (that is, perpetually curious).”George Saunders
Although written more than 30 years earlier, these words of philosopher Jacques Derrida, referring to the bad reader as the one who is fearful and “in a hurry to be determined, decided upon deciding”, echo the invitation to complexify one’s thought to guard against oversimplified certainties:
“Now, it is bad, and I know of no other definition of the bad, it is bad to predestine one’s reading, it is always bad to foretell. It is bad, reader, no longer to like retracing one’s steps.”Jacques Derrida
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