horatioalderaan (horatioalderaan) wrote,

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Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 7

The Possibility of Communication

Communication is possible, even though different people may have very different conceptual systems. It is just difficult.

The way people think varies greatly between cultures because there are many ways to form a conceptual mapping from bodily experience to abstract concept. For example, in English, when I say ‘The elephant is in front of the tree’, I mean that the elephant is between the tree and myself. In the Hasua language, saying the Elephant is in front on the tree would mean the opposite: That the elephant was on the other side of the tree [1]. In Hasua, ‘front’ means facing the same direction I am. Both are valid ways of conceptualising orientation.

In spite of this, even though the mapping from bodily concept to abstract concept is largely influenced by culture and environment, bodily concepts remain much the same. Also, because we have common needs for things like food, clothing and shelter, many other basic experiences are the same regardless of culture and environment.

Within my own culture, surrounded by people who have enormous amounts of similar experiences to me, and share similar conceptual systems, communication is relatively easy. Problems still arise, for example, I might assume someone has experienced something in common with me, when they have not. And there are always slight variations in our experiences. On the whole, however, our conceptual systems are fairly similar and it is possible to make sense of each other.

Across cultures and languages, the task is much more difficult, but still possible because of universal bodily experiences. Even if someone’s conceptual system is radically different from my own, it is still possible for me to understand another person’s way of thinking. Our brains are flexible enough to learn new conceptual metaphors. We can even think about the same concept using multiple, mutually inconsistent metaphors. So it is possible for us to learn to see things differently.

Communication is possible. Certainly, some things will be impossible for me to understand until I have experienced them and lived in the culture. There will always be some concepts however, like spatial-relations, that I can learn because I have a body, just like everyone else. So then, communication is possible, but it is difficult and will never be a perfect transfer from mind to mind.

[1] Lakoff, G. 1987 , Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind, The University of Chicago press, Chicago.

Tags: cognitive flexibility, communication, knowledge
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