On The Inadequacy of Language

I’m saddened (though not, sadly, surprised) by your characterisation of “a concern with how your message is received” as dishonesty. It seems to me rather that the problems you, many of your respondents, Aldous Huxley and (I might add) St. Augustine have with the communicative power of language is that you’re looking in the wrong place. All these points of view see the communication as essentially complete once the originator has formulated it. The only problem is transporting the precious cargo to its destination…

It seems to me, however, that the idea that human communication is like wireless communication (this is essentially the Shannon and Weaver model,) though almost an assumption these days, is fundamentally mistaken. In communications between people, there is no encoder/decoder etc., and no corruption of the message (unless I can’t hear you, of course.)

So when does communication happen? My answer is, when it’s received, not when it’s issued. It’s not the recipient’s responsibility to figure out whether what they understand by a communication is what the originator intended, though they may factor their idea of, and expectations about, the originator into what they understand the originator might probably, or possibly, or conceivably, have meant to say.

How do I verify that someone has correctly understood what I’ve said? Well, when they say something back to me. And that can’t be just repeating what I said to them. That’s like talking to a parrot. And it can’t be something equivalent to what I said in the first place. That’s like talking to yourself. It needs to be something that’s like what I said, but with an idea of them attached to it: what I can believe they could have believed about what I said… And so it goes on: each link in the conversational chain happens in the recipient, not in the originator. And if you want to communicate properly, it seems to me the only honest thing to do is think about how your audience is going to receive what you say. How this works in megaphone communications like those of the net is, of course, difficult — or would be, could we not take comfort in the idea that it’s already been solved for books.

Sorry to have been so prolix, and for trespassing on your thoughts to such an extent…

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