Can We Ever Understand Another’s Thoughts?

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”
Willa Cather

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‘The Nut Gatherers (1882) W.A. Bougereau

 

A previous post  mentioned the poet Tyutchev’s words: ‘A thought once spoken is a lie.’ Today’s post will develop this theme.

It would appear that the poet is saying that there is absolutely no way in which we can ever speak the truth of our thoughts; it is as though there is some mechanism in the uttering process which automatically gives the lie to our words.

Can this really be so? Should we resist sharing our thoughts because they can never really be communicated in their true and honest form? Is disclosing our thoughts, then, a futile act? Furthermore, if we were able to share our thoughts truthfully, would another person be able to really understand them?

This last question brings to mind the views of the writer Janet Malcolm in a book entitled Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

‘…we cannot know each other.  We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain.’

Malcolm categorically states that there is no hope of ever achieving a clear view of others, whilst the poet has warned us of the impossibility of ever sharing our thoughts in a real and true way, and of them being understood by others. These opinions leave us with an impossibility, for they abandon us, trapping us within a universal, self-created tragedy that condemns us to eternal solitude. Are we really so confined within our own minds, so isolated with our thoughts?

The answer is yes and no. These writers may ultimately be right in their assertions. Obviously, it is impossible to understand totally another’s thoughts and to speak the truth unconditionally. However, these gloomy outlooks might be mitigated a little if we accept that we cannot achieve absolute understanding of self and other. We can only try express our thoughts honestly, with due consideration and discretion. We can only attempt to understand another’s thoughts and being.

With open and flexible thinking, challenging our assumptions and our subjectivities, it is likely that we will move in the direction of perceiving reality about self and other. We can then value this extraordinary journey, whilst being fully aware that we will never reach its endpoint. (Although, in another, more spiritual dimension, it is possible to experience a sense of ‘becoming other.’ This intimate encounter with ‘the other’ will be further explored in a future blog post.)

In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie supports this more optimistic attitude through his character Jumpi Joshi, the poet. These views contrast strikingly with those of the afore-mentioned writers:

‘Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.’

Is  Jumpi Joshi, then, saying that the thoughts we give words to are the truth, not lies? I think that he is; however, in order to understand and interpret his comment, we need to examine what is meant by ‘truth’.

In an essay intriguingly entitled ‘“It was so it was not so:” The Clash of Language in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,’ Terri Beth Miller highlights the fact that there are many kinds of truth reflected in the book:

‘What emerges from this cacophony of cultural discourses–theological, nationalistic, sociological–is a theory of humanity, and of language, that embodies no singular attribute, neither purity nor evil, neither God nor Satan, neither truth nor lie, but rather contains all such attributes, all of the time. ‘

Truth is complex, not simple and this complexity is a part of the human condition. It differs from person to person. There is no absolute truth, there is a rich tapestry of many different truths. Perhaps understanding another’s thoughts involves being able to hold several different truths in mind at the same time.

Julian Baggini’s book A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World details the many different kinds of truth that exist. In this illuminating quotation, he speaks of ‘relative truth’ :

‘The relativist impulse is by and large a noble one. It is opposed to the ownership of truth by one, usually privileged group; the crowding out of alternative perspectives; the simplification of complex reality. But none of this requires us to give up on truth. Indeed, it should require us to treasure it even more, because if none of these different ways of seeing and knowing is true in anything more than a personal or parochial way, why care about any of them? If what is true for me is not true for you then either one of us is wrong, or both of us have only one hand on the truth and need each other’s help to see the whole of it. The panoply of legitimate perspectives should not therefore lead to the fragmentation of truth. Rather we should bring as many of these perspectives together as possible to create a fuller vision of reality.’

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How might this ‘fuller version of reality’ be created? Perhaps through a combination of common sense, some judgement, intuition and clear vision?

There is definitely need, as Baggini says, to be open to the existence of many different kinds of truths : ‘One of the problems we face is not the absence of truth, but its overabundance. Competing eternal truths underpin many conflicts and divisions.’

William James supports this opinion when he says that ‘The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.’

Additionally, the statement of Marcus Aurelius provides considerable clarity: ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’ This view is echoed by Gustave Flaubert who said: ‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’

These views alert us to the fact that the concept of truth is complex and our understanding of others need to be informed by this. It surely provides us with a creative antidote to the view that we could never understand another’s thoughts. We might not, as Malcolm says, be able to ‘see each other plain.’ But what actually is ‘plain’?

In spite of the fact that we might never be able to completely experience another’s way of thinking and seeing the world, we may still strive to understand their thoughts in an empathic way. Speaking one’s thoughts and having their true meanings, in all their multifarious forms, understood by another, can be a creative and collaborative experience, leading to a real meeting of minds.

Can we ever know another person? Do leave your thoughts on this below. I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks!

The Importance of Early Experience and Social Relationships in the Development of Thinking

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‘The Bee sucks the sweets from wild thyme & marjoram; now it is honey & neither marjoram nor thyme.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The metaphor of the bee producing honey expresses much in relation to how human beings absorb and take in what they need from others. What we have learned from other people becomes our own through a psychological process called internalisation. It involves a kind of transformation of others’ ways of being, taken into the very fabric of ourselves. From our earliest beginnings, we have introjected, assimilated into our personalities, aspects of those around us. From this process we come to produce for ourselves authentic thoughts; these originate from the stimulation of others as we learn from their incentives and encouragement.

The psychoanalytic theory of object relations suggests that our early experiences of those who look after us are paramount in terms of future development. The term ‘object’ is a little misleading, as it actually refers to a person. For example, a parent is usually a ‘primary object.’ The perceptions we have of these early relationships and their internal representations, will colour and shape our future lives and relationships.

Ways of thinking about ourselves develop from early experience with our primary caregivers. The responsiveness of the other person to the child, the way in which the child’s image is mirrored and reflected in the mother’s eyes, crucially influence the child’s self image. A significant other who is not empathic, who cannot attune to the child’s needs, will not be able to help that child develop a sense of self that is cohesive and sustaining. The way the mother thinks about her child will form and affect the manner in which the child thinks about herself:

‘The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein… provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.’
D.W. Winnicott

Thoughts do not evolve out of seclusion; interaction with others is essential in relation to the formation of thoughts.  In Thinking in Literature, Anthony Uhlmann points that, according to Spinoza:

‘Thought itself involves, or is, the relation between elements; the ratios which measure and identify things as networks of relations.’

Thus the thinking process itself involves making links and connections; in etymological terms, the words relation, ratio, rationale, reckoning, reason, reasoning and thought are all connected, all come from the same root.

In his book The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson suggests that it was ‘social engagement’ that originally produced thought in early human beings and that the development of thought in the infant mirrors the beginnings of thought in the history of the human being:

‘Before language , there was something else – more basic, in a way more primitive, and with unequalled power in its formative potential, that propelled us into language. Something that could evolve in tiny steps, but suddenly gave rise to the thinking processes that revolutionised mental life. Something that (unfortunately) no fossil remains can show us. That something else was social engagement with each other. The links that can join one person’s mind with the mind of someone else – especially, to begin with emotional links – are the very links that draw us into thought. To put it crudely: the foundations of thinking were laid at the point when ancestral primates began to connect with each other emotionally in the same way that human babies connect with their caregivers.’

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The importance of social relationships in relation to thinking is thus paramount; Hobson also describes how infants develop their thinking processes in response to others and he emphasizes the importance of what occurs ‘between people’:

‘The roots of thought are embedded here, in what happens by virtue of one individual’s experience of someone else.’

This connectedness with others is significant throughout our lives. As adults, we continue to be influenced by the thoughts and feelings of those around us. Indeed it is important that we are affected by other people, in terms of our own self-development.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut developed the model of self-psychology, seeing significant others in early life as self-objects, who could provide empathic sustainment for the development of the self. Although the need to depend on others for one’s sense of self does decrease during adulthood , in his work The Restoration Of The Self, Kohut emphasised that fact that adults do continue to use others as self-objects throughout their lives.

As adults, we can continue our psychological development, then, through interactions with others who inspire us. Hopefully having internalised some good-enough self objects during childhood, we can continue to make new connections which stimulate and motivate us.

We can develop our thinking and continue to gain self-esteem from others in adulthood, such as our spouse, partner, therapist, work colleagues, friends, educators. What we need, throughout the life cycle, is other people who can respond to us with understanding and care:

‘Man can no more survive psychologically in a psychological milieu that does not respond empathetically to him, than he can survive physically in an atmosphere that contains no oxygen.’

Heinz Kohut.

 

Thoughts and Secrecy

 

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How important is it for us to have secret thought processes? Should we always reveal what we think? These are important questions, with powerful implications, which need thinking through.

Imagine for a moment what would be revealed to others, if there were no secrecy and no censorship of our innermost thoughts. What if all of our private our thoughts were displayed to those around us, if thought bubbles appeared above our heads? How might this affect our lives, our relationships, our world?

The philosopher Hanna Arendt felt that thought involves ‘that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking’ (“two-in-one”).  In an article entitled ‘Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship II ‘, Arendt underlines the importance of an inner dialogue between two parts of the self,  ‘me and myself’, in which issues can be thought through and discussed internally, The two parts need to have agreement, in order for the person to be clear and just in their dealings with others.

What is central to such thinking is the development of an integrated and ‘whole’ personality. In psychoanalytic terms, this means that aspects of the self are not split off, divided from our consciousness. If we are able to achieve this internal integration, then   the inner conversation will be an open one,  in that the inner arguments can be balanced, with thoughts and ideas freely accessed.

This internal dialogue is an important aspect of thinking with which we can all identify, but perhaps we may not have given it much of our attention. These silent whisperings are a part of everyday life. Sometimes they are not so silent; we have all sub-vocalised, or heard others whispering to themselves, as they work out their thought-processes.

This silent thinking is also powerfully explored in David Lodge’s fine novel Thinks . Lodge’s principal character, Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science, is studying human consciousness. Messenger records his own thoughts in a ‘stream of consciousness,’ as a way of researching into ‘the structure of thought.’

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In Lodge’s novel, Messenger believes that ‘we can never know for certain what another person is thinking’. We need the secrecy. Messenger’s lover, Helen, underlines the reasons why she will not allow him access to her own secret thoughts ostensibly for his research. She emphasises the importance of privacy and of concealing thoughts to ‘maintain our self-respect’, which she views as ‘essential to civilisation.’

It is interesting to consider just how central is this secrecy of our thoughts to the maintaining of civilised behaviour in the world. Arendt also regards this private, internal reasoning process as essential to the avoidance of committing evil deeds. Without it, we would act without consideration, without standards, without internally questioning our morality.

Shakespeare has characters in two of his plays utter the phrase that ‘Thought is free’ (The Tempest and Twelfth Night.) This is true. We are free to think whatever we choose. However, freedom of thought is different from freedom of speech. Speaking our thoughts without consideration can be dangerous and hurtful.

We cannot always say what we think if our thoughts are offensive or likely to imperil others. Internal, personal editing, and sometimes censoring the expression of some thoughts is essential. In democratic societies there are often laws that prevent dangerous and criminal thoughts and ideas from being expressed publicly, such as those that involve as racism and sexism. Whilst some people may harbour such thoughts, they cannot be expressed legally in public.

The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, in a poem entitled Silentium, implies that thinking can be dangerous and he counsels us to keep our thoughts to ourselves:

Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.

We are urged to recognise the impossibility of a thought being expressed clearly and truthfully:

What heart can ever speak its mind?
How can some other understand
the hidden pole that turns your life?
A thought, once spoken, is a lie.

This last line is, indeed thought-provoking. Can we ever understand another’s thoughts, once they are spoken? Or is it better to keep silent, as the poet says?