Is Experience the Only Path to True Understanding?

Reply Thu 3 Jul, 2003 09:32 am
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Reply Thu 3 Jul, 2003 09:46 am
Meanwhile, something happened yesterday that made me think of the original topic:

I was explaining (in sign) to the sozlet that the little boy she was playing with was deaf -- she had been trying to talk to him. One of my friend's kids observed that and asked if the sozlet thought if all adults were deaf, and all children hearing. She then explained that until she was about 4, that's what she thought, and that she would become deaf when she grew up, too. She wasn't particularly perturbed by that, just thought it was the way things worked.

So that's another example of how a narrow slice of experience (both of her parents are deaf and socialize exclusively with other deaf people) can be extrapolated to come up with a very inaccurate conclusion.
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Reply Thu 3 Jul, 2003 10:20 am
A very interesting point of view, Soz. In school as a child, i was always the "troublemaker," and the "class clown," because i was hearing-impaired, and therefore loud, without knowing it. Sadly, i cannot communicate in sign language, and am excluded from that community. Instead, i have always "stumbled along" in the hearing world, either not participating because i have not understood and did not wish to play the fool, or indulging my penchant for the absurd, because it amused me, sometimes amused others, and did not rely upon the clarity of understanding which comes with "normal" hearing. Until recently in my life, i always had a sort of "on the outside looking in" yearning for the ability to participate as others do.
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Reply Thu 3 Jul, 2003 06:09 pm
Sheeeze. And to think that I worried about which pair of errings to wear to a 4th of July party.
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Reply Fri 4 Jul, 2003 09:49 pm
Hey Setanta; of course it was always kind of obvious, but I didn't realize you were deaf too! Laughing
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Reply Mon 11 Aug, 2003 05:07 pm
Somehow this discussion reminds me of this interesting passage the 19th-century journalist Harriet Martineau wrote about the founding of the United States :

MR. MADISON remarked to me, that the United States had been "useful in proving things before held impossible." Of such proofs, he adduced several. Others, which he did not mention, have since occurred to me; and, among them, the pursuit of the a priori method in forming a constitution:--the a priori method, as it is styled by its enemies, though its advocates, with more reason, call it the inductive method. Till the formation of the government of the United States, it had been generally supposed, and it is so still by the majority of the old world, that a sound theory of government can be constructed only out of the experience of man in governments; the experience mankind has had of despotisms, oligarchies, and the mixtures of these with small portions of democracy. But the essential condition of the fidelity of the inductive method is, that all the elements of experience should be included. If, in this particular problem, of the true theory of government, we take all experience of government, and leave out all experience of man, except in his hitherto governing or governed state, we shall never reach a philosophical conclusion. The true application of the inductive method here is to test a theory of government deduced from the principles of human nature, by the results of all governments of which mankind has had experience. No narrower basis will serve for such an induction. Such a method of finding a good theory of government was considered impossible, till the United States "proved" it.

(from Society in America)

Her take is interesting in that she seems to be praising knowledge based on broad experience rather than an almost a priori understanding as the reasonable alternative to knowledge arising from a narrow set of experiences. Somehow it does seem to me that women tend to be more inductive than men are, that despite, as dlowan puts it, "sexual assault cruelly mimics acts undertaken in joy and love and delight", and so there are some very consequential experiences which it is especially important that females (being more often victims of sexual abuse) in some sense not be inductive about.

There is a sense in which understanding is more noble than experience. Indeed, it takes understanding to behave so as to make the world a better, more beautiful place--one has to understand how behaviors effect the future. Understanding is essential to the idealist. On the other hand, if because you are selfish, your goal is success, since success (to a selfish person) is easily measured, you can use your experiences to tell you which persons are successful, and merely copy their behaviors without really understanding.

As for the more recent discussion as to the sympathy/empathy distinction and how that relates to sexual abuse, I have several things to say.

If someone cares about trying to reform problems, it is helpful yes to appreciate that the other person has problems, even to appreciate on an emotional level that the other person has problems, but it is still very useful to keep in mind that they are not your problems. In fact, if you are trying to reform something that is sexual abuse or resembling sexual abuse, if you can keep in mind someone else that has been hurt then you won't as easily fall into the trap of on an emotional level viewing your efforts as an effort to save your own hindquarters. Once you do view your reforms as involved in saving your own self, all the insane emotions that the necessity to defend against abuse can elicit can arise to make your thought and reform campaign less effective. So you should try to understand--to empathise--with the others' problems but it's very important to not forget their otherness, as it were--that they are not you--so yes, in some sense excessive sympathy is counterproductive. The correct approach is like that of the French with Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years' War--by coming to view the war as an effort to save her, the French soldiers gained the sanity they needed to fight effectively. I'm sure that John Walsh (America's Most Wanted) similarly uses the memory of his son's murder to help him in his crusade to fight crime, and that one can think of other examples (but I can't offhand).

Of course, the worst thing of all is just to ignore completely others' problems, thereby making it impossible for you to help solve them, though I suppose some people like the proverbial Marie Antoinette ("let them eat cake") increase their sanity thus.

I should point out that abuse has an addictive quality that tends to screw up the understanding of the abused person. So it is far from being the case that abusive experiences give wisdom. I disagree with those psychiatrists who believe in reawakening in the victimized the experiences of victimization. Probably there are good reasons why abused people tend to forget their abuse, and that's why people have evolved to somewhat "repress" memories of abuse.

Quite generally, it is a good thing to empathise with others. Offhand, it wouldn't seem to be easy to judge another's character directly. However, you can judge another's understanding of your own character, because you know pretty well (comparatively) what your own character is. And people are deceptive typically because they got those traits from ancestors who profitted by deception. And people with deceptive ancestors usually have other ancestors (the mates of the deceptive ancestors) who were deceived. So there is every reason to believe that deceptive types would tend to inherit a tendency to easily be deceived. Since people who are easily deceived as regards character typically are so because they are insensitive, it follows that a very effective way of judging another's character is to judge his sensitivity by seeing how well he can empathise with you. So empathy is in some sense special, especially in the context of courtship and mating.
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Reply Thu 14 Aug, 2003 11:37 am
Let's go back to the original question: Is experience the only path to TRUE UNDERSTANDING.

If have read most of the responses and as far as I can tell everyone assumes they know exactly what (TRUE UNDERSTANDING IS). Only Thomas pointed out the futility of quantifying true understanding.

Anyone care to define TRUE UNDERSTANDING. There surely were some interesting responses though----it is amazing that everyone seems to be endowed with the understanding of understanding.

Please enlighten me.
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