Challenges of Philosophies in Communication

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

As I look at the program for Communications Week, I am aware that I am the eccentric member of the group. Everybody else is talking about communication in a perfectly normal way. Mass communication, television as a means of communication, communication that involves various technical facilities, communication in the fields of politics or economics — that is the way the program reads.

If there are philosophies of communication, I do not know what they are. I am going to change the title to the singular to give you my own philosophical reflections on the meaning and nature of communication. You can multiply that by any number you want. I am concerned with communication as an attempt by a person to convey thoughts or feelings to one or more other persons. It makes no difference to me whether there are any technical facilities or not, whether it is done directly or indirectly, in the open air or at the bottom of a pit.

I am interested in the whole tradition and history of the great ideas in our Western civilization. Communication is not among them. Communication is a word about as recent in anybody’s vocabulary as “salesmanship.” Some time in this century words like “communication” became important words in our vocabularies. I cannot imagine any of our academic ancestors alive prior to the beginning of this century even able to imagine what a School of Communications would do. It was not an academic subject.

Although the word is new, what that word stands for, in the deepest sense, is not new, nor are the problems new either. As I look back at the tradition of Western thought, philosophers have from the beginning, from Plato and Aristotle on, been concerned with the process of communication. If you ask a philosopher today what he means by “communication” I think he will take the question as a very easy one. It is the kind of question in which he would expect agreement among all persons offering answers (unlike many other ideas which are much more difficult than that). He would say communication is the process whereby one person transmits to other persons — another person — thoughts and feelings that he wishes the other person to have, to adopt, to consider, to act on. But this is an inadequate definition of communication because it is one-way communication. Propaganda is of this sort. I may not adopt or act on ideas or feelings that I wish you to adopt or act on; this is a failure in communication in which I, the communicator, am not becoming one with you, the communicatee. The process is one in which two persons come to share the same thoughts or feelings; they become in a sense assimilated to one another, in understanding, emotion, judgment or decision.

This is a widespread human difficulty. Angels have no difficulty at all about communication; angels communicate telepathically. I think telepathy should be reserved for angels. In the angelic hierarchy, every angel understands perfectly the mind of every other angel. There is no other medium of communication. Human communication unfortunately involves media — physical media — language, signs, gestures. And since telepathic communication involves no machinery, there are no techniques of communication among angels.

What are the main problems in communication? I think they are three. First, to understand the nature of the obstacles to communication and to make a sober judgment as to how far they are surmounted. Second, to know or develop the techniques and means for overcoming these difficulties as far as that is possible. And third, estimate the importance of communication in the personal life of the individual and of mankind at large. Of these three concerns I think we in the 20th century have, better than our ancestors, an understanding of the importance of communication. I do not think we have a better understanding of the intellectual means of communication, and I do not think we have a better understanding than they did of the obstacles or difficulties.

The first difficulty is that every language is imperfect as a medium of communication. The ideal of the perfect language is absolutely illusory, semantics to the contrary notwithstanding. The great 17th century philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, had this ideal, but the very clarity with which he stated it illustrates how illusory it was. He said if we had a “universal characteristic” for every idea — a unique symbol that represented that idea alone — communication would be facilitated to a high degree. From Leibnitz down to Bertrand Russell, the whole tradition of logistics, of mathematical logic, of symbolism has been bothered by this ideal. If only we could invent an ideal language that would be free from ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings, our problems would be solved.

Any conventional language, whether the language of mathematics or any other kind of language, because it is humanly instituted, will have the basic imperfections of language. One of these basic imperfections that will never be removed and will only be partly surmounted is that a given symbol has more than one meaning, and that for a given object there are two or more symbols. What Leibnitz had in mind was one symbol, one thing.

Our language habits are just as individual as our eating habits, our walking habits, and our dressing habits. The interesting thing about each person is that he is attached to his own vocabulary and to his own idiom as to his own flesh. Every person has a persistent, almost unconquerable desire to use words in his own way. I know this from many, many years of lecturing and discussion in which I have often said to an audience, “Please, now, for this evening let me use the word X (whatever the word is) in this sense and only in this sense. I know you have other meanings for it, but let me use it for this evening in this one sense. And when you use it, use it in this sense, too.” People will not do it. It violates the sanctity of their verbal habits.

Another difficulty is the fact that unlike the angels who are purely intellectual beings, we unfortunately are, so far as we are rational animals, (a lot of accent on the “animal” part) full of emotions and feelings as well as of thoughts and judgments, and the same language expresses both. Now this is not a figment of the modern semantic distinction between the emotive and ideational use of words, I assure you. It is basically important because ideas and feelings are, and often should be, associated and even fused. But it is confusing when words that seem to express thought only do express feelings, or when words that seem to convey thought only arouse feeling.

There is a still further complication in the use of language. We use our minds for two different purposes: to think in order to know, and to think in order to act. Action and knowledge are the aims. The theoretical order is the order in which knowledge is the end; the practical order is where action is the end, and language serves both purposes. We sometimes address ourselves to our fellow men not to get them to know, but to get them to do something. It is very important to know what you are doing, and for the person to whom you are talking to know which you are doing. These two dimensions — the theoretical, with knowledge as an end, and the practical, with action as an end — are often confused.

There is still another difference. It is perfectly obvious that for any two or more persons to communicate effectively, they need a common background of experience or knowledge as the general context for coming to terms with one another. Why is it difficult to communicate certain things to children? The answer is they do not have the experience from which the meanings are formed. You have to wait until they get the experience before the words take on the meaning. Talk to strangers whose knowledge of you is unsure, who do not know what you know. Clearly, if you had someone alongside of you who had very much your own experience, whose experience paralleled yours, overlapped it, whose knowledge was like your knowledge, communication would be easier, would it not? Ideally, if two-thirds of us could have identical knowledge, communication would he easier still. But this difficulty exists in the relation of any two persons, however similar they may be in their background, for their experience and knowledge are never identical, and not being identical, they have a difficulty of discourse.

All of you are aware that on any university faculty there are failures in communication. The degree of specialization is so great. You have educated specialists who are so much specialists they have nothing in common with one another. At professional meetings people are broken into sub-sections and sub-sections of subsections to get a few people together who can talk to one another. Otherwise, it is just not possible.

There is also the need for self-understanding as a basis for understanding others or being understood by them. By definition, of course, communication normally applies to two or more persons — the self and the other. Freud’s greatest insight, in my judgment — and the formative insight which underlies all of psychoanalytic theory and psychotherapy — is that neurosis and psychosis always involves schizophrenia or split personality. It is a personality split that is represented by imperfect communication between the thoughts of the self. The reason Freud began to call his cure the “Talking Cure” was that he saw that what he was doing by getting the patient to talk to him was eventually going to produce a translation from one language that the patient used to another. Let me illustrate that very quickly for you:

There are two languages that all of us who are neurotic (and all of us are) use. There is the language of the repressed id, and the language of the ego. The language of the socialized ego is the social language of the country. The language of the repressed id is the language of dreams, of symptoms, of all kinds of lapses, of the whole machinery of aberration. Manifest concepts are the symbols of dreams and not what the dreams say. If that were the case, you could say it and you would not need a dream. So you have one person talking two languages and trying not to communicate with himself.

That split condition has been present in every form of neurosis and psychosis. Psychotherapy is nothing but a process of getting at these two languages and translating one into the other, producing communication. When you get such communication it is what the Greek wise men long before Socrates said was the highest wisdom: namely, Know Thyself. The basic point is, the Ideal Communicator or the Ideal Communicatee is the person who perfectly understands himself. Since none of us really do understand ourselves, we are all imperfect as communicators or communicatees.

Communication also requires a great deal of energy. It takes great effort to say what we mean. Speech is easy, as you know, but careful, precise, clear thoughtful speech? Very difficult. It is as hard as thinking, than which there is nothing harder. Most of us are lazy about thinking, and most of us in consequence are lazy about thoughtful speech. I think you will find as you go back in your life that only when the need is very great do you really make the effort. Normally you just slither through the day, in clumsy, sloppy fashion and communication is very poor.

To what degree are these difficulties surmountable?

How far can we overcome the imperfections of language?

Only slightly.

How far can we keep the relations of our thoughts and our feelings in good order?

Very slightly.

How far can we go to create a common background of knowledge and experience for all men?

Not very far.

How much can we attain the ideal of each man perfectly understanding himself without psychosis or neurosis to any degree?

Not very much.

How many of us are willing, every time we talk to another human being, to expend the effort to really do it well?

Few of us or, if ever, few times.

How many of us are free from all neurosis and in perfect possession of the moral and the intellectual virtues?

As you answer that question you will see that I am not exaggerating when I say that a fifty per cent success in the process of communication would be very good, indeed. We probably do not come near that now.

    • *Hearing the difficulties, and my estimate of their insurmountability, how does one approach them? Let me give you the answer in general, and then in particular.

The answer in general is three things: In order of difficulty, you overcome them by psychoanalysis, training in the liberal arts, and general education.

If there really were effective psychoanalysis (which I doubt); if everyone were really well trained in the liberal arts; and if everyone had a sound general education, I think we might lift communication to a somewhat higher level. These are the only means and techniques I know for doing anything about the problem.

One reason I think that all of us have the feeling that communication is more difficult today — and in fact, why we have schools of communication — is that we live in a century when training in the liberal arts has almost disappeared, and even when it is present, is very inadequate. I want to be sure you understand the liberal arts are not the humanities. The liberal arts are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These arts, when mastered and practiced, help the person to use language more effectively for clear purposes at hand.

I am not talking about ordinary courses in these subjects. I am talking about training in reading, writing, speaking and listening from the point of view of the grammatical and logical aspects of those processes. We can leave an. audience out entirely. The question is: Can I get the statement to say what I mean? Can I get conformity of the statement in my mind — forgetting now communication with anybody else? It is terribly hard to put on paper in words what you mean. Grammar and logic are the tools for doing that. Rhetoric uses grammar and logic, but it goes further than that, not only to get a statement that says what I mean, but to get it to say what I mean in a way that will add to an understanding of the meaning. It is the controlling office, so far as communication is concerned.

Take a look at the men who went to school in our colonial colleges. Those young people were trained in grammar, logic and rhetoric in its artistic sense of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Look at the kind of political communication that took place in the 18th century. Look at the basis of our Constitutional Convention. If you listen to Adams speak to Jefferson or Jefferson speak to Adams in a letter — you will find nothing parallel to it today. They were not geniuses, they were not any brighter than we, they were not better educated in the sense of being more learned, but they wrote and talked, listened and responded much better than we. I can only attribute it to the fact that they were better liberal artists.

Now take my third general point, and that is general education. By “general” I mean something that everybody shares before he starts to specialize. I would if I could remove every elective from the educational program. I would outlaw specialization prior to the Bachelor of Arts degree. The degree would signify not only training in the liberal arts but a common general education for everyone, exactly the same. I do not mean it would be administered in the same way at all levels, but its content and aims would be the same, so that the total population would have a common background of intellectual experience. When John Erskine finally persuaded the Columbia faculty in 1920 to put into the curriculum in the junior and senior years what was called the General Honors courses — the beginning of the Great Books reading — his reason for it was very simple. It was designed to find some common concept of learning, to form an intellectual community.

I said also I would give you the answer in particular. Let me do it very quickly:

In particular, listening is important and much more difficult than talking. Let me describe to you what many conversations that you and I have are like:

Jones and Smith meet. Jones makes some remarks, and Smith waits for Jones to stop talking; he is polite and quiet. When Jones finishes talking, saying what he has to say, Smith begins. It is not necessarily relevant to anything that Jones has said, but it is his turn to talk. He has not been listening, he has been thinking of what he is going to say; his cars have been cocked to catch the time when Jones’ voice drops and he can begin. Jones will then stand politely by while Smith delivers himself of whatever he has. This is the way many conversations go, for many hours. I have heard them in planes, in drawing rooms, at dinner parties, and in classrooms. The reason is as I say, talking is easy, but listening is very hard. It requires an effort at attention, at sympathy, at interpretation, with all the attendant difficulties about words and differences in the other person’s idiom.

Most of us, by the way, do not speak interrogatively. Most of us use declarative sentences. You often say, “Don’t make a statement. Ask a question.” A statement comes back. When you make a statement you are really demanding that the other person listen to you. When you ask a question, you are obliging yourself to listen to what the other person says. Some people ask questions and do not fulfill the obligation. You can not ask a good second question without listening to the answer to the first question. The wonderful thing about the Dialogues of Plato — which, of course, is idealized communication — is that Socrates always understands perfectly everything that everybody says to the Gods, which of course is inhuman. But Socrates’ questions are absolutely relevant to the previous things; he knows what to ask to get an understanding of them.

Now let me turn from the narrow world of our personal lives to the larger intellectual and political worlds and then conclude:

Before I came out to San Francisco I spent eight years in producing the Synopticon, which was an effort to find out whether there were any common themes of conversation in the great tradition of Western thought. The work convinced me there were common themes, so much so that we even coined the phrase, “The Great Conversation” to represent it.

What this study did, actually, was to discover how very bad the “Great Conversation” was among the best philosophers, how little they addressed themselves to one another. Not only was there little real agreement and disagreement about the most important questions, but when there was disagreement, there was little real disputation of thought on the subject. Perhaps this is all right. It has only been twenty-five hundred years and that is not a very long time in any tradition. Maybe we will grow up intellectually and do better millions of years ahead. I think we will take that much time. I do not look for improvement tomorrow.


Originally published in Journalism Quarterly, University of Washington, Special Summer Supplement 1963, pp. 444-459.

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