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Understanding the Other

photo  Haiti 

I was challenged recently about the power of the other to reorient one’s perspective and thinking.  The top left picture you see is from a recent vacation cruise my family and I enjoyed as a celebration of my daughter’s high school graduation.  It was a grand trip with lots of food and sun.  The second picture is a stock news photo of the tent cities that still exist in Haiti.  The devastating earthquake of 2010 displaced 25% of the population and over 350,000 people still live in makeshift housing.  The dissonance I so acutely experienced during this particular trip is that both photos are taken in Haiti.  The one on the left is from a sanitized outcropping of the Haitian shoreline acquired by Royal Caribbean Cruise lines as a stop over for its massive seafaring hotels.  The picture on the right is representative of the view many thousands of Haitians experience each day. 

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (2011) began a recent essay with the following words:  “The great challenge of this century, both for politics and for social science, is that of understanding the other.”  He goes on to suggest that there are two ways of knowing.  The first knows an object – like knowing the dimensions of a table, or the solution to an algebraic equation.  This preferred scientific mode of operating involves knowing something to the point that I may gain full intellectual control - so that it can’t “talk back.”  To a large extent my discipline, psychology, has attempted this mode of knowing as it seeks to understand the behavior and mental processes of humans.  It would take too long to outline the less than satisfactory outcomes this mode of operating has produced in the human sciences, suffice to say that the modern scientific project has significant limits when attempting to understand the experience I had in Haiti.  Yes Festinger’s theory of dissonance is an apt description, but it does little to highlight the complex cultural, psychological and religious factors swirling in my mind

Perhaps Taylor’s take on Hans Gadamer’s ideas will shed some light.  Gadamer (a 20th century German Philosopher) suggests that knowing other humans involves knowing the other as a speech partner.  Coming to an understanding of the other requires that I give some ground in my objections – the goal is not control – there is no finality.  Gadamer does not see our way to gaining complete intellectual control, even in principle, in human affairs.  Some in the scientific community are looking to locate and anchor an account of human experience that subtend’s culture making culture trivial & and negligible because of a more foundational level of understanding – sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.   Culture is seen as an epiphenomenon  - the surface expression of an underlying “more basic” mode of causation.  Even some recent discussions of in neuroscience have this flavor. 

Our problem is scientific language has invaded most of our ways of understanding humans.  As Taylor states the great achievement of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution was to develop a language for nature that was purged of human meanings.  This correlated with notions of tolerance of religious differences and the idea that political differences can be negotiated in the liberal democracy.  However, with liberal tolerance difference is really never encountered or engaged.  I can distance myself from the Haitian dilemma (the western worlds poorest nation) through the experience distant categories of political corruption, foreign aid, pagan religious practices, or acts of God.  But this leaves me short of a genuine encounter with the human being who calls him or herself Haitian. 

In the hard sciences like physics and chemistry the language of science brackets human meaning and still functions effectively, but to do this with human science means you have no meaning  - such as explaining humans purely on the basis of, learning, behavior or neurophysiology. Taylor argues, and I agree, the road to understanding others requires the patient undoing of our implicit understandings that distorts the reality of the other. This can only happen when we allow ourselves to be challenged and questioned by what is different in the other’s life, which confronts us with our own peculiarity – is it not strange to ride around on a floating hotel?  It is then that we approach an undistorted view of their life and our own.

Gadamer sees this process of understanding to be a “fusion of horizons” – distinct at first, as seen from different points of view, but fused when one or both undergo a shift – horizon's are extended to make room for the new way of creating meaning or perceiving the world.  This requires openness to the text of traditions, how they differ and how we can allow other’s traditions to question us.  We need to look for the most accurate understandings of the other – not to diminish the essence of difference to convenient categories or attributes – and not to minimize the difference by looking for a comprehensive account of the other in order to control our anxiety.

As horizons fuse we realize there are no fixed horizons.  When we move so does the horizon. Horizons can be different but they can also travel, change, or extend.  The danger in these conversations is to move too quickly – to understand the other based on our categories which may initially be experienced as an alien imposition.  We need to watch how we think in our “neutral” categories: family, religion, political system, Other cultures may not have these categories and seem unintelligible.  We attribute other‘s motives as evil (suicide bomber) or crazy.  Moreover, experiencing difference creates anxiety.  We fear the disintegration of the self as our narcissistic needs are threatened.  If our personal identity organization is not validated with sameness our grandiosity or self-cohesiveness is endangered. 

So what do we do? What do I do?  I’m not sure, celebrating achievement and family is not wrong or entitled, but I wonder how much I must surrender my categories – my culture, my religion, my tradition – in order to fully grasp the other?  It is not a loss of self, but a surrender of self for the grander purpose of love and care.  Where shall I look for such a model?    

Taylor, C. (2011). Dilemmas and connections. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard.


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Earl Bland is a clinical psychologist, Professor of Psychology and Chair of the MNU Behavioral Sciences Department.


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Guest Thursday, 24 July 2014

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OhBehave is the outreach blog of the MNU Behavioral Sciences Department. In matters related to Psychology, Sociology, and Criminal Justice you will find information and updates geared to keep students and professionals abreast of the latest research, professional developments, and important trends in each field. As we seek a life of purpose, the material presented in this blog is meant to enhance and deepen our understanding of people and our world so that we may intentionally reflect the grace and peace of our creator.