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Incomprehension versus Misunderstanding


Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #4)


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In the effort to identity sources dealing with "incomprehension", it became evident that there is a greater focus on "misunderstanding", with the two being readily conflated. Some of those insights are of relevance to this argument. However a fruitful distinction between them here lies in the experiential quality of incomprehension indicative of a total -- typically astonished -- lack of any "understanding". In that sense. "misunderstanding" is indicative of the presence of a form of understanding which is (later) acknowledged or criticized as being inappropriate.

Lack of understanding: Incomprehension is then a more serious cognitive condition than understanding in a manner that may, possibly or arguably, at some stage be demonstrated to be mistaken. This implies that "incomprehension" is then the experience of a lack of any "understanding" (or explanatory framework) felt to be appropriate to the circumstances. Whilst "misunderstanding" may invite remedial explanation, or be potentially open to it, any explanation may be felt to be totally inappropriate to the condition of "incomprehension" -- even insulting to the radical nature of the experience.

Partial understanding: There is then a sense in which "misunderstanding" derives from a level of understanding which is essential partial, where alternatives may be proffered even though they themselves may not be comprehensive. "Incomprehension" is then associated with a "global" experience, possibly engaging all the senses and cognitive modalities, in ways that frameworks of "understanding" may variously ignore or deprecate. These may include emotional and spiritual dimensions of the total experience if they are felt to be relevant -- irrespective of the explanations on offer. The latter are then to be understood as forms of subunderstanding ( Magoroh Maruyama who distinguishes between "polyocular vision" and "subunderstanding" (Polyocular Vision or Subunderstanding, Organization Studies, 25, 2004, 3, pp. 467-480).

Misunderstanding incomprehension: A situation giving rise to incomprehension may therefore also engender a sense of panic. This may be less readily alleviated by an explanation -- in contrast to a situation arising from a misunderstanding. Attempts may however be made to reframe "incomprehension" as a matter of "misunderstanding", with the latter term effectively used as a euphemism to diminish or "rationalize" the experience associated with the former. In a sense, "incomprehension" can only be "misunderstood" -- through partial comprehension, which is necessarily not "comprehensive" with respect to the experience as a whole.

Rather than the polarization reinforced by this argument, a different approach to the distinction and the complementarity has been developed separately (Fundamental learning distinction: Understanding vs Comprehending? 2007).

Insights from intercultural communication: Especially helpful with respect to misunderstanding is the summary offered by Volker Hinnenkamp (The Notion of Misunderstanding in Intercultural Communication. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 1999). He argues:

Rarely do we come across studies on misunderstandings as a (pragma-)linguistic phenomenon in its own right. Even rarer are attempts at grounding misunderstanding somehow empirically. And an absolute rarity is a real-life dialogic perspective beyond experimental and fictional settings. What is rather needed is a perspective that is able to show that misunderstanding "is best viewed as an interactional stance, something that can be claimed and disputed or agreed upon, rather than as an objective phenomenon existing independently of participants' claims and noticings"

Hinnenkamps' seven types of misunderstanding are described in a later compilation reviewing a range of taxonomies of misunderstanding (Juliane House, et al., Misunderstanding in social life: discourse approaches to problematic talk, 2003). In summarizing the chapter by Hinnnenkamp (Misunderstandings: interactional structure and strategic resources) the editors note his seven exemplars of misunderstanding in three general categories -- overt, covert and latent forms:

... overt types of misunderstanding are in the main excised so as to return to the state immediately prior to the identified point of misunderstanding, presumably the in the best interest of the transactional goals.

Covert misunderstandings, in contrast, do not emerge in the immediate sequential ordering of the interaction. Rather they become apparent to the participants when signs of discourse incoherence emerge. Compared to overt misunderstandings, the covert variety often cannot be repaired in time for participants to return to the point prior to the inception of a wrong inference. Covert misunderstandings are thus parasitic in the sense that their existence in the body of discourse eventually results in a mutation of its form.

...latent misunderstanding occurs without all of the participants recognising that it has happened. Here, the evidence of a misunderstanding is a sense that a state of satisfactory communication was not reached. Since the source of the putative misunderstanding might not be identified, no recourse to negotiation is typically taken. (p. 11)

Insights from relevant prefixes: "Incomprehension" can be usefully explored, in relation to "comprehension", in the light of the prefixes affixed to "prehension", following earlier considerations (Exploration of Prefixes of Global Discourse: implications for sustainable confidelity, 2011; New Paradigms via a Renewed Set of Prefixes: dependence of international policy-making on an array of operational terms, 2003).

Prehension is indicative of the sense in which a form of cognitive "grasping" is involved, as implied by comprehension and apprehension, with the latter indicative of a degree anticipation, potentially non-cognitive and even fearful. By contrast "reprehension" is indicative of criticism, censure or condemnation.

In the sense in which "comprehension" implies a degree of integration of disparate elements, this can be contrasted with "comprehensive" as implying a more extensive (if not total) integration of them. Then both "incomprehensive" and "noncomprehensive" suggest inadequacy in that respect.

Miscomprehension engendered by inaccuracy of perception: The fields of psychology, sociology, and communications variously recognize what is termed "pluralistic ignorance". This describes a situation where a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but assume (incorrectly) that most others accept it. It gives to a condition in which no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes. It relates to the condition in which members of a group who believe themselves to be in the minority are actually in the majority (Gregor Daschmann, Pluralistic Ignorance, The International Encyclopedia of Communication).

The phenomenon has been cited:

  • for the perception (among American whites) that grossly exaggerated the support of other American whites for segregation in the 1960s
  • as a reason for the illusionary popular support that kept the communist regime in the Soviet Union, as many opposed the regime but assumed that others were supporters of it.
  • in relation to witch hunts in the past and during the Cold War
  • with respect to assaults on homosexuals

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