We do not know to what extent we agree or disagree with another until we understand each other’s thoughts, and to do that we must get behind each other’s words. Intellectually, it would seem that we all know this obvious truth, yet emotionally we often demonstrate we do not. So, if a person’s words are foreign to us, we may assume the thoughts behind them are foreign as well though this may not be true. Frequently, we will argue, so to speak, with the words of another and never connect with the ideas, never realize that we failed to understand what was is in the other’s mind and heart.
It’s useful to understand the special language used by another, especially when that language contrasts with our preferred usage. It helps to be able to put on different verbal hats. Indeed, the externalization of thoughts is so intimately bound up with language that often we must be able to put on a different verbal hat in order to think toward something new. Adopting another’s terms and meditatively translating them into our own language can often advance understanding of the new.
Through this discipline, we gradually approach the realization that words are not the same as meaning, that essence is not the same as form. It would seem that this is obvious and that we understand this, yet the frequency of arguments based on unexamined definitions shows that our understanding of word/meaning relationships is weak. In the abstract we may know that words are not the same as the things they refer to, and that words mean different things to different people, yet to often in our conversations we betray “the better angels of our nature” and foolishly fail to act from our understanding. Here then is a practical aspect of semantics that can promote essential understanding and avert many arguments. About arguments, fools may rush in, but angels can tread most anywhere without ill effect. And where we prove more the fool than angel, well there’s the lesson also.