What we can and cannot access

  • There is external speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is external speaking/listening that we cannot access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we can access
  • There is internal speaking/listening that we cannot access

It is generally accepted that humans can comprehend things more than they can speak about them. That is, we can work with or get more information from listening than we can actively speak about. We have much greater access to what we receive (hear, read) than what we can output (speak, write).

For example, even though I am not a professional historian, I will be able to listen to a lecture about the Civil War and understand all or most of what I am hearing, but after the lecture I will only be able to output or speak about some parts of it. Another example is second language learners who are virtually always able to comprehend more than they can say. Another example is we can watch someone do something as they explain it, say cook a complex recipe, and understand what they are doing and saying but not be able to do it or explain it ourselves.

These are examples of external speech that we can access through hearing but cannot access as well through speaking. I can understand what you are saying but am not able to explain it to someone else.

An example of external speech that we cannot access through hearing is a very difficult lecture or book on a subject we know nothing about, say higher math or chemistry. Another example might be explaining to an old person how to use a computer if they have never used one before. Even as they try to grasp it, you can see they don’t really understand it well at all.

A more interesting example of external speech that we cannot access well might be the speech of someone who is willing to speak more openly about subjective states than we are. We can hear what they are saying but may not fully comprehend it because we don’t have a model for it. What they are saying may sound weird or inappropriate or even threatening when the truth is they are simply more used to hearing about subjective states and thus more able to speak about them.

These last points are crucial. We can only listen to and deeply comprehend things we have already heard about before. We don’t need to have all the details but we do need to have some sort of general concept of what the person is saying. In this same vein, we can only speak deeply about things we have already heard about, whether through external speech or internal speech. We can listen to others, or read their work (external speech), and from that learn how to communicate their ideas to others. Or we can listen to ourselves, to our internal speech, and from that learn how to communicate our ideas to others.

If a person has no experience—neither external nor internal—with listening to speech about subjective states, they will not be able to speak about their own subjective states and may hardly realize they even have subjective states. If they hear a little external speech about subjective states and do a little internal speaking about them, they will only be able to grasp subjective states to roughly that degree.

In an earlier post (Micro, meso, and macro levels of human understanding), I discussed how most people in the world do not have access to micro levels of understanding of themselves or others. This lack of access to both listening and speaking about micro semiotics forces almost everyone everywhere to confine their speaking and listening to meso and macro levels.

We get our meso and macro levels from TV, media, religion, education, general psychology, etc. But no matter how erudite you are in those media and styles of understanding, you will almost certainly still be highly deficient in micro semiotics. That is, you will not have wide access to or understanding of your own subjectivity because you cannot access micro levels and speak about them. To say nothing of understanding the subjectivity of others.

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