Monday, November 02, 2009

Understanding and (Dis)Agreement

Here's a vignette I've been thinking about:
Pete and Vera, good friends, are having a discussion about the ethics of eating other animals. Pete eats meat, but is somewhat troubled by the arguments for vegetarianism that he has encountered. He wonders whether he has been missing something. Vera, a vegetarian, discusses the several arguments with Pete late into the night, and draws his attention, in particular, to the line of argument that she herself has found to be the decisive one. As morning draws near, Pete remarks, “I understand what you’re getting at with this argument and why you accept it, but I simply don’t see things that way.”

Vera responds, “Then you don’t at all understand me.”
I think people sometimes respond to disagreement as Vera has here, and I'm wondering what such a comment as hers amounts to. Does it imply that Pete could only come to understand her if he came to agree with her? (Or, that his understanding just would involve his agreeing with her?) And if that's a plausible interpretation of what she says, does her remark make sense? Can't we understand other people without agreeing with them?

I'm working on the subtleties of this, but I'm curious what others think.


  1. " Can't we understand other people without agreeing with them? "

    A man may be able of understanding another man's personal viewpoint without at the same time personally experiencing that very viewpoint.

    At times, man allows emotion to override logic.

    Perhaps women more so then men?

  2. Jack: I'm not sure I get the point of the last part of your comment. Are you responding to the gender of the person in the vignette? Or were you just being generally misogynistic about logic, etc.?

    At any rate, I'm not sure that "may be able" proves enough here. Let's focus on that.

  3. I think Vera's comment makes sense under the assumption that her acceptance of the normative conclusion promoted by her argument is not entirely a function of the argument itself, but importantly motivated by non-deliberated, perhaps non-conscious, "gut feelings" or intution(s).

    Under this interpretation, her comment is perhaps correct: Pete just doesn't share the intuition(s) or gut feelings necessary for her degree of acceptance of the normative conclusion of her arguments. But she is incorrect in assuming that it's the force of the argument doing all of the work leading to acceptance of the normative conclusion.

    Same thing, perhaps, is going on between atheists and intellectual theists, except that the latter are perhaps in a way more self-conscious about the fact that their arguments are largely just elaborate post-hoc exercises in alleviating their intellectual consciences (in part by the soothing effect their arguments have of extorting grudging deference from their less intellectually sophisticated interlocutors): they at least invoke "faith" as a part of their cognitive outlook, whereas the Veras remain more in the dark about the grip of the arguments they adduce to support their normative views.

    Just a thought.

  4. Rob: Thanks, this is all pretty rich. I'm inclined to agree with much of what you say, though I think it might go further than "intuitions or gut feelings." At least, I've been thinking about the way commitments shape our ways of seeing and responding.

    I'll have to think more about your last paragraph. I'm not quite happy with saying that arguments are "post-hoc"--that makes it sound like a problem, but if you're a Humean (for example), that's just the role reason plays (but not a necessarily fallacious role).

    Vera might be in the dark if she thought that a the sort of perspectivally rooted disagreement she seems to have with Pete could be settled by rational argument. Perhaps it depends on what she's trying to do with her words. But as I have it in the vignette, I can see why you'd think that she's made some kind of rationalistic mistake.

    Thanks so much for your comments. I'm working on a short paper about all of this, but I'm worried it's going to sound strangely solipsistic, so I'm trying to make sure I avoid that sort of implication (or misreading).

  5. I would equate Rob's "gut feelings" or intution(s)to what I designated above as Vera's emotional attachment to her argument/belief. This is not to say that emotion can never be on the side of truth but only that it does not always guarantee one's belief to be in fact the truth.

    Rob shows himself be the more open minded and Vera the more close minded in so far as the questioning their own belief is concerned.

  6. In the story, it's not the case that her belief is being challenged, exactly. Pete wants to understand what he might be missing, but still ultimately disagrees. But he doesn't, as it were, try to convert Vera. He says that he understands what she's getting at, etc. So, it's not clear that there's a challenge to Vera to, say, give up her belief. The question is whether he really has understood her.

  7. Matthew,

    I think we have to wonder what the the possibility is for mankind to gradually mature and progress in an ever growing and increasing tolerance and understanding for one another and will it forever remain a dream unfulfilled within our ever expanding egocentric-world?

    I think you hit on the truth when you spoke about humility in an earlier post.

    The I, Me and Mine are not the optimum birth mothers of tolerance and understanding.