Version classiqueVersion mobile

Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Is it always better to clear up misunderstandings?

Luc Van Campenhoudt


Comme nous ne sommes pas en mesure de comprendre parfaitement les autres mais que nous ne pouvons pas nous empêcher de tenter de les comprendre pour nous ajuster à eux, nous les comprenons toujours plus ou moins de travers. Inhérent aux relations humaines et à la vie collective, le malentendu leur est aussi indispensable, pour diverses raisons. Cette conception positive du malentendu a quelques implications morales qui vont à contre-courant des injonctions dans l’air du temps a être transparent et à bien communiquer. Elle met aussi au défi les méthodes de recherche en sciences humaines et sociales.

Texte intégral

Heureusement quil y a le malentendu, car sans le malentendu on ne sentendrait jamais.
Charles Baudelaire

  • 1 This chapter was translated from French by Gaby Leyden.

1I am fully aware of how likely this admission is to discredit this text right from the start, but my dog is the one to have set me on the track1 With the passing years, his ability to get me to understand what he wants, and vice versa, has grown. If I neglect him too long, he sulks for two long hours, turning his back to me, before showing his joy at seeing me again. To let me know it is time for his evening walk, he plants himself in front of me and looks at me straight in the eye, but with his hind end turned toward the apartment door. At other times, however, such as on walks, when he is entirely occupied by his olfactory explorations, or when, dreaming of who knows what, he makes little yapping sounds that seem to come from beyond the grave, I have the disappointing feeling that an ocean of incomprehension divides us. Yet we get along quite well and could pick each other out in a crowd of thousands. Actually, he and I are linked by a perpetual misunderstanding: We understand everything wrong, and when we believe weve understood each other, weve actually grasped just a distorted piece of the other ones truth. Despite that, our actions and sounds adjust to each other as best as they can, and that suffices for each of us to manage and to feel linked by a certain harmony. At least I do, but I think that he does, too.

2Human beings believe that they are cleverer than animals and that their interactions are more subtle and elaborate than those between a man and his dog or between animals. They like to think that if their relations are harmonious, it is because they are able to understand each other, to explain things to each other, and even to explain scientifically how they are able to understand each other and act in concert. So, Alfred Schutz (1967) showed that a situation of collaboration (let’s say a university course, family holidays, or some other collective undertaking) could function harmoniously only because all of the partners, each of whom was there for a different reason, managed nonetheless to behave as if they had come together for the same reason (such as learning sociology, having fun as a family, or manufacturing fully equipped kitchens). They could function because all partners could step into each others’ shoes and understand why they were there. Schutz calls this ’reciprocity of perspective’. Such a hypothesis rests upon the basic assumption that a relatively fine understanding of another person is a realistic ideal and human interactions are harmonious if each person strives to achieve this ideal.

3Several scholars feel that one must also search for the sources of a successful interaction in the forms that it takes and that the partners have adopted. For example, Goffman (1959) thinks that a successful interaction entails, amongst other things, each of the protagonists’ avoiding making the others lose face; each one, in a way, guarantees the other’s face. In this way, the interaction can be harmonious without the protagonists’ understanding each other perfectly. It is important above all that they master certain codes and take pains to heed them.

4Human interactions effectively involve a very great number of elements, especially unconscious biological and mental elements (including some to which one could sometimes never confess) that would immediately shatter any interaction that did not take place within the limits of the social scripts that the partners took up in the course of their socialization. The trickier and more uncertain the interaction is, such as difficult negotiations, a university test, or a first sexual experience between two people, the more the protagonists will tend to cling to specific scripts. In the area of intimate relations, for example, these scripts will concern in particular the respective roles and behaviours expected of men and women (cultural scripts), the sequences to follow when going from seduction to sex (semi-structured interaction scripts), and even the fantasies and imaginary representations that are linked to sexual activity (psychic scripts). Thanks to these ’sexual scripts’, as Gagnon and Simon (1986) call them, two partners can make love most pleasantly without having to delve too deeply into each others’ hearts and minds, provided that they are good actors who have internalized the scripts well and are capable of playing their roles convincingly. These are but a few, sketchy examples of the myriad of attempts made by behavioural and social scientists, phenomenologists, and interactionists, amongst others, to grasp the mental and social processes that make interactions between human beings possible or impossible and satisfactory from their participants’ points of view.

The limits of reciprocal understanding

5However, human beings’ abilities to understand each other, to do ’as if’, and to follow identical or even compatible social scripts are limited, and this is so for a number of reasons. A first reason is simply that each individual’s inner being is infinitely complex, unique in each case, and extremely hard to reach. All of us already have so much trouble sometimes understanding ourselves! A second reason is that no one ever communicates faithfully what is truly going on inside themselves. As Simmel (1906) explained a century ago, each person always reconstructs her/his inner reality according to an intention linked to the particular circumstances of the interaction. Furthermore, Nagel (1998) also points out that since the elements that make up the diversity of human beings are potentially conflicting, each person is forced to conceal the bulk of her/his thoughts and emotions as soon as s/he has to grapple with the constraints of public life and life in society. Modesty, discretion, and concealment are indispensable for living in society. Each individual can live in a community and contribute to its collective objectives only by keeping for him/herself the bulk of her/his judgements on others, desires, fantasies, and fears. The explosion of social networks on the Internet, such as Facebook and Twitter, might create the impression that new technologies are handing out a new deal. For the subject at hand, this is not at all the case. In introducing ourselves to our ’friends’, each of us decides what to show and what to conceal, and we all always hide more than we show (Aguiton et alii 2009). Moreover, we do this all the more easily in that we do not have face-to-face contact with our ’speaking partners’. It would be simplistic to equate this concealment with deceit or hypocrisy, Nagel explains, even though these two attitudes can add to the difficulty of understanding each other. Here the comparison with my dog comes up against a first limitation : My dog is equally capable of copulating on the market place and in his kennel, for he makes no distinction between public and private, individual demands and the constraints of collective life, or the desire to act and acting. He makes no distinction between his intimate ego and his social ego. In contrast, in humans, the social ego reveals only a part, and even then a distorted part, of the intimate ego. A third reason for the difficulty of understanding each other is that the people to whom a human being entrusts this distorted part of him/herself hear only a part thereof, the part that they can use for themselves. All this, as Simmel observes, is far from being rational.

6This social constraint in favour of concealment and ambiguity reinforces the need for intimacy with a small number of people – friends, confidants, and/or lovers – with whom it is possible to share and experience a part of this unsaid. However, only a part, and up to a certain point only, for, here, too, you cannot say or do what you want without dooming the intimate or friendly relationship to failure. The ability to do ’as if’ and to follow the same script with great naturalness also has limits. The partners are often reading different scripts although they think they are acting in the same play. In a new intimate relationship, for example, it is very common for one of the lovers to be following a romantic script and the other one a hedonistic script. Each has his or her own inner compass, but the two compasses’ needles are not pointing to the same north, so that the partners soon realize that they thought they were made for each other a little too quickly. This is something that happens fairly often, we must admit.

A misunderstanding that works

7Perhaps most of the theories that try to explain the conditions of a harmonious interaction are too naïve and their premises are not radical enough. This is where my dog sticks his muzzle back into the picture. We feel good together, yet between us there is total misunderstanding. Not only do we not understand each other, but, as it is impossible for us to adjust to each other without constantly interpreting each other’s behaviour, each time we are completely off base. We think we understand each other, but we understand everything wrong. Well, I am speaking for myself above all, since, when it comes to my dog, I can be certain of nothing. Furthermore, I am totally unable to imagine the impressions I’d have and emotions I’d feel if I were in his shoes, eyes two inches from the ground, nose snuffling the slightest scents emanating from my fellow canines. And this incomprehension is obviously reciprocal. One might assume that without these misunderstandings my dog’s company would be even more pleasant for me. Not at all! For in that case, he would not be able to live his dog’s life, with its good and bad sides. He would have a terrible canine identity crisis, and he’d lose all his doggy charm in my eyes.

8A misunderstanding is commonly perceived to be negative, something to be avoided by trying to understand each other better and to communicate more. However, misunderstandings are not just inherent in human interactions and community life; they are indispensable for them. For people to dovetail with each other, it is important not to strive to understand each other too well. Wanting to seize other people’s innermost beings is not only vain and indiscreet; it is also a form of violence, in that it consists in controlling and holding sway over them, and often passing final judgement over them as well. The result is that, to protect themselves, they will seek greater shelter in concealment, even in lies.

9Inversely, an interaction between two (or more) beings reaches the apogee of subtleness and truth when each one is able to realize that her/his understanding of the other will always include a share of misunderstanding and accepts not seeking to dispel this misunderstanding by investigating the other to the point of violent intrusion. The magic of harmonious interaction stems from this ability not to want vainly to pierce the other’s mystery. It is ’magic’ in the sense that something amazingly pleasant, an intellectual or emotional pleasure, can arise from our different readings of the world and ourselves’ pattern of interference, e.g. a pleasant and interesting conversation, innovative collaboration, the favourable settlement of a conflict, thrilling collective action, and sometimes even a great love, the poet thought.

10This principle holds true overall for the most intimate interpersonal, institutional, and social relationships in general, albeit with minor differences. For example, politicians and citizens behave as if the common good were their shared purpose. Now, it is clear that politicians get involved in and pursue their political careers for a great variety of more or less acceptable reasons, such as the joy of committing to a noble cause with others, the desire to give meaning to one’s life, the hunger for power, the desire to be recognized and respected, the pleasure of seduction, the adrenaline surges of living intensely, the prestige of having a grand car and chauffeur, the thrill of engaging in negotiations, or simply following in Father’s footsteps. Similarly, citizens are interested in political life for a great variety or more or less acceptable reasons, such as concern for the fates of their fellows, defending their pork barrels, watching the thrilling show of their leaders’ combat, getting pleasure from watching the downfall of a detested public figure, getting a thrill from being able to ’work out’ on their favourite ’punching bags’, or simply not doing what Dad did.

11What good is it to engage in such speculations and putting words in other people’s mouths? For there, too, there is a great risk of making a major mistake, for example in ascribing bad intentions to a worthy political figure with an off-putting face who is occasionally prone to cynicism, or, on the contrary, by trusting blindly in a figure who knows how to move people and hide duplicitous motivations behind an angelic smile and virtuous statements. It is better not to engage in nebulous speculation about the deep motivations of politicians or fellow citizens, accept a measure of misunderstanding, and consider rather what is worth one’s scrutiny, namely, the quality of the political debate and how the political system is working, what they produce in the way of decisions and actions, and their effects on the community.

12Of course, to live in society you cannot prevent yourself trying to decipher a minimum of other people’s reasons for acting. However – and this is what is important – you should know that you are always more or less off base, and the more you aim pretentiously for total understanding of others, the farther you are from home plate. A strong tie between two or more beings thus does not require vain mutual understanding of the depths of their beings. On the contrary, it comes from the shared awareness of accepting each other as mysteries and of getting from this the pleasure of a subtle, paradoxical complicity. My dog definitely cannot understand that, which explains why, whatever our mutual attachment, our relationship will never equal the relationship that can potentially exist between two human beings. I say ’potentially’ for, alas, we must acknowledge that many humans prove equally incapable of having such a relationship. Because of that, they can do much more damage than my pooch, but their cases are never totally hopeless. May humankind take heart from that!

Art and ethics of misunderstanding

13This idea of a harmonious interaction has several ethical implications for the ways we lead our lives and have relationships with other people. Let me touch upon two or three points of an issue that would deserve a much more extensive treatment.

14Contrary to a prevalent message of the times, it is important first of all not to want to communicate every chance you get. The causes of many problems are frequently sought mistakenly in a lack of communication (between parents and children, husband and wife, bosses and employees, political leaders and the people, etc.). Lack of communication is doubtless sometimes the cause. However, more often, excessive communication is the problem. The social order is based on an implicit consensus on what not to communicate. Moreover, violence can be interpreted as a breach of this consensus, for example, during a brutal argument between drivers, a dispute about noisy neighbours, an industrial dispute in which the workers take over the manager’s office, an exchange of insults between a political leader and a heckling crowd, or a revolution in which the insurgents loot and destroy the ruling class’s property. As Goffman reminds us, it is often better to refrain from communicating to avoid a scandal or useless problems; in other words, to accept misunderstandings.

15Demanding transparency in managing public monies is necessary. Demanding transparency in human and social relations is as inept as expecting others and oneself to be ’genuine’. These moral injunctions so much in vogue today lead only to a surplus of hypocrisy, deceit, and duplicity. Sooner or later they culminate in hysterical disputes in which people are accused of cowardice, treachery, or treason. Similarly, the person who, as is common today, announces proudly that s/he always says what s/he thinks, regardless of the circumstances, proves above all that s/he is thinking no farther than the end of her/his nose. Whilst we are somehow morally obliged to say certain things to others (to a spouse, workmate, neighbour, customer, boss, or voters, for example) because they are morally entitled to hear them, there are other things that we may but are not obliged to say, and still others that definitely must not be said, even under the pretext of dispelling possible ambiguity.

16The problem is not that misunderstandings exist. The problem lies in our inability to admit them, in not being able to stop oneself from dispelling them systematically in the name of virtuous but pointless frankness. The problem is also the inability to cleverly cope with misunderstanding, even to turn it into an asset and opportunity, as in the humour that is often based on misunderstandings. The comedies of Georges Feydeau, for example, often start with a misunderstanding or mistaken identity that ends with a pleasant surprise.

17That does not mean that, under the pretext of accepting misunderstandings, we should deny differences in views and the interests to be gained in issues of collective importance and to neutralize in so doing the necessary conflictual dimension of life in a community. That would necessarily tilt the balance in the dominant party’s favour. On the contrary, we must be able to handle conflict on the level where they must be, which is not always easy. A beautiful example of this can be found in the various areas of political and social science themselves.

  • 2 See the discussion of 'democracy' as a contested concept by Deschouwer (this volume).

18In these sciences, researchers have a range of blurry notions, such as civil society, governance, and globalization, to which each of them can pretty much give the meanings that they want2 Pretending to be in agreement when they are not, they thus keep up a misunderstanding that lets them continue to debate the issues and give themselves a chance, subsequently, to take stock of their differences. Major public and private institutions are also particularly avid for these notions, which generally evoke a consensual vision of society (along with such notions as partnership, synergy, communication, and network). However, they have become so handy to use, even bandied about, that this has led to two problems: first, a blurring of the distinction between the normative register of public, social, or economic action and the register of the political and social sciences that are supposed to analyse this action; and second, and most important for the matter that concerns us here, the under-estimation, even denial, of the conflictual dimension of politics and society, with the ideological implications that such denial entail. The art of misunderstanding should make it possible to avoid bad and vain conflicts in order to concentrate on those that are truly important and can lead to progress.

19Finally, let us observe that our notion of the misunderstanding also raises questions regarding social science research methods, especially the ’understanding interview’ that aims explicitly to achieve an ’intimate understanding of how the person thinks and acts’ (Kaufmann 1996). How is one to design such a method if one’s starting point is that there is necessarily a misunderstanding between the interviewed subject and interviewing researcher and there is no reason why all the processes (and their consequences) outlined in this text should not apply to their interaction, too? It would be interesting to re-examine all of our understanding methods from the standpoint of this premise of misunderstanding and to see as well what the conditions of a ’misunderstanding that works’ might be.

20But, ’sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. My dog says it’s time for his walk.



AGUITON C. & al. (2009), ’Does showing off help to make friends? Experimenting a sociological game on self-exhibition and social networks’, International Conference on Weblog and Social Media 09, San Jose, California, 17-20 May 2009.

GAGNON, J.H. & SIMON, W. (1986), ’Sexual scripts: Permanence and change’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 15 (2): 97-129.

GOFFMAN, E. (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday.

KAUFMANN, J.-C. (1996), Lentretien comprehensif, Paris: Nathan.

NAGEL, T. (1998), ’Concealment and exposure’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 27(1): 3- 30.

SIMMEL, G. (1906), ’The Sociology of secrecy and secret societies’, American Journal of Sociology, 11 (4): 441-498.

SCHUTZ, A. (1967), The Phenomenology of the Social World, London: Heinemann (original German edition: 1932).


1 This chapter was translated from French by Gaby Leyden.

2 See the discussion of 'democracy' as a contested concept by Deschouwer (this volume).


Luc Van Campenhoudt (PhD in sociology, Louvain) is a professor at Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis (Brussels) and guest professor at the university of Louvain. His current work focuses on the methodology of social sciences, especially on the group analysis method, and on power in agency networks (networks of social agents). He has written a number of books and articles, including his handbook Manuel de recherche en sciences sociales (Dunod, 4th ed., with R. Quivy), used by hundreds of thousands of students in more than thirty countries.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search