Guest post on kinds of understanding

Guest post by Claire Ramsey. Claire is the author of The People Who Spell, Gallaudet University Press 2011.

I’m not a philosopher and I dread to think how many years it’s been since I read Searle. But I’ve spent years not only trying to transmit knowledge and prod the youth of America into some kind of understanding but doing it on the actual topics of knowledge and understanding. In some models (I think ed psych but I could be wrong) they talk about different kinds of knowledge – declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, conceptual knowledge and probably other kinds, I think some models include temporal knowledge, all of the time-related parts like sequence, and duration. Obviously declarative knowledge is just knowing what something is = that is a shoe and that other thing is a nectarine. Procedural knowledge is knowing procedures to accomplish something – it might be strategies for memorizing vocabulary or how to fix a carburetor. Conceptual knowledge is knowing the “why” of something – that’s the sky and it looks kind of blue and here’s why we see it that way even though it’s not really blue. I think both procedural and conceptual knowledges lead to a kind of understanding. All of this stuff unrolls inside an individual’s head, which is mostly what ed psych is interested in grasping.

Then there’s another kind of understanding that is key for being a good teacher and, I’d argue, a good talker, citizen, person, writer, story teller.  In other words it’s the kind of understanding that we develop – some more than others – so that we can be in the social world w/other people and do things with them, like have a conversation. In education circles there is a jargon term  – “Pedagogical Content Knowledge” – I think this business is the basis of many other interactions in life, not just teaching & learning & explaining.  It means knowing something so well from all angles that you can figure out (even predict) where another person (a learner in this case but it could be your interlocutor or your reader) stopped getting it and why, and figuring out another way to explain it so that it’s clear or figuring out what the background info or sequential info or whatever to add that the other person does not seem to be getting . . . and that is the stuff that takes empathy plus a big dose of knowing what you’re talking about.

In the tortured arguments and/or explanations of the MRA and the atheist sexist pests, their seemingly intentional pretense that they know what X means drove me nuts because it’s an example of intentionally being anti-social and anti-understanding while pretending that they aren’t. I hate that shit. And I think that’s why. We’ve all run into people who pretend that the whole world is completely literal (in their way) and all of that other stuff doesn’t matter. Well, they are wrong. And they don’t know jack about how conversation works or how language operates in social interactions.

Anyhow, like I said, I’m not a philosopher or an epistemologist or even a psychologist. I’m a  sociolinguist who gets annoyed easily by those who mishandle language. Then I just want to start slapping them.


  1. Nomit says

    This is a sort of jargonised version of Wittgenstein’s idea of the ‘language game’ isn’t it? People who insists on over literalised interpretations of the rules are like the person who doesn’t laugh at a joke in Wittgenstein’s example, they are refusing to catch a ball.

  2. Pen says

    Hmm.. I totally followed this up to understanding and predicting how your interlocutor is reacting even outside a teaching context. My personal experience is that this doesn’t rely just on inherent people skills, or training, but that it’s very strongly mediated by culture. I would go so far as to say that there isn’t a single way in which conversation works across cultures, let alone in how language is used. What drives me nuts, due to the fact that I’ve spent my life on the borders between cultures, is people not knowing this. I think anyone who’s worked in an international environment will have experienced frustration related to this problem. But I also think cross-cultural understanding can and does travel, albeit slowly and imperfectly and faster if people work at it. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the MRAs so I didn’t really get what Clare was saying about them.

    It’s an interesting subject. I look forward to reading what everyone else has to say.

  3. Claire Ramsey says

    Yes, Pen, totally mediated by culture. Assuming that conversational patterns and expectations will easily cross cultural boundaries is a recipe for misunderstanding and worse, as you probably know. Ever answered the phone in Sweden? The caller has to talk first. The US pattern of the answerer talking first won’t work. I have also spent much of my life on borders of several kinds. You’re right about this.

  4. says

    So if you don’t know this and you go to Sweden and you answer a phone there’s just silence? That would be amusing.

    Come to think of it, I have answered a phone in Sweden! I don’t remember a long silence. Probably the savvy person who phoned me knew I wouldn’t know the custom.

  5. Claire Ramsey says

    I’ll bet you’re right, they knew you didn’t know Swedish telephone rules. I’ve answered the phone in Sweden and got . . . . . silence. Until I hit on a very very very vague and long ago discussion of telephone rules, is the ring a summons or is it something else, blah blah

    I do hope I haven’t remembered wrong. . . phone rules and various societies’ responses to/tolerance for silence is another really worthwhile topic!

  6. Dave Ricks says

    Oh, this confusion about telephone conventions is like a logical hat puzzle.

    Claire, when you picked up the phone, I bet you said something like “hello” to signal you picked up. And you might not remember that because you answer “hello” by habit. But the Swedish caller probably waited for you to say your name to confirm they reached you. The silence followed that breakdown of convention.

    So it’s not that a Swede picking up should say nothing, or the Swedish caller speaks first. That convention could only work if the Swedish phone system gave the caller a distinctive sound to signal someone picked up, then the caller would know when to start. And I bet no culture has such a phone system (and if Sweden had such a system, the silence would be for an American calling a Swede).

    Instead I’m sure all cultures have the person picking up start by saying something to “answer” the phone. The difference is in what we say to “answer” the phone. Just imagine Batman answering the phone:

    • American Batman: “Yes, Commissioner.”
    • Swedish Batman: “Batman.”

    Then the caller says what they called to say.

  7. shatterface says

    How do those annoying automated phonecalls work in Sweden? Or cold calling? Please tell me there’s one place on Earth free of phone spam?

  8. shatterface says

    On terminology:

    It’s a few years since I’ve read Searle but the OP seems to be touching on Searle’s concept of ‘Background’ (or Bordieu’s ‘habitus’?) with the kind of understanding that we develop – some more than others – so that we can be in the social world w/other people and do things with them, like have a conversation.

    The earlier post on this subject mentions ’empathy’, something I’ve become a little suspicious of since (a) reading about 7 different definitions of it in Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature and (b) being diagnosed with Asperger’s and worrying I’d fail the Voight-Kampff test. I’m starting to wonder though, whether it’s a lack of intuitive grasp of ‘Background’ that causes me social difficulties.

    Oh, and ‘procedural knowledge’: is that the same as a heuristic?

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