Experience, Understanding and Meaning: Some Multicultural Issues

    In chapter one, I argued that meaning is not some mental connection words make with mental phenomena such as ideas, impressions, feelings or sensations. I also argued against the empiricist thesis that knowledge is equivalent to experience. In this chapter I will examine how this empiricist (and common-sense!) thesis creeps into more serious issues. To begin, I cite a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune;

Black students and staff at Weber State University are criticizing the hiring of a white professor to teach an African-American course, even though no minorities applied.
Racine Brown, a black counselor in the multicultural affairs office, says having a white professor teach African-American history would be as ridiculous as having her teach Mormon history.
"I would never be able to teach the Mormon religion even if I studied the religion,", she said. "I haven't been brought up in it and I haven't lived the experience that Mormons have."
The controversy, which has been brewing since the assistant professor was hired last winter, and comes at a time when WSU is steadily increasing its ranks of women faculty. Since March, the two first female academic deans have been hired.
Richard C. Roberts, chairman of the history department, said he would never hire a professor solely based on race.
"You don't have to be French to teach French history. Even though someone is an outsider, he or she can still be capable of teaching the history of another country or race," he said.(1)
    Ms. Brown presents a very common view when she states that the only people who are capable of "really" understanding the African-American perspective are African Americans who have experienced what it is like to grow up a black person in a white society. Her position is very similar to the philosophical position that knowledge and understanding are equivalent to experience, in this case the understanding comes by experiencing first hand racial biases and prejudice. With the rising tide of multicultural awarness, I think it will be of benefit to review some of the underlying philosophical suppositions that lead to Ms. Brown's assertion that the only people qualified to teach African-American history are those who have first-hand experience of the subject, namely African-Americans.

    This supposition, that experience equals knowledge, goes back to at least Plato and finds its fullest expression in the writings of the British empiricists. In this chapter, I will examine this claim, drawing of the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein to illuminate the problem. First I will lay the ground work by examining a similar philosophical and common-sense claim, that the congenitally blind do not understand the meaning of color words.

    A. Blind People Cannot Understand the Meaning of Color Words.

    It is a common sense assumption that a person blind from birth does not understand the meaning of color words.(2)

    When sighted people speak about deep blue skies, brilliant pink sunsets, fields of dark green Kentucky blue-grass, pitch black clouds of smoke, it is assumed that the congenitally blind do not understand what is being said. On this view, meaning and understanding are equivalent to experience, therefore a person who has never seen colors does not know what color words mean!

    The first obvious problem with the above philosophical position is one I detailed in the previous chapter, namely that the word "red" is not the name of a sensation. In chapter one, this observation came about as a refutation of the sensibility of different people seeing the color "red" differently, the inverted rainbow problem. Here we see the same assumption popping up again in the assertion that a blind person cannot understand color words. Under this assumption the meaning of a word is the object for which the word stands, thus the meaning of "red" is the inner sensation that it produces in the mind of the sighted. Hence there is no possible way a blind person could understand the meaning of color words since they have no sensation of colors at all! It will be helpful to go over the problem of meaning again as it is related to the above philosophical position concerning the intelligibility of color words to the congenitally blind.

    Before I continue, it is interesting to note the views of two philosophers, Hume and Russell, concerning the intelligibility of color words to the blind. Bertrand Russell notes on this score:

It is sometimes said that 'light is a form of wave motion', but this is misleading, for the light which we immediately see, which we know directly by means of our senses, is not a form of wave-motion, but something quite different -something which we all know if we are not blind, though we cannot describe it so as to convey our knowledge to a man who is blind. A wave-motion, on the contrary, could quite well be described to a blind man, since he can acquire a knowledge of space by the sense of touch; and he can experience wave-motion by a sea voyage almost as well as we can. But this, which a blind man can understand, is not what we mean by light; we mean by light just that which a blind man can never understand, and which we can never describe to him.(3)

Hume also notes;

If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colors; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensation, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. A Laplander or Negro has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.(4)

    One of the illusions at work here, which underlie both Russell's and Hume's observations, is that the word "red" names some private image that can only be seen inside the person's head who senses it. As I noted in the previous chapter, where this supposition, that the inner image is private and differs from the outer, lead to the problem of the "inverted rainbow", this illusion can be stripped of its power by replacing one's inner image of red with an outward picture of red. Does the difference between the two still hold? If not, what sense can be made of saying that the two images are different (with respect to color)?

    What if, someone counters, that the image they are referring to is something that only they can see alone, perhaps closing their eyes and bringing and image of red to their mind, and saying, "There, that is the image I'm talking about and it is private, since I am the only one who can possibly see it!" The response to this objection is that they are using the word "seeing" in a very odd way. Seeing is a verb that normally implies that one is looking at something with one's eyes. You might not see something because it is behind a wall, too far away, or simply because your eyes are closed. What sense of "not being able to see my image" is being employed when one talks about "seeing" an image of red with their eyes closed? It seems, since its surface grammar is parasitic on our normal use of the word "to see", that the reason another person cannot see the color "red" they have before their eyes is similar to the reason a person cannot see through a wall, namely the image is in their head and they cannot get inside the other person's head to see it! However, if that is the sense of "see" that is being employed, then one could reply that the person who has the image does not see it either, since their eyes, whether open or closed, have nothing to do whatsoever with their ability to perceive the image that they accuse you of not being able to see!(5)In other words, they can "see" it and it makes no difference whether their eyes are open or closed!

    Here the grammar of "having a sensation of red, or "seeing" an image of red, is parasitic on the grammar of using ones eyes as an instrument to see. However their use and employment are different, and if one forgets the distinction and the context which gives a particular use of a word its meaning, then the confusion surrounding the claim, "You cannot see my image of red" results.

    This distinction in usage also comes about in our treatment of visual hallucinations. One might hallucinate that they are seeing snakes crawling on the floor toward them. Here we invoke a distinction between having an image of a snake and 'seeing' a snake. One might respond that the person who is hallucinating thinks they see a snake but they do not really see a snake.(6)Here our inability to "see" what they perceive is what gives words like "hallucination" sense. However, does one respond that what the person is perceiving, in this case a snake, might really be an image of a tree? Or does it follow from this that since others cannot see the hallucinated image that we really do not know what the person means when they say they see a snake, since that is an image that they have that is entirely private, hence we, as a matter of logical impossibility, could not have any idea about what they are saying! The image even in this sense is dependent on our public language and our ability to identify a "mental" image, whether it be a hallucination or simply an image called to one's mind, with a public "picture" of such an image!

    Another important distinction between public objects and mental images is that it makes sense to say of a public object that it can be examined closer. For example, I might see a blue shirt under a certain light that makes it seem purple, or, if I am looking at a painting I might see something that I had not noticed before and examine or inspect the painting closer. Does it make sense to ask of an image of red that one sees, and sees alone, "Are you sure it's red, after all, the light might be playing tricks on your eyes!", or, "Let me examine the hidden details of this image".

    One might respond, "Alright, the word 'red' does not stand for a private image, but it does not follow that the blind can understand color words, since they themselves say that they cannot!" At this point, the response is, "Well, exactly what examples do you have in mind?" Do we really want to say that a blind person cannot understand the meaning of color words? Is this a general statement about the intellectual abilities of the blind, or is it a statement of logical impossibility, the "cannot" here being a logical "cannot" rather than an empirical one?(7)To make the point clearer, consider the following examples;

    You are standing at a cross-walk and a blind person is standing nearby. The blind person turns in your general direction, clears their throat and asks, "Could you please tell me when the light turns green so that I can cross the street?"

    A blind person is baby-sitting her grandchild. It is a nice day and they are in a park. The child, who is just learning his colors, asks the grandmother what color the sky is. The grandmother, feeling the warmth of the sun of her face, responds that the sky is blue. She also informs the child that the clouds are white, unless it is going to rain and then the clouds are grey. Then she picks up a leaf from a tree and shows it to the child and says, "This is green", she then picks a handful of grass and tells the child that grass is green also.

    You are at a symphony and sitting in the seat next to you is a person who is blind, you can tell since they have a cane next to them and are wearing dark glasses. Suddenly there is an explosion and the lights go out and the room fills with the smell of smoke and the sound of a fire alarm screeching a warning. You are dumbfounded for a moment, but come to your senses when you feel the blind person's hand grabbing you tightly by the arm. They ask you to lead them out of the symphony hall, and you respond that you do not know where the exits are. They in turn tell you to look for the green exit lights that should be glowing through the smoke.

    The above three scenarios present specific occasions where blind people not only speak color words, but do so in a context where they show clearly that they understand what the words mean. Are we inclined to say that they do not know what they are talking about because they have never seen colors in their entire life? Considering the third scenario, would it make much sense for you to ask to blind person if they have ever "seen" a green exit, and when they respond that they have not, you then conclude that they do not know what they are talking about?

    Here, much like before when the problem was, "Do other people see 'red' the same way as I do?" any possible image another person may have of color (in this case presumably they have no image at all!) drops out of the picture all together when one considers whether they mean or understand or know what they are talking about! Here the criteria for "knowing what they say" is simply their ability to speak and use the language in the same way others do.

    Of course this is not to say that a blind person can participate in the same language-games or use the language of colors to the same extent as a sighted person. For example, if asked which color shirt they prefer, the navy blue or teal green, they simply cannot answer, since in this specific case the language of "judgement" or "preference" does require that a person see the colors.(8) The same is true for picking out certain colors among others, as in the request, "Bring me the yellow rose, please". These and other activities do require that a person be able to distinguish between different visual aspects of something, a task which a blind person, by virtue of being blind, cannot do. However, to say that a blind person does not know the meaning of color words is to fall under the illusion that the meaning of a word is the object for which the word stands, in this case a visual impression that blind people do not have. Wittgenstein notes on this point the following;

    The colour-blind understand the statement that they are colour-blind. The blind, the statement that they are blind. But they can't use these sentences in as many different ways as a normal person can. For just as the normal person can master language-games with, e.g. colour words, which they cannot learn, he can also master language-games with the words "colour-blind" and "blind".

    Can one explain to a blind person what it's like to see? -Certainly; the blind do learn a great deal about the difference between themselves and the sighted. And yet, we want to answer no to this question. -But isn't it posed in a misleading way? We can describe both to someone who does not play soccer and to someone who does 'what it is like to play soccer', perhaps in the latter so that he can check the correctness of the description. Can we then describe to the sighted person what it is like to see? But we can certainly explain to him what blindness is! I.e. we can describe to him the characteristic behavior of a blind person and we can blindfold him. Or on the other hand, we cannot make a blind person see for a while; we can, however, describe to him how the sighted behave.(9)

     There is one more point that needs to be made that is crucial in dissolving the confusion surrounding the blind and understanding color words. In the above quote, Wittgenstein notes that the question,"Can one explain to a blind person what it is like to see?" is posed in a misleading way. What exactly is misleading about this question? Well, one way in which it can be misleading is in the question's similarity in surface grammar, the way the sentence looks when written, to a similar and related question, "Can one explain to a sighted person what it is like to be blind?" Notice that the answer to the second question is yes, there are ways in which we can explain and allow a sighted person to experience the world of the blind, one such way is to wear a blindfold(10). In this way it is said that the sighted understands the world of the blind because they experience what it is like to be blind. This experience seems to be crucial to their understanding the world of the blind. However, this misleads us into thinking that since the reverse cannot be done with the blind, that they are forever lost when it comes to understanding the world of the sighted, when what one really wants to say is that the blind cannot experience the world of the sighted! This is at least one way in which the appearance of words in script and print can be misleading, by drawing an analogy that due to the similarities in the surface grammar between the two sentences, one is lead into thinking that what should hold for one question should also hold for the other.(11)

    Notice, however, that the real problem arises when one confuses the distinction between "understanding" and "experience". If understanding is the same as experience, then we could rephrase the dilemma. Instead of saying, "The blind cannot understand colors", we could just as easily say (since the meaning of the two words on this view is the same) that, "The blind cannot experience (see) colors!" Notice how the philosophical dilemma disappears when rephrased the second way, since it follows by definition that a blind person cannot experience colors! On this point, Wittgenstein notes in §90 of the Investigations;

    Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between forms of expression in different regions of language. -Some of them can be removed by substituting one form of expression for another; this may be called an "analysis" of our forms of expression, for the process is sometimes like one of taking a thing apart.

    It is only when certain linguistic distinctions are abolished or forgotten, in this case the distinction between understanding and experience, that certain philosophical problems arise. Wittgenstein on this point says in the Investigations that, "philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.", and in another place that,"The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose".(12)Certainly what is needed to rid oneself of the dilemma, that the blind do not understand color words, is a reminder of the distinction between the uses of words like "experience" and "understanding". When that is accomplished, the philosophical problem goes away.

B. Multicultural Dialogue and Understanding

    In the above example it seemed as if, to borrow a phrasing from Wittgenstein's earlier work, that the world of the sighted is very different from the world of the blind. Furthermore it was noted that while it is possible in a sense for the sighted to enter into the world of the blind (if only for a while) it is not possible for the blind to enter into the world of the sighted!(13)It is perhaps this second type of impossibility that Ms. Brown and others have in mind when they say that it is impossible for other people to understand their unique culture experience.

    Curiously enough, Marcel alludes to a type of this alienation, that insurmountable gulf between two essentially different types of people, when he learns that his lover, Albertine, before her death had participated in Sapphic pleasures. In a passage from Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel reflects on the recent revelation that Albertine had enjoyed moments of sensuous pleasure with a country girl on the bank of the Loire;

Formerly, when I learned that a woman loved other women, she did not seem to me on that account to be a quintessentially different woman. But in the case of a woman one loves, in order to rid oneself of the pain one feels at the thought that such a thing is possible, one wants to know not only what she has done, but what she felt while she was doing it; then, probing ever more deeply, through the intensity of one's pain one arrives at the mystery, the quintessesence. I differed to the very depths of my being, in my body and in my heart, far more than the pain of losing my life would have made me suffer, from this curiosity to which all the force of my intelligence and my unconscious contributed; and thus it was to the core of Albertine's own being that I now projected everything that I learned about her . . . the discovery that she was another person, a person like themselves, speaking the same language, and this, by making her the compatriot of other women, made her even more alien to myself . . . Albertine had deceived me as to her profoundest humanity, the fact that she did not belong to ordinary humankind, but to an alien race which moves among it, hides itself among it and never merges with it.(14)

    There is a common illusion which finds it voice nowadays both in African-American studies, Women's studies and Gay and Lesbian theory, to name a few, that there exists an "essential" difference between, in the later case, a gay man or lesbian woman, and their heterosexual counterpart. This "essential" difference is something incommunicable to people who do not participate in a certain lifestyle, gender or race. In Albertine's case there seemed to be something "ineffable" about the feelings she had when she was with another woman, something that was remarkably different from what she felt when she was with Marcel, and something Marcel, try as he may, could not quite understand.

    Is there really something that the gay man or woman understands (or the African-American) that their counter-parts could not? By phrasing the question this way there has already been a move made in the language that leads to the confusion that surrounds this issue. One confusion is the use of the word "understand" in the same way one might use the word "experience". As I noted above, there is a distinction between our use of words such as "feel", "sense" "perceive" and other words like "understand" and "know". When these distinctions are abolished or forgotten, confusions like the following result; "One cannot really understand (and teach!) African-American history, unless one is African-American", "One cannot really know or understand the feelings one woman might have for another, unless they themselves are lesbian".

    In these cases, the words "understand" and "know" seem to be words that stand for certain feelings one has. If one does not "feel" the same way as a lesbian, then the words (love, desire, affection) must stand for something different and therefore mean something different! To embroil the problem more, it seems on this account that it is logically impossible for a heterosexual to have these feelings (since if they did they would be homosexual), which leads one to the conclusion that heterosexuals can never understand homosexuals and visa-versa! As an interesting note, under this confusion, that understanding and meaning are the same as experience, it is not uncommon to hear someone who is prejudiced against gays to justify their prejudice by saying something like, "I just do not understand how someone could feel that way!", or, "I do not feel that way, so I cannot understand them!" But here again one must be reminded that one is using "understand" the same way one uses the word "experience". The proposition, "A heterosexual cannot (or does not) experience the same sexual attraction as the homosexual" phrased this way presents no problem at all!

    Of course, these reminders seem to be too obvious for words. However, as was the case with Ms. Brown and to an extent Marcel, the mistake to equate experience with understanding is all too common! This inattendance to linguistic distinctions can be very damming. This is true especially where multicultural issues and education are at stake, since the very nature of multicultural education is to educate people of different cultures about differences in cultures not their own! Certainly Ms. Brown would not argue that it is useless to teach African-American history to non-African Americans, on the grounds that it is logically impossible for non-African Americans to understand what is being taught (or said) since they are not African-American!

    Another way language can "bewitch" us is when one confuses "knowledge" with the acquaintance of some inner state or feeling. As I noted above, it seemed that to understand something, how Albertine felt for her female lovers, was to be acquainted with a certain inner feeling. If Marcel could get inside Albertine's head he could then become acquainted with how she felt, he would then obtain that knowledge that so elusively evaded him. However, as Wittgenstein noted, words like "know" and "understand" are contrasted with "not know" and "misunderstand". If one uses "know" to mean intimate acquaintance with a certain feeling (Albertine knows how she feels for other women) does this use of "know" also include the possibility of being mistaken about a certain feeling? Here it is extremely helpful to consider the language and how it is used, since confusion invariably arises when one is thinking about one use of a word, and falls into the trap of thinking that a completely different use of the same word has the same meaning. To illustrate, consider these examples and the different uses of the word "know" which they employ;

    I am returning to my car after a concert. The car is parked in an enormous parking lot, and I do not remember exactly where I parked my car. I look and see a car the same make, color and year as my car, and I say, "Ah, now I know where it is!" Given this context and use of the word "to know" does it follow that I am certain that is my car? Could not one imagine going to the car and discovering that the car is the same make, color and year as yours but not yours? Certainly in this case it does make sense, and when I utter the exclamation, "I know where my car is!", I do not mean by that to say that I am absolutely certain! The function of the phrase, "Ah, now I know where it is!", is very similar to expressions of relief such as, "Thank God!", or, "Aha!". When expressions such as these are used their function in the language game is quite clear and no epistemological problems result at all!

    Now consider another example; You are wearing sandals and walking in an old barn. Suddenly you step on a board that has a nail poking through it. The nail pierces up through the sandal and stabs into your foot. You scream in pain, dancing around on one foot and yelling. Suppose too, that a philosopher is with you, and after reflecting a bit asks you if you really know that you are in pain. What would one respond? Does knowledge enter the picture here at all? Can one be in pain and not know it? In this case it might be less confusing to simply say one has pain or one is in pain, since these uses of "has pain" or "is in pain" are contrastable with "not having pain" or "not in pain". However, to say one "knows" they are in pain seems to be out of place, since its antithesis, being in pain and not knowing it, makes no sense!(15)On this score, Wittgenstein remarks;

I turn to stone and my pain goes on. -Suppose I were in error and it was no longer pain? --But I can't be in error here; it means nothing to doubt whether I am in pain! --That means: if anyone said "I don't know if what I have got is pain or something else", we should think something like, he does not know what the English word "pain" means; and we should explain it to him. --How? Perhaps by means of gestures, or by pricking him with a pin and saying: "See, that's what pain is!" This explanation, like any other, he might understand right, wrong, or not at all. And he will shew which he does by the use of the word, in this and other cases.
If he now said, for example: "Oh, I know what 'pain' means; what I don't know is whether this, that I have now is pain" --we should merely shake our heads and be forced to regard his words as a queer reaction which he we have no idea what to do with. (It would be rather as if we heard someone say seriously: "I distinctly remember that some time before I was born I believed . . . ".)
That expression of doubt has no place in the language-game; but if we cut out human behavior, which is the expression of sensation, it looks as if I might legitimately begin to doubt afresh. My temptation to say that one might take a sensation for something other than what it is arises from this: if I assume the abrogation of the normal language-game with the expression of a sensation, I need criterion of identity for the sensation; and then the possibility of error also exists.(16)
    Under the above illusion, that knowledge is the acquaintance with some inner sensation or feeling, many philosophers would say returning to the example of seeing your car in the parking lot, that while one may not "know" if that car is really the car that belongs to them, the one thing for sure that they do know and cannot be mistaken about is their "sense-data" of seeing a car. To quote Russell on this score;
    It is our particular thoughts and feelings that have primitive certainty. And this applies to dreams and hallucinations as well as to normal perceptions: when we dream we see a ghost, we certainly do have the sensations we think we have, but for various reasons it is held that no physical object corresponds to these sensations. Thus the certainty of our knowledge of our own experiences does not have to be limited in any way to allow for exceptional cases. Here, therefore, we have, for what it is worth, a solid basis from which to begin our pursuit of knowledge.(17)

    This is an extraordinary us of the word "know", which equates knowledge with the perception of "sense-data", and does not carry with it the sense of not knowing the same way our ordinary use of the word does. Here the temptation is to introspect, turning one's attention on the "sense-data" as if that would or could decide the case as to whether what was being sensed really was your car or not.(18)Here one tries to apply a word whose antithesis (not knowing) has not meaning at all.

    In other words it is misleading to say of one's feelings that they know them, since that leads one to think that it also makes sense to be mistaken about one's feelings.(19)As I noted in the above example, there are circumstances where it makes no sense to say one is in doubt or might be mistaken about how one feels. When Albertine says she feels a certain way with other women, it makes no sense to say she might be mistaken about her feelings. Unfortunately, due to certain religious and other value systems in western society which view homosexuality with disdain, there does seem to be a use for such expressions of doubt. When gays and lesbians admit their feelings many times they are greeted with exclamations like, "Are you sure you feel that way?", or, "You really cannot feel that way!" These uses are perfectly normal if one remembers that their function is very similar to the function of sentences and phrases which express surprise or alarm, like, "What!", "Did I hear you right!", or, "Wow!" However, if such expressions are taken to impute the person's feelings who utters them, then such usage makes no sense. To seriously question or doubt, e.g. the feelings of love or sexual arousal a lesbian or gay person has for another person is just as out of place as questioning a parent whether they might be mistaken when they say they love their child (perhaps the word love "really" stands for another feeling, like hate or dislike!).(20)

    To summarize. The use of words like "to know" is not to be mistaken for the use of words like "feel", "sense" or "experience". It makes sense, and is perfectly intelligible for a heterosexual to say they do not feel the same way about members of the same sex as homosexuals do. This use of the language does not confuse us at all. However, when one confuses "knowledge" with experience, then that makes it seems that the only people who can really "know" or "understand" what it is like to be homosexual are homosexuals. In the case of African-American studies this confusion is especially damming, since the very point of teaching the African-American experience is so that people who have not "experienced" what it is like to be black can understand that experience!(21)

C. Language and Culture

    Marcel notes, in connection with Albertine, that, ". . . she was another person, a person like themselves, speaking the same language . . . she did not belong to ordinary humankind, but to an alien race which moves among it, hides itself among it and never merges with it." Part of the confusion surrounding multicultural issues is the fact that different cultures actually do speak different languages. When the language is completely foreign, e.g. spanish, german, french, arabic, etc, the inability to understand the members of that culture poses no philosophical problem at all. However, when the changes are minute and within a single language, such as certain verbal clues, usages, slang, and body language known only to the members of a certain community, then the mystery surrounding these sometimes familiar words used in a odd way, does lead to philosophical confusions. Marcel notes on this point;

[Homosexuals form] a free masonry far more extensive, more effective and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, vocabulary and one in which even members who do not wish to know one another recognize one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his kind [to other homosexuals] . . . its adherents numbering everywhere, among the people . . . living in short, at least to a great extent, in an affectionate and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race, provoking them, playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it -a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others, a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal when these lion-tamers are devoured; obliged until then to make a secret of their lives, to avert their eyes from the direction in which they would wish to stray, to fasten them on what they would naturally turn away from, and to change the gender of many of the adjectives in their vocabulary.(22)

    In other words, there are certain signs, both verbal and behavioral, that people within a certain community know, which many times go unnoticed, or are simply not understood by others outside that community. This fact helps contribute to the alienation felt by both members of a minority community with respect to the majority and visa-versa. This, coupled with the assumption that certain words in our language stand for certain feelings, and to understand the words one must also have the feelings, gives rise to a feeling of discomfort and isolation in regards to peoples of different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religious belief, etc. The claim that in order to understand someone one has to walk in their shoes and go through what they have experienced, stems from such confusion. This view is mistaken for the reasons I presented earlier, however the hold this view has on many people is extremely strong.(23)

    There are, of course, many signs within a certain community that usually only members of that community know or understand. The history of the gay community is filled with such discrete symbols and usages, words and phrases which only members familiar with that community understand. Words like, "family", "bent", "lace-curtain", "tea-rooms", "she", "girl-friend", which as Marcel notes, all have different meanings than their normal meanings in everyday communication. Hence it is possible for someone to ask in a mixed crowd if another person is gay by asking if they are "family", without other people knowing what is really being asked. Also it is very common for some gay men to refer to other gay men with the female pronoun, "she". This many times confuses the uninitiated as to who is being referred to. But it is important to note that these particular uses of words do not arise a priori from some natural sexual predisposition, but are learned and taught, and it does not matter what one's sexual preference is when it comes to either learning or using these phrases!

    The illusion that there exists some type of "understanding" in the gay community that the heterosexual community does not understand, is broken when one notices that this is merely a contingent fact. There is no language or hidden usage or meaning of words that the heterosexual community could not know as a matter of logical impossibility. Yes, there are many words and phrases they do not know, but they could be taught to use the language just like anyone else. One should not mistake what is merely a contingent inability for a logical impossibility!(24)

    Language is something taught and learned and does not raise a priori nor is language a verbal translation of some mystical realm of mental language of feelings, private and particular to the individual. For a word to mean anything at all, it must have a use in a context of human activity and also must be teachable to others. While it is true that different people have different experiences and "see the world through different eyeglasses" that does not mean that the language they use to express themselves also has a hidden meaning that only the person who utters the words can know.

    Confusion can be avoided if one remembers certain linguistic distinctions, and does not confuse one use of a word with an entirely different use of the same word in a different context. Marcel certainly knows what it is like to feel love, desire and sexual attraction, however his mistake is in thinking that in order to understand what these words mean to another person, namely Albertine, that he must somehow get inside her head and feel the exact same way she feels! As I hope to have by now shown, this criterion for understanding, being inside another person's head, or in some sense, being the other person, would make learning and understanding words impossible! With these reminders in place, it is now time to finally look at the objections Marcel voiced in chapter one.


1. "WSU Black Students, Staff, Criticize Hiring," The Salt Lake Tribune, 17 May 1993, A8, italics mine. [back]

2. It is not uncommon to see this view reflected in the literature on blind education. The following is a quote from Journey Into Light, a book detailing the history of the education of the blind;

There are many degrees of sight failure and a complexity of psychological factors to consider. The blind can never be treated as a homogenous whole. There is the background from which they spring, and the world in which they live, economic, social and cultural. To some the lack of sight means Stygian darkness. To others it is a white, pearly or yellowish fog. The blind child does not know what darkness is, because he has never known light. Many of the so-called blind have light perception, since only 20 percent are totally or "dark blind." Some see trees, buildings, masses, shadows, as through a fog. A few are aware of color. The state of those who have had their eyes removed is impenetrable night. But the only blind who can talk of darkness with understanding are those with a visual memory, and they do not see it as the darkness of night but as a vacuum of unreality. (Ross, Ishbel, Journey into Light, [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951], 7. italics mine. [back]

3. Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 1912), 28. [back]

4. Hume, David, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding", The Empiricist, (Anchor Press, New York, 1974), 318, italics mine. [back]

5. This also holds for what we normally call "after-images", images that result from staring at something for long periods of time. The after-image of looking at a bright light is perceived whether one's eyes are open or closed. Here the grammar is again parasitic on our normal use of the verb "to see" but its use is quite different and usually rare, hence the habit to interpret "I'm seeing an after-image of that bright window" in the same way as "Did you see the stained glass windows in that beautiful Catholic church?" [back]

6. Here the dichotomy between appearance and reality makes sense, given this specific context. That is not to say that this dichotomy can be extracted from a particular context and outside this context can one sensibly speak about, e.g. the "real" table verses the appearance of the table, or a la Kant, the noumenal world verses the phenomenal world! [back]

7. By this I mean the following; A logical "cannot" is one of the sort like, "You cannot sink 6 out of 4 battleships" or "A bachelor cannot be married". An empirical "cannot" is something like, "Jerry cannot play baseball, he has not yet been taught the game". [back]

8. This is how it seems at first. However, one could easily imagine a scenario where a blind person did have a preference for a certain color. Suppose they have been invited to a St. Patrick's Day party and the invitation specifically calls for green attire. Then they would have a preference of for a certain color. One might also suppose that friends have repeatedly told them in the past that a certain color really looks good on them, then the blind person would have a preference of color. However, that preference is not one that he can decide for himself! [back]

9. Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Remarks on Color, trans. Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1978), §278, 279. [back]

10. Here it is interesting to ask why we "visualize" the world of the blind as being wrapped in perpetual darkness, rather than blinded by a powerful and incapacitating light? [back]

11. see PI §11. [back]

12. PI §38, 127. [back]

13. One might be tempted at this point to say that not even the sighted person can really enter the world of the congenitally blind, since the sighted person who wears a blindfold will at least have memories of what it is like to be sighted, something the congenitally blind do not have. By adding this qualification it makes it seem that the world of the sighted is really different from the world of the blind, and this difference creates an uncrossable gap between the two worlds. [back]

14. Remembrance of Things Past, "The Fugitive", p. 536,537. [back]

15. In a related section of The Blue Book (pages 46-54), Wittgenstein examines the language of being in pain, feeling pain, and having pain. In particular he is interested in expressions like, I have a toothache, and he goes into great length exploring possible contexts where it would make sense for someone to say they have another person's pain. This technique of providing specific contexts where certain uses of language make sense is a very powerful tool for overcoming philosophical problems which arise when one is thinking about a certain usage of words that does make sense in a certain context, but does not make sense when applied in other context. For example one might say they have a piece of chalk in their hand, or a piece of chalk not in their hand but outside their hand. It does not make sense (unless a specific context is provided) for one to say they have a pain not in their hand but outside their hand! Gilbert Ryle, focusing on this one particular method or technique, came up with what he called "category mistakes". To quote;

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks, "But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the registrar works, where the scientist experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University." From Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Harper and Row), 1949.[back]
16. PI §288. [back]

17. Russell, Bertrand, The Basic Problems of Philosophy, (Hackett, Indianapolis, 1912), 19, italics mine. [back]

18. Here it is tempting to say that one looks at one's sense data, but as I noted above, to say one "sees" or "looks at" one's sense data is out of place! [back]

19. There might be some cases where it does make sense to say a person does not know the meaning of their feelings. There have been many cases of homosexuals not understanding or knowing exactly what their feelings toward members of the same sex mean. Usually with the help of a therapist they can come to understand the nature and meaning of those ambivalent feelings. However, it does not make any sense for the therapist to ask, after a person has described how they felt around another person, happy, elated, sexually aroused, etc. to question whether they are for sure they had those feelings or not just as it makes no sense to ask of someone who is in pain whether or not they really are in pain! [back]

20. Here one must be careful, since there are occasions where it makes sense to question someone's reported feelings, usually when their behavior is not in accord with their speech or when there is reason for them to be deceptive. However this is usually not the case for people who admit their sexual preference, since there are enormous pressures for them to remain silent about their preference. [back]

21. Here I do not want to say that Ms. Brown is wrong in protesting the hiring of a white person to teach African-American history, since this argument might be made for other reasons, one being the low number of black people employed in any job (as compared to their representation in the entire population). This is an argument based on the principles of affirmative-action which I will not address here. However I do want to say that the stated reason for her discontent, that a white person cannot understand the black experience, is wrong and based on the philosophical confusion which I have explained. [back]

22. Remembrance of Things Past, "Cities of the Plain", 639, 640. [back]

23. In what follows, I will concentrate on the alienation between the gay and heterosexual communities, since I am most acquainted with these differences and have given a large amount of thought to certain philosophical issues surrounding the differences between the two cultures. However I do think that many of the issues I treat in the following pages can be successfully applied to similar problems in multicultural issues with Afro-americans, women, Hispanics and other ethnic groups. [back]

24. This is not to say that there are certain things which need be called to the attention of the heterosexual community. Discrimination in housing, insurance benefits, gay bashing, psychological harm caused by the belittlement of gays, all are aspects which many gay people have experienced first hand which hetersexuals do not know about since they have not experienced these problems. This is not to say that the heterosexual community need experience these things in order to understand what a gay person is talking about (although such an experience might be a good impetus for action to stop such discrimination)! [back]