Misunderstanding and Meaning

Often defined in understanding’s shadow, misunderstanding has taken centre stage in the public discourse of this country over the last ten years. In this talk, Andrew Hines (SOAS) discusses misunderstanding and meaning in a way which shines a light on contemporary problems.

Often defined in understanding’s shadow, misunderstanding has taken centre stage in the public discourse of this country over the last ten years. From immigration to Brexit, we’ve seen more than a partisan divergence on the issues at hand. Rather, we’ve seen shifts in the meaning of key terms like democracy. As journalists, academics and public servants have all struggled to respond to events, they often characterise such clashes of meaning as misunderstandings. Yet what does the English word misunderstanding mean? Is it, like the everyday definition suggests, a failure of understanding something correctly? What of relative misunderstandings where cultures and paradigms clash? Or even ideological misunderstandings where our own colloquial language seems to be turned against us to justify another’s aim?

The way we perceive misunderstanding is fundamentally tied to how we understand changes in meaning and this, in turn, is tied to the larger symbolic framework where a misunderstanding occurs. Yet much of Western philosophy has traditionally defined misunderstanding in relation to a static view of meaning. Fusing together intellectual history and diverse philosophical perspectives, this talk will look at misunderstanding and meaning in their own right, in a way that shines light on contemporary problems.

Andrew Hines is Lecturer in World Philosophies at SOAS University of London and from 2020 – 2022 was the Thyssen Research Fellow at the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations. He is a specialist in intellectual history, and questions relating to language, figurative thought, and the understanding. His first book was Metaphor in European Philosophy after Nietzsche: An Intellectual History (MHRA 2018). He is currently writing a book about the concept of misunderstanding.