I’m Sorry, Do I Know You?

Photo by James Hose Jr on Unsplash

This is part two of a three part mini-series. Part one appeared yesterday. Part three will be tomorrow. While they do not have to be read together, I think they reinforce each other.

When we say that we know someone, what are we saying? What is it that we’re claiming to know? The answer is not at all straightforward. Virtually all of us know other people, but very few actually think much about what that means.

It seems obvious that we don’t mean a familiarity with a person’s body. Most of us would be insulted if someone claimed to know us, and all they actually know is that we’re 5’7″, 150 pounds, with brown hair, brown eyes, and a scar on our left arm. If that were all it takes, most of us would know a whole bunch of athletes and actors and singers. It must be something deeper than that.

Similarly, there is an obvious difference between knowing a person and knowing facts about that person. My daughter is a big fan of The Princess and the Frog (I like it, too). We have watched it many times together. As happens, I’ve wound up on IMDb reading about the movie and the cast. I now know that the actor behind Tiana is Anika Noni Rose (@AnikaNoniRose). I know how old she is, where she grew up, a lot of the jobs she’s had, and a smattering of other things about her. In fact, we’re close to the same age, and she grew up two towns over from me, so I don’t know these things in an abstract way. I have actual familiarity with parts of her life. Still, it would be absurd to say that I know her. We’ve never met, never spoken. I know some facts about her. That’s it. Even if I read a full, detailed biography of her, I think we can all agree that I wouldn’t know her in any real sense.

So, knowing someone isn’t being familiar with their physical form, nor is it knowing facts about them. Is it behavioral, then? That can be taken in two ways. One is, do I know another person when I know how that person will behave in different situations? When I can predict their actions and feelings? This is a problematic way to look at it for similar reasons to the physical and “facts about” possibilities. People, being people, have a lot of similarities. That means that many of us will behave similarly in similar situations. Predicting a person’s behavior often has nothing to do with knowing anything about that individual. It just means a familiarity with people. And, if you were to study another person, you can make pretty accurate predictions without ever meeting the person. Stalkers may think that they know their victims, but I’m decidedly uncomfortable agreeing with them. At best, this is just a slightly different version of the “facts about” scenario.

The other way it can be taken is that knowing a person comes down to the way you behave towards that person or how they behave towards each other. This is more promising. A big piece of what the earlier suggestions were missing is the relational nature of knowing someone. The problem here is that knowledge is not necessarily a part of behavior. A slightly modified version of Searle’s Chinese Room can behave as if it knows someone without knowing anything. Con men often behave as if they know someone, but they’re not really any different than the predictors/stalkers.

To combine knowledge and behavior in a relational manner, I think it’s fair to say that knowing another person means experiencing that person. Or maybe it would be more precise to say experiencing that person’s true self. When you think about it, knowing another person is quite intimate (That could be where the euphemism comes from). Making it experiential knowledge solves the problems posed by the other possibilities. And it has an added bonus. We can only know people who allow us to know them since the true self is only visible to others if shown. It keeps us from claiming to know people we’ve never met, people we are victimizing, and people we don’t have any kind of relationship with.

This raises the question of whether the other things I talked about really play any part in knowing someone. It’s true that under normal circumstances, when you know a person, you recognize their physical form, know facts about them, and can predict their behaviors/anticipate their feelings. But, it seems to me none of that is necessary. I don’t see any reason why a purely epistolary relationship can’t result in intimacy, and showing your selves, without the slightest inkling what the other person looks or sounds like. I think a lot of us have had “work friends” where we are legitimate friends, we care about each other, etc., yet know virtually nothing about each other outside of work. I think it’s fair to say we know each other even if we don’t know how many kids they have or when their birthday is. And if prediction were necessary, no one could ever know a true free-spirit.

I can see why someone might be uncomfortable with the idea of knowing someone without knowing basic facts about them. It boils down to the fact that everyone is unique. When someone shows you their true self, they will show you what they think is important about themselves. For some, that might include lots of “facts about.” For others, that might include lots of feelings. It might be a love of art, culture, or sports. It might be a philosophy or a work ethic. There is no right or wrong, every experience is different. I know lots of people and I know them all in different ways. It is true that I know some better than others, but I legitimately know them all.

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