I've been thinking about misunderstandings that occur when people have philosophical discussions. Often somebody can make an entirely cogent argument, but then the other person misunderstands what has been said. It's like they have committed a 'fallacy of listening' or something like that.

Is there a word for this?

  • 1
    Welcome to philosophy.se! There is are some very common fallacies related with intentionally getting it wrong (e.g. 'straw-man'). But you are talking about unintentional misinterpreting an argument someone made, right?
    – Einer
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 14:52
  • Yes, I'm only asking about 'honest' misunderstandings. In fact, the listener wouldn't even have to say anything. It is something that happens in their own head.
    – Stuart
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 14:57
  • Is this deeper than just a straightforward misunderstanding ? That would be the word I'd go for immediately but I get the idea you're looking for something else Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 16:37
  • I like the telephone game as an analogy for a sequence where someone has repeated something someone else said, but with a degree of misinterpretation. Not quite what you are asking for, but as already stated, that's just the dictionary definition of "misunderstood". Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 19:24

3 Answers 3


AFAICT, you are just talking about misinterpretation, and I know of no schedule or inventory of common types of misinterpretation.

It might be an interesting question to ask for contributions to such a list. Do others here think that would be on-topic? Or would it be too inviting of opinion?

(He asks is what is obviously the wrong place. Is there a better one? (While I am asking things in an answer, I might as well pile-on) )

I could start with some seeds:

  1. Mapping the elements of an analogy onto parties too early.
  2. Guessing which 'side' is speaking.
  3. Taking definitions too literally simply because they seem careful.
  4. Resisting an intermediate conclusion because you think you know its implications.
  5. Assuming differences of perspective are about available data.
  6. Being triggered into anger, fear, or boredom and continuing to 'listen' while impaired.
  • This is really interesting. These are more psychological errors than logical, but an enumeration of them would still be of great use. People are far less susceptible to such errors once they are specifically aware of them. Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 18:06
  • That is true, if the list really depends on individual psychology, it might be less that useful. And to the extent it is about that, it could just end up being a hierarchy of CBT-style 'cognitive distortions' and not a philosophical topic. Those lists do exist...
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 18:28
  • For instance (2) could be seen as "splitting" or "black/white" thinking. and (6) is clearly entirely psychological. That is why I don't want to just float this as a question before a few other folks weigh in. It may simply belong in a different stack.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 18:33

I ended up here when I looked up "Willful Misunderstanding." Patricia Churchland used it to refer to the reaction she received from the old school philosophers at Oxford. She met hostility, so she was being polite. I think the following might be close to what you were looking for:



There are no fallacies per se related to being a listener rather than a speaker.

That is not to say that listeners do not make errors. They do! They can mishear, misunderstand, willfully mishear or misinterpret, selectively ignore, mistakenly attribute intentions, and in other ways fail to listen well.

However, fallacies as understood in philosophy are errors of reasoning. That is, they are errors arising in moving, in thought or speech, from one claim to another. Listeners, as such, do not do that. So, they are not subject to fallacies.

Of course nobody is purely a listener, probably even briefly. We're always thinking our own thoughts and perhaps preparing to present them. And indeed, understanding someone else's reasoning requires a kind of cognitive activity. But in such listening per se we are not drawing our own inferences, so much as following others' inferences. So, when someone inhabits the role of the listener, partially and temporarily, they cannot commit fallacies as part of that role.

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