Frames of Reference

Posted in Dialogue, Philosophy at 7:51 am by Haider

Discussions often operate on the level of arguments, or statements. One party makes an assertion, and the other party dismisses it as “not making sense,” “being flawed,” or a number of other reasons for not accepting the assertion. What is often overlooked is the frame of reference used to justify that assertion.

In other words, the assertion makes sense, based on the assumptions of the speaker. It is part of a whole. In order to understand the part, we must see where it fits into the whole, determine where the fault lies in the entire outlook of the speaker (if one is to be found) and judge the part accordingly.

For example, suppose someone tells you he believes religion should bring happiness. For a religious person with a different understanding of religion, this idea might not make sense, because he thinks religion is about obedience to God, and doing the right thing. “Happiness” doesn’t have a place in religion (at least not in this life time). To resolve the misunderstanding, you wouldn’t go anywhere by repeating the same statement. The two have different frames of reference. The statement doesn’t make sense to the listener, because it doesn’t have a place in his frame. It’s not part of his “big picture.” He would have understood what is being meant by the statement, but doesn’t think it is a correct assertion.

Now, if the speaker moves up one level, and presents his frame of reference, or a part of it that places the statement in a more meaningful context, then the discussion can move forward:

“Religion doesn’t bring God any benefit, but is for the benefit of mankind.”

“God created human nature, and His religion is compatible with their nature.”

These statements, while not necessarily sufficient to convince someone that the initial statement is true, offer a wider scope – and reveal a greater part of the picture – to understand what the speaker’s opinion is based on.

There are two things that need to be done in order to have fruitful discussions:

1-Reveal the frame of reference to the point of commonality: Most beliefs share a common overall frame, then branch off when dealing with more specific issues. In order to resolve misunderstandings, and to have a discussion on the level that matters, you need to begin with the belief you have in common. This defines a common frame of reference for both parties to use.

2- Question the validity of your own frame of reference: Your personal frame of reference might not be a valid one. Assess whether the other party’s frame of reference is more realistic than your own. This presents the problem of judging your frame of reference by the standard of your own frame of reference (which is why all religions are correct according to their followers)! What is important here is the willingness to accept that your frame of reference can be wrong and should be questioned.


  1. Hugo van Randwyck said,

    September 29, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Talking about frames of reference and religion. How about looking at the expulsions of people from the Holy Land in 1948 and 1967, as also expulsions of ‘voters’.

    What about having One State Elections?

    When the next elections are held for the Knesset, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza also vote for representatives – and also the Palestinian refugees/diaspora vote for their representatives, linking voter registration to their ancestral towns. When the refugees vote, the ballot boxes could be marked with ancestral electoral districts.

    Same day elections!

    A different frame of reference for the Holy Land and peace.

    A process called Out of CountryVoting (OCV) has been tried and tested.

    See: http://www.phl-ocv.net

  2. Haider said,

    September 30, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Dear Hugo,

    Thanks for stopping by, and contributing this information about the electoral initiative.

    It’s interesting to be able to apply a different frame of reference to a situation, especially a volatile one like the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. However, for such an initiative to be effective, it can’t simply appeal to those who value democracy, but are applying a totally different frame of reference to the people actually involved in and affected by this voting process.

    We have to take into consideration how the Palestinians and Israelis would view this initiative, and what would prevent them from embracing it.

    The priority for many Palestinians might be to regain their rights, and they do not believe this can be done *through* the Knesset.

    Israelis, on the other hand, might not wish to increase the number of Palestinian voters in their country. In fact, the fewer Palestinians voting, the better it is for a country that’s been established to become a Jewish haven.

    I don’t believe that the resolution to this problem would be to promote democracy, but to readjust the frames of reference the two sides are already using, in order for them to better understand one another.

    To give you a simple example: Israelis consider Palestinians to be a security threat, but overlook the fact that the Palestinians have the same impression of the Israelis. In the same way that Israel can justify its actions as self-defense, the Israelis can appreciate that the Palestinians are also acting in self-defense.

    In other words, both sides can come to a better understanding of the other if they can see the other not as acting out of aggression, but acting to defend itself. The Palestinians do not simply want to destroy Israel, but protect themselves from it.

    This can offer a slight shift in each side’s frame of reference, so that they can share some overlap in their frames and, therefore, a better understanding of one another.

    The Out of Country Voting process might be a feasible tool for democracy, but it won’t bring about democracy or help resolve the existing misunderstanding and tension in the area.

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