Knowing & Understanding

“Hello, is there anybody out there?”

A rhetorical question or one framed by expectation of kindred souls. Epistemologically “what can we know” and even deeper still, “what can we understand”. “What can we know” seems to leave a vacuum unless we assume that knowing begets understanding.

“What can we know and understand” embraces both the epistemology and includes the logic. Most things can be known by the attachment of a name with no further explanations expected or proffered. Sections of our education system tend to move along a similar line, presenting questions and answers followed by ticks and crosses: understanding is not on the agenda unless the correct answers demand an understanding.

Many things have names and little else in the way of understanding their origins. Knowing seems to have a fellow traveler, in the shape of finality. It can also attract the description of intelligence or cleverness and it may also be nominated as retentive memory. However, the pursuit of understanding will allow us to more readily come to terms with the puzzling origins of our existence.

The fundamental question is then, “why is knowing seemingly more important than understanding in daily life?” Compulsory school attendance for children and youth indicate the value that society places on learning. Equipped as none other on our planetary home, human beings are bountiful in curiosity and creativity. Knowing has provided the dialogue for communicating and objectification. Subjectivity has delivered a rich vein of artistic life, creativity and the positing of a transcendental world.

Objectifying by ways of theories and hypotheses has brought onto the agenda an opportunity to question and analyse these proposals. Society and its collective influence have the task of validating the theories and hypotheses into scientific knowledge.

Not unlike Armstrong’s first step onto the surface of the moon, each of us confronts the unknown each day. Our ability to reason creates a subliminal knowing that will guide the next steps to understanding and confidence. Pushing on into each succeeding day, gaining confidence and redefining the parameters of our knowledge and understanding, is the journey of each every infant.

Capturing slices of the unknown by the process of experiential learning is the lot of emerging humanity. There is nowhere to hide from the inevitable whilst the source of courage flows, ideally, from parent to child. This constant journey into the unknown provides an ever-expanding pool of experiential learning leading, inexorably, to the state of understanding.

The next generation of philosophers will begin to emerge as the human mind explores the multiplicity of thought options “what can I know?”, “what is life now and previous?”, “where can I find certain knowledge?”, “is there a god?” None of these curiosities of our existence would be in focus without the human mind. Do we learn because we are human or because we can advance our ability to survive through the gathering of knowledge and skills?

Perhaps society places a value on knowing that is disproportionate to the combined values of knowing and understanding. It may be that we can know a great many things and understand very little about the object or subject.

So much of the learning in schools seems to appraise knowing with ticks and crosses. A tick or cross is hardly a learning curve for the recipient and perhaps more of an indication of right or wrong. This type of learning does not seem facilitative for curiosity and creative thinking. A very long bow may be needed to view a retentive memory as an indication of overall intelligence and cleverness.

It was a long held belief that logic was derived from thoughts of the mind in much the same context as epistemology. However the German philosopher Gottlob Frege postulated that logic had nothing to do with thoughts of the mind. Logic centred around objective truths, “ that this in fact follows that”, or “ this in fact does not follow that”. Suddenly it was possible to partition epistemology from logic. That is, thoughts of the mind from “this in fact follows that”.

If it could be held that this partitioning was valid, then it is also possible to interchange epistemology for knowing and logic for understanding. Epistemology would include the opinions, suppositions, and beliefs belonging to the process of dogma. Logic is now interchangeable with understanding and would include theories and hypotheses underpinning “this in fact follows that”.

Linguistically it may be classified,

Logic                                                Epistemology
Understanding                                 Knowing
“This in fact follows that”                 “What can we know”
Science                                            Dogma

The partitioning of dogma from logic came with the advent of science. Epistemology can be extrapolated to everything and anything. Subjectively almost anything is possible in human thought, conceptually. For there to be some metaphysical merit, the inner messages we form need to be objectified by way of theories and hypotheses. The objectification allows for analysis and challenges to the premises. It allows for opportunity of refining and ‘fleshing out’ by the collective intellect as well as outright rejection.

Theories and hypotheses spark intellectual activity and allow thinkers to formulate better theories. This outcome of better theories was very much in evidence in the theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein when subjected to analysis and testing. Understanding comes to the fore and displaces dogma in its various forms to its proper place contextually. The recognition of logic as an objective truth was a long time in coming in philosophy. Thoughts of the mind were not the origin of logic and the separation of epistemology and logic was at hand.

Pre-Socratic life contained a great deal of mythology and symbolic gods. To not believe in the existing mythological gods was sufficient reason for execution by the ruling hierarchy of the day. It was in this context that daily life took place and science was a long way off in the accepted intellectual life.

Socrates himself fell victim to the intellectual regime of knowing and was sentenced to death. His crimes were encouraging the youth of the day to embark on the road to understanding and a lack of belief in the gods. By introducing thinking and intellectual life into the culture, his questioning attracted the attention of the authorities. This was viewed as an act comparable to sedition and punishable by imprisonment or death.

The history of human development meanders through lengthy periods of violence in the affairs of daily life. From the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment knowing trudged along introducing wars and inquisitions, Roman and Spanish, based in the main on pure ignorance. Those of a learned bent were very much on the fringe of society whilst the search for heretics went on apace. This was a fierce era fuelled by the simple act of knowing without there being any challenge to the credence of the beliefs so pointedly defined by the authorities. Particularly, these beliefs centred around the metaphysical and genesis of life.

The earth was set in the firmament and did not move. Offering proof from scientific research was met with imprisonment or death. Many souls were categorised as heretics and burned at the stake. Not the least of the culprits were Copernicus and Galileo. Copernicus unraveled the workings of the known planetary universe and did not publish his findings until the year of his death. Galileo was sentenced to a lengthy prison term and forced to sign a document recanting his proof of a rotating earth revolving around the sun. It was not wise to understand in this atmosphere of ignorance based on knowing.

Copernicus and Galileo had been able to describe a system that worked, mathematically, for the known planets. In earlier times astronomers had great difficulty in getting the mathematics to agree with their descriptions of the known universe. Copernicus had noticed that the planets ‘turned back’ on their paths through space rather than describing circles the planets moved in an ellipse caused by gravity. The new-found understanding of the universe brought about the questioning of the then held origins of our planetary home, earth.

However there was no turning back and the quest for understanding would continue in spite of inquisitions, hunting down of heretics and other manmade obstacles designed to abort this trend. It may have been an expectation that through scientific discovery the truth of our existence was just around the corner. Understanding had taken a dramatic leap forward on the back of science. From now on, knowing and understanding could compete on an equal footing in the never-ending search for certain knowledge.

Learning became extremely important to society in general and education by way of schooling was made compulsory in advanced cultures. Individuals began dividing, by necessity, into different groups; those folk who had the proclivity moved toward fulltime study and became scholars. Aristotle at some time previous opened his Academy and commenced peripatetic teaching. Many moved into trades created by the industrial revolution with the turning of the wheel. Children were sent down the coalmines to provide the energy source that turned the wheels and Newton’s influence on the way of life was enormous in providing economy and income along with employment for non-skilled labour. Industrialisation was an alternative to recruiting for wars.

The power and influence associated with knowing was beginning to wane replaced by the emerging trend to learning and understanding. Rather than the unsupported knowing of dogma, a step-by-step process of skill building was experienced and recorded in books for future reference by curious and energetic minds.

By the partitioning of dogma from logic it became possible for education to obtain new and more complex learning from less complex learning. Less complex learning seems comfortably applicable to dogma and its derivations: opinion, assumptions, speculation, guessing et al. Inventing a multiplicity of scenarios is a mere bagatelle for the mind and with the formation of inner messages based on the input more complex learning moves us forward to the processes leading to skills. Skills are built on step-by-step understanding from origin to manifestation. The pathway to skills is an assemblage of building blocks of understanding endorsed by the logical outcome of “this in fact follows that” or “this in fact, does not follow that”. Assumption and guesswork produce building blocks susceptible to failure under the pressures of strain and stress.

Rational thinking is the essence of building blocks. Each block now sitting comfortably and securely on top of the previous block. Each successive block offers the invitation to proceed to the next one. Knowing and understanding predict different pathways and thought patterns. “What can we know” seems to invite knowing without the pressure of understanding, initially. Understanding requires a more complex thought sequence from origin to manifestation.

For example, a pair of jeans. ‘Knowing’ has the jeans identified by name and unless there is a further extension thinking will cease at that nomenclature. Understanding moves the jeans forward by asking, “What is the origin of the jeans; by what process did they emerge as a pair of jeans”. From plants growing in the paddock emerge cotton buds and the visible origin of the jeans. The skills required to process the cotton buds into a pair of jeans is vital to the establishment of commerce, economy and employment along with the development of human resources.

The jeans example is descriptive of the manufacturing industry in general and applies to a multiplicity of business in general that spring up across the centuries. These processes demand the extension of understanding to knowing. A quantity of aluminum becomes your airplane; iron ore becomes steel for the motor vehicles and bridges. None of the processes that underlie industry would be extant without the extension of understanding to knowing. A wealth of knowledge invites a commensurate wealth of understanding where the thinking and skill acquisition takes place; that is, from simple to complex learning.

Incorporated in the classification of epistemology there resides the extension of understanding. Perhaps knowing and understanding need to stand to each his own for many of the reasons outlined in this discourse on knowing and understanding.

John StGeorge  2008

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