Define Understanding

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

Understanding is conceptualizing. Intellectually grasping that something is the case [as opposed to knowing how to do something] is to conceptualize (to judge).

A “concept” is a principle of division (sorting, classification, separation, categorization).  For example, if you have the concept of being square, you are able to divide objects into those that are square from those that are not square.  The same goes for being red, soft, cold, and so on.

Note that ignorance of a concept is not the same as stupidity.  A blind person may lack the concept of being red, but that’s only because that person lacks the experience of seeing red.

Reality (the world) is the subject matter of conceptualizing.  Your surreality is how you conceptualize it.

Reality may be experienced, and therefore conceptualized, in different ways.  If you are sighted, you will experience an apple in a different way than someone who is blind.

Furthermore, the same object will be conceptualized differently by people who have different concepts.  One reason for this is differences in experience:  if you have never seen a clam before, you will not understand it in the same way as a marine zoologist who has spent years researching clams.  Furthermore, because natural languages differ, the way that you learned as a child how to conceptualize will be at least slightly different from the way in which children with different initial languages learned to conceptualize.

An “object” is anything noticeable.  It’s anything you are able to pay attention to or single out.  That tree is an object, and so is this leaf and so is the color of this leaf and this point on the edge of the leaf.  There is no one best way to notice objects. Anything you can single out is an object.  (Therefore, since it cannot do any intellectual work, the notion of an object is not a concept.)

The first time you noticed a new kind of object you didn’t conceptualize it or conceptualize it well; before noticing its similarities and differences to other objects, all you could do was to stare at it intellectually or apply some crude concept to it.

To conceptualize a new object is to relate it to other objects already understood by noticing its similarities and differences to them.  It’s to make a judgment about it, a judgment that something is the case.

This explains why systems of concepts are hierarchical.  Since an orangutan is much more like gorillas and chimpanzees than it is like clams, it is sorted into the primate group rather than into the mollusk group.

Depending upon which similarities and differences are considered important, different systems of concepts are possible.  In fact, there have been many, many different ways that we humans have used to conceptualize the world.

Is there one best way to conceptualize reality?  No.

The usefulness of different systems of concepts depends upon what they are used for, their purpose.  For any given purpose, one system of concepts may fulfill it better than another.

Reality is always in flux.  Since improvements in understandings are therefore always possible, it’s foolish to try to stop improving how you conceptualize the world.  Keeping an open mind throughout life is a virtue.

It is, however, natural to become attached to your own understandings.  It’s easy to get stuck to your favorite method of understanding.  It is, after all, familiar.

In fact, it can be so familiar that it becomes automatic, so habitual that you may fail to realize that it is only a partial interpretation.  Singling out an object can seem indistinguishable in experience from understanding it in a certain way.  They are always, however, logically distinguishable.  There’s always a difference between singling out an object (“x”) and making some judgment about it (“x is F” or “x is y”); the former is either done or not, whereas the latter is either true or false.

All understandings are conceptual.  Therefore, all understandings are partial. They are, at best, only approximations of reality.  They are never the whole truth.

If you would be wise, learn to detach from your own understandings.  Instead of binding yourself in a conceptual straight jacket, be flexible.

Concepts are, at best, useful for sorting objects and, at worst, distorting lenses.

Judgments are always revisable.  They are neither final nor divine.  Don’t worship them.  Always be willing to revise them.

Always be willing to let them go.

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