Monthly Archives: August 2009

understanding understanding

after reading this morning that BC philosopher and counsel to psychologists sydney banks had died, i thought i’d write a bit about him.  alas, i cannot find in myself any interest in his work.  he talked about the three principles of mind, thought and consciousness. if there’s a sydney banks fan among you out there, please feel free to enthuse and educate me!

instead, i decided to play a “follow the link” game on wikipedia.  i started at “psychology” and the game landed me at “understanding” (not so different from what banks talks about after all, is it?).  want to understand understanding?  here is the article.  material to talk about for quite a while.

understanding (also called intellection) is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object.

an understanding is the limit of a conceptualisation. to understand something is to have conceptualised it to a given measure.
examples

  1. one understands the weather if one is able to predict and to give an explanation of some of its features, etc.
  2. a psychiatrist understands another person’s anxieties if he/she knows that person’s anxieties, their causes, and can give useful advice on how to cope with the anxiety.
  3. a person understands a command if he/she knows who gave it, what is expected by the issuer, and whether the command is legitimate, and whether one understands the speaker (see 4).
  4. one understands a reasoning, an argument, or a language if one can consciously reproduce the information content conveyed by the message.
  5. one understands a mathematical concept if one can solve problems using it, especially problems that are not similar to what one has seen before.

is understanding definable?

it is difficult to define understanding. if we use the term concept as above, the question then arises as to what is a concept? is it an abstract thing? is it a brain pattern or a rule? whatever definition is proposed, we can still ask how it is that we understand the thing that is featured in the definition: we can never satisfactorily define a concept, still less use it to explain understanding.

it may be more convenient to use an operational or behavioural definition, that is, to say that somebody who reacts appropriately to x understands x. for example, one understands swahili if one correctly obeys commands given in that language. this approach, however, may not provide an adequate definition. a computer can easily be programmed to react appropriately to commands, but there is a disagreement as to whether or not the computer understands the language (see the chinese room argument).

according to the independent socionics researcher rostislav persion:

in the cognitive model presented by MBTI, the process of introverted thinking (TI) is thought to represent understanding through cause and effect relationships or correlations. one can construct a model of a system by observing correlations between all the relevant properties (e.g. the output of a nand gate relative to its inputs). this allows the person to generate truths about the system and then to apply the model to demonstrate his or her understanding. a mechanic for example may randomly, or algorithmically probe the inputs and outputs of a black box to understand the internal components through the use of induction. 

INTP, ISTP, ESTP and ENTP and all use TI and are usually the best of the 16 types at understanding their material environment in a bottom-up manner. these types may enjoy mechanics and digital electronics because of the 1 to 1 correlation between cause and effect relationships in these fields.

understanding is not limited to these types however as other types demonstrate an identical process, although in other planes of reality; ie. social, theological and aesthetic. a potential reason for the association of understanding with the former personality types is due to a social phenomenon for asymmetrical distribution of gratification.

in the field of engineering, engineers probe or study the inputs and outputs of components to understand their functionality. these components are then combined based on their functionality (similar to computer programming) to create a larger, more complex system. this is the reason why engineers attempt to subdivide ideas as deep as possible to obtain the lowest level of knowledge. this makes their models more detailed and flexible. it may be useful to know the formulas that govern an ideal gas, but to visualise the gas as being made up of small moving particles, which are in turn made up of even smaller particles, is true understanding.

people who are understanding (through the use of TI) usually value objects and people based on usefulness, as opposed to the people who use extroverted thinking (TE) who view people or things as having a worth. in order to test one’s understanding it is necessary to present a question that forces the individual to demonstrate the possession of a model, derived from observable examples of that model’s production or potential production (in the case that such a model did not exist beforehand).

rote memorization can present an illusion of understanding, however when other questions are presented with modified attributes within the query, the individual cannot create a solution due to a lack of a deeper representation of reality.

another significant point of view holds that knowledge is the simple awareness of bits of information. understanding is the awareness of the connection between the individual pieces of this information. it is understanding which allows knowledge to be put to use. therefore, understanding represents a deeper level than simple knowledge.

the concepts of comprehension, thought and understanding are also used in the short science fiction story understand by ted chiang.

religious perspectives

in catholicism and anglicanism, understanding is one of the seven gifts of the holy spirit.

related topics:

digging for a voice: reflections

a few reflections on the essay on women philosophers in the last post.

one of the things i got from that course in women’s studies is a bit of a background in and also support for the concept of writing in and from the first voice, in writing from and about the particular: “what i do and think is really all i can know.” today i would add to that: “and what i feel.” i had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with feelings back then …

the idea that everything is autobiographical, as freud said, and that hence everything that is not autobiograpical is plagiarism (as almodovar said) is something that has become stronger with me over the years. i am, for example, continuously astonished how the novel i am slowly working on, which ostensibly plays in 18th and 19th century louisiana and west africa as well as present-day louisiana, keeps experiencing eruptions of my history, often in completely unconscious detail, even though those times and places are not ones that i inhabit.

i hadn’t made the connection until now but i think that this essay directly influenced two later papers, the psychotherapist in context: how the therapist’s personal life, roles and social context influence therapy, and research at the edge of awareness: the person of the researcher and nonrational aspects of qualitative research. both spring from the feminist point of view that we disregard the personal aspects of our work at our own peril.

a big challenge is how to take this autobiographical stance and not turn it into a self-obsessed, navel-gazing activity. humility seems to be fence that – hopefully – keeps me from falling into the abyss of narcissism. it’s not “i can only speak for myself so that’s all i’m interested in” but “i am the only person of whom i have true authority to speak.”

searching for my voice, investigating other women’s voices, has been, in part, a very private enterprise. in other ways, however, i also hope that my words can be companions to those of [others] … even though it seems that there are similarities between me and other people … i cannot presume to speak for them. i can only speak for myself, speak to them and sometimes maybe even with them. i can only say: this is my experience; and if yours is similar, let’s have them stand side by side and reinforce each other.

this really struck me. because this is so much about blogging. (again i’m wondering, was this essay the seed from which sprang my presentation at mental health camp, blogging yourself home?)

i cannot presume to speak for others. for example, colleen, tre tre and anastasia can speak for themselves quite well, as you can see.

but i as a blogger, i can speak TO them and comment – at nancy’s and her friends’ blog, for example, or marcella’s, or zee’s.

and sometimes we can speak and work together, like with catatonic kid , jeremy and john.

there’s more material in that essay – i’d really like to explore some more the significance of letting our voice out – but i’ll leave that for another post.

digging for a voice

what follows are excerpts from an essay i wrote in 1995 on women in philosophy, and how women’s voices often speak more to the particular (i.e. real life examples and experiences) rather than the general. it is interesting to look back on it, to see what’s still the case, and what has changed. in the next post, i will discuss that a little. here’s the excerpt:

“i” write these words. it is i, sitting here in my body, using my hands to transfer unto a black screen what i think. what i do and think is really all i can know. or is it? when i look into the mirror, i see myself, when i speak, i can hear myself, and there are other beings around me who look and sound quite similar. do they think, feel, move like i do? can i assume that they are more like me than unlike? can i speak for them? and if i do, should i extrapolate from me to them or from them to me?

“… woman was not fit for the governing of society or the workings of the state. in fact, she was seen as a threat because her thoughts and desires were tied to the realm of the particular … any attempt by her to enter into the public realm would only pervert the aims of the state from the universal to the particular.” (tuana 166).

why does the particular pervert the universal? couldn’t it be the other way round – that the universal at least sometimes blurs and inhibits the particular and with it reality? this is exactly what happened for philosopher claudia card. while tenured at a large university, she developed a writing block. at this time she was teaching a course on “crime and punishment” from a purely theoretical point of view: “i had never been inside a prison … never witnessed an execution … [or] attended a criminal trial. i was not aware of people who had done such things.”

gradually, through exposure to students who, in the 60s and 70s were doing “such things” (i.e. they were exposed to the criminal justice system through war resistance or marijuana), card began to wake up to the reality of the particular. she saw that real people were “liable to being accused of crimes or victimized by them”. these people were particularly

“the very young, the homeless, the poor, … people of color, women attempting to protect themselves or children against battery and sexual abuse, women (rebels) who refused the ‘protection’ of men.”

this insight helped her realize that she, too, a closeted lesbian living in an abusive relationship, really did know about crime or at least the possibility of it: “i knew firsthand the fear of murder.” with time, the more she fleshed out philosophy with tangible reality, the more her writing block disappeared and she regained her voice:

“i presented my … ‘feminist ethical theory: a lesbian perspective’ … at the university of minnesota … to my surprise, i began speaking from deep inside, without effort, in a large voice that i had not known was there. people later said they heard me in the hallways … there was anger fuelling that voice. there was also confidence …”

claudia card has turned from the universal to the particular:

“i no longer linger over ‘eternal’ or universal truths. i seek wisdom … in relation to lives fleshed out as gendered as well as members of species, as having ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds, even sexual orientations – things not universal … i still teach from books … but i also teach from my life, and my writing flows from that life …”

in the second part of the essay, i added my own voice, my own lived experience:
what i am digging for is my voice. to some degree, i mean this quite literally, which is why i felt such affinity with claudia card. i often feel weak, powerless and confused when i speak, especially in small groups. my voice is not my accomplice but my betrayer; so often it has let me down by scrambling my words and stammering, by being sarcastic when it should have yelled, by taking on a childlike whisper when it should be loud and articulate, and by being mute when it should spit out the truth. and it is as if my speaking voice, when not articulated, just like unexpressed anger “backs up” and constipates my thinking. i believe this voice is not only undeveloped for private reasons but also because i feel my reality, like that of so many other women, has been negated in the context of a society that does not wish to give weight to women’s experiences.

so this is my motivation for writing these words: i am trying to unconstipate, to untangle my thinking, and to reconnect it with my both my speaking and my metaphorical voice. as well, i would like to connect further out, with other people who are also trying to find their voice. while i earnestly do not want to minimize the voicelessness of many men, i do identify better with women who want to speak up and be heard. this is why i was so intrigued when i saw the announcement of petra von morstein’s lecture, especially because she was described as a poet, philosophical counsellor and researcher into feminist philosophy. what would her voice be like, i wondered, how does she sing the song of philosophy?

after many attempts, i finally managed to speak to her on the telephone. von morstein threw an interesting and much-needed light on my quest for understanding women’s experience and women’s connection with philosophy. she criticized my (and others’) dichotomous approach to this question, saying that when reading the works of such male philosophers as augustine, descartes, hume, kant, hegel, heidegger or husserl, one does find a coming-together of the universal and the particular.

granted, these men did not inform their thinking with the particulars of female reality (it is unlikely kant came up with his categorial imperative while doing the dishes); nevertheless, they also did not insist on separating the personal from the universal. augustine’s confessions, an autobiography and arguably one of the most important philosophical writings, are a case in point, as are descartes meditations. it is debatable whether, as solanas says, these men are really “unable to relate to anybody or anything”.

von morstein also pointed out that, by making such harsh judgments as solanas, many women cut themselves off from the history of thought, thereby impoverishing themselves. “i want to have it all!” ms. von morstein exclaimed a few times, meaning that she thinks that women can and should draw on all perspectives, the feminist one and that of the “dead white males”.

searching for my voice, investigating other women’s voices, has been, in part, a very private enterprise. in other ways, however, i also hope that my words can be companions to those of other women, such as claudia card’s. taking yet another angle, i want to come back to what i said at the beginning of this essay: “what i do and think is really all i can know.” even though it seems that there are similarities between me and other people – other women -, i cannot presume to speak for them. i can only speak for myself, speak to them and sometimes maybe even with them. i can only say: this is my experience; and if yours is similar, let’s have them stand side by side and reinforce each other.