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.

  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:


  1. The behavioural definition gets into similar problems with ‘appropriate’.

    This reminds me of the little saying that: data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom.

    I feel that I understand something when I have a feel for its parts and how they fit the whole (I find diagrams and mindmaps useful for this), have a sense I could explain it to someone else (usually I have a conversation in my head explaining it to someone else, and have a sense of what it means when applied to my experience. These things don’t happen one after the other but I bounce around between them.
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..Ageing Well – can we do anything about it? =-.

  2. @ Evan
    For me wisdom has much to do with experience.
    For me someone has wisdom who is able to understand and solve many different tasks successfully. Time is an important factor too because experience has to be built up.

  3. @evan i think the problem is here: “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.”

    they’re confusing a set of commands with “language” the way swahili is a language. just because we call sets of commends a “computer language” doesn’t mean it’s a human language. (any cognitive scientists around here to add to this?)

    @madeleine so how would you say wisdom and understanding relate to one another?
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..rainbow couple on a wordless wednesday =-.

  4. Hi Isabella,

    I have a couple of problems with using computers as a guide to language or thought is that it equates the mental with information processing, which neglects perception.

    The other is compassion and shared experience. If a computer has experience then it seems likely that a silicon based lifeform would be have a very different experience to a carbon based lifeform. Do we ‘understand’ even other carbon based lifeform’s experience (say a bat’s?).

    I find these very stimulating questions. However, I’m quite sure that computers operate differently to human brains and bodies, so they aren’t much of a guide for human language or cognition.
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..Boredom’s Gift =-.

  5. I’ve always taken understanding to be the middle point of three steps: knowledge, understanding, wisdom; I can see that Evan not unreasonably adds data and information into the mix. I know that energy = mass times the speed of light squared. I don’t understand that; I couldn’t explain it, I can just repeat it parrot-fashioned. Understanding it isn’t enough either. There are people who could explain what Einstein was on about here but couldn’t build an atomic bomb so there has to be more, different levels of understanding; it’s not a switch – I understand / I don’t understand. People often define ‘understanding’ as ‘applied knowledge’ – I suppose it’s as good a definition as any – it’s the ‘how to’ part whereas wisdom is the ‘when to’ part. I think it’s important that people don’t see understanding as the end. ‘Wisdom’ is a word, like ‘sin’, that has many associations and not all of them fashionable. I’m not sure ‘insight’ is a suitable synonym but it would do at a push. I’ve seen wisdom defined as a ‘perception of understanding’. I would also suggest that it is a by-product of experience, applying what we’ve learned under one set of circumstances to another; it is therefore an act of interpretation or perhaps translation would be a better metaphor.

  6. Is there anything on this page that lies outside the realm of Thought? What is the source of being enthused but Thought? How silly is it to “think” that Thought isn’t the source of what is taking place as I write this note? Ah, the seduction of speeding past the obvious.

  7. let me see if i can sort this out:

    “Is there anything on this page that lies outside the realm of Thought?“

    that depends on how you define “thought”. if you mean as opposed to direct physical action related to the topic under discussion, no.

    but really, i don’t understand what you’re trying to get at with this question.

    “What is the source of being enthused but Thought?”

    hmmm …. are you saying something like, “why are you getting to excited over talking about thought?” – or … ?

    “How silly is it to “think” that Thought isn’t the source of what is taking place as I write this note?”

    i dunno. how silly is it? and who is saying that thought is not involved as you write this note? (not sure what you refer to as Thought with a capital T)

    please shed some light on this!
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..resentments, eckhart tolle and the present =-.

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