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LINGUISTIX&LOGIK, Tony Marmo's blog
Tuesday, 22 June 2004

There is also a post from the Desert Landscapes blog on the same issue:

The Relationship Between Knowledge and Understanding

by Michelle Jenkins

I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between knowledge and understanding. Knowledge and understanding, I think, are quite different sorts of things. My general grasp of the nature of understanding is influenced largely by the Ancients. One understands something if she 1) is able to provide a comprehensive explanation 2) has a systematic grasp of all of the information and 3) can defend her explanation against any questions or criticisms. First, in order to understand something I must be able to provide a comprehensive explanation of it. A physicist, for example, who understands the theory of relativity must be able to provide an explanation about why the theory of relativity is as it is, how it works, how it affects a variety of other physical laws and observations, and so forth. Second, to understand something, one must be able to `see' the relationship between different bits of information in the whole of the field to which the bit of information belongs. You must have a systematic grasp of the information relating to the matter at hand such that you see that the information, and the relationships that the different bits of information have with one another, forms an almost organic whole. Thus, a car mechanic who understands why the part of the car is making the sound that it is, has this understanding because he has a systematic grasp of the whole of the vehicle. He knows how the different parts relate to each other and how and in what ways certain conditions will affect both the different parts of the vehicle and the vehicle as a whole. This ties closely into the need for a comprehensive explanation. The physicist (or car mechanic) is able to provide a comprehensive explanation about the thing that she understands because she understands and `sees' the thing as a whole, as part of a complete system. Finally, in order to understand something, one must be able to defend her claim against any criticisms that are leveled against it. This defense must itself be explanatory. One cannot defend her view by pointing to the words of another, but must defend it by demonstrating an ability to look at the issue in a variety of ways and as part of a systematic whole. She is not proving her certainty with regard to an issue, but is demonstrating her understanding of the issue. In defending her view successfully, she demonstrates a reliability and stability within her account. Apparent in this account of understanding (I hope!) is that one must have a rather large web of information about the matter which one claims to understand. In order to develop and defend a suitably comprehensive explanation, one must be able to employ a huge number (and variety) of facts and bits of knowledge that relate to the thing she claims to understand. And, as the systematicity requirement shows, that web of information must be structured in a systematic manner.

Knowledge (at least most accounts of knowledge) requires none of this. I need not offer an explanation in order to know something. To demonstrate justification I must only point to a trustworthy source of that information. Further, knowledge need not be systematic. I can know that an electron has a negative charge without being able to place that bit of knowledge in a larger systematic account of particle physics. Finally, while knowledge may involve (but need not, in some views) the ability to defend one''s belief, the standard to which one must defend his belief is not as high as that of understanding. One must only prove, for knowledge, that he is certain of the belief (and has a right to be certain), not why the belief is so or how that belief ties into a larger system of beliefs.

Despite the differences between the two states, however, it seems to me that there is at least one very important connection between understanding and knowledge, but the issue has vexed me to the extent that I'm not certain what to think. Basically, I think that understanding, or more particularly our desire to understand, guides us in our quest for knowledge. We don't typically seek to know things for their own sake (we don't aim to be trivia mavens, we don't think that phonebook memorizers are ideal epistemic agents) but rather we seek to know things so that we might come to have a deeper understanding of something. (*See note at bottom of post*) If I desire to understand how my car works, then that desire to understand is going to direct me in what sorts of things I'll attempt to learn, in what things that I wish to have knowledge. But in order to ever obtain understanding, I must first come to know a lot of things about the subject that I hope to understand. I can''t understand something merely by having appropriately connected beliefs. Those beliefs must have the proper sort of justification and truth-connectedness that makes them knowledge. It would seem weird, I think, to claim to understand something while not knowing the information that makes up the requisite web of information. Thus, I think, understanding and knowledge do have a very definite relationship. Understanding is a more fundamental epistemic state than knowledge and is the epistemic state to which we ultimately aim. Knowledge is merely a step (not the destination) in our epistemic progression. However, we cannot understand something if we do not first have knowledge of a whole web of information that allows us to develop comprehensive accounts, defenses of those accounts, and of which we have some sort of systematic grasp. Our understanding of something depends on our first having knowledge about the information surrounding that issue. Put another way, understanding is knowledge plus something else...and I take that something else to be some sort of systematic grasp of the bits of knowledge that allows one to posit and defend explanations regarding the thing one claims to understand.

But there are questions with this account. Perhaps most prominently - must my web of information be comprised only of things that I know? Can I understand something even if my web of information is comprised partially of beliefs that fail to be knowledge? I'm thinking here of two cases. First is the physicist who understands particle physics (at least inasmuch as one can understand particle physics) and has firm beliefs, but not knowledge, about some of information making up his web of information. Were someone to ask him about a specific claim, he may say something like, "well, recent experiments indicate this, although we can't know for certain until...". Does the physicist, who relies on these beliefs (that yet fail to be knowledge) to support his explanations, have understanding of matter at hand? My second case is of the skeptic who disavows any claims of knowledge. Can we say that this person, who does not think that he knows anything still understand a great many things? Here I suppose there are (at least) two related questions. First, if we must know the information that comprises our understanding, then how do we handle the different standards for knowledge that different folks have? Surely the person with a lax standard for knowledge does not understand more than the individual with a very high standard for knowledge. And second (though related), if one must know the bits of information that comprise his understanding, must he acknowledge that he knows the information before he can claim to understand the matter which depends upon that information?

I don't know what to think in the face of these, and other, questions. On the one hand, it seems to me quite apparent that understanding must be comprised of different bits of knowledge. Understanding implies a deep grasp of the material at hand, and how can one have such a grasp of the material if he does not know the information that makes up that web of information? But on the other hand I don't want to take away the physicist's claim to understanding, nor do I want to say that the skeptic, even though he may disavow any claims of knowledge, does not understand anything. So I find myself at an impasse. I don't know which of the two claims ought to be rejected or whether they're really more compatible than they, at first glance, appear to be.

**Note: I should note that understanding does not guide all of (or probably even most of) the things we seek to know. I quite often want to know what time it is, where I left my car keys, or when the movie is playing, without any deeper desire for understanding. This is something I've been struggling to account for for a while, as of yet quite unsuccessfully. Right now I want to recognize this and offer the rather flimsy response that while we do seek after this purely instrumental sort of knowledge all the time, the knowledge that is guided by understanding seems to be a more important sort of knowledge, the sort of knowledge that defines us as rational, inquisitive, and thinking creatures.

Reactions to Jenkins' Post

Fascinating issue. My view is that understanding is a specific kind of knowledge - *explanatory* knowledge. Some beliefs have a content of the form "A because B." I'm an explanatory realist, in Kim's sense, so I think that such a belief has a truthmaker, namely, a state of affairs consisting in a real-world explanatory relation holding between A and B. I like to call such beliefs "explanatory beliefs." When they are true, justified, and Gettier-proof, these beliefs constitute *explanatory knowledge*. And states of understanding are states of explanatory knowledge. The basic idea is that to understand x is to know *why* x (or perhaps why x is the case).

I'm not sure this account would withstand critical scrutiny. In any case, it does not conflict with Michelle's account of the relation between understanding and knowledge. In fact, I have the feeling that they might illuminate each other further.

Comment by uriah -- 6/17/2004 @ 1:26 am

I agree that understanding is about having a comprehensive, interrelated system, but I think that the system can consist of various things besides knowledge. For instance, consider someone who understands Freudian psychology (case 1). He can explain the relationships between the id, ego, and superego, the importance of dreams and family relationships, and the rest of the system. He can come up with explanations for people's behavior based on this theory, and ways to correct their problems, even in contexts that earlier Freudians never imagined. However, let's suppose that Freudian psychology is basically nonsense and has little or nothing to do with how people actually are. This Freudian does not understand human behavior, but it sure seems like he understands Freudian psychology. And, his understanding does not merely consist of knowledge of what his predecessors believed, since he can create novel explanations for novel cases.

We could further imagine that this expert in Freudian psychology knows that Freudian psychology is nonsense (case 1b). He's just as adept at it, but he doesn't actually believe that people have ids or oedipal complexes or that dreams are a window to the unconscious. I would say that his understanding is a system of ideas, not knowledge or beliefs. When dealing with things like scientific or philosophical theories, some would say that you have to have this kind of understanding of the theory before you can decide whether to believe it.

Case 2: Consider an expert juggler. He can juggle most anything you give to him. He knows just how to toss and catch a knife so that he grabs the handle. He knows how to toss and catch and egg so that it doesn't break. He can adjust his juggling if he's moving around, or if there are obstacles around him. If he juggles with a partner, he can recognize the partner's particular abilities and preferences and make things easier on the partner. I would say that he understands juggling. But he doesn't really have beliefs or ideas, and he can't explain what he's doing very well, let alone defend it. But his abilities seem to represent a kind of implicit, functional knowledge or understanding.

You could say that these cases represent understanding in a different sense of the word, and you'd be right, but in order to understand understanding it seems important to identify how cases like these are similar to and different from the kind of understanding that you're trying to focus on.

Comment by Dan Keys -- 6/17/2004 @ 1:51 am

Michelle, I like 1) and 2) of "understanding". I'm not so sure about 3). In "On Certainty" Wittgenstein doesn't think Moore can confirm his knowledge merely by asserting it (e.g. 1969: 6,13,91,178,179). W. seems to think that the prefix "I know..." is a move that justifies others to demand proof. I think proof is a form of defence.
Comment by RdR -- 6/17/2004 @ 1:36 pm

Uriah pointed me to this discussion over at Certain Doubts, after lamenting the lack of epistemology on Arizona's blog. It's great to see such high-level posts and comments here.

Just two quick points. I don't think, and have argued in print (most recently in my new book on knowledge and understanding), that knowledge is a species of understanding. Suppose you have systemic information about Comanche dominance of the southern plains from 1775-1875. You can meet all of Michelle's account (which is amazingly similar to my own) and yet your information be gettiered (say, the books from which you learned had dates transposed, names switched, etc., and in your reading you auspiciously switch them and come up with the right dates). Your beliefs would be classic examples of gettiered beliefs, but you'd still be able to meet the conditions for understanding. (More discussion of such cases is needed to make them persuasive, but I won't go into that here). And, of course, there are always Swampman cases, which quite a few theories of knowledge cannot explain in terms of knowledge (here I'm thinking of Foley's use of such to show that knowledge is nothing more than broad and comprehensive true belief-his argument for his view isn't as good, though, as his use of swampman against other views). Even if Swampman doesn't have knowledge, understanding can be present.

The second point is about the cognitive goal that Michelle speaks of. There's a new Blackwell's Debate volume coming out, in which Marian David and I take opposing sides on this issue. Marian defends that truth is the goal, and I argue for a greater plurality depending on the construal of the question, but I also think that if the question concerns the goal of inquiry or investigation, understanding is the goal. There's a prepub link on my website, if anyone is interested.

Third, I worry a bit about explanation playing the strong role it plays in this discussion. I'm thinking of Kim's question as to why being given an explanation makes anything intelligible at all, in the way that understanding involves intelligibility.

Comment by jon kvanvig -- 6/20/2004 @ 6:28 am

It's great to see people talking about understanding! I agree with Jon Kvanvig that understanding is not a species of knowledge-in large part because of Jon's arguments! That, of course, leaves open the question of how the two are related. I have a pretty strong view about that, but it depends on a pretty non-standard view of knowledge. I take knowledge to be fairly unimportant epistemically (can I even say that?). I think our cognitive goal is best expressed as something akin to obtaining as comprehensive and intelligible a picture of the world and our place in it as we can. This, of course, implies having something very like understanding. Knowledge, on my view, is simply true belief that we acquire in a way that makes the acquisition of that truth creditable to us. Knowing that p is simply believing truly that p is such a way that we get credit for that accomplishment. What is valuable is the true belief. We value knowledge beyond mere true in the same way we value a moral deed that we perform more than we value merely the good outcome of that deed. We like for valuable states of affairs to add to our total worth as an agent, whether epistemic or moral.

This is by no means a detailed theory of knowledge, but it's enough to see why I take knowledge to be peripheral to our cognitive lives, and how I think it relates to understanding. We value true beliefs, but only insofar as they contribute to our understanding of the world. Thus, as Ernie Sosa, among others, has pointed out, we don't particularly care whether we have a true belief about the number of grains of sand on a stretch of beach. This will not inform our understanding of the world in any interesting way. So, our desire for understanding both guides our pursuit of truth (to some extent) and renders truths valuable to us. We pick up knowledge along the way as we try to figure out the world (if we do it right). It is an interesting question whether any knowledge is even necessary to understanding. I am open to the possibility (though I am not prepared to argue for it) that one could have a comprehensive understanding of the world without having any beleifs that meet the criteria of contemporary theories of knowledge.

Comment by Wayne Riggs -- 6/21/2004 @ 7:59 am

As a linguist, I think one part of the problem is that true knowledge presupposes understanding.
The argument above revolves around the idea that

(1) x knows that p, but x cannot explain p.

But if you assume that p itself is the explanation for q, you could affirm (2):

(2) x knows that q and knows that p, whereby x can explain q.

On the other hand if r is the explanation for p, then you may claim

(3) x cannot explain p, because x does not know r.

But you can also claim the other way round. Suppose that x does explain a certain phenomenon z. If s is the explanation for z, then

(4) x knows s.

But we do not even need to go this kind argumentation. To understand something is a little bit less than being able to explain such thing. To understand something is simply to know what it means or might mean. Take the sentence below:

(5) George Sands was not a male.

Even if you cannot explain (5), you understand it, because it has a meaning.

Of related interest.

Posted by Tony Marmo at 06:28 BST
Updated: Wednesday, 23 June 2004 07:53 BST

Thursday, 24 June 2004 - 03:18 BST

Name: RdR
Home Page:

I wanted to see if the standard definitions shed any light on these words. Not that it always helps in the philosophical sense, but sometimes it gives a "flavour".

Anyway, the OED gives these key definitions:

1. a. To comprehend; to apprehend the meaning or import of; to grasp the idea of.
b. To be thoroughly acquainted or familiar with (an art, profession, etc.);
to be able to practise or deal with properly.

2. To comprehend by knowing the meaning of the words employed;
to be acquainted with (a language) to this extent.


I. 1. a. trans. To perceive (a thing or person) as identical with one perceived
before, or of which one has a previous notion; to recognize; to identify
II. 5. a. To be acquainted with (a thing, a place, or a person); to be familiar
with by experience, or through information or report (= F. connaitre, Ger.
kennen). Sometimes, To have such familiarity with (something) as gives
understanding or insight
III.8. To have cognizance of (something), through observation, inquiry, or
information; to be aware or apprised of (= F. savoir, Ger. wissen); to
become cognizant of, learn through information or inquiry, ascertain,
find out.
IV.12. a. to know how (formerly also simply to know): to understand the way, or
be able (to do something)

Based on this, I would say that the "ordinary" meaning of _to understand_ revolves around systemic cognition of some kind, whereas _to know_ revolves around apprehension.

Maybe the two start to overlap where knowing means _knowing how_, which seems an apprehension of something systemic.

Friday, 25 June 2004 - 05:49 BST

Name: Tony Marmo
Home Page:

Thank you very much for your reply.

As you pointed out, both definition 1a and 2 above (from the ODE) have to do with the idea I made explicit, i.e., that to understand (a sentence) is simply to know what the words mean, and not necessarily to give a systematic account of what is understood.

Nevertheless, the entries from OED are the byproduct of the study of the lexicon of an object language, which is English. And, of course, as in any natural language, the each item may ramify into more than one meaning-definition. For instance, in English to understand may also mean to have heard that, as in (A) below:

(A) I understand that they will shoot The Blue Lagoon III.

I have, on the other hand, focused the notion of understanding in a semantic, epistemologic, philosophic or other theory. You understand the meaning of (B) below and yet, even considering it true, you may have no explanation for that:

(B) Fermat has never failed as a mathematician.

Friday, 25 June 2004 - 06:20 BST

Name: RdR
Home Page:

Hi Tony, I've added some elaborations to the Arizon blog on the same topic. I _think_ we're largely in agreement, but as I said over there: I find some difficulty in that "knowing" in the philo. sense has become a very large rubric.

I think that a meaningful comparison to the (much smaller profile) philosophical notion of "understanding" may need constraining of "knowing".

(off topic) do you have an email link? I've got some off-topic, off-line comments.

Friday, 25 June 2004 - 17:36 BST

Name: Tony Marmo
Home Page:

Oh, I shall send you an e-mail.
Thank you. Mind that I am linguist and a still learner in the field of Logic, so your extra comments will be welcome.

Knowing in the pilosophical and linguistic senses has become a very large rubric indeed. But philosophers discuss what knowledge in a theory is or is not. Linguists usually do not define what knowledge is in the general theoretic framework. For instance, they/we say that a natural language is a form of knowledge.

But when it is about the semantics of a natural language, then it becomes clear that it is necessary a formal definition or characterisation of what the items knowledge and to know mean. One common characterisation is the idea that each propositional attitude word/verb is associated with a world accessibility relation. I guess that this characterisation does not satisfy all philosophers, although some of them may like it.

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