This is one of my fuzzier philosophical terminology-choices. “Understanding” has often been used as a technical term in philosophy, with dozens of meanings. I draw upon Whitehead’s in particular, however: “I mean ‘understanding’ in the sense in which it is used in the French proverb, ?To understand all is to forgive all.”
We may also consider Dewey’s use of the term: “Knowledge signifies events understood, events so discriminatingly penetrated by thought that mind is literally at home with them.” (EN, 161)
But Dewey has missed something here which Whitehead got. It is that there is a difference between understanding and knowledge. And the difference is not that understanding is merely a more intense form of knowledge. To understand is to know in the utmost sense of knowing, but it is also something more, something that goes beyond knowledge to get at something else is entirely, which Whitehead has identified as “forgiving.” There is a process of identification with consequences not just for how we think about a thing, but how we feel about it as well, and if that isn’t present, you haven’t gone far enough…
What does this mean? It means that education, properly undertaken, annihilates scorn. It means that brute, manipulable fact has ceased to lay between the subject and object; “learning about” has become “learning from.” The cold certainties of easy bias become the challenge of the world in which warm bodies move.
What is the difference between the known and the understood? Knowing is impersonal, understanding is personal; at the same time, knowledge can be private and understanding absolutely cannot.
Knowledge requires no additional alteration of the subject’s interpretive framework beyond the addition of the fact itself, but understanding may require a radical change. It may also be radically demanding of action on the part of the subject, because it requires a movement of identification.
And consider Weil?s first statement in section 7. It is the voluntary act of love which brings us into contact with a thing as real, with the thing as understood rather than merely a semi-hypothetical, disposable instrument.
It is important to realize that Dewey?s semicopulative language is incomplete for a true description of understanding. It is not that thought has penetrated the object that provides understanding in the first case, but understanding that has penetrated thought. It is when we have opened ourselves to the reality of this other thing that we can begin to understand it. And it is as when we have begun to understand that we may begin to act with understanding, to fulfill the requirement of pragmatism that truth be active. In action the penetration-absorption becomes mutual, and is best understood as interpenetration. It is this interpenetration that is signified by the reference to identification; there is a mixture of beings, an ontological fusion, inherent in understanding, in what Dewey calls full knowledge.
See also: Selving

category:theory education