The Relation between Knowledge and Understanding

Knowledge and Understanding are intimately related, and yet different, operations. In my post on The Phenomenon of Questioning, I made the claim that “Knowledge is parasitic on understanding — we can’t really know what is not meaningful to us…One may certainly have another type of relationship to someone/something that isn’t understood, but that relationship is not knower-to-known.” As a follow up, I want to explore a bit the differences and relationship between knowledge and understanding. I will be relying on some of the insights from my earlier post on questions — so reading that earlier post will help! — but I will add to those insights things that I learned from Bernard Lonergan.

1. First, understanding and knowledge are different kinds of answers to different kinds of questions. Understanding is correlate to a “question for intelligence” — such questions have a form like “What is X?  How is X? Why is X?”  Knowledge on the other hand is correlate to a “question for reflection,” which asks concerning a particular understanding of a state of affairs, “Is it so?”  The answer to a question for reflection will yield an answer of “yes” or “no” (or some shade of probability in between). A question for intelligence is never answerable in those terms. I can’t answer the question “What is a carburetor?” with a yes or no; the question “What is a carburetor?” is a question about what is understood by carburetor and understanding is not a yes/no affair. But if I ask “Is it a carburetor?” I can answer yes or no. It is a question of affirmation or denial — in other words, it asks for a judgment and knowing is a form of judging.

2. Knowledge requires a prior understanding. I cannot be said to know that a particular thing is a carburetor if I don’t understand what is meant by the word. On the other hand, I do not have to know if there is (or is not) an existent carburetor in order to understand what a carburetor is. The path to knowledge must pass through understanding.

3. Knowledge is a verified judgment. Judgment is an affirmation that some understanding of an actual state of affairs is or isn’t the case. A judgment is grounded and verified, true without qualification, when all relevant questions have been answered.

4. Knowledge is not just true opinion. If it were, an opinion based on a lucky guess would constitute knowledge — it doesn’t. An opinion as opinion always has unanswered questions at its heart, always lacks grounding. If it didn’t, we would call it knowledge and not opinion. (The inherent defect in opinion is one of the things I will examine closely in my book.)

5. Again, the criterion of truth and therefore of knowledge is that *all relevant questions have been answered.* This means that, for a particular opinion/belief/judgment, unless we have allowed all relevant questions to arise so that they may be met and answered, we cannot be said to have knowledge.

6. Because of this demand to hold ourselves accountable and available to questions that may arise against a judgment, knowledge — because it is requires judgment — involves a personal commitment. C. S. Peirce claims that logic depends upon ethics  — that one cannot be a good scientist for instance, without being ethical and diligent to find out if one’s hypotheses are wrong. To be responsible requires that I be responsive (but first attentive) to relevant questions, especially those that disturb and distress my comfortable opinions about the true and good. Socrates is the champion of overlooked but relevant questions.

7. I should say something about the predominance of questions for intelligence in Socratic/Platonic thought.

First, the goal of such questions is called in the dialogues a form/eidos, which I interpret as a “form of possibility.” Understanding/noesis is always understanding of a possibility that may or not be actualized. Possibilities are forms/eidei and actualities are limited by possibilities.

Second, The Platonic pattern of knowing is a movement from bad understanding to good in a particular actualized instance. (Wait! How can a change in understanding constitute knowing?) The judgment that “there is such a thing as justice” is taken as a given; it never changes — the dialectical controversy in the dialogues mostly revolves around what is meant by forms such as “justice.” The question for reflection is already implicit in its question for intelligence: “What is so (in this instance)?”  Resolve the “what” with a particular understanding (call it ‘X’) and the result is the judgement “X is so.” Socrates’ favorite type of question, “What is X?” can be converted into the form, “What is so about X?” — that there in fact is an X is rarely at issue.

Third, Socrates is most concerned about concrete forms of actual living, which require a personal commitment such as is involved in judgment as such but particularly ethical judgment. If an ethical judgment is to be affirmed, then the relevant question that Socrates would raise is (1) whether the understanding of virtue being lived and affirmed can in fact be affirmed consistently and ethically, and (2) if not, what is the understanding/possibility of virtue that could be taken up and affirmed consistently and ethically.


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