What Happens When We Understand Something?

Understanding is facilitated by clarification of meaning. If we don’t know the meaning of what a statement conveys, there is no understanding. Even if there is an attempt to explain what it means but the message receiver still cannot make sense out of it, there is a failure of understanding. Understanding is the essence of communication so that there is no communication if there is no understanding and vice versa. In formal logic, the relation between understanding and communication is bi-conditional: “There is understanding IF AND ONLY IF there is communication.”

One contemporary focal point of philosophy is linguistic because many problems, controversies, and hostilities, big and small, in everyday life arise from misunderstanding and confusion in language. Two people get into a bitter discussion and hard bickering because each of them is using words or statements whose meanings are not clear to either one of them. One uses a word or statement whose meaning to her/him is very much different from the latter’s meaning because they have differing contexts. In other words, there is misunderstanding and confusion in meanings because of contextual vagueness or undefined context. A word, a phrase, a statement, may have different meanings in different contexts. A context is a defining locus were words or statements are used according to the understanding of their user. So that, for someone to be philosophical, s/he should first ask the word–or statement–using the latter’s meaning of what has been said. Hence, it is genuinely being philosophical in the contemporary linguistic analytic sense to ask the question, “What is your meaning of the word or phrase or statement you have just said?” or “In what definite sense are you using that word in that statement?” (1)

In academic philosophy, understanding is an issue of (a) syntax which is the proper concatenation of words, phrases or clauses that constitute correctly structured sentences; (b) semantics which is basically a matter of establishing meaningfulness in terms of sense and reference(2); and (c) pragmatics which deals with the language in use and the particular contexts wherein such language is used. These are the foundation of logic, and logical analysis functions only within the sphere of meaning in context. It is not, therefore, the fundamental concern of logic whether an argument ensconced in statements that make up the premises and the conclusion is located in the real world or not. As long as we understand the meanings of the concatenated words/phrases/clauses in the premises, that is enough to get to a conclusion. In this case, we say that the argument is valid. An example of this is the following:

“All corrupt kings are ugly. The king of France is corrupt. Therefore, the king of France is ugly.”

The statements that constitute the premises and the conclusion make sense because we understand them as they communicate meanings. They are therefore meaningful. Moreover, with the use of the six rules of logical validity(3), the argument is also deemed valid despite the fact that it is unrealistic since, in reality, there is no such person as “the king of France”. Having this condition, the argument, though valid, is not sound as soundness is determined by how a statement or a premise in a logical argument relates or connects with what is obtaining in reality.

It is, therefore, an exercise of philosophical discretion or philosophical attitude not to get into a discussion without identifying first the thematic context of the discussion wherein words and statements intended to be used are initially bracketed for meaning clarification. According to the great Austrian linguistic philosopher of the first half of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word is in its use. The use is the context, or to appropriate the term Wittgenstein introduced in his highly acclaimed masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations, the use is located in a specific “language-game”. In other words, that which we call contextual dependence or language-game is what determines the meaning of a word or words in a statement. (4)

Nevertheless, though knowledge, which is defined in academic philosophy as “true justified belief,”(5) necessarily connects with understanding and meaning, understanding and meaning do not necessarily connect with knowledge. In other words, a statement whose meaning we understand very well does not mean it is necessarily true. We may perfectly understand a statement but if there is no way for us to verify it in the real world, such a statement cannot be established as a matter of knowledge.

For a sensible person who has already gotten to the point of understanding something which s/he has considered to be worthwhile–in this case, a statement–what happens next is to verify it, i.e., to find out whether it is true or not. Though it is very important to understand a statement, the bucket does not stop at this point, so to speak. If a statement is truly worth considering, we do not only want to understand it; we want to verify it. Doing this elevates the issue to the level of epistemology; it, therefore, becomes a matter of knowledge and leads us verifiers to the point of finally saying, “Now I know the statement is true” or “Now I know the statement is false” as the case may be.

Depending on the degree of importance of what one has understood and known, the context now determines whether s/he has to act on it or otherwise. At this point, decision is of the essence. Now that I perfectly understand the message and have got the definite knowledge of its truth or falsity as the case may be, what is the right thing to do? From logic to epistemology, we are now entering the sphere of axiology, i.e., values, more specifically the field of ethics where we make a judgment on a circumstance and decide what ethically right action we ought to do. And in many cases, this is a particular point where the decision-maker has to face clear and present risks especially when the matter of concern is necessary to be exposed in public either as a way to warn the latter of an impending disaster that ought to be immediately acted on before it finally strikes or to resolve a widespread problem of national–even international–importance by making it known to the people why such a problem exists.

Knowing what one understands as true or false and thereafter exposing such knowledge to a significant audience of concerned entities could entail grave danger on the part of the one who has made the disclosure, more popularly described nowadays by the monicker, “whistleblower”. Without elaborating on this matter, we have at least witnessed the tragic consequences of what happened to the likes of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning. In this connection, we could almost be correct to assume that each of them had gotten to the end of the rope and despite finding themselves between a rock and a hard place or at worst, even between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to speak, conscience pushed them to take the most dangerous decision they had ever made in their lives. But considering the cases of these persons of interest may be construed as dwelling too much on the negative side of the issue of what happens when we understand and know something.

Looking at the brighter side of understanding, it is a perfect platform that if properly acted upon could lead to the liberation of the mind that has long been dogmatically confined in the limited recesses of outdated categories that can no longer cope with all the rapid changes obtaining in the post-modern realities of our time. When we understand something in this positive context, what happens is a feeling of exhilaration and an experience of freedom from the mind’s past enslavement “within the narrow, dark and grimy walls of ignorance” (with apologies to Frederick Douglass)(6).

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 2 October 2019

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(1) Ruel F. Pepa, “The Relevance of Linguistic Analytic Philosophy in the Post-Industrial Era” [https://ruelfpepa.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/the-relevance-of-linguistic-analytic-philosophy-in-the-post-industrial-era/]

(2) Cf., Gottlob Frege’s “Sense and Reference“.

(3) The six rules of logical validity: (a) There must be three terms each of which is used twice. (b) The middle term (i.e., the term not found in the conclusion) must be distributed at least once. (c)If a term is distributed in the conclusion, it must also be distributed in a premise. (d) If both premises are affirmative, the conclusion must also be affirmative. (e) If one premise is negative, the conclusion must also be negative. (f) If both premises are negative, there is no way to form a conclusion.

(4) Ruel F. Pepa, “The Relevance of Linguistic Analytic Philosophy in the Post-Industrial Era” [https://ruelfpepa.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/the-relevance-of-linguistic-analytic-philosophy-in-the-post-industrial-era/]

(5) Cf., Plato’s Theaetetus and C. I. Lewis’ Mind and the World Order

(6) Frederick Douglass, Blessings of Liberty and Education (1894).

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