Friday, February 02, 2018



D. R. Khashaba

Throughout my writings I have stressed the need for a radical distinction between knowledge and understanding, a distinction which, I maintain, is clearly made and emphasized by Plato.

In common usage the terms ‘know’ and ‘understand’ overlap and are often used interchangeably. For Empiricists there can be no such distinction since for them all cognition is objective and of the objective while understanding, to my mind, is essentially subjective. Thus for all who speak of a metaphysical reality or a metaphysical plane of being the distinction is crucial even if it is not reflected in their terminology. After all, it is notorious that Plato was the worst offender against terminological uniformity. The problem is further complicated by Kant’s ‘concepts of the understanding’ which correspond to the Platonic Forms that lend intelligibility to the dumb ‘givennesses’ of experience. The nearest thing in Kant to the realm of understanding (as in the terminology I adopt) are the Ideals of Pure Reason.

It occurred to me to further clarify that distinction – primarily in my own mind – by running through some specific examples.

What do I know? In Plato’s dialogues whenever there is question about someone having or not having knowledge of this or that it is implied that he could only have that knowledge if (1) he had found out for himself, or (2) he was taught by another. I think that this exhaustively covers the sources of knowledge: we have knowledge (1) from personal experience, and (2) we have reported knowledge.

I know that the sun comes up every morning and goes down at the end of the day. I have seen this happening day after day. Then I was taught that it is not the sun that journeys daily from one horizon to the other, but it is the earth that rotates facing the sun in one region of the globe after another. Empiricists say that this ‘explains’ the sun’s apparent movement. Does it? Does it make me understand why the earth rotates? Early astronomers, whether they adopted a heliocentric or a geocentric theory, only described what happens. They did not say or know why the earth rotates or why it revolves around the sun. Newton ascribed the movements of the earth and the other planets to gravity but confessed he had no idea what gravity was. Einstein ascribed these movements to the curvature of space but no one can even imagine that curvature. That is true of all scientific knowledge. It enables us to calculate, to anticipate, to manipulate natural phenomena but does not explain, does not make us understand, anything. That is knowledge: knowledge is that and nothing but that.

What about understanding? Let me first state my position bluntly. All understanding is subjective; in other words, all unserstanding is cooked in the mind by the mind. When a stranger helps my ninety-year-old bones and near-blind eyes to cross the street, I understand that as an act of kindness, not as the operation of glands and neurons in the stranger. When I read: “Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind / I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom / But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb” (Wordsworth) — when I read these words I understand the pathos, the joy wrapped in grief, the tender love for the departed; I understand the experience that dictated the words because my mind infuses the words with feelings emanating from experiences similar to the poet’s experience.

Thus understanding, being an outpouring by the mind of meaningfulness and intelligibility on what it receives has the sufficiency of its self-evidence in subjective intelligence. Hence the outcome of genuine philosophical creativity, like inspired poetry, needs no exterior evidence or demonstration and is not arrived at by inferential reasoning but is the gift of insight into the reality of the philosopher’s owm mind.

D. R. Khashaba

February 2, 2018

Posted to xnd


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