Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ways of Understanding

What is it to understand something? Is understanding illusory? A necessary fiction? Is it tangible and whole, a true grasp of reality? How do we get there?

One way of understanding things is to divide stuff into groups or categories, so I'll start by identifying three modes of understanding and see how they fly.

1. Mythological understanding.

This I would say is the most common means of understanding and it entails viewing the world through narratives or stories. These stories are regarded as true and typically are provided through some sort of ideological or religious authority. Christianity's sin and salvation through Christ is one example. Marx's idea that, through economic forces, history is moving toward a
definitive end is another example.

On a more mundane level, I would consider most of what is considered common sense to be a form of mythological understanding. A key feature of this kind of understanding is the perception that our categories of the world are indeed accurate and intrinsic to reality. So "apple" is a true category that represents the intrinsic nature of the fruit I'm
crunching on right now.

2. Scientific understanding.

This is similar to mythological understanding in that it relies on categories and relationships between categories. But, here, the categories are subordinate to empirical observation. The categories might have to be redrawn in light of new observation. Pluto, for example, has been demoted from the category of planet because more accurate observations have revealed it to be
smaller than previously thought.

This approach is revolutionary because it suggests our categories -- "planets," "apples," -- aren't intrinsic but provisional. Our truths about the world are an observation away from having to be re-figured.

Of course, there are those who believe that science brings us to the the true categories of the world. For example, regarding Newton's law of gravity as a true description of an intrinsic feature of the world. To believe this about science, I'd say, is another form of mythological

3. Poetic understanding.

One necessary feature of mythological understanding is that folks don't see their understanding as mythological; they see it as true. The recognition of one's own understanding as mythological (and that of others), is the basis of poetic understanding.

A poetic understanding sees the value and richness of stories but always acknowledges that the story is just a story. It embraces the rigor of science but never regards it as approaching some final truth. A poetic understanding is unlikely to be impressed by authority or
confuse social convention for truth.

(Obviously, I'm privileging the poetic understanding.)