I think that most people would agree (after a moments thought) that when someone says “I understand” they are expressing a feeling. There is a distinction to be drawn of course between understanding and the feeling of understanding, but I don’t think the former is as simple as it first appears either. However, I am going to constrain this conversation to examining the feeling of understanding.
The first puzzle of the feeling of understanding is the inexpressible understanding. In my experience this is usually the feeling I get first when I examine a difficult concept. Its a revelatory sensation, but it is not an understanding that I can actually articulate to someone else. The passage or lecture falls into place, and you’re suddenly no longer lost. The subject gains a mental structure, the points start to line themselves up, and yet you can’t put your understanding into words. You know that if you just continue to reflect on the ideas that order will be forthcoming. This feeling of course does not necessitate future comprehension, but it is usually a fairly good indicator. But what kind of understanding is this? It is not an understanding of much practical use, bar its future dividends. Have we gotten hold of the idea, and just need to unpackage it? Or have we gotten hold of a part of the idea, and we need to construct it? Perhaps sometimes we do one, and sometimes the other.
The second puzzle is the understanding which we can express to ourselves but not to others. At this point we can mumble to ourselves what we understand and it makes sense, but we cannot explain it to someone else. Well, sometimes we can, but not in a way where the words themselves have any right to making sense. At this point we almost seem to be talking some private language with ourselves. We might be able to make ourselves understood to someone already familiar with the idea we’re exploring, but communication is dicey at best. This phase hopefully leads to the articulate phase of understanding – the point where we can comfortably talk to others in a sensible fashion. The puzzle – why do our words make sense to us? Are the words we use actually the words we mean? Have we just not properly pulled out the words to express our meaning? Do we have a pre-word understanding?
The third puzzle I want to examine is why an idea seems initially good. When we have these sort of proto-understanding states, do we start with an idea and then make it make sense, or do we initially lay hold of sense? This is a very important distinction, I think. If we do the later then the inspired feeling is the grasp of a sensical point. If we do the former then we start with an initial idea kernel and we make it make sense.
Let me know what you think, and thank you for reading,