Aldous Huxley on Knowledge vs. Understanding and the Antidote to Our Existential Helplessness – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

To understand anything — another person’s experience of reality, another fundamental law of physics — is to restructure our existing knowledge, shifting and broadening our last frames of reference to accommodate a new awareness. And yet we have a habit of confusing our understanding — which is always limited and incomplete: a model of the cathedral of reality, built from primary-colored blocks of fact — with the actuality of things; we have a habit of mistaking the model for the thing itself, mistaking our partial awareness for a totality of understanding. Thoreau recognized this when he contemplated our blinding preconceptions and lamented, “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”

Aldous Huxley on Knowledge vs. Understanding and the Antidote to Our Existential Helplessness – Brain Pickings

Generations after Thoreau and generations before neuroscience began illuminating the blind spots of consciousness, Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963) explored this eternal confusion of concepts in “Knowledge and Understanding” — one of the twenty-six uncommonly insightful essays collected in The Divine Within Selected Writings on Enlightenment (public library).

Knowledge is acquired when we fit a new experience into the system of concepts based on our old experiences. Understanding comes when we liberate ourselves from the old and make possible direct, unmediated contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment, of our existence.

Because the units of knowledge are concepts and can be conveyed and transmitted in words and symbols, knowledge itself can be passed between persons. On the other hand, understanding is intimate and subjective. It is not a conceptual container but an aura of immediacy cast upon an experience — which means it cannot be transmitted and transacted like knowledge. Our forebears devised ways of communicating knowledge from one generation to the next — in words and symbols, in stories and equations — which ensured the survival of our species by preserving and passing down the results of experience. But knowing the results of an experience is not the same as understanding the experience itself. Complicating the matter is the added subtlety that we may understand the words and symbols we tell each other about our experience but still miss the immediacy of the reality those concepts are intended to convey. Huxley writes:

Understanding is not conceptual and, therefore, cannot be passed on. It is a direct experience and immediate experience can only be talked about (very inadequately), never shared. Nobody can feel another’s pain or grief, another’s love or joy or hunger. And similarly, nobody can experience another’s understanding of a given event or situation… We must always remember that knowledge of learning is not the same thing as understanding, which is the raw material of that knowledge. It is as different from understanding as the doctor’s prescription for penicillin differs from penicillin.

All of us are knowers all the time; it is only occasionally and despite ourselves that we understand the mystery of a given reality. Understanding is not inherited, nor can it be laboriously acquired. It comes to us when circumstances are favorable, so to say, of its own accord.

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A century before Huxley, William James listed ineffability as the first of the four features of mystical experiences. (Half a century after Huxley’s generation swung open the doors of perception beyond concept with their psychedelic inquiries into the mysteries and mechanics of consciousness — and swung shut the scientific establishment’s openness to severe clinical research into the field with their unprotected playhouse of recreational neurochemistry — science is finally documenting the ineffable contact with raw reality as the primary payoff, both clinical and existential, of psychoactive substances.) But in some sense, all knowledge is ultimately vague, for expertise can only be understood in its immediacy and not known as a concept.

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