To understand anything — another person’s, 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 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, “
Generations after Thoreau and generations before neuroscience began illuminating, 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 ( ).
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 andof 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 canor grief, another’s love or joy or hunger. And similarly, nobody can experience another’s understanding of a given event or situation… We 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.
A century before Huxley, William James listed ineffability as the first of. (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 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.