What do we mean when we say we understand something?
I don’t believe that understanding is a lingual thing. It may be true that we can come to an understanding by looking at a load of sentences about something but the understanding itself is not any particular sentence or even group of sentences.
For example take the concept osmosis. When I was attempting to understand this process there was a time when I knew the sentence “Osmosis is the movement of water from a high concentration to a low concentration via a semi-permeable membrane” and didn’t understand osmosis and a time when I knew the sentence and did understand osmosis. What was different in those two cases?
It could be that there is an empirical world which the sentences are about. In fact I believe most sentences are about the empirical world (“The sun is bright”, “I heard that Ethan loves daisy” etc). So it may be that one understands a sentence when one is able to correctly identify the empirical reality it is about. The problem here is that this is not really understanding; but a test to find out if someone understands. So what is the test measuring? Of course we can just be operational about it and say “It’s measuring nothing but the capacity to answer such questions correctly”. But this fails because it’s just produced another unknown – capacity – in the place of understanding. They’re both the same thing so all this does is complicate things.
In the case of osmosis this may be an internal image that shows the movement of water from a high concentration to a low concentration via a semi-permeable membrane. But there is a problem. When I was attempting to learn this concept I remember seeing videos that showed this and again there was a time when I had seen this video and not understood the concept.
In a way this makes sense because what’s the difference between a sentence and an image? Are they not both a kind of language? Do they not both carry information? Could they not both be seen as symbolic?
Currently I think that understanding is nothing other than an internal conviction. It is a feeling the content of which is “I get this” that then gives us confidence (maybe license is more apposite) to manipulate symbols and information. In fact you may have this conviction without really understanding what you think you understand.
Understanding doesn’t really have any real content as such because it is a judgement concerning content. It is a something that occurs between a subject and an object. It may correspond to a certain neurological state – say a certain part of the brain may light up once something is understood – but nevertheless be a purely structural phenomenon.