Web book "THE PHILOSOPHY OF UNDERSTANDING" - by Robert C. Priddy



The Worldly basis of Understanding Early understanding of nature, from perceptions to conceptions: noticing relations, interconnections towards pragmatic goals as the basis of the faculty. Same underlying structure of goal-orientation in all worldly knowledge.
  Sub-section 1 The Crib and Human Understanding
  Sub-section 2 The ineradicable role of personal subjectivity in all knowledge
  Sub-section 3 Individual human subjectivity, solipsism, computers & communication

The Origins of Meaning It reaches beyond any subjective sphere of personal meanings, which are not merely projected onto things or events etc. The mind provides the form of meaning, the world beyond it originally provides the content..

Knowledge and Understanding Theoretical explanation depends on practical understanding and is a subservient, though important, part of understanding in general. The 1st World intellectualism is mainly the result of logical, mathematical and scientific methods, esp. in written forms for specific contexts. Though crucial for material society etc.,is is but one kind of understanding among others. Wittgenstein on theory. Understanding beyond ratiocination, 'value-free' or non-emotive ideals. Orthodoxy and conformity pressure vs. understanding.

Being Subjective or Objective? Intricate and extensive forms and projection. Psychic processes, relative 'disinterest', meaninglessness and values in understanding. The subjective sphere of personal meanings and the 'external world'. Form and content. Intelligible knowledge & human concerns. The mind and the super-factual level of its operations. Perceptual intuition and conceptual creativity.

The Expanding Circle Of Understanding Understanding expands as a continuum, not always step-by-step: more as an unevenly expanding circle (eg.). 'Comprehension' as more holistic than generalisation. 'Understanding' meaning many circumstances other than reasons, egs: sympathetic understanding and qualitative appreciation, merging horizons & perspectives, conflict mediation etc.

The Questioning Mind The 'cultural cradle' of inherited tradition, ideas, beliefs, and beyond. Since being is prior to understanding, and all in the world is in flux, no absolute or total knowledge possible. Wider understanding as a developed personal characteristic. Understanding as embracing a wide diversity of circumstances and incompatibles - past and present.

The Whole And Its Parts Factual knowledge is a prerequisite of any articulated holistic comprehension, just as any analysis is made on the basis of a lesser synthesis in order to reach towards another, more comprehensive synthesis. All analyses presuppose a prior, preliminary grasp or 'pre-synthetic whole'. Holistic understanding further requires a clear, meaningful relation between the parts or elements from which any 'whole' is comprehended. Wholes do not simply arise from perceptional gestalts, for they are mentations which organise masses of disparate perceptions according to values, conceptions and judgements. Holistic understanding moves toward a more comprehensive whole through on-going mutual modifications of whole and parts: it does not stop at mere empirical validation of analytical hypotheses.


Metascience here deals with levels of understanding and areas of knowledge which cannot be a part of traditional or physicalistic science. Most major decisions made by anyone cannot be based on science, so new approaches to the understanding of the cosmos, including humanity, is essential today. Understanding as the 'master method of methods' in all human inquiry.Metascience remains open to what does not fit within given assumptions and reserves judgement.

Life-influencing Decisions: The physical sciences involve no understanding of people as persons and human subjects, nor do most of the human sciences. Faculties that are decisive in most life-influencing decisions are many and varied, including practical sense, developed sensibility and intuition, wide-ranging 'philosophy of life', aesthetical sense, identification with other human beings and living creatures, and ethical insight and related knowledge. This can include other specialized abilities and currently unclassifiable forms of knowledge or know-how. Except where technological development is concerned, scientific thought is not necessarily superior to other forms of understanding.

Specialised Versus Holistic Understanding: Two phases of knowing - experiential and holistic: Observation plus reason i n forming experience. Analytic vs. synthetic directions of interest. All science is specialised in some way. Radically new thinking, new holistic visions, are excluded by existing paradigmas. Illustrations from the sciences.

The Nature and Scope of Meta-science: The purpose of all the many kinds of extra-scientific investigations metascience includes is the development and articulation of human understanding; its organisation in comprehensive and holistic forms of thought and their expression in language. Metascience develops norms to regulate for an overall advance in beneficial knowledge. Divergent world-views need to be interpreted so genuine rationale of each may converge in overview understanding. Metascience must assume that life and the cosmos do have meaning not created by us but in part intuited from nature and in part discovered by interpretation, intuition etc. Metascience not a theory but a programme for expansion of horizons of understanding and integration of the plurality of viewpoints within and between world cultures. On general & specific metascience. Regulation & organisation of human understanding by guiding ideals.

Testing, Coherence And Metascientific Validation: Because of its nature and scope, there can be no definitive single type of general test of metascientific knowledge, but there are principles of understanding it must fulfil, hence a wide variety of rational and experiential tests. Because it represents holistic forms of understanding it is not mere information (to label, store etc). The chief rational test of metascience is the coherence of understanding, then comprehensibility (intuitive immediacy), then practical test over time of broad consensus - including 'qualified' persons in varying fields and cultures).

Rationality And Inner Evidence: So-called 'subjective' understanding of individual, historical or other unique event-complexes. Knowing the truth of anything demands a sound grasp of objective facts and of inner observations, refined in deep self-reflection. Well-developed rational-experiential intuition also needed for mature judgements. On inaccurate perception, false testimony, poor reasoning, distorted interpretation. Metascientific theories have to give priority to inclusivity rather than narrowing limitations. All relevant viewpoints should be accounted for to satisfy the questioning intelligence, though obviously not all can be validated in themselves. Metascience to aid in humanity's quest for illumination and reconciliation.


Globalisation & planetary interdependencies increase need for holistic understanding and the principles that guide it. Essentially, we human beings and our faculty of understanding are the same the world over. Explicit principles help define the nature & scope of valid holistic and metascientific thought. The fact of diversity can teach us is to perceive everything for what it is and to respect and enjoy its uniqueness. This is a prerequisite of understanding what the unity of all beings implies.

Unifying Philosophy: The philosophy of unity deals primarily with all questions having to do with the synthesis of ideas, theories, viewpoints, value-systems: it emphasises the synthesis & unification rather than the divisive/diversificatory movement of thought as the key to understanding. The roots of unitary philosophy discussed.

The Principle Of Unity: The overall principle of unity: "Where there arise divergences of viewpoint on any subject, their unity is to be sought in an universal and non-exclusive framework designed to mediate partial interests to those of the common good". On the need for this principle, its deeper meaning etc. On the mutual relation between individual and common good. Principles as guiding ideals. On universality in natural and human knowledge & continuum connecting individual and universal viewpoints through stages & levels in the light of the principle of unity.

Understanding, The Common Good And Values: Holistic understanding views all partisan interests and even conflicting standpoints as related to the greater whole - the 'common good'. This secures explicit accounts of both facts and values. The chief repository of holistic understanding is the mind of each individual, arising from a gradual process of perceiving nexi of relationships, insight into personal experience, trial & error, testing in practice, & expansion of perspectives and intuitive grasp of the whole. Hence the invaluability to the human community of mature persons with understanding. Understanding discovers the unity in any series of inter-connected acts, & includes human value orientation.

Understanding And Faith: On the unavoidable role of expectation or faith in all forms of knowing. Constructive vs. destructive doubt. Faith as a psychological-spiritual quality, not necessarily dependent on a specific belief system. On the distortion of handed-down traditions etc. Scientist's faith in their various presuppositions. No knowledge alone motivates action, some 'faith' always involved. Critical approach balanced by investigative attitude of controlled faith. Shortcoming of science in researching the facts of human unity, such as in personality, group solidarity, social unity or universal values etc.

Universality In Understanding: Scientific training is no safe inoculation against many forms of irrationality. Non-axiomatic sciences most vulnerable to bias. 'preconceptions', as already mentioned. Presuppositions & doctrine set the limits to what can be achieved through them. Therefore tests (eg. principle of unity) of the degree of universality of one's basic conceptions is crucial. Universality of understanding exclude no human beings, regardless of national or other origins, race, colour, creed or class, without negative discriminatory biases. When major contradictions are unresolvable within any paradigm, the assumptions must be altered. There are many opposing viewpoints, intellectually inimical doctrines or beliefs & divergences between cultures and sub-cultures: this calls for increased efforts to find underlying unity, reaching the universal kernel of truth & common ground for reconciling conflicting values.


The Perceiver-Perceived EnigmaThat not all observables are external to the human mind is overlooked by science. Appearance vs. reality & the 'reception-projection dilemma' (does the mind perceive what it itself projects?') - & five alternative standpoints.

The Study Of Experience As Phenomena:'Phenomenon' defined as 'whatever objects of attention appear to witnessing consciousness': this includes the conscious subject's 'non-physical inner objects' and their relations (ideas, emotions, intuitions & all mental and ideal phenomena attached to selfhood or identity).

The Objectivity of Phenomena: Phenomenological method outlined as application of the principle of objectivity of subject matter: "Whatever 'objects' of investigation may be involved, this can only be understood through applying initially and from the outset to its inherent nature, rather than to what it may already represent to the investigator."' Explanation of the principle, with an extended example of applied phenomenological method.

Phenomenology And Understanding Values: Heidegger: 'understanding is making explicit something on the basis of what one is already implicitly aware'. This always implies purpose, goals and hence values (eg. usually relates to such ideas as 'good quality' when applied to life, experience, society etc.). No real understanding cannot avoid the great questions of life, such as the meaning and purpose of man and society, mostly rejected as meaningless by scientists.

The Objective Aspect Of Meaning: Physicalist assumption that no meaning or purpose can be found in the universe a paradox. But meaning arises, is found or is compounded at many levels, so meaning is itself a phenomenon in need of explanation. One's philosophical premises determine whether nature, life etc. has given meaning: eg. 'each of the innumerable forms of nature through time fulfil limited, given functions within the whole ecology'. Human beings have faculties of mind far in excess of what is required for mere survival of the species & some are also very dysfunctional, which points toward spiritual development beyond physical or biological goals. Meaning as such is engendered or mediated by the human mind, itself an integral part of the cosmos.

Self-reflection:The 'prior synthesis' and world-view of any investigator: the unavoidable function of 'fore-understanding' & 'prejudgements' in purposeful studies. More general assumptions hardest to discover, eg. those 'inherited' as part of the culture or climate of opinion.'Mental spectacles'. Emotions are not eliminated, but registered as data about value-orientation. The Principle of Self-Reflection: "An observing interpreter's understanding depends upon the framework of subjective pre-acquaintance with the subject and/or object studied. The various assumptions, attitudes or interests inherent in the fore-conceptions that are brought to bear on the subject matter must be made as explicit as possible, if results and conclusions are to be sufficiently intelligible." The value of any form of understanding is seen in the motives behind it & purposes it serves. These constitute prime data in themselves.


Rebuttal of doctrine that the limits of what is known are entirely determined by language, despite its great importance.

Words, Things, Thoughts And Feelings: The role of non-cognitive functions of the mind in understanding, language and its meanings exceed the limits of cognitive thought. The 'educated bias' of believing in no thought without words, no knowledge without language. Yet the creative mind preceeds language & forms distinct new concepts and corresponding expressions in language. Meaning is related as much to consciousness as it is to the words themselves, as changing perceptions of the same expressions show. On how the mind deals with symbols & their function in understanding.

Interpreting The Meaning Of Texts: Crucial role of texts in all civilisation. Interpretation of symbols - eg. in speech or written texts - is related to interpretation of the world and life in general. Words and sentences signify intended meaning which is privately known or interpretively deduced. All language & physical artefacts carry 'objectified meaning', which convey most of our knowledge to us. Interpretation of these meanings through understanding language, texts etc. unavoidably involves 'intuition' of intended meaning, a fallible process that can yet be honed.

The Main Aspects Of Communicated Meaning: Intended meaning, purposive meaning, potential meaning & extended meaning distinguished and their functions in interpretation described. 'Extended meaning' as 1) there is an addition of significance not found 'in' the original or 'intended' meaning and 2) this different non-intended meaning is derived from the objective carriers of meanings (texts or other artefacts 'extended' in space-time & bearing meaning across time and space). These objective carriers of (objectified) meaning can be investigated both empirically & phenomenologically for wider interpretation.

The Principle of Objectivity in Interpretation: The primacy of the text and the author's intention. On understanding outdated, incomplete, unclear, contradictory and other kinds of text. (E. Betti's 1'st 'canon of hermeneutics' - sometimes spelt 'hermaneutics'). On the erroroneous epmhasis of European post-structuralists. Increased danger of misinterpretations and misuse of words in the 'information society'.

The Principle of Consistency of Meaning:"Any phenomena (eg. observed events, acts or recorded testimony) must be regarded in relation to the entire context wherein they derive their meaning and to the overall meaning to which they also contribute, so that the overall interpretation brings coherence between the parts within and in relation to the whole. Conversely, the whole must be formed to account for and integrate all the parts" Evaluation of 'parts' improves grasp and articulation of the 'whole'. At no point is fully consistent 'understanding' reached, only the on-going process of widening comprehension & extending 'horizons of interest'. Dealing with contradictions due to verbal inclarity, conceptual confusion, incommensurable systems of thought, language, culture. Understanding's aim: the unity of ideas via elimination of contradictions and paradoxes, though not fully attainable. Problems in extending reason beyond its formal capacity to multi-dimensioned cultural views, beliefs and values etc. Only holistic apporach can harmonise outward or formal contradictions and transcend incompatible values & ideals in the arts, culture, science, religion etc.

At The Limits Of Logic: The human mind naturally prefers a consistent & non-contradictory account of reality. Ergo 'principle of contradiction'. Though all clear reasoning depends on logic, its main principle is eliminative and exclusive, rather than integrative and inclusive. Yet not all true human insight need conform to correct language and logic. Like maths, logic is not about the 'real world', where contradictions actually do occur (egs.). A principle of 'both-and', contradicting the very principle of contradiction, is important where irresolvable facts or inconsistent statements cannot be removed. (Egs. Bohr's complementarity, Nagarjuna's logic. Problems of self-evident statements: egs.) All words 'divide' reality, as do the concepts they signify (egs.) Various consistent systems of thought/untested assumptions (necessarily arbitrary), yet no explanatory system can embrace all aspects of reality. On Vedantic monism. Philosophy provides examples of how reason itself causes contradictions (Kant's antimonies etc.) Holistic thought does not surpress paradoxes, the co-existence of opposites, antonyms or opposed views & interests.


Embodied vs. Living Meaning: Social science would explain the many forms of material expression of the 'subjective' consciousness of people that are observable, but mind and consciousness are not. Intersubjectivity is no guarantee of objectivity (egs.) Guarding against deception, ideology, misunderstanding, lies etc. important in social science & calls for the phenomenological & holistic approach.

The Test of Intelligibility:Making an event humanly intelligible means showing how and to what extent it is related to the acts of individuals & agency of groups, so that it becomes understandable. By so doing, the risk of misinterpreting events only as parts of a natural process of cause and effect is minimised.

The Principle of Practical Intelligibility: "For the understanding of specifically human phenomena it is necessary that any psychic or social process (which comes to have the appearance of a sheer causal event) is made practically 'intelligible' by tracing it where possible to previous human actions or series of interactions within the social-material environment." Egs of misinterpreted individual and collective actions: 'social mystification'. 'Process' & 'praxis' distinguished.

The Practico-Inert Field: J.P. Sartre's definition explained as those features of any society which cause a person's conscious actions to be diverted from reaching their goal due to a peculiar form of social inertia, with illustrative egs.

Social Inertia And The Intelligible: Often not easy to trace/reconstrue the ways individual acts have led to situations that appear as impersonal processes without any responsible agency. Egs. in large business or military organisations, bureaucracies, whole societies etc. Original intentions and aims are gradually diverted and come, through system inertia, to serve unforseen ends. Seemingly without cause, events like unemployment, recession, scares & other unmanageable trends arise. The fallacies of false & misplaced generalisation often involved.

Some Unintelligible 'Impersonal Processes': Humanity's struggle towards the intelligible has involved debunking many myths - egs. about illness and even now medicine itself. Eg. how text misinterpretation has consequences stretching over many centuries. Egs. of impersonal scapegoatism. Many personal problems result from complex forms of 'mystificatory process', having no identifiable agency or cause (egs. some mental 'illnesses', discrimination. Eg. ideology as brainwashing against enemies, minorities etc. Eg. myths in mental illness, R.D. Laing on Sanity, Madness & the Family & Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilisation.

Research As Social Process Or Intelligible Praxis?: Social research mostly reflects circumstances and values of the society undertaking it: eg. those of centralised interests, by regarding people en masse not individually; as bodies not persons; as statistical data for causal explanations, not for communicating with mutually or for understanding their intentions and aims. Knowing the practical applicability of knowledge for positive values/common ends increases its intelligibility. Praxis vs. process in social science research and researcher's value-options & interests. Call for intelligible & transparent social research aims; redirection of research trends to more human understanding, less centralised power and support of profit-directed capital economism etc.


No general agreement about truth in philosophy, for truth is much more than a standard of judgement of either fact or logical validity.

Appearance And Reality: All philosophy shows 'not everything is as it appears'; evidence of the senses unreliable, as science demonstrates. Unaided senses only give very truncated perception of 'objective' aspects of things. 'Common sense' often inaccurate or entirely false. The main problem of sense observation is impressions have to be interpreted. No interpretation is without preconceptions, hence not entirely unbiassed (subjectivity, cultural approach, direction of interest etc.) The falsification of hypotheses in science takes place only within a preconceived system of assumptions, axioms and findings. So 100% non-biassed truth about the observable universe (i.e appearances') is unreachable & no permanently valid 'theory of everything' is possibile.

False Doctrine, Objective Understanding and Consensus: A sense of truth & truthfulness seem inherent to human minds, for which there must always be a true explanation, though many are false. Unity in understanding or 'knowing as a whole' & the gradual reconciliation in the best interests of everyone are goals that no truth seeker can give up. Truth often arises from clashes of ideas a dialectical process, where the truth content of conflicting viewpoints is extracted. On Habermas' view. On truth as unchanging standard or quality. Belief & certainty vs. rational discernment. Scientific truth; knowing a hierarchy of facts (as generalised in theory) is subjectively based and inter-subjectively reinforced, but history (of science) proves that consensus is no guarantee of objectivity. Consensus depends upon all having adopted much the same viewpoint or bias. Truth as self-evident intuition ('apodeictic givenness' in math. & logic etc.). Truth only possible because the mind can know itself directly, not through uncertain medium of the senses.

Truth and Intuition: 'Intuition' in maths., logic & philosophy & as self-transparency of the mind reviewing itself. Understanding is both achieved and evaluated 'intra-psychically' by intuition. Knowledge becomes integrated through direct intuition backed up by personal discovery and experiential insight, appearing 'holistically' before the reviewing mind's eye. Different degrees and kinds of intuition, eg. sense intuition, intuiting thoughts/emotions of other persons, 'sensing' meaning with accuracy etc. 'Para-normal' intuitions, which can prove accurate, but most often are fanciful or fradulent. Experience is affected & alters with one´s attitude. Acces to awareness that cannot coexist with strong scepticism. What is true or false depends considerably on rational faculties, yet both formal & empirical truth play lesser role as wider truth begins to manifest.

Truth as a Value: The distinction between 'fact' and 'truth' too often lost - & between 'true' and 'right' too sharply drawn. Understanding proper accounts for facts & theories, but also for values, through the sympathy that springs from deep identifications of meaning and purpose. The only vehicle of truth is the living human mind. Truth is no static quantity: cannot be stored, transmitted, sold, consumed nor even discovered by scientific research. It is itself a value, related to truthfulness, one which informs conscience & by which we decide matters of right and justice. In general, truth depends upon the overall insight, the total understanding. Truth cannot be made a mere mental construct, because it is an ultimate value by which all mental constructs can be judged. Some prefer conceptual scientific 'truth' because of what it can do in the physical world etc. Others prefer mental & emotive spiritual or religious 'truth' because of what it can do to the quality of personal experience and the social environment etc. By reducing spiritual truth to laws & codices etc., its sublime & transcendental nature is lost. On 'absolute relativism', value-neutral liberalism etc. vs. the unchanging value of truth.

On First- And Second-hand Knowledge: Confusion of knowledge systems/competing theories often caused great philosophers first to seek clarity within themselves. Conceptions which have somehow been tested by, derived from or meaningfully related to individual personal experience of some kind can provide actual, living understanding. Understanding is not a quantity that can be located anywhere else than in each and every human mind and 'heart'. All we learn of the world is from others/our environment, but only if applied or met in experience does proper understanding result. Direct experience vs. secondary sources & book learning: scholarship only an occasional aid, not a goal. Once we go beyond systematised subjects, the mind's considerations are so varied and many that it must reply on personal judgement, such as when evaluating testimony. Testimony is unavoidable, even in natural science, for no scientist can personally observe all relevant facts. Social science would have virtually no data without testimony. Authentic understanding depends on noble human qualities (egs.)

Limits To Explanation And Understanding: No system of thought has escaped undiscovered assumptions, overseen facts or unforseen consequences. New understanding often requires temporary confusion. An ultimate linguistically and logically consistent entire account of reality is impossible for many reasons, theoretical and practical, but this does not preclude true accounts. Incommensurability of cultures, world-views etc. On Socratic scepticism and intellectual tolerance. On moral 'truth': right and wrong - knowable but not finally codifiable in any system of laws.

Worldly Truth And Wisdom: Knowledge of the world, i.e. scientific & practical know-how etc. don't add up to personal understanding of life. Life philosophy & wisdom do amount to more, if an inseparable quality of one's character founded in personal experience, self-examination, constructive work, deep reflection etc., This is mainly non-transferrable & exceeds any full expression. One critical test is how far its proponents speak and act in harmony/practice as they preach. It has beneficial effects on the knower & moral impact. It is spiritual knowledge. "The path to Truth is paved with discarded certainties." "Conscience is the voice of truth inside."

Revealed Truth: Traditional and present importance of much scripture in guiding understanding and living. Problems of scriptural accuracy and authenticity etc. The conviction of millions as to truth of various (parts of) scriptures due to sublimity of conception/resonance of ideas, and their value as precepts. Beliefs vs. spiritual faith? Revealed truth per se is absolute & unchanging, but when given expression in writing, it becomes culture-dependent & timebound. Many kinds of error in interpreting, transmitting, translating the source (egs.). Divine revelations can't be disproven (where genuine, undistorted).

Transcendental, Inexpressible Truth: Plato on the ineffable & the invention of writing. Knowing in subject-object mode vs. mystical merging. The ineradicable idea of Absolute Truth.

The book 'Beyond Science' is copyright of Robert Priddy, 1999. -- Note: the preceding book was written as a follow-up to my critical web book on science 'Science Limited '