Go to Detailed Contents or return to Overview


It may be advisable to read a preliminary article on the crib of human understanding and limiting vs.stimulating factors for its personal evolution

There are many questions which require quite other modes of understanding than are commonly held to be central in the occidental model of higher education and science-based intelligence. Modern education, with its predominantly cerebral and scientific leanings, mostly undervalues the practical, inter-personal, moral and inter-cultural dimensions of understanding. Understanding of the sort that spans different societies, cultures and religions is not put at a premium.

To obtain as clear and inclusive description of the nature of human understanding as possible, we need an account which is, so to speak, self-transparent to the reader's own understanding. Though our faculties enable us all to understand in much the same ways, not all of us develop these faculties in the same way or to the same extent. But no important form of understanding should be excluded, so we must take account of practical, inter-personal, communicational, scientific and philosophical understanding and on to ethical, metaphysical and supposedly 'spiritual' insight.

The following is an example of a meta-scientific study in brief, being based on foregoing research of a variety of kinds - social, linguistic and philosophical - previously carried out by the author.What science can explain for us and what it cannot may only be decided fully when the nature of human understanding itself is realised. This has been investigated in many philosophies, theologies and other connections throughout the history of the world. It is a subject to which science contributes, but over which no science is equipped to judge. For many reasons, scientific methods are wholly inadequate to study the nature and scope of human understanding itself.

Understanding is a human faculty that is applied not only to the scientific study of nature or even mankind as physical entities but also to social understanding, cultural interchange and perhaps even most importantly, self-understanding. In fact, these forms of understanding can well be said to be more basic and crucial in human affairs than any advances in science or technology. The position I forward here and the paradigm it involves show the physicalistic, scientific view of the universe to occupy but one segment of any realistic and adequately wide view of the nature of understanding.


It can safely be deduced from the evidence that human beings have learned to observe relations that pertain between natural things from the earliest of times, since livelihood often depended upon an extensive grasp of the nature of the earth, plants, animals and many of their interrelations. The early perception of such relationships is the fundament of other developments of our understanding of nature and much else besides. These are absorbed in the history of humanity and in each individual to whom this collective heritage is handed on.

Most human understanding soon moves on from direct perception of apparent relations between things to comparison of remembered perceptions and gradually develops towards more general ideas. The more basic kind of understanding starts from observation combined with some degree of reasoning. This experiential knowledge helps us in daily life, in making a living and in carrying out the many affairs of society. It helps fulfil the practical purposes of living. When such practical knowledge is extended through trial and error, comparison with other variants, experiments based on new ideas and so forth, the result is empirical science.

All attempts to understand the natural environment, other people and even the universe can be shown to build upon the same underlying structure of some goal-oriented activity, however indirect and tenuous its inter-connections may have become.1 Though science, as well as most philosophy and theology, are likewise based on practical or mundane interests - however distantly derived from them through abstraction etc. - not all possible kinds of understanding are necessarily so.


Meaning results in part from practical need. For example, in virtually all our doings in the world, we relate one thing to another with an eye to some end: we understand a hammer and nail by their possible uses, say in erecting a wall which is part of a building, itself understood for what it is by knowing its possible uses. If it is a school, we know that it signifies further ends like the education of children, the basis of a good society and yet higher aims still. When involved in the world at this basic and directly involved level, our understanding grasps relations between things and their actual and possible purposes for us. The many subtleties of this direct (and 'ontical') understanding of the worldly environment (Welt) in which we, as humans, find ourselves, as opposed to the less immediate and secondary 'ontological' approach of philosophy and the like, were first penetratingly explicated by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He showed how understanding of any object, idea or other phenomenon arises through a nexus of human aims or futureward projects wherein it points to some end. This is how meaning and hence understanding originally arises. A hammer has meaning for us because we can use it in order to knock in nails. It is the 'in order to...' aspect of anything that we look to in understanding things of this world. We usually regard this inter-connectedness of everything in respect of our worldly concerns as being their 'meaning'.

All understanding has a subjective basis, Heidegger insisted, and no one can understand things of the world as they are entirely 'in themselves', for this assumes that they have meaning independent of all our needs and aims. Of course, we can experience things without seeing them as having any given meaning. But Heidegger implied that there can be no meaning in anything independently of us and our purposes or 'projects'. Even a very abstract theory like relativity was surely founded partly in the desire to obtain intellectual satisfaction, partly to advance physics as a human activity and possible instrument of technical progress. In short, Heidegger rejected the possibility of any definitive, objective truth about anything. This anti-objectivist stance is useful as a tool for discovering the origins of meanings given to things throughout human culture by removing superstition and repressive dogma.

But, and this is a very decisive 'but': all that has meaning for us may well arise in and through the human mind, but this does not prove throw any light on whether there is any intrinsic or designed meaning or purpose in nature. Meaning of such a scope - not entirely a creation of the human mind - has no known basis in reality, only in speculative belief and mankind's 'eternal hope'. It is held by religionists that we we may not know the objective meaning or divine purpose of things or events and the fact that that none can be demonstrated and proved does not mean that ultimate purposeful meaning is an illusion. Nor does it show in any way that such a meaning or a creator of it exists. Suffice to say that meaning as propounded so far is of such a nature and content that it can all be accounted as being of human rather than divine origin.

The relationships between natural things, human circumstances and events are discovered by the mind, which of course does not itself create them entirely, though it may . While Newton discovered the laws of gravitation, the phenomenon of gravitation with all its consequences obviously existed before it was so thoroughly described in a precise and mathematical universal theory. We organise our perceptions by aid of ideas, so becoming more aware of connections between events: both external events over which the conscious mind has no immediate influence, as well as internal ones over which the mind certainly may have some measure of direct and indirect control. When understanding arises, it also reflects the inherent potential purposes of all kinds of objects, events, phenomena and their place in the order of things. The mind also reflects over its own interactions with them, so 'creating' mental relationships. So meaning can be said to arise through the human mind, but not necessarily always exclusively either within it or originally from it.

Again, meaning most often arises through the meeting of subjective ideas and what give themselves as being objective - perceived - events. The human mind may perceive, compare and compound observed relationships, yet these can pertain as such independently of it or, contrariwise, they may prove on investigation or experiment not to pertain. We can express these meanings in many ways, through action, art, language etc. So not all meaning - or perhaps all of any given meaning - is entirely a human product. Out minds project meaning onto our perceptions of the world - as well as out inner life (memories, dreams etc.) - no meaning arises as an independent 'given' to sense perception. We learn meaning from others, but that too is originally only subjectively-generated, through words or ideas communicated to us. We name things and events etc. and 'give' them meaning within an environment of things and ideas, relation these meanings to one another in many (subjectively-understood) ways. The understanding can be seen as an instrument for the expression and clarification of meaning, but not the full origin of the perception of it. Were there no common basis in objective nature for the majority of our ideas, the many languages would hardly be translatable into one another, for each culture would then equally lack common structures of meaning. The discovery of meaning in things indicates that they express latent functions in the world, functions which we discover in and through our physical existnce. Many former philosophers (and all religions) held that the inherent and highly coherent relationships and functions found in nature exhibit a design above and beyond our human, worldly purposes. This, however, is becoming less and less of a credible approach since it has no effective purchase on the real tasks and problems confronting us. It is believed by many that it does so (typically by 'creationists' who reject evolution), but this belief is constantly being weakened by scientific studies investigsting such beliefs.

Latent purpose can reasonably be imputed to events in evolving nature, even on Darwinian premises, though this obviously can be neither known nor expressed without any influence from the human mind. No fully expressed and intelligible meaning can arise without human interpretation, whether subjective, inter.subjective or 'objective'. This amounts to saying that we cannot know things 100% objectively or as they are in themselves. Even so, the mind and or brain are themselves part of nature - naturally-occurring entities - and the structures within them that create or call forth meaning are common to the human species, depending upon personal development and actualization.


In so far as the mind expresses meanings that do not accord with reality, then that meaning is subjective. The truer an account expressed by the mind, the more objectively independent of the subjective mind the meaning is. Understanding always has to start from each our subjective sphere of personal meanings. We are not, however, thereby trapped in the sphere of personal meanings. Understanding is the product of a continuous interplay between perceptions and conceptions, ideas working on experience and so on, so we do not so much create meaning by forming original ideas and projecting them onto things or events. Rather, understanding relies on objectively-formed meaning which represent real perceptions and true conceptions. This can be summarised by saying that the (subjective) mind provides the form of any meaningful expression, while something independent of the mind or 'outside it' provides the (objective) content.

We may speak of something becoming intelligible when it is found to correspond to (some sphere of) human experience and thus have some kind of use or purpose. As understanding progresses in the normal person, the forms developed in the mind grow more intricate and can become very extensive. It begins partly by projecting our subjective ideas - often in the form of expectations, questions or hypotheses - towards nature, society and the cosmos. Our understanding progresses by self-development, the perspectives it embraces increase and the mental horizon is pushed back, revealing more of the landscape of experienced reality. When we are at our most disinterested we may witness the meaning of something in a more universal or relatively objective way, even though we cannot get a completely neutral or objective understanding.

Heidegger was doubtless right in holding that things lack meaning for us as long as they cannot be related to our lives in some kind of purposive or supportive way, however disinterestedly we may seem to witness them. Things that remain inscrutable define the outer limit of our understanding of creation or the cosmos. However, to experience the beauty of forms, colours, textures and sounds or to be moved by the quality of human acts does not necessarily involve mundane meaning or call for heavy understanding. Wonder and awe often arise in the absence of understanding. Our encounters with these hidden and ultimate aspects of everything show up the finitude of the mind and human life and remind that there are always limits to our understanding. Nevertheless, as understanding rises towards higher overviews of the panorama of reality, all the diverse things and relationships are seen more wholly and as having a unitary configuration.

We lack unambiguous terms for all the different phases, modes and levels of human understanding. The word 'understanding' covers many human capacities, and is too often confused with reasoning abilities. So I distinguish here between reason and understanding. Reason is purely cognitive and is strictly analytical and deductive so that its rules (i.e. logic) only regulate particular thought relations. Reasoning is operative to the extent that consistency and unity of conception are present, usually related to some given, limited whole with well-defined parts. What has been called 'inductive' logic is nothing but the hypothetical scientific method. Understanding embraces a much greater sphere. Not only does it include logical and inductive thinking but also in identifying and relating all kinds of means and ends, actions and (likely or possible) consequences, comparing diverse ideas and systems of meaning, evaluating ethically and creatively reconciliating values.

The synthesis of facts, values and ideas in understanding requires many and various means, excluding neither causal explanation, logical reasoning, theoretical interpretation. In common usage, the word understanding is used very broadly and includes many circumstances, not only reasoning clearly on the basis of factual knowledge. Human qualities like sensitivity, respect, sympathetic identification and qualitative appreciation also go to make up human understanding. In short, genuine understanding never excludes such non-cognitive elements as personal identification, ethicality and respect for others. This is what is meant broadly by 'holistic' understanding.

So the diverse forms of mental activity - thought, memory, analogy, interpretation, reason, intuition and other unnamed operations and resources of the mind - enable us to discover connections and relationships between all the limitless number of elements that go to make up the possible objects of our concern. The psychic processes that produce understanding thus operate at the 'supra-factual' level. They judge, sort and put together the facts, like an intricate picture, sometimes making intuitive connections and lateral jumps which help develop a broader canvas, aspect by aspect.

To perceive the wholeness of anything we use various faculties, sometimes known as perceptual intuition of a gestalt. While perceptional wholes (eg. a heard symphony, a seen landscape) are intuited through the senses and immediately interpreted by the subconscious mind, holistic conceptions are arrived at by thinking both systematically and creatively about perceptions... organising them with the aid of images, symbols, ideas, theories and so forth. Conceived wholes are induced in the mind by transcending all partial concepts to synthesis a qualitatively different and unitary understanding. Knowledge of a whole cannot be 'deduced' from facts about the part. As Gregory Bateson has shown2, "combining of information of different sorts or from different sources results in something more than addition. The aggregate is greater than the sum of the parts because the combining of the parts is not a simple adding but is of the nature of a multiplication, or the creation of a logical product." This also means that there is no guarantee of a clear deduction from whole to its parts either: there may or may not be such a logical relationship, but it will depend on each case in question. To conceive wholeness requires the use of reason, plus creative intuition. Reason helps us to relate in orderly and consistent fashion the many parts of any conceptual whole to one another.

Further than this, genuinely human understanding cannot be separated from such ideal human qualities as truthfulness, sympathy and empathy. That is because these are the very motivation for the quest for understanding. Any form of thought that denies the basic rightness of a common heritage and future goal for humanity removes itself from the deepest and most heartfelt meaning of 'understanding', which is purposive in its very essence and is oriented to the most universal of goals.


Scientific theories order sets of generalisations coherently and in accordance with what has been observed to be factual by independent observers. Thus, theories generalise the results of large amounts of experience, trial and error, experiment, making this available without our having to go through the whole process of discovery ourselves, which would be impossible. However, this storehouse of human knowledge is not at all the same thing as understanding proper, which is the individual person's achievement and is rooted in long personal experience and self-knowledge rather than only in facts and theories.

When one understands something, one may be guided by theory - which is to say by generalisations made from the experience of others. They must, however apply to the particular instance we are trying to understand, or else great confusion can set in. If we could not benefit thus from the accumulated fund of human knowledge, we would have to carry out the wasteful or impossible undertaking of regenerating single-handedly knowledge that may have taken humanity ages to obtain.

The gradual expansion of the known world map in the age of discovery is a useful image of the supposed 'continuous advance of science' or also of the accumulation of all those forms of practical knowledge, skills and know-how which are the basis of human civilisation. There is not just one frontier, but many within each realm of understanding... practicality, the humanities, science, personal and social interaction, technology, literature, history of religion and more besides. As a fund of collective human knowledge, this involves no self-knowledge, as does a person's understanding.

The expanding map image is a fair representation of any person's acquisition of knowledge from childhood onwards. However, the more one discovers, the wider the horizons of the unknown that then become visible. The information available in today's world far exceeds what even the most expansive mind can access, let alone know and remember. However, neither information nor even knowledge systematised as theory need constitute any understanding. One may know a great n umber of facts and theories without having a very developed understanding, which is not at all a matter merely of memory, reason or mental facility. What is today referred to as information is mostly presented without order or coherence, being but raw material which the understanding must interpret, co-relate and organise according to its purpose.

Understanding is definitely not only - nor even primarily - a matter of getting the right solution to some mental riddle, or of becoming learned in some subject or science, for it unavoidably embraces quite other abilities including the exercise of conscience, insight, evaluation and identification. This fact is sadly still lost to many educators, scientists and others today. The many cultural varieties and experiential stages of understanding are not appreciated due to a blanket educational inculcation of belief in mental abstractions, theory, scientific knowledge and the narrow range of abilities tested by Binet's IQ test as the mark of intelligence. This First World intellectual mentality is mainly the result of developing logical, mathematical and scientific methods, usually in written forms for specific contexts, which represents but one kind of developed intelligence among a number of others, such as psychological research by Howard Gardner3 and associates into 'multiple intelligence' shows.

Systematic knowledge and exposition of many kinds may require abstraction, which involves isolating the essentials and the principles that underlie any process. But making theory the great ideal can also open for an artificially narrow view of the nature of understanding as if it were only something primarily abstract, 'detached' and neutrally observational. It is surely mostly perilous to forget that theory is mostly an aid to understanding and to storing and recalling it, like a kind of inner shorthand, even though it does itself constitute and encompass great advances in human knowledg. Occasionally a theory may itself advance understanding, but only when related to action, in short - applied through individual understanding in some real context. While theory is general and 'essential' in nature, then, its fruit comes only in the particular actual results it helps to forward by or for each individual. Only the fruit of practice is comprehensive in actuality in that it consists in tangible application in living activity. It ought not to be necessary to state that deep and experientially-based understanding is not an automatic development, for it requires reliable educational and other guidance, personal application, good character and experiential maturity. Fairly young adults can occasionally attain to understanding that older persons may not have done, depending on their upbringing, travel, bi-lingual advantages and many other unique early influnces. Understanding is also a matter of cleverness, brilliance for abstract ideas or the various kinds of complex know-how, but not only that by any means, for it also has to do with positive mutual communication of every kind. The proverbial 'evil genius' is obviously lacking in understanding of a very fundamental kind, whatever the other remarkable achievements. Most people would naturally regard the highest form of understanding to be shown by persons who lead exemplary lives, show great understanding of others and demonstrate the highest human values through all their activities.

The philosopher Wittgenstein held that theory was without value and gave him nothing... that "it would not be the exact thing I was looking for". This expresses the true spirit of empiricism, one which does not wish to approach anything as being in want of theoretical explanation. Theory is of course useful in helping to manipulate and control the physical environment. This is what science does, no more no less. In wishing to know the good, the true, the beautiful - to answer the deepest questions of our identity, our purpose and the meaning of being, life and death and all that lies beyond the theoretical mind, scientific theories and explanations are, at their very best, still a secondary matter.

When our idea of understanding is limited to ratiocination, it loses its essential human quality. A totally 'neutral', non-emotive form of thought is probably impossible (except in specific areas, for example mathematics) because it cannot be separated entirely from all other normal human sensibilities, feelings and desires. Philosophy since the time of Descartes has bequeathed to intellectuals the fallacy that understanding occurs by 'pure reason' and the dominant philosophies of science today still can show a similar blinkered view as to what constitutes understanding, despite the recognition of the pre-eminence of empiricism.

Though theoretical reason and mental abstraction may of course be employed in a good cause, nothing in it guarantees this... as impure uses of 'pure' science have shown all too clearly in the world wars and other conflicts of the 20th century. The tendency of some theorists is to over-generalise or absolutize vadidated generalities. If 'all ravens are black', this remains true only until an albino raven is observed or perhaps bred. Yet most scientists still fall into the habit of regarding well-tested empirical hypotheses as if they were universally true, despite what logic demands: that in principle, no empirical generalisation can ever be taken as certainly true. It may be so, but it cannot be definitively proven to be so.

Intellectual openness is hard to maintain once a person's life has stabilised and taken form through time within a particular social environment, such as the professional or collegial systems which set their own limits that tend to crystallise as established opinion and acceptable reasoning. Those who do not change their professional interests, remain too cloistered, do not live anywhere but in their mother country or stick in one institution to climb the ladder (or greasy pole) are almost incapable of rejecting their long-held ideas or opinions, or of making major mental shifts, let alone personal intellectual revolutions. Intellectualism almost always solidifies into a conventional rationality that cloaks irrational or non-rational attitudes upheld by norms determined by arguments chosen only to fortify accepted opinion. The pressures towards reigning orthodoxy and other conformities or compromises, not least in the scientific community, are usually very considerable and resisting them ought to be one of the major responsibilities of intellectuals. The price of such independence of thought is, however, often high in terms of security of employment and recognition. Without a sufficient counterweight of self-examination and conscience, such intellectualism has become a burden both for the individual and for society, even though this is hard to credit for the intellectuals in question.


Once we have begun to question the limitations, prejudices and inconsistencies of each our relatively limited social and cultural 'cradle', we are faced with a bewildering kaleidoscope of ideas, beliefs, theories, cultures and teachings. The main problem soon becomes which theory to practice, which supposed knowledge is true and which applies in the particular case. There is an abundance of teachings, worldly and spiritual, exhibiting all manner of combination between the true and the entirely false. The question of truth is to be discussed later.

An active understanding is characterised by the ability to question, not just to have absorbed information passively from others or reached a knowledge of facts or generalisations overwhelmingly from secondary sources. Our faculty for understanding is a future-seeking, dynamic process that must be extended or regenerated by the individual for each new circumstance where it may be required. A society may perhaps be said to reach a general level of understanding in certain matters, yet even this is not maintained without successive regeneration, re-evaluation and periodic reinterpretation by individual persons everywhere in each generation or era.

We do not live in an unchanging vacuum where facts remain the same for ever, but in a shifting world environment where personal, social and other conditions alter through time, often in highly unpredictable ways. The meaning of words change and the full contexts and living environment in which they made sense and conveyed general or abstract insights is lost to view soon enough. Along with all this goes the correct understanding of their meaning. Sciences, philosophies, historical texts and scriptures that can reasonably be said to have a perennially-true import can soon be misinterpreted and their original meaning lost along with unknown and inconceivable past circumstances and conditions.

The nature of being itself both precedes and exceeds everything that can be known about it. In other words, one exists before one can think about or describe the fact, let alone convey all the things that existing involves and means. Thinking is secondary to being, which is the basis of thought and which always exceeds it. Thoughts are finite while reality is not, and language sets certain boundaries to what can be said. For this reason, among others, no one can know everything fully and wholly once and for all. Also, the expression of understanding through language in any systematic or structured manner is always limited by numerous restraints. All explanations must end somewhere, if only on practical grounds, besides which there are dimensions of awareness and being which exceed the expressions of all language. Human vision at its best is characterised by freedom from any sort of Procrustean bed of dogma or orthodoxy. This has always been essential for the creative transcendence of past or prevailing conditions and further realisation about the nature of humanity and the cosmos.


Human understanding has rather the nature of an expanding circle or a many-dimensional continuum than any distinct step-by-step progression such as one may meet in primary education or in following a systematic mathematical proof. Understanding develops by relating to other persons through identification and sympathy and proceeds towards increasing realisation of the inter-relatedness of everyone and everything and of one's own nature. It is not merely a matter of ideas and their mental manipulation, for it advances more radically via the challenges of life than by formal education. In the process it reaches out toward the cosmos and, sooner or later, to the greatest or highest reality. The faculty of understanding develops as an extension and deepening of awareness so as to open to all manner of connections within and between the outer world and our inner consciousness, not excluding the sympathetic connection that necessarily enters in with authentic understanding of other persons. The quality and depth of a person's understanding, rather than the extent of factual knowledge, is one of the chief characteristics of any person.

Understanding is not a static condition, such as is reached when one understands a mathematical sum. There is probably no kind of understanding that cannot be improved in scope and depth. The development of each our understanding hardly moves along well-defined lines, but is more like water spreading across an uneven surface. The mind's encounters with the facts of its environment, the society and all the ideas and ideals that arise is irregular and probably very seldom, if ever, conforms to any steady patterns or systematic extension. This is partly because we approach and so interpret the world from each our nexus of different positions, viewpoints, expectations and desires. Gradual accumulation may occur in phases, then be set back or suddenly pushed forward by some major shift of focus or new insight. This disorderly and unpredictable progress is reflected in the growth and changes of scientific knowledge and opinion.

The author H.G. Wells, illustrated this remarkably long ago: "The human mind has a much more complex and fluctuating process than most of those explanatory people who write about psychology would have us believe. Instead of that simple, direct movement, like the movement of a point, forward from here to there, one's thoughts advance like an army, sometimes extended over an enormous front, sometimes in echelon, sometimes bunched in a column throwing out skirmishing clouds of emotion, some flying and soaring, some crawling, some stopping and dying..."4

Different viewpoints and their peculiar 'horizons of understanding' are relative to the individual and whatever circumstances are under consideration, without necessarily being only subjective opinions. Each individual's understanding is an on-going process of integration of many elements into the mind's multi-dimensional network. It is the personal act of understanding that interrelates all forms of information, knowledge, insight and intuition as one whole, allowing us to apply knowledge relevantly in various life applications. Though the information and knowledge of the sciences and humanities etc. are recorded and so exist independently of the individual, one cannot really say that there is any knowledge without there being someone's 'subjective' understanding involved in beholding it or using it. Knowledge is something potentially useful and purposive, and the subjective element arises because it must be appreciated by someone. Understanding is the faculty that enables us to comprehend and evaluate any element in respect of a whole network of interrelated parts. Through understanding, knowledge becomes vital, a living truth, and not just some abstract proposition.

Understanding is that which unifies a diversity of circumstances - past and present, and whether objectively-given or subjectively-interpreted - into a differentiated continuum of whole conceptions. Comprehension is the mind's embrace of a whole bringing various elements together into a unit (com-prehend meaning 'drawing together'). Our understanding is comprehensive to the extent we relates the component parts together into a unitary conception which is less of an abstract generalisation than a concrete structured matrix.

What appears as comprehension within one perspective may appear as specialised knowledge within another. We may have wholes within wholes, like a series of concentric circles where each subordinate whole includes a narrower range of elements than those which subsume it. Or it may be a case of a whole intersected by others, such as when a qualitatively new perspective on a subject is opened up. The higher our understanding rises towards generality - that is, towards truth and universal values, the less the details of factual knowledge count.

The image of an expanding circle of understanding replaces that of 'linear' and discursive thought. But there is nothing of the vicious circle of fallacious 'circular reasoning' or question-begging about holistic understanding. Holistic thought is only 'circular' in the sense that it constantly refers back to itself, examining its assumptions and returning to review the overall progress and fruitfulness of its on-going integration from parts to whole.


The whole is said to be 'greater than the sum of its parts'. The concerted effort of many units (synergy) can certainly achieve what no unit can, and also often more in sum than the same number of units operating independently. In respect of understanding, there is invariably a qualitative difference between a collection of parts in disunity and a complete and integrated whole. This is somehow comparable to the difference between a tree and its many leaves or between a finished canvas and a rough sketch. It has been pointed out that the analysis of anything presupposes having a prior, preliminary grasp or 'pre-synthetic whole', that is, some prior acquaintance with the matter to be studied and preconceptions about what is to be discovered. For example, to looking up something in a library presumes one knows at least something about libraries, how books are found there and what subjects there are. This conception is a preliminary 'whole' in relation to the books that are 'part' of that whole. Then the reading of the book's various parts, chapter by chapter, while relating these to one's increasing grasp of the whole, gradually fills out the synthesis. After a first reading it is probable that one's original overall conception of the subject will have been modified... the 'whole' will have been re-configured according to the elements (eg. the meaningful content of chapters, sentences etc.) that have been studied. It may then become apparent from one's overall conception that re-reading and deeper analysis of certain sections are needed for a proper understanding.

Reality seldom presents itself to us in the shape of neat and distinct 'wholes'. For the understanding to distinguish wholes and parts, it must isolate clear and meaningful relations between the parts or elements before identifying and delineating the conceptual whole. Except in their simplest forms, wholes do not simply arise from perception, for they are mentations which organise masses of disparate perceptions according to values, conceptions and judgements. These mental frameworks remain a priori in each new perception or observation, even though they will invariably have been developed through on the basis of much empirical observation [i.e. a posteriori]. A simple example: even a reasonably developed understanding of the earth as an interconnected climate system influenced by many variables of land and water, sunspot activity and moon pull etc., surpasses any local observations. So-called 'raw' data must always be refined by critical, reflective perception and by analysis and integration within a greater whole. Any such greater whole itself is primarily a creative projection of the questioning mind, one which is to be tested against experience and often also against other more or less holistic conceptions.

Science regards reality as physical entity, dividing it up into fields and sub-fields as 'sciences' on the basis of observation, definition, categorisation and so forth, also according to practical limitations and administrative requirements. The resultant structure of sciences as they have grown without any central or overall plan involves all kinds of boundary between disciplines which in effect delineate conceptional 'wholes'. The history of science shows beyond question that each branch, with its established observations and theories, exerts an inertia against basic changes of conception for many reasons, both mental and social. In relating whole to parts, parts to whole and wholes to wholes, we understand the practical significances of acquired knowledge within living situations. This makes them what we call 'intelligible'. Besides, factual knowledge is a prerequisite of any articulated comprehension, and so no theory that does not hold up rationally and as a whole when confronted with facts, from wherever they arise, can stand unaltered.

If not fettered by traditional and professional interests, understanding thrusts towards expansive rethinking and re-definition of conceptional 'wholes' requisite to developing problems and needs. The holistic aim of comprehensivity propels towards increased reobservation and restructuring of ideas within ever wider horizons. Through holistic understanding, the personal, social and political effects and possible future consequences of any system of knowledge naturally tend to be embraced within that system. The flexibility of human understanding, when not closetted by convention or other largely irrelevant forces, itself would ensure that our knowledge and its overall structures would conform more to the needs it encounters and the given configurations of what it discovers. Today, the impetus is often for reorientation of perspectives towards more and more global concerns.

Understanding of perspectives that supersede the separate sciences, also known as meta-science, employs both analysis and synthesis. Analysis aims at more and more elementary facts. Elementary facts have to be understood in relation to their context, both physical situations or circumstances of life and also the verbal or other symbolic contexts in which they are recorded. The position assigned to them in the conceived whole must be rational and concur symbolically where possible with their place as perceived in situ. For example, it must be possible to test any generalisations by observation or testimony etc. and to evaluate their significance according to the various standards of clear thinking.

Analysis - or the breaking down of a problem into smaller and smaller parts - is continuously superseded by intelligible syntheses of a number of analyses - or the integration of parts in a whole as well as the modification of the whole in accordance with the parts. This complementarity leads to an on-going development whereby an expanding picture comes gradually more into focus so that detail is evident as well as the whole vision within which it finds its relevant place. The bias in the special sciences towards analysis of 'knowing more and more about less and less' is avoided in favour of re-configuring expansive circle, unifying more and more aspects of life towards realisation of the greater reality. There need be no contradiction between analysis and synthesis, for the two directions of investigation should supplement one another, somewhat as the otherwise-unintelligible pieces of a jig-saw go to make up the whole picture.

The word 'holistic' - related to the concept of an integral whole - refers mainly to the synthesising phases of thought and its products, less so to the complementary analytic phases. Analytic thought dissects and so narrows the scope of vision, dividing subject matter into more and more manageable, yet tinier and less-inclusive, elements in order to provide some of the elements of overall understanding. When a research or a branch of science relies so overwhelmingly on analytic method as has, for example, empirical psychology, it fails to regard the human being as a whole and does an injustice to human self-understanding proper. It must then subject itself to a critique that will put it in its proper place, showing its relative position in relation to the whole of life, not forgetting requirements of human understanding and action. The wood must not be overlooked for the sake of the trees, just as the nature of the wood cannot be known without observing in detail its component trees. However, the same applies in reverse, as it were: holistic thought must avoid the temptation to adopt high-flown synthesising theories of all and everything that leap to overall conclusions before any adequate analysis of observational or logical detail has been carried through. Such great theories were embraced - as in the case of earlier European metaphysical thought systems, now dethroned - for their abstract rational appeal, without checking their validity by referring to the facts or their ethical and social consequences.

Reason insists that, to conceive of existence or reality as a whole, it must include both the 'objective' world as known via the senses and the 'subjective' world as known to consciousness. The concept of wholeness itself implies a unity, an integral one. It may seem peculiar, therefore, that we can talk of different 'wholes', but we can and do. At the same time, we cannot but admit that there will always be one 'final' or absolute whole which is the ultimate of which none are greater. We cannot presumably get a perfect and full conception of the ultimate Whole, nor can we free ourselves of the conception itself, for it is at the very root of our rational human faculty. That idea is sometimes expressed as 'reality', 'being' or as the universe, the cosmos, God and so on. How one identifies and names the ultimate whole, or how one further gives it formulation and articulates expressions of its essential nature, all depends upon many earthly circumstances of culture, religious tradition, intellectual breadth, personal experience and self-knowledge.

Every normal individual's understanding proceeds in several directions at once, which may or may not tend towards overall integration. A person who 'integrates' thoughts too early - before experience and learning have had a major effect - is likely to become a dogmatist or worse. To bring all the regions of the well-informed and experienced mind into co-existence and general harmony within one integral sphere is probably not achievable before late middle age, and is probably seldom achieved even then. The process of articulating our understanding is itself directed and organised by our 'internal' awareness of the potential purposes of the enterprise and reflection over its various meanings and possible consequences. In general terms, the end-product of combining objective research and subjective self-investigation should be greater holistic understanding.


1 The first and foremost presentation of this was by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (trans., New York. 1962), to whom the present exposition is obviously indebted.
2 Mind and Nature. (U.K., 1979)
3 Multiple Intelligence, Howard Gardner (N.Y. 1993)
4.The Passionate Friends, H.G. Wells - Vol.1, 1913.

Continue to Ch. 2: Understanding and Metascience

The above material is the copyright of Robert Priddy, Oslo 1999