Misunderstandings of not understanding

There are probably lots of attitudes to a thing we might call ‘understanding’ it. Here are examples of two:

“I understand combustion”

“I understand her feelings”

In the first statement, the person has a good explicit model of combustion, and the range of ways it can happen, and what causes it, and that sort of thing. In the second, her feelings feel natural and comprehensible to the speaker. T might have an intuitive sense for how her feelings will evolve, but they probably don’t have an explicit model of the psychology, biology or game theoretic reasons behind her feelings.

These different instances of ‘understanding’ probably vary on a few different dimensions that could be separated, but this is going to be a short blog post.

One thing that separates these kinds of understanding is their objects. People rarely say “I understand combustion” to mean that it feels intuitively natural to them, in the absence of any explicit model. And they rarely say “I understand her feelings” to mean that can answer questions about her alien neural chemistry.

There are some things where both kinds of understanding sometimes apply though. For instance “I don’t understand art” can mean “when I look at art, it doesn’t feel especially natural or good to me” or it can mean “I do not know what caused humans to like art so much”. The seconds speaker may love art.

I think failure to distinguish these kinds of understanding causes misunderstanding. For instance, suppose you say you don’t understand why people go out to bars. This could mean you don’t enjoy doing so personally, or that you don’t see why bars in particular evolved to be a big thing while public swimming pools full of tiny balls did not. If the two aren’t really distinguished in people’s minds, then they will suppose you are saying both, even once your elaboration strongly implies the latter.

Perhaps this is a reasonable shorthand, because in practice the only people who wonder why humans gather at bars in particular are those who aren’t enjoying bars enough. But I think it confuses things (for instance, impressions of how fun I am).

A particularly costly kind of misunderstanding is when people themselves assume they are saying both, because they think there is just one thing. Then for instance they notice that they don’t know why art exists, and don’t think to independently check whether they like art. Or they don’t understand why sports is in the curriculum, so they assume that they don’t enjoy it. Or ‘tradition’ seems an incomprehensible justification for a behavior, so they don’t pay attention to whether they personally get anything out of traditions.

I don’t really know how much any of this is a thing—I feel like I have seen quite a few examples of it, but I don’t remember many. What do you think?

(Related: Meta-error: I like therefore I am)

4 responses to “Misunderstandings of not understanding

  1. I agree the word may have two or more definitions, as you note, and ambiguity or misunderstanding may arise. In law practice your mind tends to get trained where you avoid ambiguity or misunderstanding and call others out on it, and so and so on. I actually thought you were going to start into how the definition of understanding itself is hard to delineate though.

  2. Pingback: Mistakes #3: breaking Chesterton’s fence in the presence of bull | Meteuphoric

  3. We can pick understanding apart into several notions, with decreasing strength:
    – a causal conceptual model that can be made fully explicit
    – a functional model that exposes some explicit parameters and is grounded in a tacit mechanism (I understand how angry she must be due to my well-trained ToM module; I understand that the bass will drop any moment now)
    – a reference to an existing mental representation that allows for tacit prediction or analogical depiction (I understand where the ball is going to land; I understand gravity is like a rubber band)
    – a reference that allows me to map a concept to another

    Some of the tacit mechanisms are apparently grounded in innate abilities (Theory of Mind, etc.), others are trained in such a way that we cannot consciously observe how they work. Causal conceptual models are especially valuable because they can be fully communicated and tested.

    “Understanding combustion” can take any of the characters above: we may have a detailed notion of the physics and chemistry involved, or we may be able to accurately predict preconditions, onset, duration, outcome, or we may understand that it is hot, needs some fuel, and can be used for cooking, or we simply understand that it relates to flames, burning, and light.

    I am sure that others have better models of understanding than me, but perhaps it is a start.

  4. erniebornheimer

    Not really the same thing, I guess, but I’ve always found it interesting that that the things people happen to like line up very well with the things they think are “right.” So you’ll rarely find a person who likes guns but thinks they should be banned.


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