Let's talk about meaning

Let’s talk about meaning

A few days ago I received a note from my grandson J. J said he had decided to join the Army Reserves. At that moment there developed a new connection between the Iraq war and me. At that moment the Iraq war became meaningful to me in a way far different from what it might have been before.

Meaning happens when there develops a confluence of emotion and knowledge such that a domain of knowledge becomes part of me. Meaning happens when a domain of knowledge becomes a vital part of me.

I witness on TV a mother crying because her son is missing; I immediately resonate with a feeling that is somewhat like that of the mother, I sympathize with that mother. I do not need to go to any effort to place myself into the shoes of that mother.

But suppose I see on TV a mother proudly embracing the death of her son, the suicide bomber. Empathy can happen when I try to create an analogy in my imagination that will allow me to understand what another person feels. To understand that mother I must make a significant effort to place myself into the shoes of that mother. If I am successful I can then say I understand that mother.

Understanding is the creation of meaning; it is a subjective happening when there develops a confluence of emotion and knowing that might be regarded as a tipping point. It happens in a moment and often only after a good bit of effort. We know many things but understand only a few.

Our schools and colleges teach us what to know but seldom have anything to say about understanding. In our world of production and consumption understanding is a luxury that we must work at to achieve.

Question for discussion

Do you experience things that I call understanding or do you think that understanding and meaning are something entirely different from what I have defined here?

your (anyones) understanding is a completely private event and therefore meaningless to anyone else…


exactly, meaning and understanding are subjective and are not associated with truth, as is knowing.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” ~Viktor Frankl

The meaning of life is not a question, but the actions of each individual at any given moment in time.

What you are describing in your opening statment is compassion, and you live each moment with a compassionate heart than you have your answer to the meaning of your life.

Damn. I’m impressed by what everyone’s saying.

Understanding and knowing? Yikes. Let me think.

Well, Webster, whaddaya got?

Understanding: (2) : to achieve a grasp of the nature, significance, or explanation of something

Knowing: (1) : to perceive directly : have direct cognition of

I know this looks a little gimmicky, but this is a tough one. Granted, there are several definitions to each of these terms, but it seems valid to proceed through narrow definitions like I’m supplying here.

To know, then, is to perceive directly, to have direct cognition of something. Knowing, in this sense, has to do with something very precise: the perception of a thing or concept.

Understanding, given my definition, is to grasp the nature, significance, or explanation of something. Understanding, in this sense, seems to transcend the thing that is directly perceived. I’m of the opinion that we don’t often directly perceive the significance of something. It’s informed by cultural and personal factors. This makes it easy to see how people can see something like a 9/11 as a total disaster or a total victory.

People from all cultures can know a rock. You just look at a rock. There it is! A rock! But the meaning we attach to it, in the form of our understanding, seems to fall largely in the subjective.

It seems, given your examples, that you would put knowing in the head and understanding in the heart. Knowledge would be a thing that proceeds from pure reason and logic. You know or you don’t know, but there isn’t much more to the story. Understanding, on the other hand, seems to be entwined with your life story, with your views and experiences, which by their nature can vary tremendously with the people around you or with the you from a half hour ago. Or is that an unfair interpretation?

But are meaning and understanding really private phenomena, meaningless to anyone else, and not associated with truth? That seems specious to me. If that were really the case, would any of us be able to understand and to sympathize with what’s been happening with you? Do we just throw out all the emotional content of your understanding and proceed with the cold facts?

Or maybe, just maybe, your understanding is ultimately private and meaningless to others, and maybe I, claiming to understand you, really only understand you only as far as my own experiences allow. But I don’t think so. Nope, it seems to me that something is getting through. It seems to me that there is a measure of truth in understanding. Understanding, then, would appear to be a supplement to truth, built on a foundation of truth, and what building with a solid foundation doesn’t get strength from that foundation? The foundation, to a large extent, determines the character of what is built on top of it.

I’m inclined to think that understanding can only be shared when the truth of something is grasped and communicated. It’s the way truth builds a bridge to travel from one ear to the other.

I’m sorry if this all sounds a little wishy-washy. I truly feel out of my depth with this one. But it’s thought provoking, so for what it’s worth, there’s my answer.

Comprehension is a hierarchy, resembling a pyramid, with awareness at the base followed by consciousness, succeeded by knowing, with understanding at the pinnacle.

I have concocted a metaphor set that might relay my comprehension of the difference between knowing and understanding.

Awareness–faces in a crowd.

Consciousness—smile, a handshake, and curiosity.

Knowledge—long talks sharing desires and ambitions.

Understanding—a best friend bringing constant April.

I am a retired engineer and my experience in the natural sciences leads me to conclude that these natural sciences are far more concerned with knowing than with understanding.

Understanding is a long step beyond knowing and most often knowing provides the results that technology demands. Technology, I think, does not want understanding because understanding is inefficient and generally not required. The natural scientists, with their paradigms, are puzzle solvers. Puzzles require ingenuity but seldom understanding.