Understanding Understanding

I choose and meditate on words. By “meditate,” I don’t mean “ohms” and candles; I mean I sit quietly and think about them. Usually I look them up in a dictionary first — I prefer The American Heritage Dictionary— for definitions and etymologies. I like to think of words as round; they have a variety of degrees from which to approach.

Recently I selected “understanding.” It is a derivative of “understand,” which functions as a noun and verb. Understanding functions as a noun and therefore a person, place, thing, or idea.

[I have a friend who’s a former Latin teacher that contests this widely used definition of a noun. From the Book of Genesis, where God grants Adam the power to name things, he draws his definition: “. . . and [God] brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” He rightly cites the Latin for “name” (nomen) as its origin; so he claims the true definition of a noun is the name of a thing. When I struggle with deciding if a word functions as a noun, I ask what it names.]

As a noun, understanding means the ability by which or the quality of one (who) understands; intelligence. It also refers to judgment or implicit agreement. Each mode of definition for the noun form, then, names intellectual faculty.

And here rises my point of departure.

The word implies I found the qualities or characteristics that support intelligence. Any good analysis breaks its subject down into component parts to evaluate their influence on the whole. Understanding’s etymology separates the word into “under” and “stand.” Initially (and falsely), I marveled at the idea of looking underneath a proverbial stand to see what supports it: under-a-stand. But stand isn’t an object; it is an action: “to stand.” I’m not looking under a stand; I’m looking for evidence that allows intellect to stand — to act, rise. That is, I seek information that supports a position. My initial instinct, while factually incorrect, holds ideological ground.

When I say I understand, I mean that I’ve analyzed the evidence, and I see how it supports — or allows to stand — the idea before me.

Even the act of analyzing operates like understanding. Understanding looks for the strata beneath a fixed position. Let this be its subsurface, or parts, that compose its surface, or whole. Either way, what rises from beneath congeals into completeness.

And that marks the most interesting element of understanding! Facts and evidence drive an idea to stand, and to stand is to rise or move upright. To see facts and evidence, however, requires a look beneath the idea. So an act of understanding presses from opposing ends of the vertical axis. In that way understanding moves downward and upward in simultaneity to meet. And at the center understanding locates the epiphany of knowledge.

The purpose of an essay is to explore an idea, and I enjoy thinking about the small because through it new understanding unfolds.