In “Knowledge and Understanding”, the second essay of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Aldous Huxley states that “Knowledge is acquired when we succeed in fitting a new experience into the system of concepts based upon our old experiences”. Understanding comes when we liberate ourselves from the old ideas in order to make possible contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment, of our existence (33). Knowledge can be passed on by means of words or other symbols; understanding is not conceptual, and therefore cannot be passed on. It is an immediate experience, and immediate experience can only be talked about, never shared. [When my daughters would tell me “I don’t know”, my response was always, “Well, KNOW!”]
Huxley continues, “Nobody can actually feel another’s pain or grief, another’s love or joy or hunger. Similarly, nobody can experience another’s understanding of a given event or situation” (34). So, when we ask, “Do you understand?”, the answer should always be “no”!
Understanding is not inherited, nor can it be acquired. It comes to us of its own accord when circumstances are favorable. We “know” at all times; we occasionally “understand”.
All adults possess vast stocks of knowledge. Some of it is correct knowledge, some of it is incorrect knowledge (but do we admit this!?), and some of it only looks like knowledge and is neither correct nor incorrect; it is merely meaningless. Because knowledge is easily accessed and sometimes incorrect, action that is based upon this knowledge has led humankind to many tragedies and messes—”the kind of messes that makes the angels weep and the satirists laugh aloud” (35).
We sin by attributing concrete significance to this meaningless knowledge; we sin in being too lazy to think in terms of multiple causation; we sin in cherishing the false notion that knowledge is the same as understanding. Understanding, on the contrary, is rare and therefore highly prized (35).
As an educator, my job is to disseminate correct knowledge to my students. Dewey calls this “knowledge of life adjustment and self-realization”. Huxley divides this correct knowledge of modern education (1950’s) into two main education families: the Progressive and the Classical. Progressives find expression in the provision courses of “family living, consumer economics, job information, physical and mental health, training for world citizenship, and training in fundamentals” (42). Classical type are educators in Latin, Greek and modern European literature, in world history and in philosophy—Shakespeare and Chaucer, Virgil and Homer. This would be my field, better known today as the Humanities. (Actually, I would consider Humanities a combination of Progressive and Classical with a training in adaptation to the current conventions of social life!). Pre-technology and media!
In addition to gaining knowledge through education, Huxley adds the importance to gaining knowledge of self:
Know yourself in relation to your overt intentions and your hidden motives, in relation to your thinking, your physical functioning and to those greater not-selves (see my last post) who see to it that the thinking shall be tolerably relevant…Be totally aware of what you do and think and of the persons with whom you are in relationship, the events which prompt you at every moment of your existence. Be aware without judging, without reacting in terms of remembered words to your present cognitive reactions.
If you do this, your memory will be emptied and knowledge will be relegated to its proper place, and you will have understanding!
Huxley, Aldous. (1952). Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. New York: Harper & Bros.
Rogers, Winfield H. Aldous Huxley’s Humanism . The Sewanee Review , Jul. – Sep., 1935, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1935), pp. 262- 272 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27535168
It would appear Huxley speaks of understanding as the biblical writers speak of “wisdom” or the “logos.” However, these writers envisioned or understood wisdom (understanding) to be a function of the divine in the lives of people. I am intrigued by the concept that understanding cannot be written but can be spoken. In principle this seems to be out of step with reality. Granted vocabulary may not be able to fully express understanding in all its nuances and perceived truth.
Hi David, the vocabulary is the same in writing and speaking; it originates from the same lexicon. However, I do seem to communicate better through writing than speaking.