A personal reflection on an old-fashioned notion about learning and understanding as something greater than superficial or predigested comprehension.
The volume of words about ideas and events that can be absorbed in a lifetime of sustained effort is prodigious, yet almost insignificant when compared to the towering volume of what’s available. I suspect the ratio remains intimidating even when a high-brow filter is applied, such as text book trumps comic book.
Superficially any life-long undertaking begs the question of its usefulness to an individual in an ‘econo-politico-social’ context – utility is measured according to a perceived value that makes sense only in a specific environment, delineated by time, and defined by economics, politics, and social circumstances. In my lifetime almost all utility has become a derivative of monetisation. A short-term accounting focus on quarterly balance sheets, and a rationale couched in euphemisms about ‘leveraging’ an ‘asset’ to create ‘value’.
Historically, there is a broader concept than my own era’s fascination with reducing everything to numbers. It might be called ‘understanding’. It is not the vapid kind of understanding that is composed of sympathy and excuses for some otherwise censurable act: ‘Try to be more understanding, Peter.’ Nor is it merely technical proficiency: ‘Demonstrate your understanding of the ArchiMate model in linking organisational capabilities to IT infrastructure.’
Instead it is a broad-brush integration of acquired information, knowledge, and personal experiences that might also lead to quite specific, personal insights. The way a reading of Solzhenitsyn’s three Gulag Archipelago volumes could create an awareness of the similarities between the apparatus of terror in nominally different tyrannies across history. But also the way the same readings might lead to an incrementally expanded appreciation of the varieties of black bread commonly baked and consumed in particular regions of Russia.
More than that, understanding might create links between thoughts about the Gulag Archipelago, the transcripts of the Nuremberg war crimes trials, the 1970s Chilean putsch, the Sandanista insurgency of the 1980s, and the Wikipedia leaks of the 21st century. Not nuggets of pithy revelation, or the saleable titillation of an exposé, but nuances added to ideas about related subjects, applicable to all of my knowledge recursively. A difficult concept to explain, but not a tough one to understand for those who have experienced moments when they suddenly realise: ‘So that’s what she meant when she said this all those years ago.’
Understanding strikes me as a very shallow curve that suddenly and sharply rises toward the end of the timeline, which is always an elapsed lifetime. What I mean is not simple. Volume matters. A sustained effort matters. But the payoff isn’t cumulative in a straightforward sense. Possibly it isn’t noticeable for many years. Maybe never.
And it is likely to come as a surprise. Sometimes even as a disappointment. When I first read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, I expected profound insights because of the controversial nature of the Marxist legacy. What I got instead were hundreds of densely argued and sometimes just plain boring pages of economic analysis and tangents. It is now clear to me that Karl Marx has nothing to teach me directly. What he wrote about is too distant, tied to circumstances that no longer existed in any place or time of which I have direct experience. The relevance of Marx, even as a source of metaphors to explain something else, is contingent on much other reading. So, I think it likely that the potential benefit to me of having read Marx, and about him, is the possibility of greater insight when considering both related and unrelated subjects. Marx wrote in the 19th century, about the 19th century. Would reading more contemporary authors create a greater utility of understanding?
Duke University law professor Jedediah [who calls their baby Jedediah?] Purdy corralled some of his students into a project to re-read a number of great thinkers about democracy, to see what new insights they could pull from long dead thinkers about current trends.
I found some of his observations quite irresistible:
The question they all asked, in different versions at different times, was how these great domains of change [economics and politics] could be knitted together-and, the other side of the same coin, how they most gravely threatened each other.
The second lesson is that no one writing before the twentieth century holds a key to our problems. Our time is so vastly different in its particulars that the parallels work only in broad strokes. Neither Smith nor Marx can carry us far into the guts of globalized financial capitalism. Neither de Tocqueville nor Mill can sort out the prospects of democracy-or even the proper meaning of the term-in North Africa and the Middle East, China, or the European Union and the United States. How could they? When we can barely illuminate our own world, it would be superstitious to imagine that dead men could do it for us.
Despite focusing primarily on American democracy, Purdy did not look at more than economic and political dimensions. Nothing at all about social ends, let alone human purposes. I was most intrigued by Purdy’s failure to mention what I see as one of the biggest impediments to understanding anything at all, let alone political economy: an apparently American obsession with a peculiar legalistic, literalist interpretation of documents written centuries ago. The Constitution and Bill of Rights. Almost as if there can be no progress beyond these, and all change since those days is only a tolerable inconvenience that nevertheless has no substance or weight.
In my reading of de Tocqueville, who was much closer in time to the genesis of these documents, I always thought he, too, was slightly bemused by his experience of Americans he encountered who both reverential and cheerfully subversive of the meaning and intent of these documents.
The reverence de Tocqueville witnessed strikes me, in my own day, more as a kind of legalistic literalism, echoed in what I regard as another American obsession, or possibly part of the same one: a willfully cultivated, infantilist, literalist, nominal Christianity. That’s quite a sentence. It deserves some explanation. Willful because a great number of Americans voluntarily pursue a division of the country into ante bellum factions fictionalised to represent all manner of other conflicts. Infantilist because most nations mature, like children growing up, and literally outgrow their growing pains rather than trying to impose them on the world as a legitimate, permanent handicap. Literalist because so much of public debate in America is concerned with removing all nuance and subtlety, presumably to protect the ignorant and the stupid from the labour of learning and comprehending. And nominal because a large component of evangelist Christianity in the USA is not recognisable as any kind of Christianity in a conventional sense, other than by the self-arrogated nomenclature (mental illness and illiteracy notwithstanding).
What has this to do with understanding? I think a constant re-hashing of the past does not facilitate insight so much as revisionism, and revisionism is, for me, a sign of self-loathing. That’s a curious insight tangentially related to my Solzhenitsyin readings, but also linked to Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, the Nuremberg war crimes trial transcripts, and much else besides, all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey, about the redemptive tribulations faced by the nominal heroes of a destroying army.
More fundamentally, though, it relates to understanding on the level of ‘counterknowledge’. British journalist and author Damian Thompson coined the term counterknowledge to refer to superstition, conspiracy theory, and outright fabrications being presented as facts and sincerely held beliefs, usually accompanied by demands that such sophistry be taken seriously. British historian Antony Beevor has commented at length on how this works as revisionism and propaganda in the mass media.
This perspective folds into a consideration of the loud-mouthed American species of big tent Christianity in both obvious and astonishing ways.
Kurt Eichenwald wrote a long and well-conceived article for Newsweek illustrating why the Bible is an obvious intermillenial pastiche, and its contents cannot possibly contain any ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ literal truths. The essay explains that all contemporary bibles are made up of words and meanings unlikely to bear even a passing resemblance to original clay tablets, cloth and papyrus scrolls, translations of translations, forgeries and editorial amendments, and the loss or alteration of idiom, colloquialisms and fixed meanings.
One of the aspects of understanding and meaning raised by Eichenwald is about the precise setting of prose in historical and local contexts. The way that meaning changes subtly in even a good translation, and not so subtly in the same language on a long enough timeline.
For example, I rather doubt that the Gaylads were advertising their homosexual party boy status when they released their 1966 single ‘Stop Making Love’. This was a Ska/Rocksteady hit for the Jamaican outfit, who most likely took their name from the then extant concept of gaiety, meaning merriment and happiness. Merrymaking lads having a good time? Without this explanation, what would a hipster born in the 1990s conclude about a band called the Gaylads? Gay is now so inextricably linked to homosexuality it is not used in any other context anymore. Unless, of course, you understand the etymology and history of changing usage. Now try to imagine the changes to meaning between a dozen archaic languages over a 3000-year time-span, with thousands of translators and agenda-driven editorialisers interjecting the agenda of their own times and circumstances.
Eichenwald tries to create the groundwork for understanding how this works. But of course millions of self-professed Christians are impervious to his endeavour.
The most important conclusion I reached when reading Eichenwald is not solely about the Bible or Christianity. It is that nonsense is always nonsense, and does not deserve to be excluded from judgement because of demands that it be ‘respected’, no matter how many people subscribe to it. Nonsense can never lead to any understanding that is not also about recognising nonsense as nonsense.
It isn’t my intention to pursue a path of debunking Christianity here. That’s too incidental to my intentions in this reflection. I mention it here as the entrée to a much more serious impediment to understanding.
It is my contention that the rise to political influence of the big tent fundamentalists in the USA has had flow-on effects for the entire Western world that are disastrous on many levels. Pig-ignorant fundamentalism has been manipulated and cultivated as a political force by a form of plutocratic mediaevalism that has brought the world economy to the brink of disaster several times. And will do so again.
It has destroyed an education system once designed to facilitate thought and insight into who we are, and why we are as we are. Possibly also what our purposes could or might be. It has completely devalued the idea that people do not exist solely to serve commercial purposes, and it has created a new layer of non-religious cretinism: the era of STEM and business professionals given over to nonsense as breathtakingly imbecilic as fundamentalist religionism.
Meaning in these areas is no longer sought out by a process of thinking and understanding. Instead it is based on developing or following formulae, and a fixed kind of legalistic reductionism. IT engineers and programmers are notoriously unable to think outside their algorithm-dominated closed systems, making them a class of political collaborators-by-apathy, and socially destructive by absence of ethics and conscience. Doctors and lawyers are notoriously removed from humane and ethical character, making them an only slightly less crude version of the nerds. Accountants and most business professionals combine the least charming aspects of both.
Worst of all, both the literalist fundamentalists and the notionally professional archetypes are consensually married to a highly corrosive, greed-driven, amoral acquisitiveness in which social capital they expend is never renewed, and the benefits to them of community are never passed on to succeeding generations.
One of the most appalling consequences of this failure to renew and repay is the savage and continual brutalisation of the Western education system, ensuring it remains permanently crippled and incapable of passing on the skills necessary to nurture and promote understanding.
Nominal Christians justify their sociopathic urges by insisting on their ‘right’ to act on ‘literal truths’ found in known forgeries. Professional types justify their pathological urges for continuous self-gratification (a kind of constant masturbation) as ‘mandated’ by corporations, and as ‘inevitable’ because they have no choice but to do as they are told. Even professional codes of ethics no longer act to demand mutually policed humane and sane behaviour from their notional subjects.
We are thus left in a peculiar twilight era characterised by sloganeering about the triumph of technology, without much understanding that most of the worshipped technology is a triumph only for the astonishing concentration of wealth into ever fewer pockets. Angst about economic security means no one dissents, no matter how bad things look for the future. Using global warming as the entry point for the following metaphor, it seems devastatingly ironic that we have become a planet of frogs not recognising that we are being slowly brought to the boil on a stove in the kitchen of an exclusive plutocrat restaurant.
Do we understand these trends, or merely comprehend them?
Is understanding a passive, contemplative form of quietism?
I don’t see it in quite those historically isolated terms. I have a vision that stretches back to a pre-European culture that existed without being dominated by Ancient Rome. I have only glimpses of that culture through language, but they are tantalizing glimpses that include the word ‘understanding’ itself.
Far from being solely defined by its contemporary abuse in jargon, derived from the politics of numbers driven assessment in education, or the infotainment of documentaries, podcasts, and YouTube videos, ‘understanding’ has had currency in the Old English language since the Dark Ages.
The Old English word ‘understandan’ is quite similar to the Old Frisian ‘understonda’ and the Middle Danish ‘understande’. All of these words imply some kind of ‘standing under’, ‘standing among’, or ‘standing with’.
The contemporary German word ‘verstehen’ is probably of the same origin, and not easy to translate literally, with its inseperable prefix ‘ver’ giving meaning to the word stem ‘stehen’. The latter means, literally, standing, but verstehen is more than just to ‘do standing’. It again implies some kind of standing with, among, under, or against.
All these archaic meanings evoke for me a number of intuitive notions. The body stands below the head, which is the seat of reasoning. The human stands below the heavens, which is the seat of the wisdom and judgement of the gods. But the human stands with others, probably of the tribe. Maybe this means a shared quality of understanding. An interaction is which one in the tribe shares an insight, experience, or idea with all others, allowing the tribe as a whole to consider, debate, ‘edit’ and benefit from the sharing. This idea has appeal as a potential forerunner to books, libraries, and schools in a culture without Greek influences via the Romans. It may also have been a prototype peer review process.
I do not have anthropological evidence for these musings. No one does, and most likely no one ever will. It just seems plausible that my own personal pursuit of understanding is not just a fetish of my life in late Western civilisation.
I cannot quite bring myself to dismiss understanding today as having been replaced by counterknowledge, faith, quackery, and the hegemony of the popular in a throw-away consumer society.
It does not have to be a silent substitute for judgement, nor is it voided by decision-making and action. And understanding is never ever the adoption of an imposed point of view, or the enforced cessation of judgement. It is not Wikipedia reductionism, or party-political solidarity on any and all issues.
Understanding depends not only on continuous, long-term acquisition of information, and the application of intellect to it, but also on independence of mind and on the will, or courage, to persist with unresolved ideas no matter how unpopular they are. All these factors are quite separate and distinct from each other. But they must all come together for understanding to occur.
For me the moment of understanding something – anything – is a burst of something intensely satisfying. Perhaps it is even accompanied by a small endorphin rish. In any case, it is satisfying for its own sake, not to satisfy profit motive or other advantage (though these may flow). It is not the Eureka moment of deductive reasoning, nor the prosecutorial thrill of inductively assembling a convincing explanation for some previously puzzling phenomenon. It is not the insight that flows from finally grasping the rationale for a particular theorem or formula. It is, instead, the often serendipitous creation of some new piece of knowledge by putting together, in some unexpected way, disparate and apparently unrelated information and experiences.
It is an entirely human function. There will never be an artificial understanding in the sense of artificial intelligence being able to synthesise information the same way as human beings. AI will only ever be a problem-solving mechanism, limited by the lacking ability to incorporate information, reflection, and experience in a human context. Heuristic machinery is still machinery. Its purposes can never be autonomously human. The closest we will ever get to artificial intelligence is highly trained human beings who have surrendered their human qualities, the way, for example, a well indoctrinated soldier or corporate cubicle worker might have.
In that sense, then, understanding becomes central to the essence of humanity – of what it is to be human. And that means to me that understanding has to be converted into life itself. Into action of some kind.
If you are still reading, and expect a revelatory conclusion, or if you skipped to this point in the hope of avoiding the read itself, while still grasping the gist of what I’m saying, I may disappoint you. This is a meditation, not an exposé.
Every point I have tried to make along the way has its own implications, spreading out like spider webs of tangents and related illuminations. The path I took through the maze of these many tangents is probably the product of readings earmarked for some later date, and finally caught up with, of a Google Plus post by M Sinclair Stevens about understanding and meaning (via Japanese kanji!), and of some nostalgic end-of-year reflection.
The Google Plus post speaks for itself, as does the cited reading. But the nostalgia includes an unmentioned component. It seems that as the decades pass, fond and not so fond memories carry a growing realisation with them that sooner or later I will have diminishing new experiences and insights, and then also declining faculty to make sense of them. That may not be a bad thing on an evolutionary scale; too much insight will eventually burst even the stoutest heart and steeliest mind.
Worse than a sudden self-implosion, though, is the growing terror contained in the contemplation of being alive long enough to witness the atrophy of memory and intellect. The way it occurs for millions of people suffering disease, or just advancing years.
To return to my shallow curve with the steep rise at its end, now imagine that curve suddenly peaking and falling as rapidly as it ascended. That is the prospect of loss of faculty. The loss of everything gained by understanding in a fraction of the time it took to cultivate and acquire.
Trying to explain that to a thirty-something is absurdly difficult. I know because one of the memories that came to me to spark this reflection was the effort of an old man trying to explain it to me twenty-five years ago. I remember thinking I would never find myself in the place he was describing. I’m still not there, but it seems inexplicably and menacingly closer now.
I have never actually made a new year’s resolution. I always thought the idea of resolving to do things for the sake of the resolution was as silly as the enforced mea culpa of the Catholic confession, or the politically correct subversion of ‘understanding’ as a form of guilty self-flagellation. But if I had made such a resolution at the end of the year just elapsed, it would probably have been about not surrendering to the relative lassitude of no longer being twenty-something and rejecting new experiences just for the sake of being able to catch my breath. It would have been about renewing the rate at which I consume books – still the most reliably effort-driven vehicles for thought and insight. It would have been about maintaining the regimen of thinking and writing about what I read, see, hear and experience. All for the sole end of creating new understanding, unadulterated by profit motive or malice, and possibly of no use to anyone but me.
What about you?