Knowledge and Understanding – Part 1

By Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley was one of England’s leading twentieth-century philosophers and writers. Huxley was closely associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California and was a frequent contributor to Vedanta and the West. Huxley wrote thirty-one books, sixty-five stories and innumerable articles—Vedantic themes appearing in many of them. The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley’s best-known philosophical work, was published in 1944 to critical acclaim and it is still considered a masterpiece. The article reproduced below originally appeared in the May-June, 1956 issue of Vedanta and the West and is the first part of a three-part series.

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 and so make possible a direct, unmediated contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment, of our existence.

The new is given on every level of experience—given perceptions, given emotions and thoughts, given states of unobstructed awareness, given relationships with things and persons. The old is our homemade system of ideas and word patterns. It is the stock of finished articles fabricated out of the given mystery by memory and analytical reasoning, by habit and the automatic associations of accepted notions. Knowledge is primarily a knowledge of these finished articles. Understanding is primarily direct awareness of the raw material.

Knowledge is always in terms of concepts and 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 (very inadequately), never shared.

Nobody can actually feel another’s pain or grief, another’s love or joy or hunger. And similarly nobody can experience another’s understanding of a given event or situation. There can, of course, be knowledge of such an understanding and this knowledge may be passed on in speech or writing, or by means of other symbols. Such communicable knowledge is useful as a reminder that there have been specific understandings in the past, and that understanding is at all times possible. But we must always remember that knowledge of understanding is not the same thing as the understanding, which is the raw material of that knowledge. It is as different from understanding as the doctor’s prescription for penicillin is different from penicillin.

Understanding is not inherited, nor can it be laboriously acquired. It is something which when circumstances are favorable, comes to us, so to say, of its own accord. All of us are knowers, all the time; it is only occasionally and in spite of ourselves that we understand the mystery of given reality. Consequently we are very seldom tempted to equate understanding with knowledge. Of the exceptional men and women, who have understanding in every situation, most are intelligent enough to see that understanding is different from knowledge and that conceptual systems based upon past experience are as necessary to the conduct of life as are spontaneous insights into new experiences. For these reasons the mistake of identifying understanding with knowledge is rarely perpetuated and therefore poses no serious problem.

How different is the case with the opposite mistake, the mistake of supposing that knowledge is the same as understanding and interchangeable with it! All adults possess vast stocks of knowledge. Some of it is correct knowledge, some of it is incorrect knowledge, and some of it only looks like knowledge and is neither correct nor incorrect; it is merely meaningless.

That which gives meaning to a proposition is not (to use the words of an eminent contemporary philosopher, Rudolf Carnap) “the attendant images or thoughts, but the possibility of deducing from it perceptive propositions, in other words, the possibility of verification. To give sense to a proposition, the presence of images is not sufficient, it is not even necessary. We have no image of the electromagnetic field, nor even, I should say, of the gravitational field; nevertheless the propositions which physicists assert about these fields have a perfect sense because perceptive propositions are deducible from them.”

Metaphysical doctrines are propositions which cannot be operationally verified, at least on the level of ordinary experience. They may be expressive of a state of mind, in the way that lyrical poetry is expressive; but they have no assignable meaning. The information they convey is only pseudo-knowledge. But the formulators of metaphysical doctrines and the believers in such doctrines have always mistaken this pseudo-knowledge for knowledge and have proceeded to modify their behavior accordingly.

Meaningless pseudo-knowledge has at all times been one of the principal motivators of individual and collective action. And that is one of the reasons why the course of human history has been so tragic and at the same time so strangely grotesque. Action based upon meaningless pseudo-knowledge is always inappropriate, always beside the point, and consequently always results in the kind of mess mankind has always lived in–the kind of mess that makes the angels weep and the satirists laugh aloud.

Correct or incorrect, relevant or meaningless, knowledge and pseudo-knowledge are as common as dirt and are therefore taken for granted. Understanding, on the contrary, is as rare, very nearly, as emeralds, and so is highly prized. The knowers would dearly love to be understanders; but either their stock of knowledge does not include the knowledge of what to do in order to be understanders; or else they know theoretically what they ought to do, but go on doing the opposite all the same. In either case they cherish the comforting delusion that knowledge and, above all, pseudo-knowledge are understanding. Along with the closely related errors of over-abstraction, over-generalization, and over-simplification, this is the commonest of all intellectual sins and the most dangerous.

Of the vast sum of human misery about one third, I would guess, is unavoidable misery. This is the price we must pay for being embodied, and for inheriting genes which are subject to deleterious mutations. This is the rent extorted by nature for the privilege of living on the surface of a planet, whose soil is mostly poor, whose climates are capricious and inclement, and whose inhabitants include a countless number of microorganisms capable of causing in human beings themselves, in their domestic animals and cultivated plants, an immense variety of deadly or debilitating diseases.

To these miseries of cosmic origin must be added the much larger group of those avoidable disasters we bring upon ourselves. For at least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice, and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism, and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols. But zeal, dogmatism, and idealism exist only because we are forever committing intellectual sins. We sin by attributing concrete significance to meaningless pseudo-knowledge; we sin in being too lazy to think in terms of multiple causation and indulging instead in over-simplification, over-generalization, and over-abstraction; and we sin by cherishing the false but agreeable notion that conceptual knowledge and, above all, conceptual pseudo-knowledge are the same as understanding.

Consider a few obvious examples. The atrocities of organized religion (and organized religion, let us never forget, has done about as much harm as it has done good) are all due, in the last analysis, to “mistaking the pointing finger for the moon”—in other words to mistaking the verbalized notion for the given mystery to which it refers or, more often, only seems to refer. This, as I have said, is one of the original sins of the intellect, and it is a sin in which, with a rationalistic bumptiousness as grotesque as it is distasteful, theologians have systematically wallowed.

From indulgence in this kind of delinquency there has arisen, in most of the great religious traditions of the world, a fantastic over-valuation of words. Over-valuation of words leads all too frequently to the fabrication and idolatrous worship of dogmas, to the insistence on uniformity of belief, the demand for assent by all and sundry to a set of propositions which, though meaningless, are to be regarded as sacred. Those who do not consent to this idolatrous worship of words are to be “converted” and, if that should prove impossible, either persecuted or, if the dogmatizers lack political power, ostracized and denounced.

Immediate experience of reality unites humanity. Conceptualized beliefs, including even the belief in a God of love and righteousness, divides them and, as the dismal record of religious history bears witness, sets them for centuries on end at each other’s throats.

Over-simplification, over-generalization, and over-abstraction are three other sins closely related to the sin of imagining that knowledge and pseudo-knowledge are the same as understanding. The over-generalizing over-simplifier is the person who asserts, without producing evidence, that “All X’s are Y,” or, “All A’s have a single cause, which is B.” The over-abstracter is the one who cannot be bothered to deal with Jones and Smith, with Jane and Mary, as individuals, but enjoys being eloquent on the subject of Humanity, of Progress, of God and History and the Future. This brand of intellectual delinquency is indulged in by every demagogue, every crusader.

In the Middle Ages the favorite over-generalization was “All infidels are damned.” (For the Muslims, “all infidels” meant “all Christians;” for the Christians, “all Muslims.”) Almost as popular was the nonsensical proposition. “All heretics are inspired by the devil” and “All eccentric old women are witches.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the wars and persecutions were justified by the luminously clear and simple belief that “All Roman Catholics (or if you happened to be on the Pope’s side, all Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans) are God’s enemies.”

In our own day Hitler proclaimed that all the ills of the world had one cause, namely Jews, and that all Jews were subhuman enemies of humanity. For the Communists, all the ills of the world have one cause, namely capitalists, and all capitalists and their middle-class supporters are subhuman enemies of humanity. It is perfectly obvious, on the face of it, that none of these over-generalized statements can possibly be true. But the urge to intellectual sin is fearfully strong. All are subject to temptation and few are able to resist.

There are in the lives of human beings very many situations in which only knowledge, conceptualized, accumulated, and passed on by means of words, is of any practical use. For example, if I want to manufacture sulfuric acid or to keep accounts for a banker, I do not start at the beginnings of chemistry or economics; I start at what is now the end of these sciences. In other words, I go to a school where the relevant knowledge is taught, I read books in which the accumulation of past experience in these particular fields are set forth. I can learn the functions of an accountant or a chemical engineer on the basis of knowledge alone.

For this particular purpose it is not necessary for me to have much understanding of concrete situations as they arise, moment by moment from the depths of the given mystery of our existence. What is important for me as a professional person is that I should be familiar with all the conceptual knowledge in my field. Ours is an industrial civilization, in which no society can prosper unless it possesses an elite of highly trained scientists and a considerable army of engineers and technicians. The possession and wide dissemination of a great deal of correct, specialized knowledge has become a prime condition of national survival.

There is no substitute for correct knowledge and in the process of acquiring correct knowledge there is no substitute for concentration and prolonged practice. Except for the unusually gifted, learning, by whatever method, must always be hard work. Unfortunately there are many professional educationists who seem to think that children should never be required to work hard. Wherever educational methods are based on this assumption, children will not in fact acquire much knowledge; and if the methods are followed for a generation or two, the society which tolerates them will find itself in full decline.

In theory, deficiencies in knowledge can be made good simply by changing the curriculum. In practice a change in the curriculum will do little good, unless there is a corresponding change in the point of view of professional educationists. For the trouble with American educationists, writes a distinguished member of their profession, Dr. H. L. Dodge, is that they “regard any subject from personal grooming to philosophy as equally important or interchangeable in furthering the process of self-realization. This anarchy of values has led to the displacement of the established disciplines of science and the humanities by these new subjects.”

Whether professional educationists can be induced to change their current attitudes is uncertain. Should it prove impossible, we must fall back on the comforting thought that time never stands still and that nobody is immortal. What persuasion and the threat of national decline fail to accomplish, retirement, high blood pressure, and death will bring to pass, more slowly, it is true, but much more surely.

The dissemination of correct knowledge is one of the essential functions of education, and we neglect it at our peril. But, obviously, education should be more than a device for passing on correct knowledge. It should also teach what Dewey called life adjustment and self-realization. But precisely how should self-realization and life adjustment be promoted? To this question modern educators have given many answers. Most of these answers belong to one or other of two main educational families, the Progressive and the Classical. Answers of the Progressive type find expression in the provision of courses in such subjects as “family living, consumer economics, job information, physical and mental health, training for world citizenship and statesmanship, and last, and we are afraid least” (I quote again the words of Dr. Dodge) “training in fundamentals.”

Where answers of the classical type are preferred, educators provide courses in Latin, Greek, modern European literature, in world history and in philosophy—exclusively, for some odd reason, of the Western brand. Shakespeare and Chaucer, Virgil and Homer—how far away they seem, how irrevocably dead! Why, then, should we bother to teach the classics? The reasons have been stated a thousand times, but seldom with more force and lucidity than by Albert Jay Nock in his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man:

“The literatures of Greece and Rome provide the longest, the most complete and most nearly continuous record we have of what the strange creature homo sapiens has been busy about in virtually every department of spiritual, intellectual and social activity. Hence the mind that has canvassed this record is much more than a disciplined mind; it is an experienced mind. It has come, as Emerson says, into a feeling of immense longevity, and it instinctively views contemporary man and his doings in the perspective set by this profound and weighty experience.

“Our studies were properly called formative, because, beyond all others, their effect was powerfully maturing. Cicero told the unvarnished truth in saying that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must for ever remain children. And if one wished to characterize the collective mind of this period, or indeed of any period, the use it makes of its powers of observation, reflection, logical inference, one would best do it by the word ‘immaturity’.”

The Progressive and the Classical approaches to education are not incompatible. It is perfectly possible to combine a schooling in the local cultural tradition with a training, half vocational, half psychological, in adaptation to the current conventions of social life, and then to combine this combination with training in the sciences, in other words with the inculcation of correct knowledge. But is this enough? Can such an education result in the self-realization which is its aim? The question deserves our closest scrutiny.

Nobody, of course, can doubt the importance of accumulated experience as a guide for individual and social conduct. We are human because, at a very early stage in the history of the species, our ancestors discovered a way of preserving and disseminating the results of experience. They learned to speak and were thus enabled to translate what they had perceived, what they had inferred from given fact and home-grown fantasy, into a set of concepts, which could be added to by each generation and bequeathed, a treasure of mingled sense and nonsense, to posterity. In Mr. Nock’s words “the mind that has canvassed this record is an experienced mind.”

The only trouble, so far as we are concerned, is that the vicarious experience derived from a study of the classics is, in certain respects, completely irrelevant to twentieth-century facts. In many ways, of course, the modern world resembles the world inhabited by the people of antiquity. In many other ways, however, it is radically different.

For example, in their world the rate of change was exceedingly slow; in ours advancing technology produces a state of chronic revolution. They took infanticide for granted (Thebes was the only Greek city which forbade the exposure of babies) and regarded slavery as not only necessary to the Greek way of life, but as intrinsically natural and right; we are the heirs of eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century humanitarianism and must solve our economic and demographic problems by methods less dreadfully reminiscent of recent totalitarian practice.

Because all the dirty work was done by slaves, they regarded every form of manual activity as essentially unworthy of a gentleman and in consequence never subjected their over-abstract, over-rational theories to the test of experiment; we have learned, or at least are learning, to think operationally. They despised “barbarians,” never bothered to learn a foreign language, and could therefore naively regard the rules of Greek grammar and syntax as the Laws of Thought; we have begun to understand the nature of language, the danger of taking words too seriously, the ever present need for linguistic analysis. They knew nothing about the past and therefore, in Cicero’s words, were like children. (Thucydides, the greatest historian of antiquity, prefaces his account of the Peloponnesian War by airily asserting that nothing of great importance had happened before his own time.)

We, in the course of the last five generations, have acquired a knowledge of humanity’s past extending back to more than half a million years and covering the activities of tribes and nations in every continent. They developed political institutions which, in the case of Greece, were hopelessly unstable and, in the case of Rome, were only too firmly fixed in a pattern of aggressiveness and brutality; but what we need is a few hints on the art of creating an entirely new kind of society, durable but adventurous, strong but humane, highly organized but liberty-loving, elastic, and adaptable. In this matter Greece and Rome can teach us only negatively—by demonstrating, in their divergent ways, what not to do.

From all this it is clear that a classical education in the humanities of two thousand years ago requires to be supplemented by some kind of training in the humanities of today and tomorrow. The Progressives profess to give such a training; but surely we need something a little more informative, a little more useful in the vertiginously changing world of ours, than courses in present-day consumer economics and current job information.

But even if a completely adequate schooling in the humanities of the past, the present, and the foreseeable future could be devised and made available to all, would the aims of education, as distinct from factual and theoretical instruction, be thereby achieved? Would the recipients of such an education be any nearer to the goal of self-realization?

The answer, I am afraid, is, No. For at this point we find ourselves confronted by one of those paradoxes, which are of the very essence of our strange existence as amphibians inhabiting, without being completely at home in, half a dozen almost incommensurable worlds—the world of concepts and the world of data, the objective world and the subjective, the world of personal consciousness and the world of the unconscious.

Where education is concerned, the paradox may be expressed in the statement that the medium of education, which is language, is absolutely necessary, but also fatal; the subject matter of education, which is conceptualized accumulation of past experience, is indispensable, but also an obstacle to be circumvented. “Existence is prior to essence.” Unlike most metaphysical propositions, this slogan of the existentialists can actually be verified.

“Wolf children,” adopted by animal mothers and brought up in animal surroundings, have the form of human beings, but are not human. The essence of humanity, it is evident, is not something we are born with; it is something we make or grow into. We learn to speak, we accumulate conceptualized knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, we imitate our elders, we build up fixed patterns of thought and feeling and behavior, and in the process we become human, we turn into persons.

But the things which make us human are precisely the things which interfere with self-realization and prevent understanding. We are humanized by imitating others, by learning their speech, and by acquiring the accumulated knowledge which language makes available. But we understand only when, by liberating ourselves from the tyranny of words, conditioned reflexes, and social conventions, we establish direct, unmediated contact with experience.

Read Part 2.

The Psalms of David
May 1, 2002
Knowledge and Understanding – Part 2
July 1, 2002
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Knowledge and Understanding – Part 1