Tuesday, June 8, 2010


What is the use of understanding? How can increasing my understanding of issues help me?Increasing your understanding of anything will help you: if you are an engineer, you will need to understand how metals behave under stress; if you are a doctor, you need to understand what causes illness; if you are a teacher, you need to understand how students learn.

Understanding is basic to human existence. It is through developing our understanding that we have moved on from being cave dwellers to landing on the Moon.

The world in which we live is replete with issues: life is an issue; the Earth’s survival is an issue – perhaps the biggest issue we have ever had to try to understand.

To live is to understand; those that do not understand do not live life to the full. Of course, nobody can understand everything; in many ways, specialists do our thinking and our understanding for us, particularly in the world of the physical sciences, technology and medicine.

It has been said that if an ancient Greek engineer were to be shown a computer, he would be totally perplexed – both in what it was capable of doing and how it did it. If, on the other hand, a philosopher from the same period of time were to listen to our discussion on a subject such as, let us say, justice, or democracy, freedom or coercion, he would be able to freely and intelligently converse with us and make us think.

Why is this so? Is it because the physical sciences – maths, physics, chemistry, biology etc have moved on whilst the humanities – philosophy, psychology, sociology and the like have not? Well, it is partly because the sciences have moved on so much as they obviously have, but it is also because the issues that beset the philosopher, the psychologist, or the sociologist are sufficiently intractable – impervious to a full understanding in ways that physics is not, that the humanities have changed but little over the millennia.

So why bother understanding issues in the humanities? If they resist our full and absolute comprehension, why even try to understand them?

The answer is in the question; it is precisely because these issues – such as justice, free will, democracy, and freedom are so complex that they we find them so fascinating. Perhaps it is because there are few absolutely right answers and few absolutely wrong ones either; there are only answers that are considered ones, and those that are ill-considered, or not even based upon any consideration at all.

Examination results can bear this out; in a physics exam at university, it is possible, though improbable, for a student to get 100%, and for another to get 0%, whilst in an examination of a philosophical subject, it is extremely unlikely that students will get scores at either extreme of the marking scale. Rather, they will get moderately high marks, if they have written a considered answer, or a relatively low one if their answer takes little or no account of the contributions of various thinkers and writers, or else if they have misunderstood the question completely and turned in a paper that is largely irrelevant.

It has been said that learning is facilitated, not by the provision of answers, but by the ability to ask questions. Questions move us on to other questions. To ask a valid question in a debate on freedom, or justice, or democracy, is to have understood the nature of the debate and its progression, as well as to have a working knowledge of terms in the discipline.

Universities teach students to think – to formulate questions, as much, if not more than they do in providing students with answers. An answer – a fact, invites a full stop, whereas a question invariably invites another question.

The point is that it is in the formulating of questions as well as in their answers that knowledge of a particular issue becomes apparent; the questioner must frame his question in such a way that it cannot be dismissed as a triviality, or answered in a second with Yes or No.

The question; its wording, and the point it seeks to tease out of the interlocutor will indicate that the asker has knowledge of his topic – a particular piece of legislation and its effects and implications, its shortfalls and its inadequacies, for example. It is in the forming of questions that a person illustrates the depth of understanding of a topic.

The answer may be an ill-considered one; it may contain untruths, a lack of logic or an ignorance of the issues, or all of these. If it does so, we would be right in calling it an incorrect answer. If, however, the points made are good ones – considered, taking others’ opinions into account, we may say that this answer is a fuller, more complete one and hence a more valid argument.

Understanding such issues from the worlds of philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics, political economy and the like has invaluable lessons to teach all of us.

In particular, for the student at university, as well as the layman, the ability to reason one’s way through issues in such areas provides practice in the following areas.

General problem-solving
Whenever you want to solve a problem, it is essential to think clearly: to define the problem, analyze concepts and arguments, and then decide, rationally, what you think. Understanding arguments and debates will help you to think more clearly. Listening and understanding to what is being said is an important skill, but you need to practice. Reading is another skill that gets better the more you do it. Understanding is enhanced and increased by reading to different arguments about them, and then synthesizing your own point of view.

Communication skills
In order to communicate effectively and clearly, you need to be able to martial your thoughts. This means being able to think before you speak, which may sound simple, as we do it every day of our lives. However, there is a great deal of difference between engaging in general conversation and debating. In the latter, clarity of expression and meaning is of paramount importance; arguments can be lost because of a lack of clarity or a subtle difference in the meanings of words used. Reading well constructed arguments and thinking about them will help you to think more clearly and communicate your thoughts more effectively.

Persuasive powers
The so called ‘art of persuasion’ can be learned. Again clear thinking and rational argument help you persuade others of the truth or credibility of your arguments and points of view. Working through complex arguments in a systematic and thorough manner will provide you with the verbal dexterity to express yourself clearly and purposefully and hence persuade others that your point of view is nearer the truth.

Writing skills
The ability to think clearly and precisely is at the heart of writing well, whether you are undertaking comparative writing; in which you are asked to evaluate alternative positions, writing argumentative essays; persuading your reader that a particular point of view is valid, or descriptive writing; in which you provide concrete examples to reinforce your argument. Clarity of thinking, developed here will assist you in writing concisely, which is vital in any written communication.

Understanding other disciplines
Studying any discipline requires that you ask questions of the subject, to yourself and to your tutors, in order to understand the subject more fully. Developing this important attribute is made possible by reading and reacting to complex arguments in texts. Facts can be remembered, but questioning must be learnt and developed, and consequently does not come immediately. Reading texts such as the ones here will help you formulate questions to ask yourself and others, and will greatly assist in your understanding of any disciplines you turn to.

Development of sound methods of research and analysis
When thinking about the issues set out here, you will be forced to form questions – to begin your thoughts by asking, ‘What if…?’ and then attempting to provide experimental answers that we call hypotheses, to be tried and tested. Formulating such hypotheses – experimental answers to delve deeper into a problem is the basis of research in all disciplines.

Robert L. Fielding

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