Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Knowledge is not understanding, unless it is

"Knowledge is not understanding"

Sounds profound, dunnit? Or, like Chesterton's quip that the problem with capitalism is that there are too few capitalists, is it an aphorism that doesn't stand up to scrutiny?*

SPOILER:  it's meaningless

Knowledge and understanding are synonymous but not identical. For instance, saying:

I know John (as in "do you know John?") is different from I understand John (as in "do you know why John does what he does?"). The implication is that knowledge is superficial whereas understanding is deeper.

But the roles can be reversed.

I know John, (as in "How do you know he will be late?"). The knowledge here is greater than mere recognition. Similarly I understand him as in "Can anyone make out what John is saying?" is very superficial.

Ultimately the difference between knowledge and understanding is contextual and inconsistent which makes the phrase "knowledge is not understanding" rather particular. Depending on emphasis, knowledge and understanding in the context of bike riding can be the same contra Destin Sandlin. They can be different and saying I know how to ride a bike implies a deeper - experiential - knowledge than I understand how to ride a bike.

So knowledge can be understanding, unless it isn't. The phrase is meaningless. It's something Jack Handey might say, but it isn't even entertaining. "Knowledge is not understanding" is wrong, but does not redeem, as Chesterton and Voltaire do, in wit. "Knowledge is not understanding" is worse than trivial because trivial information is at least true.

I guess what I'm getting at is that pothead philosophy is bad, mmkay? 

* I've had a number of arguments with distributists on this matter. They abhor the concentration of capital and are for decentralization of authority (subsidiarity) but don't realize that increasing the number of capitalists requires strongly authoritarian practices and greater centralization. The societal ideal for distributists is one where workers own the means of production. A typical contrast might be the capitalist system where a worker goes to work at a furniture factory. They don't own any of the equipment whereas in the distributist system, the worker would own the tools needed for their livelihood. The advantage, presumably, is that the worker's livelihood is no longer dependent on a factory owner.

The disadvantage is that there is less choice and more risk for a worker. So you bought all this woodworking equipment but the rage is plastic or metal furniture? Too bad. Maybe you want to switch to metalworking but would rather rent the equipment rather than buy. Or maybe you would even want to just do the work but not rent or own the equipment. But that's the scenario distributism is meant to avoid. How would a distributist society avoid that? Ban people from doing that the same way people who are want to work for under $15/hour won't be allowed to in Seattle because it's for their own good.

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