Experience and Understanding

There are two kinds of knowing – experience and understanding – and the confusion between them is the cause of all sorts of trouble for any thinking person.

Experience is the knowing of things. It appears to our senses simply as what is there  without us doing anything. It is immediately and directly present to awareness with no mediating activity. Because it is immediate it cannot be denied. I can see a ghost in the attic and I can deny that it is a ghost – but I cannot reasonably deny that I saw it. We can only deny our understanding of our experience, not  the fact of having it.

Understanding is the knowing about things. It comes to us in the form of the inner language of thought. Did you ever go to sleep someplace other than your own bed and then wake up and not immediately remember where you are? For a few seconds you are disoriented. You are experiencing the room around you, but you do not have access to any understanding about the room. Inevitably you remember that you are in Aunt Jo’s guest room. Suddenly your mental picture fills out with a contextual understanding that surrounds your being in the room. Now you know a great deal about the room. You know that you are spending a weekend with your family. You remember that down the hall there is a stair case that will take you to the main floor of the house and that your brother is sleeping in a room  across the hall. Etc. Your experience ‘of’ the room is filled out with your understanding ‘about’ the room.

Ralph Waldo Emerson introduced this distinction into the American mind as the distinction between Reason and Understanding that he got from Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Reason was intuitive knowing. It was the self evident knowing that isn’t rational deduction but directly perceived pure awareness. Understanding is the knowing-about-things that is contained in explanations, interpretations and logic.

William James recognized this same distinction, but he felt that understanding was ultimately a special case of experiencing. After all, when you understand something you are having an experience of understanding. So for James the world was constructed of pure experience.

It was James’ colleague and lifelong friend Charles Sanders Peirce who would attempt to construct a comprehensive theory of evolution that rested on this very same distinction. Peirce’s theory explained the evolution of everything from only three basic building blocks, two were in essence experience and understanding to which he added a third – being.  All of reality has evolved through time in the interaction of being, experience and understanding. Off course these common words have common usages which do not capture Peirce’s meaning. So he made up the terms Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness to avoid confusion.

Firstness can be thought of as Being, Secondness as Experiencing, and Thridness as Understanding. Anything that exists is – and its ‘is-ness’ is its being;  this is Firstness. When anything comes into contact with anything else – when beings collide – there is an experience of impact or contrast; this is Secondness. Being and Experiencing are known and the understanding we have about anything is Thirdness.  From these fundamental building blocks Peirce created an image of cosmic evolution that began with a field of pure being and ended with a final experience of contact with all of the potential inherent in that the field of pure being. In between was the continual growth of understanding that lead to the final impact with pure being.