January 06

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 – which is all of us.

Experience is the knowing of things. It is exactly what appears to our senses precisely as it is 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 something. We can deny our understanding and conclusions about of our experience, but we can’t deny 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 the bare mental picture of the room fills out with a contextual understanding about the room. Suddenly 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 staircase that will take you to the main floor of the house and you remember that your brother is sleeping in a room across the hall. 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 is intuitive knowing. It is the self evident knowing that isn’t derived from rational deduction. It is directly perceived pure awareness. Understanding is the knowing-about-things that is contained in explanations, interpretations and logic.

William James recognized a similar 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. By experience peirce meant the direct perception of our senses and he included the direct knowing of intuition in that. Understanding was the knowing-about-things- that we spoke about above. The third fundamental element in Peirce’s evolutionary philosophy could be called essence or existence. It is the fact of being prior to any experience at all.

According to Peirce all of reality has evolved through the interaction of essence, experience and understanding. Off course these common words have common meanings, which did not capture Peirce’s meaning of them, so he made up the terms Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness to name his three elements of evolution.

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.

In order to truly exist in any real sense all Being and Experiencing must be ‘known’ and the understanding 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.