Chapter 2

Is understanding a distinctive act?

Nevertheless, if we are going to establish that the human soul is spiritual, the burden of proof is on us, just as it was when we tried to show that consciousness was not a form of energy. If something can be explained on a lower level, then Occam's Razor says that that is the preferred explanation.(1)

Of course, understanding and choosing are clearly conscious acts, and so they are at least immaterial; so our investigation is whether they are some complex combination of sense acts, or whether they are acts different from any of the sensations we discussed, what they entail, and whether such an act can have an energy-"dimension" at all. If this last point can be established, then understanding and choosing are spiritual acts, which means that there is no faculty for them as such, and also that the human soul is somehow spiritual.

Note that I am not setting out to establish this; what I meant just above is that if an honest investigation demands that the act of understanding be a spiritual act, then we will not let a priori prejudice that it can't be make us distrust the argument. Being critical is one thing; doubting when there is no evidence on your side is, as I have stressed so often, something else.

Simply to be clear about what I am talking about, let me say that the characteristic of understanding is that it is what results in generalized concepts, such as are expressed by the words "face," "triangle," "liberty," "nothingness," and so on. While we may have sensations (perceptions or at least images) of individual faces, it is open to question, at least, whether we have a sensation that could correspond to the meaning of "face" as such, or whether what we mean by "nothingness" or "liberty" is some sensation or combination of sensations.

Let me remark here that I am taking "meaning" above in its usual sense, and not in the sense some linguistic philosophers seem to take it: that it is the same as "usage." There is a very subtle difference between the two. For instance, "feces" and "shit" mean the same thing, but usage decrees that one cannot be substituted for the other, except perhaps when speaking ironically (showing by shock the euphemistic nature of the context in the one case and stressing the vulgarity of the context in the other).

Nor is "meaning" the same as "reference." Aristotle is referring to the same thing I am referring to when he speaks of "soul," but he does not mean what I mean by the term. One of the things I am doing in this book, in fact, is giving traditional old terms a new meaning by taking a different approach to understanding what the old term refers to.

In the process of eliminating the possibility that understanding can be a sensation, however complex, we will see what it must be to give us general ideas of things, and this will allow us to say what "meaning" means. But for now, I have to rely on your common understanding of "understanding," "concept," and "meaning."

In discussing what is entailed in understanding, let us take the word "face" as our example. What we are after is whether there is any candidate in sensation that can be the meaning of this word for us, such that it is what mentally substitutes for it, and what we try to call up in the other person's consciousness when we say the word.

First of all, is the meaning of the word "face" the collection of all the faces we have seen? This is the nominalist position. What this view holds is that, presumably in some area of our imagination, we have stored all the faces we have encountered, and all the word "face" does is point to this area of the brain, without conjuring up one image from it. On this view, the word "face" means (points toward) any or all faces we have encountered, while "George's face" would mean (and therefore, call up) the definite image from this collection that belongs on the image we recall by hearing the word "George."

This might explain why "George" doesn't mean anything, but only points. That is, the Greek word geourgos, which is what "George" is English for, means "farmer"; but no one who uses my first name is thinking "farmer Blair"; it is simply a tag to point to me verbally, and it precisely means nothing at all as such.(2) What this view of concepts and words says is that proper names have no meaning because they don't point to an area where there is a collection of images, but to one single image; while common words have meaning because they point to an area and not a definite image.

The trouble with nominalism is that we can use words analogously, where we know that there is a common core of meaning, but that there is no clear referent to make a collection of images. For instance, we speak of the face of a dog, the face of a clock, or the face of a cliff. If you say the word "face" to someone and ask him to draw a face, it will invariably be a human face, not a dog's. One could argue, perhaps, that dog's faces are stored in an adjacent area, and you simply expand the collection to include them. But what do you do with the face of a cliff? Why would the precipitous side of a cliff "belong" in a collection with human and animal faces?

But then why do we call the precipitous side the cliff's "face"? Obviously, because we consider it the front of the cliff, and we think of the face of an animal as being on its front.(3)

For the same reason we can talk about the "face" of a playing card as opposed to its "back," even when the "face" doesn't have a picture of a person on it (as a "face card" does). But how are you going to add this to your collection of faces? No, you would have to put on a very bold face to say that this theory stands up in the face of these examples.

That is, you can see how these usages of the word are connected with what is mainly referred to by "face." "Face" as "front side" is fairly obvious, once it is pointed out. To "put a face on" something probably comes from what someone does in making up a face that is less than perfect so that it appears more beautiful; my wife, in fact refers to making herself up as "putting on her face." And "in the face of" means "confronting" or "coming at you"--which if it were an animal would mean that its face would be the first thing to stand in front of you.

So there is a common core of meaning; but you don't get it from collections of objects referred to unless you see what the connection is among the objects. Simply presenting a person with faces of humans and animals and all the front sides of things that we call faces, as well as polished surfaces (also sometimes called the "face" of the object) or the part of a type slug that has the letter on it and so on and so on would simply cause confusion. You have to point out what all these objects have in common or how they are related to each other before you understand how the term "face" can apply to each of them.

So the understanding of the meaning of "face" does not come from just the collection itself; you only understand when you know what the relationship is among all the objects in the collection.

In fact, unless you can establish some connection among objects, there is no way you can consider them as a collection or a set. True, our brains do some automatic classification this way, but unless what underlies the classification is consciously recognized, then the result is confusion, not understanding, and the word in question does not mean anything to us. That is, show a person a collection of objects and tell him that they are all "shibboleths," and until he sees the connection, he won't know what "shibboleth" means. We will see something like this shortly. Hence, the mere pointing to a collection is not understanding.

If this is true of a collection of objects, it is even more true of what some people have hypothesized as the meaning of a term: the generalized image we form of certain things like faces. Just as a camera can take double exposures, our imagination, storing images, can store generalized images--so that when we hear the word "face" we can actually picture a generalized, blurry type of face. "Imagine a face," someone says. We have no trouble doing so. The outlines are not defined, but the eyes, nose (of indeterminate shape) and mouth are in the right places, and there is something of hair on the head and a chin on the bottom. The image we have is more or less what would occur on the film of a camera if you photographed a hundred people's faces on the same frame.

The theory that this is what the meaning of face is says that what is done is then to fit the new percept into the generalized image, and if it more or less matches, then it is a face. This again would work with human faces and might with animal faces (though it is hard to see how the face of a fly would fit the generalized image of a face). But there is no way you could fit the face of a cliff or the face of a card into the image of a face; they don't look like one at all; and there would be no way you could use the word "face" in the phrase "in the face of" if you had to fit confronting a difficulty into the generalized image you have of a face.

Again, it is easy to see how they "fit" if you know how they are related to the primary sense of "face," which is what we make a generalized image of. That is, I am not trying to deny that we have generalized images, and that we can match them up with what is referred to by at least the primary sense of general terms. But these generalized images obviously have nothing to do with analogous uses of the terms, because they don't look like them at all. To use perhaps a clearer example, our generalized image of "triangle" is that of an equilateral triangle resting on its base. But then how does a "love triangle" fit this: three people with various love/hate relations with each other? Obviously, we "draw" emotional "lines" between the pairs of people, and after we have done this, we find something that has three "points" connected by three "lines." But emotional relationships don't look like lines between people; it is only after you have understood that any relationship can be represented by a line that you can now construct an imaginary triangle here. The point is that the understanding doesn't come from the image; the image is subsequent to the understanding.

So those two lines (note the analogous use of the word) of explanation don't work, because they won't even represent understanding without our knowing the relationships involved; and that is different from simply being a collection or a generalized image.

Well then, can't understanding then simply be an association of images? This is a connection, and it seems that you understand when you see the connection. Bertrand Russell held this; in one of his books, he tells the story of giving his young son bread and calling it "bread," and then giving him a triangular piece and calling it "triangle." Then when they were walking outside, the boy looked at the triangular-shaped pavement and said, "triangle." Russell concludes that he associated the name with the shape.

But when you think about it, it isn't really all that simple. What made him pick out the shape to associate with the new word? Obviously, only the shape was new, and so it is what must go with the new word. But this is a reasoning process, not just a simple association. No, it is one thing to connect objects; it is another thing altogether to know what the connection is.

To illustrate this, take the pictures below:

What is the relationship among all these?

You will notice that you can find any number of different relationships, the more you consider the pictures. For instance, they are all pictures, they are all computer-drawn, they are all on the page, they are all computer-generated, they are all black-and-white, they are beside each other and not above each other, they are all of material objects, they are all smaller than mountains, they are all objects whose names in English begin with "B," etc., etc. Which of these relationships is the "right" one? Actually, what I had in mind when I chose them was the last; but there isn't a relationship among these objects; they are related in an infinity of possible ways.

And the point is that as you look at them, they are all connected or associated in your consciousness; but the mere fact that they are associated doesn't tell you what the connection is, and you don't understand until you see what some relationship is. If you studied the pictures and were confused before you found some relationship, then you clearly see now that understanding is something beyond mere association.

In fact, when psychologists are trying to find emotional disturbances in people, they sometimes give them "free association" tests, where the person is supposed to say the first thing that pops into his head on being confronted with an image or a word. There, the patient is not supposed to think, but simply make the association; if he thinks, he will give the response that is logically demanded, not the image that follows from the one presented by the path of least resistance. Hence, the understanding of the relationship is something distinct from merely associating the images in question.

Of course, if my theory about instinct is correct, then if understanding were an association of images, it would be conscious as an emotion, not the "cold" kind of abstract idea we seem to have when we know the meaning of something.

Furthermore, if understanding were an association of images and/or perceptions, then how could we get negative concepts, especially specific negative ones like "not as black as"? I look at pages printed by my old dot-matrix printer (which used a fabric ribbon) and the ones printed by my new laser printer, and I understand that the words from the old printer are not as black as those from the new one.

Let us analyze this for a moment to see if it makes sense to say that it is an association. Calling understanding an association must mean that the two images are connected; and the connection would then be what has to "pick out" the definite aspect by which the two are connected. For example, the two pages are both the same size and shape, they both have words on them. As I understand each of these concepts, then this would mean that I connect them three times, one along the "size" route of the nerves in my brain, one along the "shape" and one along the route that is the "words on it" connection.

But a negative concept, on this showing, would have to be a non-connection, or a disjuction. On this view, there is no pathway joining the two images. Then (a) how can both of them be in my consciousness at the same time, and (b) how can I recognize that this image is not connected to that definite other one? If it's not connected, it's not connected to anything it's not connected to. How does my consciousness pick out the definite other one that I now understand it to be unrelated to?

You might say that I tried to make a connection and failed, and the failure corresponds to the negative concept. But the problem here is that unless I establish somehow which other image I am going to try to connect, I can't try the connection and fail. But of course, the only way I could pick out some other image would be to connect the two.

Well then, suppose I do connect the two along some pathway where they are in fact connected (such as the "black" pathway). I then try to connect them along the "darkness" pathway and fail.

Now the problem is not how I pick out the two images, but how I pick out the pathway I want to connect them on out of the infinity of possible pathways they could be connected or disconnected on. I suppose you could say that I just happen to send energy out along this one pathway (which would translate into consciousness as the previous statement, "I wonder if they're the same shade.") and find out that I can't make a connection. This kind of thing happens in computers when the programmer wonders whether there is a link between two pieces of data, and the computer tries but can't find any. Here, however, there wouldn't be any "programmer," because in order to make a conscious trial, you would have to establish a connection first using this path; so here it must be random.

But "not as black as" still has a difficulty with it. They aren't the same shade, but each is black, and each is dark; they just aren't the same degree of darkness; one is really dark grey, and the other is black. Now I could recognize "dark grey" as another color from black, and fail to connect the two either along the black pathway or along the dark grey pathway. But that would result in my not being able to recognize that dark grey is in fact an unsaturated sort of blackness.

So when I understand that the two are black, but not the same degree of blackness, I simultaneously know that they are connected in blackness (and darkness), but are "unconnected" in the extent to which they have these characteristics. Do I have in my brain for each category a scale of degrees, for which I have the negative concept "not in the same place on the scale"? Because any concept would have to admit of some kind of gradation, since the sensations themselves have an energy-dimension, and the connecting would also be some kind of energy, with its quantity.

But even "not in the same place on the scale" as a negative concept is not so straightforward. Both are on the scale, and so they're connected in the path of "being on the scale of blackness." To recognize that they're not on the same place, I would now have to try to connect one image with the other by sending energy out along the pathway "place number 67.5 on the scale"; and this would mean for every distinguishable place on every scale of degrees of every aspect of every perception there would have to be a separate pathway for connecting images. For instance, the same would apply to "This blanket is not as soft as that one." Hence, only if there were all these distinct routes could you try and fail to connect the images and so come up with a negative concept.

And this is just a straightforward concept. Suppose we take what the sentence "John's car is not red" means when we know that it's true, not because we know what color John's car is (because he just went out to buy it), but because we know John refused to live in a red house, wear anything that has red in it, or even read a book with a red cover. The inference from these is that John hates the color red and won't have anything to do with it; and that is the basis of our knowledge that whatever color the car is, it isn't red. So here you are disconnecting John's car from the set of red objects along the "red" pathway. But it isn't that you tried and failed to connect them (because you haven't seen John's car yet, and you don't know what it looks like); you know beforehand that there isn't a connection, not because of some previous trial to connect an imaginary car to a set of colored objects, but because of what you know about John's character. That is, since this is the result of a reasoning process, the actual route from John's car to "not-red" is through the character, not an attempt at connection that failed. Here the connected disconnection is made by a route that isn't even the pathway they aren't connected on.

And even with affirmative concepts, like the pictures above being all "B"-objects, look at what the connection would have to be like. In order to understand this, you would have to say the names of the objects to yourself in English, then notice that the words all began with the same letter (here's the real connection, though in Spanish, for instance, it wouldn't work: nene, chico, omnibus, venda or "curitas") and then connect the pictures along the "pathway" of "having names that begin with the same letter." Really, now! This would have to mean that for every image there is such a pathway; and so if we notice that they aren't B-objects in Spanish, this means that we tried to connect them along the "having names that begin with the same letter" path going by the Spanish route and failed. This of course would mean that we have a distinct pathway for each letter for each language we know (and presumably all the ones we can later learn, because these have to be built in somehow) by which the words are connected, and another pathway by which the objects can be connected based on whether their names are connected along a given one of these paths or not.

Finally, notice that this business of connecting the images along a given pathway would have to entail also that we know what the pathway is. This in itself would be no problem, if the connecting act is immaterial, with a conscious "dimension"; but the conscious "dimension" of the act of connecting is, as I said, an emotion, not understanding what the connection is. The emotion connects, and the connecting is conscious, but it is not conscious as a connection; it is an attitude toward the object in question. Your hostility toward John doesn't tell you what it is in his face that makes you want to punch it; it doesn't pick out the precise aspect of John and see how it is related to something else.

For all these reasons, then, it seems safe to say that understanding can't be just a collection of objects, nor a generalized image, nor even an association of images, however complex. In fact, the more complex and indirect the relation understood, the less likely it is that it would be a connection.

So we can draw our first conclusion of this section:

Conclusion 1: Understanding is a distinct act of consciousness, different from sensation.

And our investigation will now allow us to define it, and also say in a preliminary way what "meaning" means:

Understanding is the act by which we are conscious of what the relationship is among parts of a given sensation.

The meaning of a sentence or word is the act of understanding that it is calculated to awaken in the hearer's or reader's mind.

The reason for the last phrase in the first definition is that even an association of images has to have both images in consciousness at the same time in order to be conscious of the relation between them; but this means that in fact there is only one polymorphous act of consciousness, and the two "images" are in fact parts or aspects of the same act.

As to meaning, we have seen so far that words like "George Blair" can point, without meaning. What such words do is call to mind an image or set of images for the hearer to use as the basis of understanding, and then something meaningful is said about these words. Thus, "George Blair is a philosopher" means as a sentence that this man has what makes him the same as other philosophers, and "philosopher" as a word means doing things like trying to find the evidence dealing with what life is all about.

But we will discuss words and their meanings a little later. Suffice it for now that the "meaning" of anything is "what is understandable" about it, and this has something to do with what relations it has, internally or with other things.



1. Why this should be so is something that we will discuss later, when we talk about science, and why scientific method works.

2. American Indians, they tell me, used to wait until a person had grown up and established his character, and then they would give him a name that represented the kind of person he was. Also, the "new name" that is (in Revelation) promised to one who has "won the victory" presumably will be something that expresses the essence of that person and does not merely point to him. In this life now, at least, the name is really just a pointer, without any meaning, just as "this" is.

3. Notice, by the way, that the word "front" here is also being used analogously; there is no particular reason why the more sloping side of the hill couldn't be called the "front" and the precipitous side the "back."