Understanding "understanding"

Updated: Oct 7

A client told me of a recent visit to her pediatrician's office. The pediatrician told her youngster what he was about to do and what he needed from the child. When the child's mother told the physician that her child didn't understand what he said, he responded by saying, "Children on the spectrum really understand everything that is said to them".

To say that children on the spectrum "understand" everything that is said to them, is now commonly believed. But perhaps, before we accept this statement, we should consider what we mean when we use the term 'understanding'.


To understand something is akin to an ability. If I understand calculus, I will be able to solve differential equations. My understanding is manifest in what I do. If I pass my calculus exam, my teacher says that I "understand" calculus. I am able to 'show' that I understand it. If a teacher tells a child to touch their nose, to get their coat or put their cup on the chair next to the window, the child shows that they understand what was said when they do it. Every child I've ever worked with generally shows alacrity in doing things requested of them once they learn what is means to follow specific requests; how to perform the actions; once they 'understand' what is required of them. Most children I've worked with are only to happy to cooperate, once it's clear what is expected.


Furthermore, my ability remains whether or not I perform a calculation at an given moment...for even when I sleep my ability remains...but it can only be said that I have an ability once demonstrated...


Understanding does not reside in the brain... for if it did...where will it be found... for it has no substance. Nor does it reside in the mind...for the mind is simply an array of abilities (Hacker, 2013) and does not consist of anything. Understanding is not a "mental state"... Since states have levels of intensity...it makes no sense that my understanding is more intense today than it was yesterday. States can be interrupted but it makes no sense that my understanding was interrupted in the middle. States lend themselves to the form of the words "in a state of"... (Hacker 2013) but it makes no sense to say "I was in a state of understanding". Understanding is not a process either... since a process has duration... is clockable...can be interrupted and resumed...if it were a process, we'd be able to say "my understanding of calculus was interrupted, but it picked it up later".


But to hold such beliefs is misguided and helps no one. It distorts the phenomenon (Hacker, 2013) Understanding a word is an ability to use it in certain ways for certain purposes, just as knowing how to play chess is knowing how to move the pieces within the rules of chess in pursuit of the goal of winning; in both cases, a technique is mastered." (L. Wittgenstein, unpublished, cited in Wittgenstein's Nachlass). Understanding in language consists of being able to explain what the uttered sentence meant or at least to be able to respond to it appropriately. To use the term "understanding", to ascribe the term "understanding" absent anything manifest violates the conventions for the use of the term... and strips the term of all meaning leading to utter confusion.


Our job is to help children to "understand"...by seeing to it that they respond to and use words, gesture and expressions appropriately... We need to analyze what it takes to be able to do something (what constituents are involved and if necessary, how they are synthesized) and how to arrange things so that learning occurs and understanding is manifest. Once learned and manifest, only then can we say, someone "understands". Let's bring sense back into our understanding about 'understanding'.


BIT BY BIT Alan