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From the book Les, Z. and Les, M. (2008) Shape Understanding System: The First Steps toward the Visual Thinking Machines. Berlin, Springer:


When the existing knowledge based systems are build based on the results of the scientific discoveries in the domain of psychology, cognitive science, computer science or AI, our approach, presented in this book, is based on the results of philosophical investigations of such thinkers as Locke, Berkeley, or Kant.


Understanding and Philosophy

Understanding appears as the result of the thinking process. Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, a situation or a message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object. In order to understand and solve a problem there is a need to engage thinking process. However, in some cases thinking does not lead to understanding. Understanding means knowing what is meant or intended by an utterance, a gesture or a situation. Using an operational or behavioral definition of understanding, we can say that somebody who reacts appropriately to Y understands Y. For example, I understand English if I correctly obey commands given in that language. This approach, however, may not provide an adequate definition. A computer can easily be programmed to react appropriately to simple commands.


Understanding is closely related to cognition and in many cases both terms have very similar meaning. For example, in the cognitive model the process of introverted thinking is thought to represent understanding through cause and effect relationships or correlations. One can construct a model of a system by observing correlations between all the relevant properties.


Understanding is often thought of as a special kind of seeing [1]. In common language very often instead of statement “I understand” people say “I see”. Also thinkers pointed out into connection between seeing and understanding. For example, Plato described the grasping of the forms or ideas as a kind of vision - our mental eye (onus, reason) [2]. The eye of the soul is endowed with intellectual intuition and can see an idea, an essence, and an object that belongs to the intelligible world. Once we have managed to see it, to grasp it, we know this essence and we can see it in the light of truth.


One aspect of thinking and understanding is the acquisition and utilization of knowledge in order to explain the world and to perform complex tasks. Another one is connected with application of knowledge in the problem solving process. Some people believe that knowledge is the simple awareness of bits of information and understanding is the awareness of the connectedness of this information. However, it is thinking during understanding process which allows knowledge to be put in use. In order to be able effectively utilize the knowledge during solving the difficult problems subject need to have well developed problem-solving skills. Problem-solving skills comprise wide range of competencies such as the capacity to understand problems situated in novel settings, to identify relevant information, to represent possible alternatives or solutions, to develop solution strategies, and to solve problems and communicate the obtained results.


It is understanding that sets man above the rest of sensible beings, and gives him all the advantage and dominion which he has over them. Understanding appears as the result of the thinking process and can be the object of the scientific inquires. Locke has no doubt that understanding can be studied like anything else: “we can observe its object and the ways in which it operates upon them” he wrote. Understanding that is often thought of as cognition involves processes such as learning, problem solving, perception, intuition, and reasoning, and requires abilities such as intelligence. Understanding that is based on knowledge is often connected with interpretation or disclosing meaning of the language and the concept is the key element of understanding process.


Understanding and thought were topics of many philosophical thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley, Leibnitz or Gadamer and were regarded in the context of the origins of human knowledge. The traditional Augustinian theory explained the cognition as the result of a divine illumination and was based on innate ideas. This Neo-Platonic view was that an essence of created things was 'participations' of the divine essence. God, in contemplating them, does nothing but contemplate Himself. According to Aquinas, the direct object of human intellectual knowledge is the form abstracted from matter, which is the principle of individuation, and known through the universal concept. The senses apprehend the individual thing but the mind apprehends it only indirectly, as represented in an image or phantasm. There is no intellectual intuition of the individual thing as such. Scotus discarded the traditional Augustinian-Franciscan theory of a special divine illumination and held, with Aquinas, that Aristotelian doctrine of the abstraction of the universal can explain the genesis of human knowledge without it being necessary to invoke either innate ideas or a special divine illumination.


The fundamental principles of Locke's thought concerning understanding are presented in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690). This essay was the culmination of twenty years of Lock’s reflection on the origins of human knowledge. The Essay is divided into four books; the first is a polemic against the doctrine of innate principles and ideas. The second deals with ideas, the third with words, and the fourth with knowledge. Lock did not distinguished between cognition and understanding. According to Locke, what we know is always properly understood as the relation between ideas. He devoted much of the Essay to an extended argument that all of our ideas—simple or complex—are ultimately derived from experience. The consequence of this empiricist approach is that our knowledge is severely limited in its scope and certainty. Our knowledge of material substances, for example, depends heavily on the secondary qualities by reference to which we name them, while their real inner natures derive from the primary qualities of their insensible parts.


Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding appeared in 1748. The central themes of the book are that very little of what we think we know can actually be derived from any idea that there are actual necessary connections between observed phenomena. We assume that certain things are connected just because they commonly occur together, but a genuine knowledge of any connection is mere habit of thought. So, a severe scepticism is the only rational view of the world. Hume’s investigations into human understanding lead him to doubts. He asks on what grounds we base our judgments and investigate their rational justification. Finding certain inconsistencies in our normal procedures, for instance, that our belief in necessary connection is not rationally justified, Hume is led to a kind of consequent doubt of our mental faculties.


Descartes claimed that "natural light" of understanding is a faculty created by God [46]. We come to know not only created eternal truths but uncreated truth: that God exists, that God is not a deceiver, that God is immutable, a necessary being, causa sui. But God is not subject to the limits of our understanding, and we only have access to these uncreated truths through a faculty given to us by Him. If our understanding seeks some unconditional verification of God's existence and truthfulness, through means outside the scope of God's creative will, it seeks in vain. Descartes initiates a critique of the understanding itself. It is immediately aimed at "eternal truths", that is, mathematical truths which for Descartes are properly truths of the understanding.


According to Kant understanding as a one of the higher faculties of knowledge, in general, can be defined as the faculty of rules. Ideas, as Kant argues in the Transcendental Dialectic, are a priori concepts whose source lies in pure reason alone. Their only legitimate theoretical use is to regulate the understanding's cognition of objects: reason sets down the conditions under which the understanding's activity will have achieved its ideal completion in the systematic interconnection of its cognitions, i.e., in an ultimate science. Reason thereby offers the understanding of a rule against which any actually achieved system of science must be measured. Because human finitude makes it impossible in principle for any actual system to attain the ideal maximum, reason also spurs the understanding on towards ever new discoveries and reorganizations.


Natorp claims that the directedness towards a goal is implied by “method” that illuminates one of two senses in which his philosophy is idealistic, namely that science (and the other activities of culture) are guided by regulative ideas or limit-concepts. Given an object of scientific cognition, the cognition is conceived as a process never “definitively concluded,” but rather, “every true concept is a new question, none is a final answer”. Natorp comments: “Just this is the meaning of the thing in itself as X: the infinite task”. In other words, the thing in itself is the ideal of an object exhaustively determined by concepts, that is, completely known. As with Kant, however, our cognitive finitude means that the process of conceptual determination can only approach this ideal asymptotically. This pursuit of total determination, what Natorp calls “method,” is the pursuit of science. The hypothesis as law or groundwork is for Natorp the transcendental foundation for scientific experience, i.e., for the activity of legislating and thus rationally understanding the phenomena.


Hermeneutics started to emphasize the role of language in understanding. In hermeneutics understanding is the inversion of a speech act, during which the thought which was the basis of the speech must become conscious. Every utterance has a dual relationship to the totality of the language and to the whole thought of its originator, then understanding also consists of the two moments, of understanding the utterance as derived from language, and as a fact in the thinker. Hermeneutics is the art of understanding particularly the written discourse of another person correctly. A central principle of Gadamer’s hermeneutics is that language conditions all understanding. The phenomenon of understanding shows the universality of human linguistically as a limitless medium which carries everything within it. Not only the ‘culture’ which has been handed down to us through language, but absolutely everything because everything is included in the realm of understanding. Theorists of language focus on the Mind/Language connection when they consider understanding to be the cornerstone concept, holding, for instance, that an account of meaning for a given language is simply an account of what constitutes the ability to understand it. Many philosophers such as Locke or Frege have been attracted to the view that understanding is a matter of associating the correct ideas or concepts with words. Others have equated understanding with knowing the requirements for accurate use of words and sentences. Wittgenstein finds the key to understanding in one’s ability to discern the communicative goals of speakers and writers, or more directly in one’s ability to ‘pass’ linguistically, without censure. Nietzsche puts forward the hypothesis that scientific concepts are chains of metaphors hardened into accepted truths. On this account, metaphor begins when a nerve stimulus is copied as an image, which is then imitated in sound, giving rise, when repeated, to the word, which becomes a concept when the word is used to designate multiple instances of singular events. Conceptual metaphors are thus lies because they equate unequal things, just as the chain of metaphors moves from one level to another. Hegel's problem with the repetition of the “this” and the “now” is thus expanded to include the repetition of instances across discontinuous gaps between kinds and levels of things. Today’s scientists, however, found the limitation of the linguistic theories. The power of a living language is exceeded by the power of our thinking. If we compare the power of a living language with the logical language then we will find that logic is even poorer. Therefore it seems to be impossible to guarantee a one-to-one mapping of problems and a model using a mathematical or logical language. It can be shown that it is very often extremely difficult to appropriately assign semantic contents to logical symbols.


Last updated: 20 July 2019


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You can download these books but not for a commercial purpose




Berkeley, G. Principles of Human Knowledge

Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind

Kant, E. Critique of Pure Reason

Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Hume, D. Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding

Leibnitz, G.W. New Essay on Human Understanding