To Know You Is To Love You But Not To Understand You
July 24, 2011 4:28 PM   Subscribe

Help me wordsmith out the difference between the words know and understand. They seem to be used interchangeably but the meanings must be different. If you have words in languages other than Englosh that can clarify this difference, so much the better. It seems you can know something without understanding it, but can you understand without knowing?
posted by Xurando to Grab Bag (15 answers total)
You can certainly logic out how something works ("understand") without knowing if it is true or not.

You can understand how someone might feel without knowing if they do feel that way.

My (heh) understanding is that you know a fact and you understand a concept.
posted by maryr at 4:31 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know that you don't cross a road without looking first.
You understand that that is because a car or two might come.

German: wissen versus begreifen. Same story. You can know random facts, but you may understand only few of them. I understand that this is a poor explanation. I can't know that for sure, though.
posted by Namlit at 4:35 PM on July 24, 2011

I just saw a paper on whether one could know something without believing it.
posted by novalis_dt at 4:39 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

The words differ in both denotation and connotation. Consider a parent saying the following to a child:

"I know you've been having trouble in school."
"I understand you've been having trouble in school."

Here, the denotations are very similar. The emotional weight is different though. The former could be almost accusatory, as if the child has been witholding something.

The latter is more sympathetic, and sounds like "this is what I've heard through the grapevine, do you want to talk about it?"

Either could also be used when it's been a previous topic of discussion and is an established fact between parent and child.

From an epistemological perspective, I'd agree that we know facts, we understand ideas.
posted by adamrice at 4:49 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of people "know" E=mc^2. Very few people "understand" it.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:22 PM on July 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

This may in fact lead you further away from your goal but French has two different verbs for "know".

Nthing the facts vs. concepts answer above. You wouldn't say that you understand that two plus two equals four. What's to understand? In order to qualify to be understood, the thing in question has to be more difficult than that.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:40 PM on July 24, 2011

On Bloom's Taxonomy, understanding/comprehension is higher than knowledge/recall.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:50 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I suppose you could say that you know a "what" and understand a "why." That's simplistic, but gets to the heart of the difference. Language being what it is, though, both words cover a spectrum of meanings with some overlap.

In answer to your final question, most of us understand without knowing all the time. Our memories tend to be better with concepts than details. I understand what you asked, but I could not reproduce your question without scrolling up and looking at it again.
posted by Nothing at 5:51 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Most people know to throw salt over their left shoulder for "good luck" if they spill it - only a few people understand why they're doing it -- (because they're tossing it in the devil's eye).

Also, I know that there are two different ways to say "to be" in Spanish, ("ser" and "estar") but I don't understand when and why to use them (which is why I keep getting them mixed up).
posted by patheral at 5:53 PM on July 24, 2011

I know that there are two different ways to say "to be" in Spanish, ("ser" and "estar") but I don't understand when and why to use them

Heh. And here a fragment of Spanish 1 from high school floods back: "How you feel and where you are / always use the verb 'estar'."

More specific to the question, I'd also look at the Spanish verb distinction between 'saber' and 'conocer', which Wiktionary distinguishes conocer as "to know (a person or place); to be familiar with" and saber as "To know (a fact); to know how to do something; to taste". I'm sure a native speaker could explain that better than I could, but I would look into that as a valuable point.

Also, more epistemologically, I would look at the idea of knowledge as 'justified true belief' and whether or not that definition holds. Robert Nozick has some interesting thoughts in that direction.
posted by CrystalDave at 6:08 PM on July 24, 2011

"Saber" and "conocer" sound similar to the French verbs linked above, "savoir" and "connaître". Respectively, they mean to know a fact and to know a person. A better translation for connaître might be "to be familiar with". To know (savoir) a person essentially means to know them in the biblical sense - to know them completely, physically or as a fact, you might say. You know them by heart, like a book. (At least, I think that's very interesting.)

In French, the verb for understand is "comprendre" - which brings another confusing question into this. What is the difference (in English, of course) between understanding something and comprehending it?
posted by maryr at 6:29 PM on July 24, 2011

"Understand" has to do with comprehension. "Know" is more data-based. I "know" facts, I "understand" concepts.

But then you wander into the realm of personal acquaintance & you have to throw that definition out the window, because "knowing" another person suddenly has virtually nothing to do with data and becomes merely a function of "have we met?" with "met" consisting of differing levels of formal introduction varying by location and social structure.

Happily, "understanding" an acquaintance still lies in the realm of comprehension.

Getting back to understanding versus knowing: "Knowing" facts does not guarantee comprehension. It's sort of assumed that you understand the data you've taken in, but, well, that assumption can be & often is, faulty.

It is also possible to understand things without solid knowledge. I was recently on Jury duty. I understood the ramifications of what was being laid out for us, but there were limits to our ability to "know" what happened. Life does not always leave us with clear, empirical evidence. Because we did not "know" what had happened, we had to use our understanding of available facts laid out for us to make a decision.

Where facts fail us is where it gets confusing. You can "know" in your gut that something is true, even when the facts are not available/verifiable. It can be faith based, it can be a logical jump, it can be a whimsey that sticks. But basically, you can "know" something that is non-factual, simply because, at a cognitive level, that item has been tagged as true, much in the way that algebraic equations will state that X =6 and y = the square root of 15. It is just "known," for the time being, regardless of whether there are facts to support it.
posted by Ys at 6:32 PM on July 24, 2011

After all these very good answers the only thing I'd like to add is that you can 'know' something without 'understanding' it; but you will have a very difficult time 'understanding' something without knowing it first.
posted by schade at 3:00 AM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: Maybe nobody's done this yet because it seems too obvious, but let's go to the dictionary. It quickly becomes apparent that the two words, as you say, "seem to be used interchangeably but the meanings must be different" because they both have several different specific meanings, which are similar, and related, and some of which overlap. Where know and understand overlap in meaning, they can obviously be used interchangeably; for usages where they don't share a meaning, they can't be. In other languages, many of the several different specific meanings are covered by several different verbs, rather than the same one. But let's get specific. In many cases, the text of the definitions provided below is copied from but the examples and explanations are my own.

  • to be aware of the truth or factuality of; be convinced or certain of: I know the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo. This is the definition that most people have been mentioning here. It's used for facts. Its meaning is equivalent to "I know [x] is true." We could call this the "know that" usage: I know that 2+2=4 (is true); I know that she's your girlfriend! > In Spanish, this is saber: ¡Ya sé que ella es tu enamorada! > In Mandarin, this is 知道 (zhīdào): 我知道他是你的女朋友。
  • to have a practical understanding of: He knows how to cook; She knows four languages. This we could call the "know how" usage: its meaning relates to knowledge that one is able to put into action. IANAexpert on this, but it seems like the distinction between the kinds of knowledge represented by "know that" versus "know how to" relates to explicit versus implicit memory: when you remember the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo, that's explicit, specifically semantic, memory. When you remember how to ride a bike, that's implicit, specifically procedural, memory.) > In Spanish, this is also saber, but note that you don't need to add the "how": Él sabe cocinar, a construction that is not possible with verbs in English (*He knows cook.) > In Mandarin, this is often 会 (huì): 他会做饭,她会四种语言。
  • to be acquainted or familiar with: I know Sam, but not her husband. While the first two definitions above are similar to understand, this one isn't really. According to this usage, knowing Sam and understanding Sam are two very different things. But notice even here there's some ambiguity, especially when talking about knowing people: in one sense "I know her" is equivalent to "I have met her," as in the example above. But how about in the conversation below? "You know Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress?" -- "Yeah, sure... Well, I mean, I don't know her know her." -- "No, yeah, I know. I mean, I was just going to say, I heard she named her daughter 'Apple.'" -- "Really? Wow, crazy celebrities, huh?" Ambiguity has arisen between knowing (having met) someone and knowing of someone. (And let's not even get into the "Biblical" sense of knowing someone.) A similar problem can arise with other (non-person) entities: I know six David Bowie songs could mean you have practical knowledge of them (e.g., you can play them on the guitar, or sing them), or it could mean you know of them: if somebody asked you to name all the David Bowie songs you could think of, you'd be able to name six. (You might not be able to sing any of them.) We can think of this being equivalent to knowing who/what something is. (I know who Gwyneth Paltrow is, but I haven't met her. I know what six David Bowie songs are, but I can't sing them for you.) >In Spanish, this is going to be conocer: Conozco a ella, pero no a su marido. Note that in Spanish you can also use this verb with places: ¿Conoces Buenos Aires? , which in English we would translate to Have you been to Buenos Aires?, not Do you know Buenos Aires?<>, which is a weird sentence in English but would probably be taken to mean "know of," not "have met," as it basically means in Spanish. (If you've been there, I guess you've "met" the city.) Also note that conocer actually does means "meet" also (that is, meet somebody for the first time, not just "get together with"), which actually makes a lot of sense logically for those to be the same word, for meeting someone, and then for having met them. >In Mandarin, knowing a person is done with 认识 (rènshi), and like in Spanish, this also means meet (for the first time): 你认识他吗?;你们在哪里认识的?
  • to recognize as being the same as something previously known: I know this song! This is given as a separate definition in the dictionary, but it's pretty similar to the previous one. Its meaning is equivalent to I recognize this song or I have heard this song before. >In Spanish, I'm pretty sure this would also be conocer: ¿Conoces esta canción? >In Mandarin, I've run into this problem before and asked several native-speaker friends, and the only way I have come up with to say "I know this song!" (meaning you recognize it) is to say that you've heard it before: 我听过这首歌。Obviously the verb would change depending on whether you've seen/smelled/tasted the thing before instead of heard it.
  • to recognize the nature of; discern: I knew she was angry! You can kind of see how this is very similar to, but perhaps a little different from, the first definition (that is, simply having the knowledge that she was angry). Here, its meaning is equivalent to "I could tell she was angry!" >At least at my level of Spanish and Mandarin, which is still something short of a native speaker's, I would use the same words given in the first bullet above; the meaning is almost the same.
  • to have understanding of: For couples therapy to be successful, you must first know yourself and your partner. Here, it clearly doesn't mean "have met": you've obviously met your romantic partner, and having met yourself is either impossible or always true, I suppose, but it's not advice that you give someone. Here, know means, more or less exactly, understand, and in this usage, the two words are freely interchangeable. Another conversational example: "Do you know Maryann? She's been acting really cold to me lately. Do you have any idea what's going on?" -- "Yeah, I know her... But, I don't know, I don't really know her. I really only see her in class, so it's not like we get a lot of chances to really talk to each other." This is different from our Gwyneth Paltrow example: here the second speaker obviously has met Maryann, and knows her in that sense (as opposed to just knowing who she is), but just doesn't know her well; not well enough, we might say, to understand her. >In Spanish, I would use a word that is usually glossed as "understand" (entender; comprender): La conzoco, pero no la comprendo. >In Mandarin, the word 了解 (liǎojiě) is often used for this kind of situation. I would define it as having a "full knowledge" of something/someone, more or less equivalent to understanding then: 我完全了解你。This verb is different, then, from having met someone, knowing the truth of a fact, having heard a song before, or knowing how to do something. Lots of different words for lots of different meanings. In English, how are they all the same word?
  • to grasp the meaning of: I don't understand what you're saying This is different from knowing, then: you could know what someone said without understanding it. Again, there's some ambiguities here: if you don't understand what someone said, maybe you didn't hear them well, or maybe you heard the words but didn't know the meanings of one or more word, or maybe you heard them well and know all the words (here's know again... is this different from one of the definitions given above?) but still don't understand what they're trying to say. Different levels of understanding, but this is getting way long and I'm going to have to start paring down my commentary.
  • to grasp the reasonableness of: I don't understand their behavior lately. Here, it's not the meaning of an utterance, but the reasoning behind the action that you don't comprehend.
  • to have thorough or technical acquaintance with or expertness in the practice of: I don't understand calculus; "If you are not confused by quantum physics then you haven't really understood it" -- attributed to Niels Bohr.
  • to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of: I don't understand children; He really understands children.
  • to accept as fact or truth or regard as plausible without utter certainty; to believe or infer something to be the case: I understand you've been having trouble at school lately. So there's the distinction between know and understand in this situation that someone raised earlier: you're accepting it to be true, even though you don't really have first-hand knowledge. Someone's more likely to say I know you've been having trouble in school lately if they are more sure of it. Here, "I understand" is something like "I've been led to believe."
  • to interpret in one of a number of possible ways: I understand 'marriage' to be between one man and one woman. He understands it differently. Note that know is not interchangeable here. This usage is equivalent to "take [x] to mean."
  • to supply in thought as though expressed: There is no overt subject in the imperative sentence 'be quiet!' but the understood subject is 'you'; "No, I didn't explicitly say that, but I thought it was understood." Here the meaning is equivalent to "implied."
  • to achieve a grasp of the nature, significance, or explanation of something: And that's when I finally understood: she didn't love me anymore. Usually, understanding something is more of a state and less of a discrete event, but here the focus is on attaining the knowledge, not just possessing it.
  • to show a sympathetic or tolerant attitude toward something: "I'm sorry I did that, I was just so upset at the time." -- "I understand."
To get to your last question at the end, perhaps one (perhaps superficial) way in which you could understand X without knowing X, would be if X is a person, say a public figure, and you understand them in accordance with one of the definitions above (you comprehend their mindset or their meaning) but you don't know them in the sense that you've never actually met: I understand the President, but I don't know the President.

This is really long and I have to take off and I'm not going to proofread it for mistakes, so, sorry!
posted by jef at 4:10 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

As illustrated above there's a commonality in the romance (Latin-derived) languages (French, Spanish, Italian). Italian also has its forms of knowing, conoscere and sapere.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:08 PM on July 25, 2011

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