In a comment to this recent question of mine, somebody used the phrase, "complete understanding."

Without necessarily answering the linked question (i.e. without defining "understanding"), what is the difference between an incomplete understanding and a complete understanding?

  • 1
    'Complete' is entirely normative in this sense, and liable to be used as weasel words. Only in the context of an operational definition would it have any semantic rigor. The unavoidable fact about defeaters in logic is that they are often unknown unknowns.
    – J D
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 0:46
  • Just a warning: such is not a standard philosophical concept, it depends on the approach, the subject discipline and multiple subjective boundaries. You are only going to get biased opinions.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 15:25

3 Answers 3


complete (adj.) "having no deficiency, wanting no part or element; perfect in kind or quality; finished, ended, concluded," from Old French complet "full," or directly from Latin completus, past participle of complere "to fill up, complete the number of (a legion, etc.)," transferred to "fulfill, finish (a task)," from com-, here probably as an intensive prefix (see com-), + plere "to fill" (from PIE root *pele- (1) "to fill").

complete (v.)

late 14c., "make complete, bring to an end, supply what is lacking; fulfill, accomplish," from complete (adj.) and probably in part from Latin completus

-From Etymonline entry


understand (v.) Old English understandan "to comprehend, grasp the idea of, receive from a word or words or from a sign the idea it is intended to convey; to view in a certain way," probably literally "stand in the midst of," from under + standan "to stand"

-From Etymonline entry

What complete means is going to depend on context, but we might expect say fuller, or more rigorous, or joined with other knowledge into a larger picture, or without excluding any cases, or in the most general circumstances known.

I already gave you my picture of understanding, to your previous question. I'd only again point to the need to look at what understanding does for us, rather than imagining the delivery of some ineffable noumena.

Some rated answers:

Why is a measured true value “TRUE”?

Open Self vs. Closed Self/Society Distinction

"Why ask why" and its scions


Drawing inspiration from Divine Simplicity, take a dekko at the sentence below in a language that I invented:

"Smith barkhut isi love spanel."

You understand "Smith", a person. You understand "love", affection/adoration. However, you don't understand "barkhut", "isi", and "spanel". So, you have an incomplete understanding of the sentence in Luska (one of the languages I invented).

Now, here's another sentence in English:
"Smith is not happy"
You understand every word in that sentence and what the entire sentence means. You have, in this case, a complete understanding of the given sentence.

That's all I could muster, mon ami.

  • This is very close to exactly what I can't use! The reason this doesn't work is because (several levels up my Hal-stack) I am formalizing Lojban, the logical language. It has a predicate {jimpe}, glossed as "x1 understands/comprehends fact x2 (closed logical sentence) about subject x3." So, if I want to understand this, then I need to understand "understand."
    – Corbin
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 16:00
  • Seek, homo viator, and ye shall find. All I,can say is we're all deeply in love ... Dues Magnus Est.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 16:14

For an attempt to a more philosophical answer, we may see: Jonathan Lear, Aristotle the desire to understand, (Cambridge UP, 1988), page 1:

Aristotle's Metaphysics begins [980a]:

"All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer sight to almost everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things."

Aristotle is attributing to us a desire, a force, which urges us on toward knowledge. [...] Aristotle no doubt believed it was this desire that motivated him to do the research and thinking that led to his writing the Metaphysics, and he trusted in this desire to lead others to study it.

And see Met, 993a27: " The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy."

Thus, we may say that if we read understanding as a process: "the investigation of the truth", then complete understanding is the positive result of this process.

See also Lear, page 6:

Although 'to know' is an adequate translation of the Greek 'eidenai [εἰδέναι],' Aristotle used this term generically to cover various species of knowing. One of the species is 'epistasthai' (literally, to be in a state of having episteme) which has often been translated as 'to know' or 'to have scientific knowledge,' but which ought to be translated as 'to understand.' For Aristotle says that we have episteme of a thing when we know its cause [Post.An, 70b9: "We think we understand a thing whenever we think we are aware both that the explanation because of which the object is is its explanation, and that it is not possible for this to be otherwise."]

To have episteme one must not only know a thing, one must also grasp its cause or explanation. This is to understand it: to know in a deep sense what it is and how it has come to be. Philosophy, says Aristotle, is episteme of the truth.

But see Understanding for an overview of the many-sided issue: Explanation vs Understanding, understanding in the social sciences compared to the natural ones.

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