I seek to learn, but feel I only just "understand" ... I want to learn it to use it, know it, understand it, and feel like I really get with something ... not just read a line of text that says "Push A Button" and that's it ... I want to know how "X Button Falls" when "Push A Button" is affirmatively executed.

The thing is, philosophically, how can we distinctly measure and understand the difference between "understanding" a piece of knowledge or skill and "learning" it for use?

I can understand that a car starts when I turn the keys, but I do not exactly know 100% how that process works ... I know a bit, but not enough to feel like I "know it". If I read online I can feel more and more so like I "understand" it, but I remain feeling as though I don't know or haven't "learned" how to do it.

How can we distinctly understand and classify differences between learning and understanding? This question is purely philosophical, at least in intention.

3 Answers 3


There isn't understanding as you distinguish it. Your distinction is too sharp. Imagine Roger Federer's understanding of tennis vs. a college tennis player's understanding vs. mine (not so good). There are degrees for this.

Taking your example, at a certain level, I suppose, it is possible to have a very solid understanding of an automobile, but then there are people like the guys on Car Talk - they have a sophisticated and refined level of understanding that most people will never achieve about cars - or anything else - their entire lifetime.

One thing I have heard stated is that:

"when you know something, you can use it; when you [master] something, you are used by it."

So, while this doesn't directly offer a rigorous philosophical answer to your question, I suggest that it proposes a more useful pathway to establish a place where your question can flourish. Unquestionably, there are epistemologically sound answers that philosophers have proposed to this question - I don't know them - but then answer to your question won't be found there.

Think about the paradox of it - if you were to read an answer to this from a renowned philosopher - Heidegger, Hilary Putnam, etc. - you would find yourself with a new gap between what is possible to understand about this topic, and what you already understand. In receiving your answer, you would be reintroducing the dilemma that necessitated the question.

What is possible is mastery. Mastery as I understand it is a process; a process where everything undertaken seriously becomes ripe with possibility. Because, there is no top to this mountain called knowing, everything can be looked at freshly. Everything is new and not known, and everything is a potential source of learning. Knowledge is a side effect of the pursuit of mastery.

In areas where I have any degree of mastery (there are maybe one or two), I find that almost every new thing I learn leaves me knowing considerably less than I did before I learned it. Now I know that thing (to whatever degree I do), but a whole new heretofore unseen world opens up in front of me with new things that I don't know about the world of what I've just learned.

Pragmatically, the distinctions could be drawn better than I have. Perhaps the next answer will do that.


The distinction I use actually has the opposite word choices, so be ready for confusion with the choices of those words (in my lexicon, "to learn" is the shallow statement, and "to understand" is the deep statement). The version I use is more along the phrasing "Do you REALLY understand the instructions?" I will try to avoid those words, to minimize confusion. Word choice is another stackexchange.

It is one thing when you "know" a thing, such that you can recall it. You can even use it. However, it is isolated, cut off from the rest of your knowledge, so that it provides little insight into anything "nearby" in the knowledge space.

It is another thing when you "know" a thing, such that you can use it to build new knowledge through drawing on it and the other things you "know." This is more powerful, and used in situations where your "knowledge" doesn't 100% cover the situation you are in.

For a button pushing example, the first version is along the lines of "I know that pushing this button causes the assembly line to stop and lights up a red light at my station. I am expected to push this button if there is something wrong with my part." In a case where this isn't 100% viable, such as if your button is broken, it provides nothing more to you. You may press the button, see that it didn't stop the assembly line, shrug, and start working on the next part (until later down the line someone else stops it).

The second version takes the information from the first version, along with additional information such as "the purpose of stopping the assembly line is to allow the head engineer, who knows more about the process than I do, to identify issues, and save money by addressing them quickly." With those two pieces of knowledge, the second version of "knowing" allows you to arrive at "I can yell at Karl, and tell him to hit his switch. The foreman will go over to Karl, but I know enough of how people interact here that we can get the foreman over to my station, and accomplish the same goal of hitting the button, even thought the button is broken."


Human brain understands a new idea by relating it to the already known information in memory.

Human brain strengthens this understanding by linking the new idea to emotions, feelings and experiences.

These emotions, feelings and experiences are gathered by applying the new idea in real life.

Then, we have this sum of conceptual, emotional and experiential knowledge which is tacit in nature.

We call these sum, learning.

There can be degrees of leaning because, the amount and quality of related emotions and experiences acquired in the subconscious mind of a human being can vary depend on the repetition of actions as well as the quality of mental awareness of the individual.

  • In the normal vocabulary, "minds" understand.
    – virmaior
    Jun 8, 2014 at 14:28
  • @virmaior : What you said in normal vocabulary is not true. Both learning and understanding happens in the mind. The difference between learning and understanding lies in what faculties the mind uses during the process.
    – inke
    Jun 8, 2014 at 14:42
  • I said nothing about learning in my comment actually. And what you're saying misses the point completely -- which is that you use "brain" in your answer where we usually use "mind."
    – virmaior
    Jun 8, 2014 at 15:06
  • @virmaior: The existence of a mind independent of the brain is not proven yet. I don't understand why we can't use the word 'Brain'.
    – inke
    Jun 8, 2014 at 15:26
  • the claim is not whether there is a mind independent of brain but that we call the thinking part mind by convention. I would think what needs to be proven is the reducibility of mind to brain since we have experience of mind and as of yet no sufficient explanation of how brain does that...
    – virmaior
    Jun 8, 2014 at 21:42

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