Intuitively, there is a clear difference between knowing something and understanding something. We speak of someone 'getting' or 'internalizing' a concept, of developing a 'gut feeling' for something, etc...

Some examples:

  • When I was an undergrad, for a time I knew the exact definition of a Fourier transform, but I didn't understand what it meant or how it worked, even though I understood all of the F.T's components (sine functions, sums, etc..) perfectly. Similarly, for a while, I knew what object oriented programming was, but I didn't get it, and wasn't able to write true OOP code even though I was using C++.
  • Similarly most math students will tell you that they need to go beyond the definition of a mathematical concept and work on a few problem sets before they truly understand it.
  • More cynically, we've all run into people who are very good at talking about all sorts of technical, philosophical and scientific concepts, but whom we know don't really get what they're talking about (I'm talking to you project managers and directors).

And yet those who subscribe to the computational theory of mind and those who support strong AI don't seem to draw a difference between knowing and understanding (Fodor's LOTH, the Turing test and more recent variations - such as having a computer being able to verbally relate the content of a video that it has just recorded). From such theories of the mind, it seems sufficient for there to be a proper mapping between propositions and facts from the outside world.

Similarly, in logical atomism and logical positivism, there seems to be no difference between knowing and understanding. It is enough to map sensory data, facts about the world to proper logical (and hence linguistic) structures. There's no way to differentiate between understanding a concept and simply being able to state its definition (along with its components) correctly.

My questions:

  1. From an epistemology point of view, is there a difference between "knowing" and "understanding"?
  2. How would one represent the ability to internalize a concept? How does reality have to be mirrored in the mind, beyond a simple linguistic correspondence for a concept to be internalized, for a person to get it?
  3. Does this "understanding" vs "knowing" difference strengthen John Searle's Chinese room argument against strong A.I.?
  4. Have any philosophers worked on this issue?
  • Regarding scientific knowledge a possible approach is trough Scientific Explanation : we can say that we know facts but we understand them when we can explain them according to scientific laws and theories. Unfortunately, the main approachs to a "philosophy of explanation" are far from having achieved consensus. Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 10:55
  • 2
    I think of knowing as a thing about propositions (content) and understanding a thing about semantic/associative relations between propositions. To speak with a picture well-known in philosophy of mind: We have non-inferential knowledge and knowledge that has to be gained through understanding (inferential knowledge). As this is only a rough, and therefore not 100% approriate picture that I do not have the time to thicken with sources now, given as a starting point in form of a comment.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 11:05
  • 5
    You can see the "classic" : Georg Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding (1971). Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 11:20
  • @PhilipKlöcking can you expand it into an answer? Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 21:17
  • I'll try tomorrow, but nothing promised ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 22:22

7 Answers 7


Greek Distinction

I think there have been several perhaps innumerable attempts to look at different modes of "knowing" in philosophy (here reading know as a larger category word for know, understand, comprehend, fathom). Obviously, the oldest one we have a substantial amount of writing from is Plato's account of knowledge in the idea of the Forms / ideas and the shadow copies we encounter. I'm not sure that discussion is very important for what you're looking for in this question.

What might, however, be interesting is Aristotle's attempt to distinguish between different senses of knowing. He identifies three things we might translate as to know or to understand. He divies knowledge up into three basic categories at several points:

  1. episteme which has to do with know essences, i.e. to understand things as they are.
  2. techne which is the technical knowledge to manufacture things and perform kind of physical tasks. This is often translated as art or craft.
  3. phronesis which is the ability to know how to achieve the good (and the base virtue for other virtues).

For more about what's going on with the ancient Greeks, see this SEP article.

I would think this could be seen as a distinction between "knowledge" and "understanding" -- though I'm not sure which English word you want to call each.

Contemporary Distinction

I see two different but sometimes intertwined contemporary distinctions

knowing-that vs knowing-how. This seems to be from Gilbert Ryle. Karyn Lai attributes a similar distinction to ancient Chinese thought.

A nearly parallel distinction for some purposes is Heidegger's Zuhandenheit (ready-to-hand) versus Vorhandenheit (present-for-hand). There's some other things going on there.

I believe in both modern accounts, the knowing-how is prioritized in a way that it is not in the ancient Greek account.

It's not my AOS, so I'm not super clear on what the positive cash out value is for the two newer ones in terms of getting how knowledge works.

Unfortunately, I don't have complete answers to your questions 2-4 which is why I was hesitant to answer.

For 2, I don't fully get what you mean by internalize, but Aristotle does discuss cases where a technites (craftsman) has only techne vs someone who is only externally knowledgeable versus someone who has full knowledge in both episteme and techne of a subject matter.

For 3, I would guess that part of the point is that there's a difference between the people in the room shuffling things correctly as techne and episteme which actually understands its subject matter.

  • 1
    As an addition, I would state that pragmatism is essentially trying to make this very distinction obsolete: What "works", becomes knowledge. But then, it is hard to catch the difference between a chimpanzee learning that a certain sequence of actions is successful and is able to execute this sequence afterwards and a human (or chimpanzee, I am not a speciecist regarding this) who looks at a mechanism, "understands it" and afterwards just executes the correct sequence, transferring knowledge (techne) from other occations through knowledge (episteme), without having to try it out first.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 14:22
  • From Aristotle point of view, what I am looking for is techne, but as it applies to mental tools, not physical tools. Thanks, this helps. Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 21:21
  • @Alexander Perhaps Plato would be a better fit then, as commentary to the Republic goes:"Whereas techné is associated with knowing how to do (epistasthai) certain activities, episteme sometimes indicates a theoretical component of techné, associated then with understanding (gnôsis)". aquileana.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/… In fact, gnôsis is the third word used for "knowledge" by Greeks, with "insight" being another possible translation.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 20:23

The words "knowledge" and "understanding" are very difficult in the English language. I've even found contrasting documents: one that uses them one way, and one that uses them in almost the exact same way but swapping their meanings! Accordingly, I recommend questioning the author's intent of the words when you see them.

To the best of my knowledge (see what I did there?), the most commonly used meanings of the words deal with how widely one can apply a fact. "Knowledge" tends to be very narrow, such as the definition of the Fourier transform. It is very context dependent. "Understanding" tends to imply to ability to apply that fact to anywhere it is reliant, such as the ability to realize a particular acoustic task can be thought of as a Fourier transform.

The definitions act funny because the narrow scope of knowledge tends to make it easier to put words to it. You and I could look up the set of squiggly black marks on a sheet of paper and agree that those black marks represent the Fourier transform, but those black marks mean nothing without an interpretation. If our interpretation of the Fourier transform is very narrow, we might only be able to apply it within the narrow scope of "evaluate this Fourier transform" on a midterm exam.

By contrast, understanding typically means that interpretation is well understood, and you can apply it in situations that may not have even appeared to be Fourier transforms to others. As an example, I have a friend who is comfortable thinking of the game of catch in terms of Keplerian orbital mechanics. As a byproduct of this unusual way of understanding things, his understanding of the game of catch played on distances where the rotation of the earth comes into play is quite astonishing. His understanding is sufficient that I would not be surprised that an analysis of how he goes about throwing a ball involves applying orbital correction maneuvers as he wings it around his shoulder joint. It's integrated into how he thinks.

One neat thing which is mentioned in the SEP article on knowledge, is that you can have one without the other. Obviously you can have knowledge without understanding, but you can also have understanding without knowledge. This is captured many times in scenarios where an individual does something astonishing like throwing a baseball further than anyone expected, and they are greeted by the famous question, "How did you do it?" to which they reply "I don't know. I just... do." Those individuals have an understanding, but lack the knowledge to describe that understanding.

You mention "internalizing," which is typically the development of understanding from knowledge. Defining this from an external perspective is virtually impossible, but from an internal perspective, it implies that it is simply impossible for you to do anything without being affected by that understanding. This is a trait that many martial arts try to achieve. When Jackie Chan says, "everything is Kung Fu," in the new Karate Kid, he means it. His character has internalized Kung Fu so completely that he sees it in everything he does.

(By contrast, the IBM computer, Wason, is famous for 'knowing' facts, but not really 'understanding' what they mean)

Knowledge and understanding are highly related to the Chinese Room question, but I do not believe they strengthen it nor weaken it. The Chinese Room argues that one cannot have a "mind" with knowledge alone, but does not really define what "understanding" is, just that it cannot be achieved through knowledge alone.


Wittgenstein investigates these words throughout his Philosophical Investigations and I highly recommend reading it.

A method that he advocates repeatedly is to investigate and look how words are used in the language:

For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning” — though not for all — this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (PI §43)

To repeat: don’t think, but look! — Look, for example... (PI §66)

You did it with the example of the Fourier transform, and Wittgenstein gives a similar example when discussing following rules, for example on how one comes to continue a series such as 1, 4, 9,…

But are the processes which I’ve described here understanding? “B understands the system behind the series” surely doesn’t mean simply: the formula “a(n) = . . .” occurs to B. For it is perfectly conceivable that the formula should occur to him and that he should nevertheless not understand. (PI §152)

As for your question, the words know and understand are used in many different ways, and often looking at how they are used disperses a lot of the mystery.

The following are just some (counter) examples...

"Do you know Jack?" — "Yes, I think we have met once last year."

"Do you understand Jack?" — "Listen, I don't care what his reasons were!" — or "No, he mumbles. Tell him to speak up."

"Do you know OOP?" — "Sure, I've coded in C++ and OOP daily at Guugleples."

"Do you understand OOP?" — "Do you mean to ask if I know it well?"

As for the Chinese room:

"Do you know Chinese?" — indicates a mastery of a language — "Yes, no problem I can take his phone call."

"Do you understand Chinese?" — could be used to indicate a lesser mastery of a language — "I cannot talk Chinese, but I will probably understand what he says."

The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; they are as deeply rooted in us as the forms of our language, and their significance is as great as the importance of our language. —– Let’s ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.) (PI §111)

“But this is how it is — — —”, I say to myself over and over again. I feel as though, if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply on this fact and get it into focus, I could not but grasp the essence of the matter. (PI §113)

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (4.5): “The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.” —– That is the kind of proposition one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it. (PI §114)

A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably. (PI §115)

When philosophers use a word — “knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition/sentence”, “name” — and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language in which it is at home? — What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use. (PI §116)

  • I didn't think of the connection to late Wittgenstein, thanks. Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 16:44

Knowing a definition, is only a knowing a definition...

To know how to use it, is a techne; but it isn't one until a certain level of fluency is reached - and there are degrees of such. This is know-how.

To understand why this definition, as opposed to something similar; for example in your Fourier example - why not square waves, or triangular ones; is episteme:

And in this way it may also relate itself to itself, say mythically - the story of physics as a physics student might learn it: which emphasises saliency in hindsight; or genealogically - as an upturning - as in the priveliged narrative of Galileo wrestling knowledge away from the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

This is episteme, along a different axis.


I will build by answer more on a analytic tradition as it is described in EPM by Wilfried Sellars. This SEP article can be seen as strongly related, but I will more go the line of logic rather than justifiability.

First, knowledge, in this tradition, is knowledge of a proposition (including its truth-value).

Second, knowledge has two fundamentally different kinds: non-inferential knowledge and inferential knowledge.

On non-inferential knowledge

Most theorists claim that there must be a basis of inference, may it be atomistic (Russel, sense-data theorists) or that of basic holistic concepts (Sellars). But all of them say that by having a sensual experience, we have a certain kind of knowledge about these sensations that can not be justified by any instance other than our sensual experience of them. That is why they are non-inferential.

On inferential knowledge

Here, the things are different. This knowledge has to be justified by inference. The main difference, so I think, is that this knowledge has to be represented/representable in terms of a language, while non-inferential knowledge does not even have to be concious (though I am not in line with every philosopher of this tradition here).

On understanding

Now, what is understanding? I will stick to @virmaior 's terms episteme vs. techne to make this clear. Let's take an example of two chimpanzees having to do a certain sequence of actions in order to get their food.

Chimpanzee 1: There are two mechanisms, eventually changing. He has tried out various ways in both cases and eventually learnt what to do. He has become able of getting his food, because he learnt that for mechanism A, there is sequence A and for mechanism B there is sequence B. He learnt techne. This can be expressed in knowing propositions: mA => sA, mB =>sB.

Chimpanzee 2: He tried out at mechanism A, too. He learnt what to do. But then something interesting happens: When confronted with mechanism B, he does not try out anymore, he just does what's right. How can we properly describe this? It may be described in terms of propositions, too: He has learnt what action causes which reaction in the mechanism and if the sequence of the mechanism is changed, these relations still hold. But it may also be that the mechanism is not that simple or there has been added another part not known before and he did understand its nature by looking at it, not by knowing the function of each part before. Here, we say something more than propositional knowledge.

Here, we have achieved the notion of episteme. My description would be in this example that no. 2 did not only learn the propositional expression mA => sA, but rules of inference. That means that from mB and its properties (also propositional), he knows how to infer the sequence of actions necessary. And I think that this is what makes the difference between techne and episteme.

On pragmatism regarding this difference

It is the main problem of pragmatism, as I see it: If Dewey is correct and we only make hypotheses about these rules and try them out, there is no room for the difference between pure propositional relations and episteme. This "something more" is questioned.


  1. Like I tried to point out there is a difference and it is crucial to be able to describe it within a theory.

  2. As understanding would be understanding of the rules of inference, it could be described as a representation by language: I have to be able to justify the inference and this includes the ability to formulate its rules in some way. It is the very difference between a teacher that can only answer "It is the way it has to be done" and a teacher that is able to make you understand by formulating the rules and backgrounds. The former did not really understand what he's doing.

  3. I am not sure, but I think the difference as presented does strengthen the argument. A computer has propositional contents and can only compute relations between them, may it be through semantics, logic or probability. But will he ever be able to answer the question Why? in another way? I think what will be missing is that what Sellars could call a "holistic" understanding. It is not really inferred by logic or probability, but nevertheless it includes a certainty. The move the computer will probably not be able to make is understanding the connections between things that are not correlated, merely by intuition. Humans can only share these insights between them because they all have this very faculty.

  4. I am not that deep into the matter that I could name someone, sorry.

  1. To 'understand' something is an extension of 'knowing' something. The distinction between 'knowing' and 'understanding' lies in the ability to deduce further from the initial concept. One for example could know the geometric definition of a square i.e. four sides of which all equal in length. However this does not mean one can understand the definition of a square and be able to ascertain the statement that all angles in a square are, by extension of the definition, equiangular.

  2. I argue that it is not entirely possible for humans to internalize a concept. To understand a concept relies on our own sense of intuition and thus deductive reasoning. However we rely on the scientific method to understand the universe and not our intuition or deductive reasoning. If I placed you upon a horizon in the ocean, you would deduce that the earth is flat which is obviously wrong yet correct given the inputs to you. Thus, unless we know the variables that impact a concept, and the way they impact the concept, and their respective impacts on other variables and the respective impact of these towards the whole concept, deductive reasoning will not work. In fact, knowing all these by definition will nullify the use of deductive reasoning in this case.

  3. I will look into this later, I have not heard of it.
  4. Possibly. I do not study philosophy so I would not know this.
  • These answers don't seem to be philosophically informed. That doesn't mean they're absolutely wrong, but there's a lot of technical definitions of what's going on that enter into philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 13:49

On the difference between "knowing" and "understanding"?

I have questioned the matter myself in relation to whether or not Searles actually understood English, as claimed in Searle's article "Minds, brains, and programs." From what I interpret from reading about Wittgenstein and his critics, along with post-structuralist thought, you either claim that words have meaning or claim that they do not. If there is some standard of interpretation (if but rule) that can be had, then you could ascribe that the term "understand" has meaning to it. In my opinion, Searle provided no such standard nor rule and appealed to the ignorance of the reader in the hope that the reader would accept his enthymeme as to how he "understood" English.

I think people blindly follow rules of language based on an input that leads to some behavioral output. There is no "understanding," just a machine that deals with inputs and makes outputs based on rules. There were rules that led Searle to playing some language game to claim (to "output") that he "understood" the English language. I suggest learning about radical behaviorism.

I do not think that terms have meaning. Furthermore, I don't think Searle understood English. His article comes off as xenophobia/racism toward AI. (I.e. Humans will always be superior to AI because AI cannot understand a language)

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