What is the difference in the cognitive processes of understanding and interpreting an utterance (especially written discourse like a legal statute)?

What does a judge do when they interpret law; is it just understanding what it means what rules/provisions it contains? What does a reader do when they interpret a poem?

I am finding definitions of interpret that are Find meaning Decide intended meaning

But those definitions seem awfully similar to understand


4 Answers 4


An interpretation inevitably reflects a particular understanding of a text. A juridical interpretation in particular provides a binding framework for understanding the applicability of a text in a given situation. This is a process of discovery and analysis involving an understanding of the original intent or underlying meaning of a statute. Judges will therefore sometimes engage in a procedure of carefully reading each word in a close textual way. Such a method of interpretation resolves ambiguities in the original code by reference to specific (real or hypothetical) cases — often suggesting objective “tests” which can be performed in a rigorous way to determine whether a given fact pattern is indeed in keeping with the spirit of the law.

Interpretation expresses a point of view, which may be understood or not; understanding I would argue is a positive mental operation, although subjective in the sense of relating to interiority. I would suggest an understanding can only be expressed through some mediating interpretative means — that is some process of signification like writing or diagramming. Formal systems like the law and language exist in order to facilitate interpretations leading to a shared understanding; at any rate, formal systems all require specificity and some material “realization” (e.g. as code) to produce conditions that support an expression of an understanding — that is, a given interpretation of that understanding represented in some signifying medium.

Subjective understanding or meaning is expressed through an interpretative act which establishes a consistent sense through an objective rule.

So an interpretation reflects an understanding of a text by representing it — the understanding itself is unrepresentable except through a critical interpretation of the code. Understanding is required to interpret something effectively; but the psychological act of understanding itself is interior and must be articulated in some manner. In the philosophical sense this “pure understanding” is a mental act that anyway does not in itself assemble any transmissible message but enables possible expressions, with any number of different interpretations consistent with those expressions in turn.

  • In contrast what would happen if the judge strictly understood the statute instead of interpreting it? Apr 25 at 20:18
  • A good question! see edits for a little more direct discussion of some of the philosophical dimensions here
    – Joseph Weissman
    Apr 25 at 20:53

Let's look at the etymology.

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,

"the under is not the usual word meaning "beneath," but from Old English under, from PIE *nter- "between, among" (source also of Sanskrit antar "among, between," Latin inter "between, among," Greek entera "intestines;" see inter-)

Perhaps the ultimate sense is "be close to;" compare Greek epistamai "I know how, I know," literally "I stand upon."

The intransitive sense of "have the use of the intellectual faculties; be an intelligent and conscious being" also is in late Old English. In Middle English also "reflect, muse, be thoughtful; imagine; be suspicious of; pay attention, take note; strive for; plan, intend; conceive (a child)." Also sometimes literal, "to occupy space at a lower level" (late 14c.) and, figuratively, "to submit."

-excerpts from the Etymonline entry


interpret (v.)

"expound the meaning of, render clear or explicit," from Old French interpreter "explain; translate"rom Latin interpretari "explain, expound, understand,"

from interpres "agent, translator," from inter "between" (see inter-) & second element probably from PIE *per- (5) "to traffic in, sell."

I find the distinction interesting. How do you demonstrate understanding? Often, with an interpretation. Did you understand eg second order partial dfferential equations? Then demonstrate that by interpreting this specific example to extract useful information from this case of the form.. &c &c

Or like in Zen, with the adding of a capping verse to a koan - which illustrates how understanding can be something transcendental, non-verbal, yet given a paeticular form and expression, in a specfic interpretation of a problem: a momentary relative expression of the most general, once that has been grasped.

I would suggest that understanding what understanding is, is like finding the meaning of meaning. It involves a recursion of the process itself, to make sense of it. And, manifesting an interpretation, is one concrete method of demonstrating an understanding.

Im case 201 of Dogen's Shobogenzo:

"Venerable Bodhidharma was about to go back to India. He said to his students, "The time has come. Can you express your understanding?" One of the students, Daofu said, "My present view is that we should neither be attached to letters, nor be apart from letters, to allow the Way to function freely." Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my skin." Nun Zongchi said, "My view is that it is like the joy of seeing Akshobhya Buddha’s land just once and not again." Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my flesh." Daoyu said, "The four great elements are originally empty and the five skandhas do not exist. Therefore, I see nothing to be attained." Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my bones." Finally Huike came forward, made a full bow, stood up, and returned to where he was. Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow." Thus he transmitted the Dharma and robe to Huike.

So we have four interpretations, manifesting different understandings, of one realisation.

I would look to Wittgenstein's advice:

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings."

-from Philosophical Investigations

How do we use meaning? How interpretation? These are language-games. These are embedded in modes of life. How do we teach them? What purposes do we put them to? In that examination, is your answer. And, it isn't fixed. The domain of understanding, shifts, expands, becomes more convoluted and interconnected, sometimes simplifies. It is not 'dead facts'.

Other modes to demonstrate understanding:

1 to show, manifest, or prove, esp. by reasoning, evidence, etc.
"it is easy to demonstrate the truth of this proposition" 2 tr to evince; reveal the existence of the scheme later demonstrated a fatal flaw 3 tr to explain or illustrate by experiment, example, etc. 4 tr to display, operate, and explain the workings of (a machine, product, etc.) 5 intr to manifest support, protest, etc., by public parades or rallies 6 intr to be employed as a demonstrator of machinery, etc. 7 intr (Military) to make a show of force, esp. in order to deceive one's enemy


The former -- understanding (Comprehension), is a Level in the Cognitive Domain (One of the Categories in the Cognitive Domain) and the latter is one of its Outcomes/Specifications.

Usually interpretation/misinterpretation can follow understanding/misunderstanding. And sometimes after many misinterpretation, if the interpreter finds his interpretation is wrong, the reverse process may also happen –- misinterpretation may lead to understanding; but understanding never leads to misinterpretation.



My three cents.

Understanding always entails having an interpretation. And any interpretation entails a different understanding. The two concepts are so tightly interrelated that is difficult to take them apart.

There are some intended interpretations (among all possible interpretations) that are assumed or even enforced in certain cases.

Intended interpretations are common in areas such as mathematics, science and the law.

Usually when one says that the judge interpreted the law (ie differently), one means differently from the intended interpretation that led to a result different than the average result in similar cases, while the phrasing of the law is not explicitly incompatible with that alternative interpretation.

This is no less than an (alternative) understanding of the law, even if the judge is aware of the intended interpretation and understanding.

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