Understanding vs. Knowing

It’s the same thing… or is it?

What’s the difference?

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines understanding as “the knowledge and ability to judge a particular situation or subject.” For example, I understand how to tie my shoe; because I have been taught how to tie my shoe before and have retained the lessons given to me. It’s not something I remember each and every time I tie my shoe, but it is true, and thus I understand how to do it.

Similarly, Merriam-Webster defines knowing as “having or reflecting knowledge, information, or intelligence.” In a parallel example, I know how to tie my boots because I was taught how to tie my boots, and I continue to tie my boots based on the lessons I have learned.

So what’s the difference between understanding how to tie shoes, and knowing how to tie boots? Is there even a difference? Why do we have to bring footwear into this? As you might have noticed, the word knowledge itself is a key part of both definitions. In wake of observing this, it’s pretty tempting to assume that understanding is just the same thing as knowledge. However, I’d like to challenge this. If we see that the word knowledge is a shared word in both definitions, we can also see that each definition is not entirely identical to one another. Simply put, both words have different definitions, even though they share a few words.


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It seems to be as though the definition of knowing may have more to do with experience than the definition of understanding. Looking closer at the definition of knowing, a key word that stands out is reflecting. Knowledge is not just knowing, it is reflecting. For example, someone whom has no legs may not have the need to tie shoes. They may have a complete understanding of how to do so, however, if they have never tied shoes in their entire life, it’s hard to assure that a shoe could be tied perfectly on their first actual attempt. From experience comes knowledge, from learning comes understanding.

Likewise, when looking at the definition of understanding a keyword that stands out is judge. This seems to imply that one can have knowledge about something, but if it is not adequate to properly assess a situation, then it can not be counted as understanding. Perhaps someone is very well versed in tying shoes, and therefore has knowledge of tying footwear. However, boots are a challenge for this person, and they are not able to tie them very well. Even if help was given, it would seem this person at the same time does not have an understanding of tying footwear, as they only know how to tie shoes.

The question remains, how much knowledge can you have before you understand something? Or vice versa, how much understanding must you have about something before it becomes knowledge? There are many factors that go into this. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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