- לְהָבִין – (to understand) comprehend/analyze concepts or abstraction
The rubric of understanding, which is used in this case as a technical term, is one of the ideas in human history whose evolution can be demonstrated. The evolution begins with a concrete or literal understanding of the world and transforms over time, sometimes with revolutionary leaps and other times gradually, into abstract ideas.
Consider the human quest to understand math, which is worldwide. The path begins with addition/subtraction, which are inescapably concrete equations. The first documents unearthed in the Ancient Near East are tax collection documents – all addition until the king spends it. Humans quickly discover fractions, decimals, zero as a number, pi, algebra and onto calculus, the most abstract set of concepts of mathematics. The history of mathematics is not just the history of learning and discovering, advances in mathematics required the development of an idea of existence without a concrete substance to anchor it. Plato records this first great explication of abstraction as “The Theory of Forms,” one recognizes a chair, not because one sees it, but because of understands what “chair-ness” is and sees that form in that particular object.
In our own day and age, we are so far into the compelling world of concept and abstraction that we do not even recognize that the foundational assumptions we use every day are great leaps of comprehension. Sticking with math a moment more, the least of the book-learned of the world have no problem understanding this symbol: “3”. The symbol 3 represents three objects such as three x’s – xxx. Whether one is giving a foreign tourist a price at a store or one is standing at an ATM, when eyeing the 3 symbol, most recognize they are expecting 3 of that currency. Holding up three fingers for three euros is concrete, writing the number 3 on paper across the sales desk is abstract.
This evolution of thought can be applied to every human endeavor. The walls of the ancients Egyptian tombs are filled with art, yet all of the gods have distinct concrete depictions, no matter how fantastical, of a human body with the head of an animal, a falcon or a jackal perhaps. Compare that one of these figures to a Picasso where the human figures are presentations that have to be interpreted.
From simple counting to double-entry accounting, or from quill and ink to the ballpoint pen, these are examples of the evolution of understanding, not just the evolution of discovery and invention.
The ideal of being able to manipulate abstraction in one’s thoughts using memorized points and conscious focus is a goal of the common core curriculum. When entrepreneurs in the New Economy jobs are successful, their success is often attributed to this type of learning. STEM jobs are supposed to be this type of comprehension, although they are so much more.
From the other side of the coin, when people proclaim that they are stupid, what they often are referencing is a perceived failure to comprehend abstraction. “I just don’t get it” or “I hear what you are saying but I don’t understand.” The slang “get it” refers to the failure to formulate an abstract thought.
One’s ability to comprehend abstract ideas cannot be measured by tests unless the test is attuned to way a specific person learns. Humans learn and practice the art of abstraction using different methods. Some are visual learners (“I see what you mean”), some are aural learners (“I hear what you’re saying”), and some, particularly artists, are kinetic learners (Let me draw you a picture”). None of us are purely one type. Films combine all three types of learning and viewers pick up cues from all three sensory avenues to follow the story although not everyone will follow the film in the same manner or identify all of the cues.
Understanding is not simple; it is a universe of perceiving ideas and invoking imagination.