In recent conversations with friends where we were trying to understand each other as well as to enquire into deep questions of life, a frequent impediment would be the different meanings or connotations we ascribe to the words we use. Pondering on this 'road-block' in communication, I realised how much of what we think, speak and write is taken for granted by us. What follows are my reflections on what is essentially a semantic problem, but which has ramifications in other areas of life.
It seems to me that we are becoming increasingly sloppy in the use of words. We are victims of indolent thinking in which we often do not bother to look up the actual meanings of words; we therefore end up accepting the meanings others give. An example of this kind is seen in the way we look atwords such as 'oral' and 'verbal'. We may take them to mean the same. They are, in fact, quite different. Oral means by 'word of mouth' and verbal means 'pertaining to words' that may be expressed orally or in writing.
Mypurpose here is to examine a phrase that seems to intimidate us: 'intellectual understanding', which is often employed with the prefix 'mere'! I suggest that, instead of giving short shrift to it, we enquire into the origin of the words that make up the phrase. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines the intellect as that faculty or sums of faculties, of the mind or soul by which one knows and reasons. Chambers says intellect is the mind in reference to its rational powers, the thinking principle, and an intellectual as one having the power of understanding. There is something active and dynamic in the meanings given here.
Is there such a thing as intellectual understanding? Or is it that the mind merely understands the words, because that is our only way of communicating with each other? So-called intellectual understanding is an impediment to understanding. Surely understanding is integral, not divided, not partial. (J. Krishnamurti in The First and Last Freedom)
Now Krishnamurti cannot be accused of running down the intellect itself. He pointed out the mischief that thought as a process of accumulation, not the act of thinking, does in our daily life. I would venture to say that intellectual understanding is integral to 'real' or total understanding and any attempt to show that intellectual understanding is somehow 'unreal' is questionable. (To go to Chambers again: integral means entire or whole, not fractional.) Albert Camus seems to have appropriated Krishnamurti's idiom when he wrote: An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. Can they be brought together?
Now to 'understanding'. According to the Shorter Oxford, 'to understand' means to comprehend, to apprehend the meaning or import of. Merriam-Webster: understanding is mental grasp, comprehension, especially the capacity to apprehend general relations of particulars. The definitions seem clear, and yet the language people use when they talk about how to make people understand something, is often unclear. On the other hand, the language of very articulate people, even scientists, when they talk about how to make other people understand something, is often strange. The popular science writers Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould are lucidity itself in their writing - in fact they look with suspicion upon even such a respectable theory as Gaia. However, in trying to explain understanding, they resort to the sort of romantic language they would not tolerate in an undergraduate. Dawkins once wrote: Explaining is a difficult art. You can explain something so that your reader understands the words; and you can explain something so that the reader feels it in the marrow of his bones. Gould, while talking of geological time or 'deep time', says that it is difficult to understand as it is a concept that we can appreciate 'in our heads' but seem quite unable to place into the guts of our intuition. The key principle, however ironic, requires such visceral understanding of earthly time'. 'Marrow of his bones', 'guts of our intuition' and 'visceral understanding'! Add 'blood' and 'solar plexus' to this bizarre list and it could come straight out of D.H.Lawrence!
However, neither the dictionary meaning nor the language used by these scientists would be inconsistent with Krishnamurti's own way of using words. He could be rigorously semantic or comfortably mystical as and when he chose. The French essayist Montaigne contrasts the grammatical construction of the bare words with the sense and substance of them. Understanding in one sense means to get to know the meaning of the individual words and try to make sense of the whole. On reflection, much more meaning may 'emerge'. This depends upon one's familiarity with the words used, and the experiences and association of ideas that the words provoke. (The caveat here is that this act or process is not to be placed in time. But more about this later.) Let me emphasize - I am not implying that no two people can understand anything in the same sense and at the same level. We all talk to each other and do understand each other much of the time. Theworld is, linguistically at least, not yet a Tower of Babel. We may, however, well be talking in different languages in terms of psychological facts which are, after all, the root of all conflict in human beings.
The word 'intellect' has had a bad press in the twentieth century and it is time the poor thing is rescued from the doghouse. The intellect is not an isolated, 'stand-alone' faculty in man. It is the faculty that grapples with the biological (genetic if you like) and cultural factors that condition us. The intellect derives its sustenance and meaning from the context. A person who only thinks in terms of cold, hard, rigid, unemotional logic is not only an abstraction, he is fiction. No one of flesh and blood exists that way. ' Intellect' and 'intelligence' have a common root. Intelligence presupposes an embodied being with a vocabulary, experiences, associations, and the ability to connect them in numerous ways so that they give meaning or sense to his life. This is surely the basis of the theory of 'multiple intelligences'. The intellectual employs intelligence in order to understand the world inside and outside him.
Why did Krishnamurti often (though not always), equate 'verbal' with 'intellectual' understanding? Was it not to show that words are symbols or representations of facts and not the facts themselves ('the word is not the thing')? However, in talking of 'psychological facts', that is how we seem to understand the world. The word and the thing seem to be hopelessly intertwined, causing all sorts of problems in relationship.
We do not seem to be able to avoid extending to the psychological sphere the deeply embedded conviction that everything can be done in the fullness of time.
If we are to get anywhere near the 'real' understanding. that will bring about radical transformation, we need to look at a dilemma that troubles us. What is this dilemma? On the one hand we have strongly entrenched traits in terms of which we see all actions as being performed in time. The fact that deserts and rocks are formed over thousand of years and acorns become oak trees over a long period, has strengthened this conviction. On the other hand, we have been told by many seers of all times and places that enlightenment is in the here and now. A classic line from the popular television serial Yes, Minister comes to mind. When the wily Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby is told by his Minister, 'I want it to be done now, Humphrey, ' that arch-cynic replies, 'it takes time, Minister, to do things now'. This neatly sums up our dilemma, too.
What are the impediments to understanding? In all of us, there are deep- seated psychological and emotional flaws that hamper understanding. There is an interesting illustration of this in a piece by E.M. Forster. While reviewing a book on Indian art and architecture, Forster noted that Lord Macaulay spoke dismissively of Indian architecture, calling it 'grotesque and ignoble' when compared to 'those beautiful and majestic forms which stood in the shrines ofAncient Greece'. Forster says that: Greece and India are different places, seeking different goals, which trifling fact escaped Macaulay...He was not good at making the preliminary jump; he never thought of learning from India, he only thought of improving her. Making this preliminary jump - putting away our preconceived notions and prejudices of all kinds - seems to be the essential thing in understanding. Besides the psychological and emotional ones, there are decidedly intellectual flaws, too, but 'integral understanding' comes when these flaws or 'angularities' in our psyche are addressed. This is not possible if the 'intellectual' baby is thrown out with the 'accumulated dirt' that is the bath water. The moral of the story is, keep all doors open. After all, the 'doors of perception' need to be 'cleansed', not closed.
Will there really be a 'Morning'?
Is there such a thing as 'Day'?
Could I see it from the mountains If I were as tall as they?
Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?
Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Man from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called 'Morning' lies!