We are used to coming across the phrase “seeing is believing” on a pretty regular basis. It is assumed to mean that the most important basis for taking anything to be true is to have a direct experience of it. However, is there a role for belief in the acquisition of knowledge, and particularly in the crucial distinction between knowing, understanding? Can belief lead to better ‘seeing’ and therefore greater understanding? Can it illuminate the relationship between personal and shared knowledge? Should we not always seek not just to know but also to see and therefore understand?

The distinction between knowledge and understanding is readily accepted by most people although one wonders whether it is as fully grasped and consciously acknowledged as it ought to be. In a world where information on pretty much everything under the sun is available at the touch of a button, one may be led to assume that to know ‘x’ is to understand it. Understanding however seems to suggest a deeper level of perception and an ability to comprehend facts in a more meaningful and comprehensive way. Knowledge without understanding can therefore be rather partial and superficial.

What does it take to truly understand something, is it not just more knowledge about ‘x’? In a sense yes, but it is more than just more of the same, it has to do with a certain quality of knowledge than with mere quantity. First of all genuine understanding takes time and effort. It requires a patient analysis of the relevant facts and thinking through and around them, and this takes time. It also needs an appreciation of the many different facets of the purely factual, the idea that facts contain shades of grey as well as areas of black and white. Facts also have contexts and need interpreting and therefore may be seen to carry different meanings for different people. That kind of understanding cannot be instantaneous if it is to have any foundation or value.

What role can belief play in this? The idea of believing in order to understand (crede ut intelligas) is commonly associated with the theologians St Augustine and St Anselm but it is important not to see this as a purely religious issue. If we take belief to mean a commitment to the truth of an idea then it can be applied to all types of knowledge. The question is whether belief has something significant to contribute in order to attain genuine understanding. Some would certainly argue that a positive attitude towards an area of learning is bound to impact on the quality of learning which takes place.

Does the psychological commitment to the truth of ‘x’ lead to greater understanding of it? It is possible to argue that whilst this may not apply to all forms of knowledge, there is a sense in which certain things have to been seen from within in order to be properly grasped. Unless one makes the effort to see someone else’s point of view then one cannot properly understand them. One can easily see how this kind of empathic knowledge readily applies to what TOK refers to as personal knowledge, but can this be true for shared knowledge too? Maybe this is what turns shared knowledge into personal knowledge.

There is no doubt that preconceptions shape our knowledge in many different ways. The novelist John Steinbeck highlights this in his masterpiece, East of Eden, when Lee the Chinese cook remarks “you are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.” Preconceptions can make us see things in a particular way, for good or ill. Given that true objectivity seems beyond us, maybe the only thing we can try and do is to adopt the right preconceptions in the right circumstances and then our Believing can genuinely help our Seeing.