The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell. ~ Confucius
One understands only in proportion to becoming himself that which he understands. ~ Søren Kierkegaard
Words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies. ~ Francis Bacon

Understanding refers to mental states or processes (in that sense also called intellection) whereby individuals are able to conceptualize abstract ideas or definable entities, such as situations, objects, persons, or messages adequately in relation to general ideas or given measures of awareness or comprehension.


  • The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.
  • Words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.
  • The human understanding is moved by those things most which strike and enter the mind simultaneously and suddenly, and so fill the imagination; and then it feigns and supposes all other things to be somehow, though it cannot see how, similar to those few things by which it is surrounded.
  • The human understanding is unquiet; it cannot stop or rest, and still presses onward, but in vain. Therefore it is that we cannot conceive of any end or limit to the world, but always as of necessity it occurs to us that there is something beyond.
  • No one has yet been found so firm of mind and purpose as resolutely to compel himself to sweep away all theories and common notions, and to apply the understanding, thus made fair and even, to a fresh examination of particulars. Thus it happens that human knowledge, as we have it, is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident, and also of the childish notions which we at first imbibed.
  • Let men but think over their infinite expenditure of understanding, time, and means on matters and pursuits of far less use and value; whereof, if but a small part were directed to sound and solid studies, there is no difficulty that might not be overcome.
  • Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case.
    • Jorge Luis Borges, in "Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote" in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcate [The Garden of Forking Paths] (1942)


  • You know, we have little bits of understanding, glimpses, a little bit of light here and there, but there's a tremendous amount of darkness, which is a challenge. I think life would be pretty boring if we understood everything. It's better if we don't understand anything... and know that we don't, that's the important part.
  • Science studies what's at the edge of understanding, and what's at the edge of understanding is usually fairly simple. And it rarely reaches human affairs. Human affairs are way too complicated. In fact even understanding insects is an extremely complicated problem in the sciences. So the actual sciences tell us virtually nothing about human affairs.
    • Noam Chomsky, in Science in the Dock, Discussion with Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss & Sean M. Carroll (2011)
  • The more thorough the understanding needed, the further back in time one must go.
    • Gordon Clark A Christian View of Men and Things (1951), p. 58.
  • The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.



  • Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.
    • Albert Einstein, in a speech to the New History Society (14 December 1930), reprinted in "Militant Pacifism" in Cosmic Religion (1931)
  • One may say "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."
    • Albert Einstein, from the article "Physics and Reality" (March 1936), reprinted in Out of My Later Years (1956). The quotation marks may just indicate that he wants to present this as a new aphorism, but it could possibly indicate that he is paraphrasing or quoting someone else — perhaps Immanuel Kant, since in the next sentence he says "It is one of the great realizations of Immanuel Kant that the setting up of a real external world would be senseless without this comprehensibility."
      Other variants:
    • The eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility.
      • In the endnotes to Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, note 46 on p. 628 says that "Gerald Holton says that this is more properly translated" as the variant above, citing Holton's essay "What Precisely is Thinking?" on p. 161 of Einstein: A Centenary Volume edited by Anthony Philip French.
    • The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.
      • This version was given in Einstein: A Biography (1954) by Antonina Vallentin, p. 24, and widely quoted afterwards. Vallentin cites "Physics and Reality" in Journal of the Franklin Institute (March 1936), and is possibly giving a variant translation as with Holton.
    • The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.
      • As quoted in Speaking of Science (2000) by Michael Fripp
    • The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility … The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.
      • As quoted in Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, p. 462. In the original essay "The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle" appears at the end of the paragraph that follows the paragraph in which "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility" appears.
  • Both churches and universities — insofar as they live up to their true function — serve the ennoblement of the individual. They seek to fulfill this great task by spreading moral and cultural understanding, renouncing the use of brute force.
    • Albert Einstein, in "Moral Decay" (1937); Later published in Out of My Later Years (1950)
  • Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.
    • Albert Einstein, in a letter to Morris Raphael Cohen, professor emeritus of philosophy at the College of the City of New York, defending the appointment of Bertrand Russell to a teaching position (19 March 1940)
  • You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.
    • Albert Einstein, in a letter to Guy H. Raner Jr. (28 September 1949), from article by Michael R. Gilmore in Skeptic magazine, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1997)


  • The Lord ... said: Unless a man shall eat my flesh, he shall not have in himself eternal life. Certain of his disciples, the seventy to wit, were scandalised, and said: This is a hard saying; who can understand it? And they departed from him, and walked with him no more. His saying ... seemed to them a hard one. They received it foolishly: they thought of it carnally. For they fancied, that the Lord was going to cut from his own body certain morsels and to give those morsels to them. Hence they said: This is a hard saying. But they themselves were hard: not the saying. For, if, instead of being hard, they had been mild, they would have ... learned from him what those learned, who remained while they departed. For, when the twelve disciples had remained with him after the others had departed, ... he instructed them, and said unto them: It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. The words, which I speak unto you, are spirit and life. As if he had said: Understand spiritually what I have spoken. You are Not about to eat this identical body, which you see; and you are Not about to drink this identical blood, which they who crucify me will pour out. I have commended unto you a certain sacrament. This, if spiritually understood, will quicken you. Though it must be celebrated visibly, it must be understood invisibly.


  • But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
    • Genesis 11:5-7
  • Do not confuse understanding with a larger vocabulary, sacred writings are beneficial in stimulating desire for inward realization, if one stanza at a time is slowly assimilated. Continual intellectual study results in vanity and the false satisfaction of an undigested knowledge.
  • Especially now when views are becoming more polarized, we must work to understand each other across political, religious and national boundaries.
    • Jane Goodall reported in Elizabeth LeReverend, "The Irrepressible Dr. Jane Goodall", Verge Magazine (2010).
  • The human desire to be understood is never quite sincere. It is on our own terms that we desire to be understood, not on the terms of truth.


  • Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding.
  • Could... dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state, and when most accurate and cautious in its determinations; such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists.



  • He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.
  • Here saw I a great oneing betwixt Christ and us, to mine understanding: for when He was in pain, we were in pain.
    And all creatures that might suffer pain, suffered with Him: that is to say, all creatures that God hath made to our service.
  • My understanding was lifted up into Heaven, and there I saw three heavens: of which sight I marvelled greatly. And though I see three heavens — and all in the blessed manhood of Christ — none is more, none is less, none is higher, none is lower, but even-like in bliss.
  • In the sight of God all man is one man, and one man is all man. This man was hurt in his might and made full feeble; and he was stunned in his understanding so that he turned from the beholding of his Lord. But his will was kept whole in God’s sight; — for his will I saw our Lord commend and approve.
  • In our intent we abide in God, and faithfully trust to have mercy and grace; and this is His own working in us. And of His goodness He openeth the eye of our understanding, by which we have sight, sometime more and sometime less, according as God giveth ability to receive. And now we are raised into the one, and now we are suffered to fall into the other.
  • High understanding it is, inwardly to see and know that God, which is our Maker, dwelleth in our soul; and an higher understanding it is, inwardly to see and to know that our soul, that is made, dwelleth in God’s Substance: of which Substance, God, we are that we are. And I saw no difference between God and our Substance: but as it were all God; and yet mine understanding took that our Substance is in God: that is to say, that God is God, and our Substance is a creature in God.
  • It is nought else but a right understanding, with true belief, and sure trust, of our Being: that we are in God, and God in us, Whom we see not.


  • One must learn to know oneself before knowing anything else (gnocchi seauton). Not until a person has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning.
  • The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. … I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing.
  • As soon as I am outside my religious understanding, I feel as an insect with which children are playing must feel, because life seems to have dealt with me so unmercifully; as soon as I am inside my religious understanding, I understand that precisely this has absolute meaning for me. Hence, that which in one case is a dreadful jest is in another sense the most profound earnestness. Earnestness is basically not something simple, a simplex, but is a compositum [compound], for true earnestness is the unity of jest and earnestness.
  • To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and the way he understands it.
  • One understands only in proportion to becoming himself that which he understands.
    • Søren Kierkegaard, in Papers, V B 40, cited in The Logic of Subjectivity (2010) by Louis Pojman,, p. 61
  • It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are. Human understanding has vulgarly occupied itself with nothing but understanding, but if it would only take the trouble to understand itself at the same time it would simply have to posit the paradox.
  • The understanding, reflection, is also a gift of God. What shall one do with it, how dispose of it if one is not to use it? And if one then uses it in fear and trembling not for one’s own advantage but to serve the truth, if one uses it that way in fear and trembling and furthermore believing that it still is God who determines the issue in its eternal significance, venturing to trust in him, and with unconditional obedience yielding to what he makes use of it: is this not fear of God and serving God the way a person of reflection can, in the somewhat different way than the spontaneously immediate person, but perhaps more ardently.
  • When rashness lives in the heart, a person is quick to discover the multiplicity of sin, then he understands splendidly a fragmentary utterance, hastily comprehends at a distance something scarcely enunciated. When love lives in the heart, a person understands slowly and does not hear at all words said in haste and does not understand them when repeated because he assigns them good position and a good meaning. He does not understand a long angry and insulting verbal assault, because he is waiting for one more word that will give it meaning.
    • Søren Kierkegaard, in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Soren Kierkegaard 1843-1844 (1990) by Howard V. Hong, p. 60-61
  • Experience certainly has long known how to think of some cheer for the troubled, but, as is natural, it does not know a joy that passes all understanding. Experience knows all the many inventions of the human heart, but a rapture that did not arise in any man’s heart it does not know.
  • The expectancy of an eternal salvation will reconcile everyone with his neighbor, with his friend, and with his enemy in an understanding of the essential.
  • What feelings, understanding and will a person has depends in the last resort upon what imagination he has — how he represents himself to himself, that is, upon imagination.
    • Søren Kierkegaard, in The Sickness unto Death (1849), as translated by Alastair Hannay (1989), Part One: The Sickness unto Death is Despair
  • Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
  • What brings understanding is love. When your heart is full, then you will listen to the teacher, to the beggar, to the laughter of children, to the rainbow, and to the sorrow of man. Under every stone and leaf, that which is eternal exists. But we do not know how to look for it. Our minds and hearts are filled with other things than understanding of "what is". Love and mercy, kindliness and generosity do not cause enmity. When you love, you are very near truth. For, love makes for sensitivity, for vulnerability. That which is sensitive is capable of renewal. Then truth will come into being. It cannot come if your mind and heart are burdened, heavy with ignorance and animosity.
  • To understand fear you must also understand pleasure — they are interrelated; without understanding one you cannot understand the other. This means that one cannot say ‘I must only have pleasure and no fear’; fear is the other side of the coin which is called pleasure.
  • If I draw a conclusion, I act on an idea, on an image, on a symbol, which is the structure of thought, and so I am constantly preventing myself from having insight, from understanding things as they are.
  • When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.



  • If we understood something just one way, we would not understand it at all.


  • There is a difference between the ordinary person who may discuss these things occasionally over a pint of beer at the local pub, or worry about them for a while before dropping off to sleep, and the person who makes a serious lifelong commitment to struggling with them and turns that commitment into a part of his or her very self-definition. For one cannot say, I’ve finished theology; now I’ll move on to another subject. There is a sense in which one might say something similar of Akkadian grammar or the family tree of the Hapsburg dynasty, but one cannot reasonably assert it of exploration into God’s revelation, which is, by definition infinite in its implications for human understanding. To be a theological student in the full sense of those words cannot be a temporary state or a preamble to something else, such as the ministerial priesthood or an all-round education. Rather, it is a solemn engagement to developing over a lifetime the gift of Christian wonder or curiosity, which is the specifically theological mode of faith. As theologians, then, we commit ourselves to the lifelong study and reflection which the satisfaction of such curiosity will need. Our faith is from now on, in St. Anselm’s words, fides quaerens intellectum, “a faith that quests for understanding.”



  • Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?
  • Every assimilation of any poem is a translation.
    • Suman Pokhrel, Translator's Note in Bhaarat: Shashwat Aawaj (2019)


  • A message is given to many, but those who are meant to understand, understand.
    • Rwandan proverb, as quoted in "Killer Songs" (17 March 2002), by Donald G. McNeil, Jr., The New York Times


  • The mind understands something only insofar as it absorbs it like a seed into itself, nurtures it, and lets it grow into blossom and fruit. Therefore scatter holy seeds into the soil of the spirit, without any affectation of added superfluities.
    • Friedrich Schlegel, “Ideas,” Lucinde and the Fragments, P. Firchow, trans. (1991), § 5
  • We cannot exert our understanding without from time to time understanding something of importance; and this act of understanding may be accompanied by the awareness of our understanding, by the understanding of understanding, by noesis noesos, and this is so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to his God.
    • Leo Strauss, “What is liberal education?” Liberalism, Ancient and Modern (1968), p. 8





  • It is the aim of public life to arrange that all forms of power are entrusted, so far as possible, to men who effectively consent to be bound by the obligation towards all human beings which lies upon everyone, and who understand the obligation.
    • Simone Weil, in Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation (1943), as translated by Richard Rees
  • In the history that Franklin writes, knowledge and understanding are complementary: One without the other is incomplete. His contribution has been to make history a field of wisdom, devoid of the cult of fictitious glorification of a whole society or the cant of quantitative reductionism that analyzes parts out of context.


  • 知止乎其所不能知,至矣。若有不即是者,天鈞敗之。
    • To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.
    • Zhuangzi Book XXIII, ¶ 7,as rendered in the epigraph to Ch. 3 of The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin, based upon the 1891 translation by James Legge, Le Guin was subsequently informed that this was a very poor translation, as there were no lathes in China in the time of Zhuangzi. The full passage as translated by Legge reads:
He whose mind is thus grandly fixed emits a Heavenly light. In him who emits this heavenly light men see the (True) man. When a man has cultivated himself (up to this point), thenceforth he remains constant in himself. When he is thus constant in himself, (what is merely) the human element will leave him, but Heaven will help him. Those whom their human element has left we call the people of Heaven. Those whom Heaven helps we call the Sons of Heaven. Those who would by learning attain to this seek for what they cannot learn. Those who would by effort attain to this, attempt what effort can never effect. Those who aim by reasoning to reach it reason where reasoning has no place. To know to stop where they cannot arrive by means of knowledge is the highest attainment. Those who cannot do this will be destroyed on the lathe of Heaven.
  • You wouldn't ask a blind man to appreciate a scene of beauty, nor a deaf man to enjoy the sounds of drums and bells. But it is possible to be blind and deaf in one's deep understanding, as well as physically.

See also

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