The facets of understanding from Understanding by Design are interesting in that they present a multi-faceted, well, understanding of the process of understanding something.  It is a refreshingly thorough analysis of what goes into actually understanding a concept, theory, work, or piece of media, particularly because it goes to great lengths to explain each facet and provide relevant examples of them.  It’s also a good replacement for what we might think of as the “traditional” method of understanding, which usually just consists of being able to recite facts and sometimes to demonstrate them via explanation, interpretation, and application.  Understanding is far more complex than recitation, and while it’s certainly an impressive (and sadly disappearing) feat to be able to recite, say, the poetry of Yeats from memory, that doesn’t delve into what really qualifies as understanding said poet’s work.

However, there seems to be something of an issue with the way understanding is presented in these facets, especially with their order.  It seems to me that the author isn’t presenting them in sequential order (i.e. that you must first be able to Explain before you can Interpret, and that you must first be able to Interpret before you can Apply, etc.), and while that makes sense for some of them (knowing one’s limitations and outlooks in Self-Knowledge could certainly come before or after the most basic Explanatory ability, but it also often isn’t even present in people who can Explain, Interpret, Apply, etc.), others seem to require each other in order to be possible.  For example, Explanation is the ability to go beyond knowing the basic plot of Catch 22 and being able to draw out the motivations of the characters, the imagery and the symbolism of Yossarian’s nakedness, the comparison between Milo’s capitalistic endeavors and the entire structure of the military.  How could one possibly have Interpretive understanding of the book without already having that Explanatory understanding?  Can anyone explain why aspects of the book matter if they cannot first explain why things happen in the book in the first place?  And how is it possible to Apply the “why does it matter” of the book to, say, the modern military industrial complex of the United States or to the changing (or unchanging) nature of war if one cannot Explain and Interpret Joseph Heller’s work first?

On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that many people could look at the book and identify their Self-Knowledge and the Perspectives present in the book and in the author’s writing of the book without Explanatory or Interpretive or Applicative understanding of it.  I don’t need to be able to Explain or Interpret a poem to have Self-Knowledge of the way I read poems, of what makes poems difficult or easy for me, of how I can best approach a poem on the first go-round; in fact, I think it is my lack of Explanatory and Interpretive understanding of poetry that makes my Self-Knowledge in regards to poetry that much easier to ascertain.  An experienced poetry critic might have a much tougher time talking about their limitations and approaches than I would, while I would have a much tougher time giving an account of the what, how, and why of any particular poem.

And what of Empathy?  That seems to vary wildly; sometimes I’m sure I could Empathize with an author or a character in some cases without any other kind of understanding, but in others, I think pretty much every other kind of understanding is a prerequisite for Empathy.  Or at least for Empathy that is backed up by anything.  And how does one Empathize with a physicist who discovers a particular theorem to describe gravitational forces in deep space?  Is Empathy even remotely relevant, even by the expanded definition that this author is using?  I don’t think so; I’m not sure I would ever expect or even care about someone’s Empathetic understanding of geometry, partly because I’m not even sure what that would look like, or why I should care about it.  In fact, isn’t Empathetic and Perspective understanding of scientific knowledge quite irrelevant?  What matters about relativity is whether or not it accurately describes the universe, not what Einstein’s social and political situation were, particularly because we can empirically demonstrate (or refute) the myriad parts of that theory using basic logical forms and operations we call “mathematics” which have absolutely nothing to do with sociopolitical circumstances.

On the other side of the coin, I’m not sure that specifically Applicative understanding of works of literature is always necessary or even possible; it’s pretty clear how we’re supposed to apply Fahrenheit 451 (i.e. censorship and the destruction of knowledge and creativity is bad, and you should prevent it), but how on Earth am I supposed to Apply In a Station of the Metro?

Finally, it seems to me that Perspective and Empathy could be easily and effectively covered by Explanation and Interpretation.  It could be argued that Perspective and Empathy are absolutely necessary for Interpretation to have any sort of impetus or merit; how can you Interpret a work if you do not first understand the Perspectives involved and Empathize with the author and the characters?  Couldn’t this all simply be reduced to Explanation, Interpretation, Application?  Self-Knowledge would be spread across all three of them, and Perspective and Empathy would be part of Interpretation.  That would also solve the problem of order.  Either that, or maybe understanding is even more complex (or simpler?) than this chapter would have us believe.