Wordless ground of meaning

When we say we know what something is, or know how to do something, or know why something is valuable or worthless we implicitly assume we understand what it means to know these things. But how sure can we be of this?

Are we sure we understand exhaustively what understanding is and can be? Are we sure we know what understanding does and can do? Without a full set of possibilities to consider, can we claim to have a clear sense of what it ought to be like to understand? And what if multiple distinct ways of knowing exist — ways that can be confused for one another, leading to misapplications, misunderstandings or even misnorms?

I will claim below that we have impoverished and unclear understandings of understanding. My claim is based, not on speculation or empty abstraction, but on personal experience working in the field of design, and it is this experience that gives the claim and its constituent concepts meaning and urgency. Over and over, I have found that misconceptions around understanding and knowledge to interfere with the work of improving understandings and producing more effective knowledge. This is an attempt to create and justify conceptual space for a wider range of intellectual functioning, including, most of all functioning that is palpably real, demonstrably effective (when permitted to act) but profoundly language-resistant:


First, we tend to emphasize explicit knowledge that is readily articulated, operationalized and agreed upon. This is done, I believe, at the expense of tacit, primordial, intuitive understandings that invest explicit knowledge with meaning, that allow us to inhabit the knowledge and have real mastery of a field or subject or genre.

We assume that if someone can clearly explain a practice that they have demonstrated an expertise that can be applied in practice, and that if someone has difficulty explaining how they do something, they do not know what they are doing. In both is an implied belief that language is directing one’s activities. But what if the know-how of explaining is one thing and the know-how of doing is another? And what if the meaning of the explicit explanation is predicated entirely on a tacit know-how (or do-how?), one that is not some latently explicit knowledge that, with effort, can be brought to the surface, but rather as a primary source of competence, one that is supplemented or equipped by explicit, formal language (verbal, mathematical, geometrical or otherwise) but never dispensable?

The same is true of valuing, whether emotional, moral or aesthetic. Often we assume unconscious principles or logical processes are working behind the scene to produce our valuative responses. A person who can say what these principles are or produce arguments for applying them in some particular way, must have clearer discernment of value. But again, what if the valuative response — a know-why (or feel-why?) — is primary? What if value is perceived directly or not at all, and explanations, accounts and expressions are supplements to something preceding them that cannot be replaced with principles or logic, which alone give these supplemental forms meaning? In value, if you don’t actually experience the value, you do not know the value in the way value is known. With love, “to know is to love.”

Last, perhaps even conceptual knowledge is like practices and values in that it is rooted in some kind of tacit response that produces awareness of relationships? A sort of analogical intuition, a wordless recognition, underlies the ability to make any kind of abstract connection and to speak about it, or respond to it. This is a tacit form of know-what. It is entirely possible to detect relationships prior to applying categories or articulating criteria. Without this relating, all categorizing by criteria is a mechanical formalism. It is abstraction in the worst sense of the word — language games conducted in mid-air, uprooted from the wordless ground of meaning.

Perhaps “wordless ground of meaning” provides a clue to account for why experience is so hard to encapsulate directly. We have to indicate it indirectly by telling origin stories of life paths, or show what it has done and can do through lists of accomplishments, or we sense it in the liveliness, skillfulness or gravity of actions, words or works. When I use the word, experience, of course what I really mean is wisdom — a fund of tacit know-what, do-how, feel-why that invests words, actions and responses to life situations with immediate significance.


Second, each of these kinds of understanding, these primary intuitions, ways of knowing, can take one another as objects, which makes them easy to confuse.

For the sake of comprehension I will call them intuition of What, How and Why.

(Unfortunately, this What-How-Why triad is already in prominent use elsewhere, but for different uses and in a different relation. This line of thought does not build on the other, and it will be necessary to at least temporarily forget the other system to understand this one. It does not build upon it, and might even be incommensurate with it, despite using the same three words. They’re the best words for the purpose, however, so I am using them.)

And for grammatical reasons I can’t explain or excuse, the “objects” are verbs… An intuition of What or How or Why can apply to whatness (as “is”), or to howness (as “can”) or to whyness (as “ought”), producing strange hybrids that are easily mistaken for one another. And to make it even worse, the hybrids can take other hybrids as objects, and produce long chains of associations. This is my explanation for the confusions I described above. Knowing how to speak about concepts describing how something is done (speaking expertly about expertise) is confused for the expertise itself. Mastering the vocabulary and rules of a language game is one thing, intuitively connecting the language to what it signifies is quite another, as many perplexed newly graduated scholars will tell you, if they’re honest.

Defining primary (What, How, Why) and secondary (What is, What can, What ought, How can, How ought, How is, Why ought, Why is, Why can) should at least create some distinctions to untangle what can and cannot be expected from the various forms of knowledge.


Finally, there exist some vivid experiences that occur when we lack an understanding and are unable to use a counterfeit. These experiences also need names. I call an incapacity to intuit What perplexity, and incapacity to intuit How faltering, and incapacity to intuit Why indifference. These, too, should aid in sorting out what kind of understanding is operative and inoperative in any given situation.


The above could serve as an explanation of my obscure as hell trefoil diagram and its attendant prose poem delucidations from my Geometric Meditations pamphlet, formerly known as The 10,000 Everythings.

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