Use with international Baccalaureate

'We see and understand things not as they are but as we are', in this remark, why does the words 'see' and 'understand' come together? This is because we use our senses before we interpret something. The word 'see' not only refers to our sight but also other human senses while the word 'understand' refers to the process of comprehension. However understanding might have many possibilities, sometimes we comprehend something and response to it immediately because we already have stored information as well as experience that we have encountered before. But there are times when we encounter something we do not give immediate reaction but there is a kind reconsiderations where we are linking what we have, taking a bit of time for what we have sensed. The question suggests that we do not look at things as what they are but as we are. Here, 'we are' means people (including ourselves) who tend to look at something in subjective manner depending on our past experience and previous knowledge while 'they are' means the things itself that have its own exact meaning. This remark also means that different people will most probably have different point of view upon the same thing. There are several factors that affect us as human to think in subjective manner and have different answers. Perception and language are a two ways of knowing that affect our mind to interpret, filter as well as accept something.

Whether we realize it or not, we actually comprehend something according to our own point of view. Our ways of knowing do affect our judgement about anything in our life and our sense perception plays a crucial role in perceiving something. Different people might look at the same thing; however, the interpretation as well as judgement made by them towards the thing that they encounter might not be the same. Last month, my friends and I had an experiment and it was conducted in groups with the same procedure. When we got the resultant solution which is copper (II) sulphate, CuSO4, we were required to record the colour of it. Surprisingly, while looking at the same solution, my group members gave different answers. Some of them claim that the colour of the solution was light blue, some fluorescent blue and etc. What made the answers different? It is most probably because of our perception. When I was small my mother told me that apple is red, blood is red and carrot is orange. However, as time goes by, our mind perceives things in such a complex way. We tend to give complex answers in order to be more precise and accurate, without realizing that our answers are becoming more subjective. Looking at the sky, when I was small I said that 'the sky is blue' but now, I would say that 'the sky is bright'. The two descriptions of colours are obviously different but acceptable to other people (even though they might have other perception!). Mind understands physical things but it is not physical in nature. The mind acts on its own. It is self-subsistent[1]. Due to the nature of mind, different people perceive something differently. Back to the experiment, my Chemistry teacher did accept all of the colours mentioned by us because the colours are shade of blue colours and blue represent the presence of Copper (II) ions, Cu2+ in the solution. The subjectivity in our answers doesn't make ourselves wrong but it makes us to be more flexible and open-minded.

According to Plato's ways of knowing which is known as knowledge by description, the first test to ensure that we know something is to believe the statement, secondly is the belief has to be true and lastly is we are able to justify it. This is also known as Justified True Belief[2]. The subjectivity of answers or perception has been detected by scientist long time ago. For instance, scientists agreed to use the International System of Units, universally abbreviated SI that was established in 1960 by the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM)[3] which is the governing body of the SI and it has full authority to modify the SI as necessary to reflect the latest advance in science and technology. This is because it is very difficult to make comparison if everybody uses different unit for the same quantity. People tend to apprehend and comprehend something as what they are including scientists who are also human being!

Apart from that, our personal knowledge and past experience will somehow affect our perception. According to Sextus Empiricus; all knowledge is based on experience, especially the experience of our senses and the knowledge gained by experience is the fundamental of understanding[4]. When I was in secondary school, my mathematics teacher instructed my classmates and I to answer a question in thirty seconds without writing anything on paper. The question; what is the answer for two plus two multiply with three minus four divided by two? More than half of the class gave one over two (1/2) as the answer which is absolutely wrong. This is because in mathematics' symbol, it would be 2 + 2 x 3 - 4 2 and the calculation must follow certain rule which is the multiplication and division operations must be done before addition and subtraction; [2 + (2 x 3) - (4 2)] which is equal to six! My mind told me that the calculation should be done in sequential manner but it ended up with wrong answer. Why did this happen? This is because we understand the question as we are (not the question itself). It also shows that our sense perceptions do have its own limit and they can be deceived. However, as we gain and acquire more knowledge we are able to overcome our limitation of perception and able to understand things as what they are. In this case, I am able to answer the question correctly after I knew the rule of mathematics.

The other ways of knowing is language. One of the reason why we look at something different than other people is because of our language. As we know language is used as a medium or tool for communication. However, it is susceptible for ambiguity. For instance, the meaning of 'pretty' to me might not be the same to other people. A friend of mine told me that a woman is considered to be pretty to him if she has long hair and bright skin. Even the word 'bright skin' gives further ambiguity of language. How bright the skin of the woman should be? We are unable to define something if it is susceptible to subjectivity. According to the famous philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, he claimed that our mind sees the good in things and motivates the will[5]. Our understanding is strongly influenced by language that we are using. Some of the words that we are using possessed subjective answers and we tend to give its meaning according to our own comprehension.

Nevertheless, we also understand things as what they are with the language that we are using. In order to understand someone's emotion we need the aid of language. Emotion cannot stand by its own. For example, when we look at someone who is crying, we might say that he or she is having miserable moment in life. How can we be sure with this? Human tend to form generalizations after perceiving many things that have similar characteristic. Crying has always been associated with sadness. However, when someone is happy, he or she is also tends to cry due to the exciting emotion. Only that person is able to understand his or her own feeling. That is why we need language to state our emotion. With language, we are able to understand things as what they are. My parents show their love towards me not only by their action but also through language. They always tell me that they love me and want the best for me. Due to this, I am able to understand their feelings better and I am motivated to study hard in order to make them happy.

In conclusion, as a human being we sometimes perceive and apprehend anything in our life according to ourselves. We also understand things as what they are to a certain extent. Our ways of knowing will help us to understand things better. Even though we have different perception that does not mean that we are wrong or vice versa. But it requires us to reflect and think for everything that we see and encounter in our life. We must also be able to accept other's opinion but at the same time never give up in finding better answers. Believe in the things and able to justify it will be able to make us to know something as what the things really is. It does not really matters for us to know things as 'they are', but it is how we interpret and use them so that we are able to create something beneficial not only to us but also to human being as a whole. This had been done by Thomas Edison in creating electrical bulb. He might not see and understand things as what 'they are' but he was able to use all of his mistakes in order to correct them.


  1. Philosophy, For Use With International Baccalaureate, Noel Augustes, Page 10.
  2. Ways of Knowing, An Introduction to Theory of Knowledge, Michael Woolman, Page 5.
  3. Physics Form 4 Textbook, Editors: Gan Kim Jin and Joel Ng, page 5.
  4. Ways of Knowing, An Introduction to Theory of Knowledge, Michael Woolman, Page 9.
  5. Philosophy, For Use With International Baccalaureate, Noel Augustes, Page 13.

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