Comprehension is defined as the action or capability of understanding something. To comprehend, in other words, is to understand. Likewise, it seems clear that the words “comprehension” and “comprehensive” have a common origin. Therefore, it seems logical to assume that comprehension (or understanding) is directed at comprehensive entities. What we understand, it turns out, is not bits and pieces, but a whole.
To most of us, what I have just stated must seem a waste of words – of course comprehension or understanding is of comprehensive entities or wholes. Yet we are also taught that to understand something fully, we must break it into its parts and examine them carefully in isolation from the rest of the entity we hope to comprehend. After all, a comprehensive entity IS made up of parts and we can gain a better understanding of the whole by better understanding the parts.
Parts or wholes?
We are faced with a conundrum: to comprehend a comprehensive entity, we break it into bits and pieces that we examine independently. We seek to understand them, I will point out, as comprehensive entities in and of themselves. If they too are wholes, then to understand them we may choose to divide them into their own bits and pieces. Our goal is to comprehend a comprehensive entity, but our method pushes us to partition and segregate and categorize and organize. If our method requires us to separate, how can we ever come to comprehend?
The answer is that we can only do so by setting aside the bits and pieces to focus again on the whole. However, we must not set them aside absolutely. Rather, we must look “from” them or “through” them “to” the comprehensive entity; we must somehow make our knowledge of them subsidiary to our focus without abandoning them completely.
Fortunately, God has created us with the ability to do just this. In fact, we “integrate” subsidiary clues to focus on comprehensive entities all of the time. Sometimes we must struggle to bring the pieces together – as when we seek the right words to express the thoughts in our minds, or when we learn to ride a bicycle or to play the piano. Other times the integration comes so naturally that we don’t even realize that it has occurred – as when we hear several notes in harmony or pick up a spoon or recognize someone’s face.
The implications of this curious relationship between comprehension and comprehensive entities are broad. Some current examples are worth mentioning.
- In diagnosing COVID-19, it is important that we look at the “comprehensive entity.” A cough by itself could by the symptom of a common cold and a fever could indicate a bout with malaria. Even a positive COVID-19 test result may be a false-positive. What is important is to look at the bigger picture, at the comprehensive entity, at the whole.
- Those seeking to understand the protests and even rioting following the death of George Floyd or the shooting of Jacob Blake must look from or through those incidents to the injustice that has infused our society. It is not the single incident, not the single “part” that triggers such a passionate response, but the comprehensive entity, the whole.
- Likewise, those who argue that “enough is enough” are not relying on their knowledge of a single incident. Instead, they are integrating together their knowledge of multiple incidents as well as their personal understanding of what is “right” and “reasonable.” From the perspective of the parts, their argument may not be legitimate. However, to understand or comprehend it, one must look from or through those parts to the comprehensive entity, to the whole.
The relationship between comprehension and comprehensive entities can also help us better understand fires and hurricanes, the passion in this election season, how to prepare a pleasing meal, or the way our children respond to a situation. Likewise, by themselves the combination of school uniforms and back packs and loads of dry grass in this photo may be puzzling. Yet if I integrate them together with knowledge that Congolese students often pay for their schooling through labor, I begin to see the whole picture. These are students delivering their school fees.
In examining the world around us, it is always tempting to turn our attention to the parts. It is natural to focus on the bits and pieces that make up the whole. Such an examination may be useful, but in the end we must subordinate or internalize those parts so that we can truly comprehend the comprehensive entity.