I’ve been throwing the word apprehend around a lot recently. It’s a word in constant use by many of the books I’ve been reading recently, and one that I understand well enough to follow them; but it occurred to me do that I can’t really define it.

According to, to apprehend is generally “to understand”; when used of an object, it is “to grasp the meaning of; understand, esp. intuitively; perceive.”

Thomas and company clearly distinguish between perceiving, that is, acquiring images through our senses, and apprehending, that is, understanding through our intellects. From this, we can conclude that dictionaries are the death of fine and subtle distinctions. But of course, I’m trying to define apprehend as a technical term in philosophy, not as in normal English.

Apprehension can also be distinguished from comprehension; defines comprehend as “to understand the nature or meaning of; grasp with the mind; perceive.” Uh-huh.

Dagobert D. Rune’s Dictionary of Philosophy says this:

Apprehension: (ad + prehendere: to seize)

1. Act involving the bare awareness of the presence of an object to consciousness; the general relation of subject to object as inclusive of the more special forms, such as perceiving or remembering, which the relation may take.

2. Act involving the awareness of the bare presence of an object to consciousness, as opposed to any act which involves judgment about such an object.

I fancy that the second meaning is the specific one I’ve been looking for.

The same source has this to say about comprehension:

Comprehension: (Lat. com + prehendere, to grasp)

The act or faculty of understanding, intellectual grasp, or insight. Comprehension may be achieved variously by:

  1. unifying and relating manifold facts or ideas;
  2. deducing something from premises;
  3. accommodating new facts or ideas to established knowledge;
  4. seeing a thing or idea in its proper or significant context;
  5. relating a fact or idea to something known, universal and subject to law.

Comprehension carries sometimes the special connotation of thorough understanding.

The etymology of the words is revealing: to apprehend is to seize an idea; to comprehend is to grasp an idea. The second has a sense of greater care and attention, of deliberation.

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