On Understanding

Essays in the History of Religions
by Joachim Wach

On Understanding

Albert Schweitzer is a master of understanding. Without a great natural talent -- or shall we say genius -- no amount of acquired skill and knowledge would have enabled him to interpret so profoundly and comprehensively as he has done personalities of the past, distant periods and peoples, great religious documents and works of art, the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of human beings from the standpoint of a theologian, an artist and a physician. Interpres nonfit sed nascitur. [An interpreter is not made but born.] Yet, like all masters of a craft, he never relied on the inspiration of his genius but perfected his talents consistently and methodically by experience and study over a long period of years. His understanding, moreover, has proved to be deep and fruitful, because it is the result not only of a great and inclusive mind, but of an equally great and cultivated heart. A brief analysis of the nature of understanding, which he possesses to such an eminent degree, shall be our contribution in his honor.

All theories of understanding which try to analyze its nature and the stages of its development will have to begin with a concept of existence, and this means, implicitly if not explicitly, with a metaphysical decision. As I see it, there exist three possibilities which I should like to call the materialistic, the psychophysical and the spiritual interpretations of existence.

The materialistic conception explains the development and differentiation of the spiritual and psychic processes by evolution of matter. Its specific crucial problem is the immediate understanding of the minds of others.

The psychophysical conception admits that there is a mental existence apart from matter, so that it is possible for a man to share in the mental life of his fellows.

The spiritual interpretation, like the materialistic, assumes the unity of all existence, but in a different sense. Here the basis of understanding lies in the continuity of mental life. Three theories of understanding are based on this idea:

1. The religious concept of spiritual communion, that is, communion in the Holy Spirit;

2. Hegel’s secularized theory of the unity of spirit; and

3. Nietzsche’s modern biologistic philosophy of life, with its idea of the unity of all life. Because we share the same spirit, mind or life, we may be able to understand what is related to us in substance "Wie kann ein Mensch Sinn für etwas haben, wenn er nicht den Keim davon in sich trägt?" (Novalis) ("How can a man understand anything, if he does not carry the germ of it within himself?")

I think there must be some truth in the idea expressed by Plato and accepted by Goethe in its Neo-Platonic form: "Wär’ nicht das Auge sonnenhaft, die Sonne könnt es nie erblicken." ("Were not the eye akin to the sun, it could never perceive the sun.") The religious flavor of this philosophy may be recognized in Malebranche’s version: "Nous voyons toutes choses en Dieu," which Ernst Troeltsch has recently taken over into his epistemology. To the extent that we are part of the divine creation do we see it in its true nature. Thus we obtain the hermeneutic principle that we cannot understand what is wholly different from ourselves. If we were also to say that we cannot understand what is wholly like ourselves, we would have to assume that understanding can apply only to an intermediate field, lying between what is wholly similar and what is wholly dissimilar to our nature. The wholly similar cannot be understood, because all understanding requires a certain detachment of the subject from the object.

We must now discuss whether we can understand equally well everything in which we participate. It is obviously impossible to understand life as a whole, either in its infinitely varied productivity, or in its totality, which makes it more than the sum of all individuals, their experience and their creations.

The same is the case with history in its most general aspect. We may attribute meaning to history, but such an interpretation can be nothing but a subjective evaluation, an eisegesis, not an exegesis.

It is quite a different matter when we turn to particular phases of life, to specific experiences, to individual emotions and thoughts, to the history of particular cultures, periods, events and phenomena. They have a definite meaning, which we can understand and interpret objectively, provided the necessary subjective presuppositions are fulfilled.

Facts, and groups of facts, may be of two kinds: they may either arise in subjective experience only or manifest themselves objectively in expressions of that experience. There are many different stages and types of expression; beginning with the transitory expression of psychic life in facial expression, they lead up to gestures and eventually to signs. In the third stage we find a certain independence of expression from the subjective psychic experience. A signal has a special meaning, which can be understood, but which can also be misinterpreted, because it is relatively independent of the intention of the person who makes it. If someone is waving to me with his hand, I -- and perhaps other persons -- may interpret that sign to mean that I should go away, whereas he might want me to come toward him. His expression, the signal, is ambiguous. We see that a signal may have a meaning which may be interpreted independent of or even contrary to the subjective intention; therefore, we have to reckon with two possibilities: a subjective and an objective interpretation of expression.

The next stage of objectification is realized when the meaning is inherent in an expression, communicated to us through a medium: sounds, words, and phrases, for instance, may be understood in a subjective and in an objective sense; each might have a distinct meaning. The analysis of the understanding of the composition of words and phrases, which had been first outlined most brilliantly by Wilhelm von Humboldt, is the task of philology, one of the fields in which a theory of interpretation has developed. The others are theology, with its theory of the interpretation of sacred writings, and jurisprudence with its theory of the interpretation of laws.

The third stage of objectification is represented by personal documents, which might be of monumental or literary character. Letters are an interesting example; they contain subjective expression with an objective meaning. Now I can interpret the meaning of a letter without regard to the subjective life of the writer. I may do it rightly or wrongly. To be sure that I have the right interpretation of it, that I have really understood it as it wanted to be understood, I must see it in its subjective context. In this respect, Feuerbach once said that letters are aphorisms cut from their context in life. So we see that we are led from the interpretation of a special configuration to more and more extended subjective and objective contexts from which the original object takes its color: the whole correspondence, the character and life of its author.

So far we have dealt with types of expression of psychic experience which are rather closely related to the subjective experience from which they originate. The maximum of objectification, independent of subjective life, is reached in works to which we can do justice without reference to their originator, such as historical documents, normative (legal or religious) writings, and works of art.

Within the realm of artistic creation we see differences of degree in this respect. The development from spontaneous gestures to the artistic dance and to the drama shows that expression is more or less bound to the personality of the actor or actress, while painting and architecture represent expression of a less personal character, their mediums being tangible and material. Music again is peculiar in this respect: the meaning of a musical composition is conveyed through sound, the subtlest vibrations of matter, and is relatively independent of the personality of its author. How complicated the problems of musical hermeneutics are, we may see from the following example, taken from my book, Das Verstehen. In the opera Orpheus and Euridice Gluck composed a special melodic line for the words: "Oh, I have lost her, and it is my greatest sorrow," and afterwards replaced these words with: "Oh, I have gained her, and it is my greatest joy," without changing the music. This illustrates the flexibility of music as a medium of conveying meaning.

So, in all understanding of more or less objectified expression which is to succeed in its intention, two factors combine: the subjective interpretation, which intends to make sure the psychological meaning of an expression by relating it to its author, and the objective interpretation, which takes it as an entity in itself and tries to unfold its meaning. The objective exegesis consists of three different procedures: the technical interpretation, analysis of the material or elements of expression (sounds, letters, colors); the generic interpretation, asking for the genre or genos, type or form of work; the historical and sociological interpretation, which attempts to elucidate the socio-historical background and the development of the phenomenon. None of these viewpoints should be unduly stressed at the expense of others if the aim is an integral understanding.

Michelangelo’s famous paintings, "The Creation of Man," may serve as an example of highly objectified artistic expression. Understanding means, in this case, to be able to answer the questions: 1) What is to be seen? The answer is: a young man, lying on the ground, and an old man, gliding, as it were, from the air toward him; and 2) What does it signify? This question is not identical with the psychological inquiry, "What did the artist intend to express?" Rather, it refers to the objective meaning of this painting, which we may identify as the same or another than the artist intended to express. The answer is: the Lord, creating Adam, the first man.

In trying to illuminate the background, we must relate the painting to three different contexts. The first, the historical and sociological, interpretation, gives it a place in the history of art, of artists, of culture and of society. The second, or generic interpretation, analyses it according to its species and its technical character. The third, the documentary interpretation, places the work in a larger context of meaning, which might possibly be beyond the horizon of its creator; it illustrates the philosopher’s shrewd remark, "The artist is ever wiser than he is." Here the success of hermeneutics lies in understanding the work of the author better than he himself did.

With this last type of interpretation we have already passed not only to inference, but also to appreciation and application of the meaning of the objectification of experience, and it is a problem whether this appreciation or application is a part of the process of understanding proper.

For instance, in the interpretation of art, interpretation, and appreciation or evaluation are closely connected, more so than in the interpretation of laws. And in the interpretation of religion, it is doubtful whether the meaning of a religious message can be understood without any reference to its hortatory character. That is how the early Protestant theologians conceive of understanding: Primum perceptio, deinde cogitatio de illa percepta notitia in praxim, tertio velle, quarto perficere. [First one perceives; then one reflects on what has been perceived with a view to action; then one wills; and finally one acts to carry out one’s volition.]

Presuppositions, Conditions, and Limitations of Understanding

We have now to consider which subjective and objective presuppositions are necessary for adequate understanding and what the limitations of understanding itself are. We have already found that understanding aims at bringing into focus the unknown as an intermediate field between the entirely foreign and the perfectly familiar. Though we cannot say we understand the lower organisms, we succeed in interpreting the meaning of the gestures and sounds made by animals. Scheler has defined the dividing line between man and animals by attributing to man Geist, the ability to reflect on his own nature and to become a moral being, capable of renunciation and self-sacrifice. I would prefer to draw the line between those beings which are and those which are not able to create permanent expressions for their internal experience, which may be understood independently of subjective life. Therefore, we may say that understanding in a technical sense is limited to the realm of human life and human creations.

Why is it difficult for us at times to understand our fellow men and the expression of their experience? First, because we are -- each of us -- the complicated and highly individual result of slow development from an original germ. The second thing to remember is that the understanding subject does not live m a vacuum; he is conditioned in many ways by his environment. Our understanding, therefore, is necessarily limited, first, by what we are personally, and secondly, by the conditions under which we exist. Thus we can say that the chances for understanding persons and things are in some respects worse and in others better than some epistomologists think.

Two extreme attitudes, however, must be avoided: a naïve realism, which hopes to grasp the object "as it is," and a subjectivistic skepticism, which dissolves the object into relations. Not relativism, but relationism, should be the motto of all sound hermeneutics.

The understanding of individuality is the basic problem of hermeneutics. "In der Individualität liegt das Geheimnis alles Daseins" [Individuality contains the secret of all existence], said Humboldt, and Dilthey agrees with him: "Individuum est ineffabile." That means that individuality is not only inexpressible but also incomprehensible. In the different methods of investigation of personality, however, some methods have been developed to solve this mystery. Without doubt the theory of types is suitable in serving the understanding of personality, although exaggeration may be dangerous and lead to fantastic conclusions. If we want to understand the actions and reactions of a person, we use categories like "the hero," "the coward," "the miser," "the lover," to make his motivation and scale of values plausible to us. Dilthey has demonstrated the importance of types of human character for the understanding of personalities in literature in his thesis on Shakespeare. History and poetry present additional difficulties for an understanding. The personalities in dramatic poetry, for instance, are seen through the medium of the poet. Thus we must differentiate between the "objective" meaning and the highly personalized interpretation which the actor may give to a particular role and to individual lines in attempting to convey the specific intentions of the dramatist.

What we do in daily life, the historian practices in his study in viewing historic personalities in the light of characterological types. Furthermore, history is always related through some sources. Sometimes an actual witness describes the events and the personalities figuring in them; sometimes again we have more than one source through which we must understand historical events and personalities. Sometimes the understanding of a character presents special difficulties, particularly if we have very few objective expressions as material. If we face a person, we may interpret his speech by examining the caliber of his voice, the expression of his eyes, and his gestures, so that we are able to discern clearly whether his words are straightforward, or ironical, or ambiguous. Since all literal and historical analysis misses this advantage, the student must combine very carefully as much material as he can collect on his subject.

After these remarks on the objective difficulties of understanding, we may consider briefly its subjective conditions, which are the presuppositions for the understanding of the not entirely foreign and the not perfectly familiar. He who wants to understand appears to be confined within the magic circle of his personality, yet it is not entirely so. I would like again to quote an example from the history of religion. The historian of religion deals with exotic, ecstatic and primitive cults, all of them more or less foreign to his mind and his soul, still more to his personal experience. He has never participated in complicated rites; he has never taken part in ecstatic sessions or performances. He knows animals -- totems in the primitive language -- only as they occur around the house or at the zoo. Nevertheless, there exists some means of breaking the magic circle of these limitations. All of us are able to enlarge the limits of our empiric personality: the first means is by availing ourselves of the immeasurable treasure of research and the arts, which enables us, through knowledge and comparison, to gain analogies for the phenomena which we wish to understand. A great modern philosopher defines art as an organ for the understanding of life. All natural sciences and the humanities make their contributions to the enlargement of the empiric self.

The second way is indicated by the words of Goethe: "In jedem Menschen liegen alle Formen des Menschlichen." ("In every man all forms of human character are potentially present.") Goethe felt, when told about a crime, that he would have been capable of committing it himself. Modern students have emphasized the fact that our conscious life does not complete the entire circle of our personality. I refer to a very interesting report of Eduard Spranger in the transactions of the "Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften" (1930): "Ûber die Schichten des Wirklichkeitsbewusstseins," and to Jung’s investigations inspired by Freud on the atavistic structure of the mind, as it appears in the analysis of the archaic patterns in schizophrenia. In this way the student of primitive religion will remember the experiences of his youth -- the well-known Indian games of American boys and girls -- and thus expand his understanding of the primitive mind.

The person who understands is distinguished by the ability to renew and revivify continuously his own experience as well as that of the race. The great psychologists and philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France and England combined the interpretation of historical events with participation in the political, military, cultural and social life of their times. We see the result in the testimonies of the understanding of the human soul given by such French and English moralists as Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Chesterfield, Chamfort, Hume and Vauvenargues.

All great scientists and artists need this capacity for transcending the limits of their personal experience. The great instrument for doing this is the imagination. In his book Königliche Hoheit, Thomas Mann has a prince ask a poet if, in order to be able to write his novel, he had had to travel around the world. The poet immediately replies, "Quite the contrary, Your Highness!" Marcel Proust calls the artist the man of Noah’s Ark, who sees and understands the world from inside his ark.

The Act of Understanding

There has been much discussion in hermeneutics on the relation of the synthetic and the intuitive methods. The first operates by combining several small details to a composite picture, and the second by the immediate act of comprehension. Some have thought that the intuitive method is arbitrary, and others that without it synthetic methods can gain only partial results. We do not arrive at a complete understanding by induction, and by combination of its results, unless this procedure is accompanied by a specific act which can better be delimited than defined. We may illustrate it by comparing this specific act with the jumping of a spark between two electric poles, or with the sudden closing of a door, or with the psychological experience behind the phrase "I get it!"

Psychologists and sociologists have discussed the possibility of the direct and immediate grasp of the personality of another. Max Scheler, for one, denied all empathy and possibility of transposition. The experience of another personality is not gained by the transposition of one’s own personality, for then the other personality would be obscured. Yet we anticipate and understand by wholes. That does not mean that by an act of divination we can understand another personality completely and correctly; the important thing is to seize the dominant traits of its nature. That is done by an act of comprehension in which both methods of procedure are combined. I should like to illustrate this with another phrase of Goethe’s, who said that he could successfully imitate a man for an hour whom he had heard speak for fifteen minutes. The same sentiment is expressed in the sentence: "Ex ungue leonem" ("By the paw we know the lion.")

Once we have acquired the idea of the dominant characteristics, we may be able to understand and fit into the main context the secondary characteristics of a personality and its means of expression. Since we cannot build up the whole structure of a personality simply by understanding, we have to pick out representative features. Thus we see that to "understand" a person and his expression, means to grasp intuitively as well as to piece together many isolated observations, the salient characteristics affording clues to his personality.

We have already seen that understanding is not photographic. There is a subjective factor in it, which neither can nor should be removed. It could be asked whether a feeling of accord with a person or a phenomenon is a requisite of its understanding. Medieval thinkers dealt much with the relation between emotion and knowledge. Some of them maintained that emotion (love) is the basis of knowledge. Even such recent writers as Pascal and Scheler postulated an "ordre du coeur" to supplement the order of thought. Those opposed to this theory will quote the proverb which says that love is blind, a contention which is only correct if it is true that hatred sees clearly. Whole biographies have been written, prompted by the author’s hatred of his subject. However, they are as unsatisfactory as those dictated by an uncritical admiration for the hero.

All this tends to prove that certain emotional factors are inclined to influence the understanding. Nevertheless, it is not so much the coloring as the presence of emotion which established the contact necessary for an understanding and for the mood in which it can be developed. There is a type of indifference which makes understanding difficult if not impossible. "Graue, kalte Augen wissen nicht was die Dinge wert sind," said Nietzsche. ("Gray, cold eyes do not know what things are worth.") Yet the existence and the nature of the "affectus" have to be realized and, what is even more important, to be controlled if genuine and true understanding is sought.

We must therefore now turn to the problem of the possibility of limiting and controlling the subjective factor which we have found to be unavoidable. As a final motto for this section we may quote a word of Jean Paul -- that there are three difficult things: to possess character, to draw character, and to recognize character.

The Objectivity of Understanding

The two extremes we have found to be erroneous are the notion of photographic reproduction and a radically skeptical attitude. History is not only a "fable convenue," as the skeptic would say, although occasionally we find in the historiography of our days a tendency to turn history into myth.

We can understand historical events and personalities and can check our results.

Some theories, for instance the radical theories of race, will not admit that there can be any objectivity in the understanding of another person, or of history, and if there were, it would not be desirable. It is true that not everyone can understand everything, but as we have already seen, there is the possibility of verification and control of the presuppositions on which understanding can be based. Students of hermeneutics have been much concerned with establishing objective criteria and thus defending the evidence of understanding. This procedure includes two factors, first an internal consistency in the process of understanding facts, and secondly the check which is exerted by weighing individual facts and instances against each other. Philosophical and psychological, historical and philological research and methodology have developed a great critical apparatus in order to guarantee the certainty of the evidence of the results of their interpretation. The aim of understanding must be defined as integral comprehension, even if only an approximation to an absolutely objective understanding is attainable.

I wish to repeat that such comprehension cannot be a simple copy of its object in the mind, but that it is rather a reproduction in perspective and an all-inclusive interpretation of its significance.

The Purpose of Understanding

The question of why understanding is essential has been frequently answered from a purely pragmatic point of view. I wish to call attention to another aspect of the aim of understanding, advanced by the hermeneutics of the historische Schule. We seem to feel within ourselves an overwhelming impulse to understand, even when no "practical" issue is involved.

"Alles Gewesene ist wissenswürdig." ("All that ever existed is worth knowing"). We may add: Everything that does exist is worth knowing, though to a different degree. There are priorities in this respect which vary with the understanding individual, the period and the context in which he lives.

I cannot discuss here the interesting problem of the limits of understanding which is indicated by Nietzsche’s conception of creative ability, "plastische Kraft." He himself was of the opinion that nobody should be allowed to learn and understand more than he can well absorb into his personality without weakening his creative impulses. If I am right, that is the problem of our civilization and age. Should there not be a way between an indiscriminate incorporation of all and everything that our understanding can reach, and the dangerous simplification extolled by some false prophets as a return to the status "before the fall?"

Should we not try to be broad -- by wide and sympathetic understanding -- broad, but not shallow? We, as individuals, and as collective entities, can afford to be so, provided we have principles to guide us, when we choose and assimilate, strong but not narrow principles that will be strengthened rather than weakened by practicing understanding.

In summary we may say that the function of understanding is threefold. The first is preservation. He who understands what is and what has been, revives and preserves in the memory of men the sum of their experience. The second function is the guidance and direction of our thoughts and actions, education of ourselves and others according to the formula, "So sollst Du sein, denn so verstehe ich Dich." (Droysen) ("Thus shalt thou be, for thus do I know thee or thy true nature.") The third aim is to realize the scope and variety of human nature and personality, as well as its expression in all fields of cultural activity.