In a certain sense, the measure of hermeneutics is understanding. Through careful interpretation, we begin to grasp the meaning of the text. Through careful listening and active engagement, I begin to understand, more deeply, what you are communicating to me. This is the heart of hermeneutics, this active movement toward understanding the meaning of something. The movement from uncertainty toward clarity.
What does it mean to understand something though? How can we tell if we have ‘arrived’ at an understanding? Is it when the other person responds affirmatively? “Yes, that is exactly what I was trying to say, you have understood me perfectly!”
What about a student writing an essay on an ancient text? There is no Plato present to say, “Ah, yes, you have understood exactly what Socrates was getting at there.” Is the student satisfied that they have understood the meaning of the text once their interpretation agrees with that of their lecturer? When they get an ‘A’ grade on their mid-term?
What about at work, when you are embarking on a large project. You believe you understand all the steps necessary to complete it, you assign roles, draw up timelines and tasks, create working groups for different areas. Then, the project runs over time, ends up costing more than you have budgeted for, but you get it done. You look back and say “now, I understand exactly how I should have organised that better. I will do it that way next time.” You have reached a hard-won understanding.
But, then you start the next project, equipped with your extra experience and new understanding, and a host of new unexpected issues crop up, or maybe old ones come up again, you didn’t quite figure out your way around them after all.
After finishing this project, you have even more understanding about your field. This time though, you begin to understanding something about ‘understanding’ itself. It is a useful goal to have, but it is no guarantee about the future.
Explaining More, to understand better
Part of the problem with the scenarios above is that there is really no way to validate your understanding, at least in terms of some sort of scientific criteria. You conversation partner might tell you that you have understood them, but perhaps this is just a tactic to manipulate you. You may get an ‘A’ in your Plato mid-term paper, but perhaps you were just part of a weak class that year and the lecturer was just relived to read something with a bit of thought behind it. And besides, the lecturer also relied on affirmation from their lecturer, and their peers, and over two millennia worth of discussions and debates aimed at understanding the meaning of Plato’s text.
You can never really know for certain if you’ve fully understood something. But that’s how its supposed to be. Understanding is about experience. Scientific validation, by definition, resists the messy complexities of experience. We say a theory is ’true’ if the experiment can be repeated again and again in different places with the same result. To achieve this, experiments try to abstract as much as possible from real, living contexts. Experience, on the other hand, is embedded. It is all about context. Understanding grows through repetition and practice. If each repetition were the same as the previous (as with a successful scientific experiment), there would be no understanding, no growth.
Human life is made up of both types of knowledge; theoretical (’explanation’) and practical/experiential (‘understanding’).
Furthermore, according to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the two areas productively overlap - “we explain more to understand better”. Methods of validation and analysis lead to better understanding. This better understanding also allows us to develop new methods, which in turn lead to even greater understanding. No matter how great an achievement is from a scientific and technical point of view (for example, detecting gravitational waves, measuring the Higgs boson, etc.), we always need curious, human minds to understand the implications of the discoveries and try to find new paths to travel. The step of interpretation and understanding is also essential in the scientific process, just as better and more robust explanations help us understand the world at a deeper level.
‘Understanding’ is part of a larger process which encompasses the efforts to improve and expand human knowledge alongside the efforts to progress human flourishing. Both go hand in hand. In this sense, even though there may be no ‘scientifically robust’ methodology for determining that we have arrived at a final understanding of something, there are ethical criteria.
My understanding of you is tied up with my ethical relation to you and to the wider notion of flourishing and justice. I understand you ‘better’ when I recognise you better - your context, your struggles, your experience. The path toward understanding, i.e., the work of interpretation, is tied closely to the path toward recognition and justice in Ricouer’s thought.
In other words, there is some sort of forward momentum. That’s not to say that the path is easy or clear. In fact, the true path of understanding is filled with detours and taking the long way around. After all, it takes a lot of effort and patience to really listen to someone. The irony is, the less we have some kind of ‘goal’ or ’target’ in mind (as we might, say, for a series of experiments that should have a certain kind of result to align with the funding we received for our project) the more we move toward universal and shared understanding.
This ’ethical’ approach to understanding is not the only way to conceive of it. One of the other major hermeneutic philosophers, Gadamer, had a slightly different twist on it.
For Gadamer, understanding was firstly about a change in perspective. With Ricoeur we get the sense that the change is moving forward or backward (understanding better/worse), but with Gadamer it is more of a lateral change. Gadamer famously wrote “We understand differently, if we understand at all.” Through our exchange, I may not be able to say that I understand you better or worse, but I can say I understand you differently.
Modern hermeneutics has always been closely tied to questions of education and self-formation (Buildung). This is also true in Gadamer’s work. However, I think there is some nuance in his notion of education and understanding.
Education, in Gadamer’s sense, is probably tied more closely to the classic Socratic notion of ‘wisdom’ (the wise person is the one who knows the limitations of their knowledge). The more we are educated and the more we engage in the work of understanding, the more confused we become about the world (taking the word ‘confuse’ in both the typical sense, but also in the sense of “joining multiple different things together”). In this sense, the aim of understanding more (educating yourself more) is basically reaching a point were you can finally say “I understand nothing.”
In this account, the goal of understanding would not be some kind of grand ‘reconciliation’ of our knowledge and experience, but rather the pursuit of the act of differentiation itself. Just as with the natural world, life tends toward endless bifurcations and diversifications, the work of understanding pursues a similar course, where the result is not a single theory of everything, but a collection of diverse perspectives co-existing within a shared space of exchange and dialogue.