critical-phenomenological thought for the day

Understanding, Hans-Georg Gadamer teaches, is an event. It is an experience (Erfahrung) that we undergo: like the way a player experiences a moment in the game; or an audience member experiences the climax of a tragedy. Indeed, understanding is an experience of a very special kind, which precludes or overwhelms our front-of-mind consciousness. Gadamer points out that the player of a game, in the midst of playing it, knows in one sense “this is only a game.” Yet in another, larger, and more important sense – and this is the key point – s/he does not and cannot know that. For knowing “this is only a game” would preclude or impede effective involvement in the game. Analogously, Gadamer claims, when we are in the midst of understanding something, we know in one sense “I am currently understanding.” Yet in another, larger, and more important sense, we do not and cannot know that. For knowing, in a front-of-mind way, “I am currently understanding” would preclude or impede our being fully involved – lost, for the moment – in the understanding. And getting lost in this way is precisely part and parcel of the kind of experience that understanding is.

Now literary criticism, let’s say, is the study of texts as texts. Understanding is the fulfillment of any text. Therefore, literary criticism includes the study of understanding. (This means, for those who follow this sort of thing, that criticism subsumes hermeneutics.) To study anything is to try to understand it. Therefore, criticism has as one of its goals to understand understanding.

But if understanding is an experience, along the lines already described, then understanding understanding can only mean (1) trying to understand this very special experience and (2) doing so precisley by trying to have this experience. For there would appear to be no other way to do it. The literary-critical classroom, unlike the classrooms of other disciplines, where this or that object is examined, will be a classroom in which the experience of understanding itself is provoked, and for its own sake. The literary text, moreover, unlike texts of other kinds, will not try to present this or that object, but will try to make available the experience of understanding, just as such. Studying such a text, in such a critical mode, will be, if not the only, then probably the best, way to understand understanding.

So, like, that’s why we do it.

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2012, I initiated the international conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World."

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