Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Understanding’s web

[2b2k] Understanding’s web

I’m on a mailing list that discusses the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Many years ago I was a fledgling Heidegger scholar, but now I am on the list strictly as a tourist.

Today someone posted: “If you don’t know German you don’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding Heidegger.” A few people posted immediately in reaction to the “dismissive” tone of the comment. I felt the same way, but then thought, hmm, this is an empirical question, isn’t it? List the people you think understand Heidegger best — or pick some other writer in some other language — and see how many of them don’t read him in his original language. There is something true about the dismissive remark.

But, there is something false as well. It draws too strong a line between understanding and not understanding. I obviously don’t understand Heidegger as well as the full-time scholars on the mailing list do. But, having studied Heidegger for several years of my life (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on him), I’m pretty sure I understand him better than most who haven’t studied him do. If we acknowledge that our understanding improves as we read and study more, we acknowledge that understanding doesn’t fall into only two buckets: understands or doesn’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding.

For the original comment to be empirically true, we’d either have to show that (a) there is a clear line between those who understand and those who do not (and that reading the original language is a requirement for getting into that first bucket). Or, (b) we could say that the commenter is actually talking about having professional standing as a scholar: You cannot claim to be a Heidegger scholar if you can only read him in translation. The first alternative seems to me to be ridiculous. The second seems far more plausible. The problems arise when someone applies the bright perimeter of professionalism to the messy web of understanding.

I certainly do believe that had my German been better — it was barely adequate at the time, and now has devolved into very basic travel glossary stuff — I could have understood Heidegger better. Likewise, better understanding the history of philosophy, knowing early 20th century German politics, reading Greek and Latin, and being conversant in German poetry all would have helped me understand Heidegger better. There is no end to what we need to know in order to understand the thought of another, because there is no such state as Understanding that excludes all doubt, excludes all errors, and excludes all others.

Finally, it’s not at all clear to me that if we list those whose understanding of a thinker we most respect, they will be in rank order based upon how many of the Professional Requirements they’ve mastered. Some of the best Heidegger scholars — and you can pick your own criteria of bestness — may be weak in Greek, weaker in German politics, but very strong in poetry. Others might have other sets of strengths and weaknesses. Not only doesn’t understanding necessarily correspond to the fields mastered, the community of scholars ameliorates the weaknesses of individuals by writing works that others read: A scholar weak on politics reads the work of scholars strong on politics. Understanding in this sense is a networked property, and a very messy one indeed.

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24 Responses to “[2b2k] Understanding’s web”

  1. It’s an attitude and a choice — it’s like laughing at a tourist who doesn’t understand the local custom. But what about when you’re a tourist in their country? Would you like to be treated the same? The only way to avoid the same confusion is to never explore something new.

    I’m sure there are arguments that you couldn’t undersatnd Heidigger if you didn’t understand any German at all.

    And think about how much more you know about outliners and software, and recursion and data structures because you made an abortive attempt at writing an outliner.

    People should be encouraged to develop new skills and perspectives.

    BTW, it’s a very German thing to say what that guy said — and I speak from some experience coming from a German family (not just Jewish German but German German).

  2. There are many Germans that don’t understand Heidegger. “If you don’t know German you don’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding Heidegger” literally” should perhaps be taken further: If you don’t know the dialect of Messkirch, you don’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding Heidegger” or perhaps even better: “if you don’t understand the particular brand of Nazi jargon (colored by Catholicism) spoken around 1931 in certain circles you don’t have a ghost of understanding Heidegger” either.

    What does the person mean by “knowing German.” No one with a smattering of high school (or university) German really knows German—or so one might argue.

    It’s always translation, and therefore the claim is stupid.

    I would even go so far as to say, if the claim were true, it would show that Heidegger is pretty much meaningless (and I am a native German speaker).


  3. Manfred, the relatively easy part to answer is: By “knowing” German, I believe he means to be fluent in it. Of course “fluent” is a fluid word, but it has some sense.

    I had thought about posting that the real conclusion of the claim would be that no one can ever understand anyone.

    Isn’t there a Borges story about a man who wants to write Don Quixote? He doesn’t want to re-write it or copy it. He wants to have the experience of writing it.

  4. But by his own criteria mere “fluency” is insufficient. Even according to Heidegger, it would only get you to “Gerede.” I fully agree with your real conclusion.

  5. “Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote”

    If you read Heidegger in another language, and you don’t get it, and someone comes along and says you need to learn German first, then you have to weigh whether getting Heidegger is worth learning German.

    On the other hand, if you read Heidegger in translation, and you’re getting a lot out of it, then learning German might help you get even more, but it’s not as big a deal. Learn Greek first.

  6. I agree with David that the more of everything we understand, the better we understand Heidegger. Yet we can understand Heidegger by reading him in English.

    The same difficulty surfaces when poetry is translated from one language to another. Since traditional poetic form emphasized sound as well as sense, it is almost impossible to repeat the original aesthetic poetic experience in another language.

    When we read Baudelaire in English, however, we experience both aesthetic beauty and profound meaning. As close as we may come to translating the sense, the sound will and must be different. If the sound remains the same, we are still speaking French.

    In poetry there are often books published with the original language on the left hand page and the English translation on the right hand page. I have read and discussed poems by Pablo Neruda with a friend who first reads a poem in Spanish. Then I would read the poem in English and we would discuss the poem (in English). I enjoyed experiencing the lyrical sound of the words like the sea rising and falling, even though I had no knowledge of Spanish. The reading of the poem in Spanish also contributed to my understanding of the poem, even though I did not comprehend the meaning of any of the words.

    Each poem transcends the language of its origin in some fundamental, archetypal way. Heidegger’s philosophical ideas also transcend the German language in which they were written.

    You struggle to find the exact word to denote what you are thinking? Thoughts exist outside of and beyond language as well as being transported through language from one consciousness to another. What is being translated into whatever language is beyond language itself in some way.

    All understanding is more of a translation than an equation. Our understanding of Heidegger’s thought may never be equivalent to Heidegger’s own understanding of his own thinking.

    Do we even understand our own thinking? Are we not continually translating our thoughts to others through language that on some days seems more adequate than on other days? Are all of our words merely the rough drafts of ideas we are trying to birth into the light of understanding?

    Understanding is a horizontally networked property. Increasing our knowledge of philosophy, poetry, and the German Language should increase our understanding of Heidegger’s thought.

    Heidegger’s thought, however, is a vertical translation of that which is beyond language. Languages translate these understandings so that we may share each other’s rough drafts.

  7. this was sent to me by several friends independently, and now i’m sharing it with you:

  8. Heidegger the person; Heidegger’s thought are of utmost importance for philosophy.

    In some sense I agree with the strange post that started this thread.

    Some deeper senses of Heidegger’s thoughts are deeply connected to language, to the specific language constructs and words that in turn, shed light on the deeper sense of the thought.

    What do you guys think ?
    It is indeed like with poetry, we value translations, but we know that some poetry cannot be translated without loosing its sense.

    I’m happy David that you mentioned Heidegger here.
    What’s your opinion, and all others who discuss here, about the recent book by Emmanuel Faye: „Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy” ?

    I read several chapters of it and I’m shocked — it happened to me just before some planned study of Heidegger’s thought…

    My short post about it is here.

    Since I bought this book in Paris, and started reading it, I feel anxiety at any time when I take “Being and Time” or other titles from my shelves….

  9. Mirek, I haven’t read it. I’ve read a bit about it, which has made we wary of it; the reviews make it sound like it overreaches. I believe it was the Viktor Farias book that knocked the scales from my eyes; it came out the year after I left academics. What stuck with me was the way in which Heidegger’s Nazism suddenly explained some of the ideas in Being and Time (sorry, Sein und Zeit) that formerly I had ignored as mere agrarian German romanticism — all that stuff about “rootedness” and “destiny.” It turns out that “rootedness” was a code word meant to differentiate authentic Germans from “wandering Jews.” The idea of destiny of course provided cover for German aggression.

    So, I think it is established that Heidegger was a full-bore Nazi, and that that affected his philosophy. How much is a different and difficult question. I still find much of profound importance in the little fucking Nazi prick’s work.

  10. This is a very difficult and complicated issue. One may relish the words of a famous author but might not be able to sit across the table at dinner and enjoy their company. So there is a distinction between what one writes and how one lives. Yet how one lives should in some way be related to how one thinks and writes. I am not sure that a serial killer would be capable of writing a nobel prize winning novel.

    Because I admire Heidegger’s thought and because it has stimulated my own thinking, I want to believe that Heidegger to a greater or lesser degree was seduced by the Nazi trance like many others who may have regretted it afterwards. But to make the claim that his entire philosophy is tainted with Nazism and should be discredited seems untenable to me. Do we reject all of the accomplishments of anyone who joined the nazi party?

    My own political thoughts are related to my way of thinking and writing, but should I discount the thoughts and writings of all those whose political beliefs are different from my own?

    There have been many biographies written about very flawed personalities who wrote brilliant works of Art. But there are some ‘mistakes” that are difficult to forgive. And so I find myself unable to decide on this issue except to say that I will continue to read Heidegger because I find that his thinking stimulates my own.

    A similar feeling accompanied my reading of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This is a non-fiction story about a murderer who is convicted of a horrible crime. Truman Capote is sent to investigate the trial, and he finds himself in the awkward position of befriending the murderer.

    The film In Cold Blood creates a unique sympathy for the murderer and his pending execution and is a formidable statement about the cruelty and immorality of capital punishment. The recent film Capote creates an understanding of Capote’s sympathies for the murderer because both shared similar childhood abuses and are capable of understanding one another in a way that no one else can.

    We are not all good or all bad. Each of us has performed actions that we deeply regret. Should those actions discount all of the good we have done? Are some actions unforgivable?

    The Greeks thought so. Their concept of Hamartia suggested that one tragic flaw was capable of destroying the entire personality.

    If Heidegger deeply regretted his Nazi affiliations afterwards, he must have been tormented with regrets for his past actions. That alone functions as a tortuous punishment for his faults. One can escape the law, but one can never escape one’s own mind.

    The laws of Karma in Eastern thinking delineate a system of psychological retribution or reward for every thought and action. Christianity is permeated with the concepts of confession and redemption.

    I can read the thoughts of a philosopher who had been a Nazi party member. Yet how did he live with himself after the war ended? Now that is a great idea for a novel!

  11. I don’t believe philosophy is independent of the politics and culture of the philosopher. It seems to me therefore to be incumbent on us to be careful that hateful, wrong beliefs don’t under gird or are expressed by the ideas that we find moving in a philosopher’s thought. The fact that Heidegger’s ideas about rootedness are expressions of anti-semitism doesn’t affect me too much because rootedness is not a Heideggerian idea that I’ve subscribed to. But, the extent to which his thinking about, say, authenticity and Das Man are in fact expressions of Nazism does concern me. Merely that they come from or are consonant with Nazism doesn’t make them wrong, but we should be especially careful about accepting them, because we may find them appealing for the same reasons that Nazis did.

    And, in fact, I think authenticity and contempt for Das Man are troubling. They’re certainly not ideas new with Nazism, but they express an elitism and a self-justification that can lead to bad being-with-others, let’s say.

    (I know SZ doesn’t express contempt for Das Man, but, well, it and authenticity are normative concepts even in their language. Which brings us back to the original topic of this post.)

  12. As I wrote/responded to Raymond’s comment on my own blog, I probably will wait holidays, will read Faye’s book from cover to cover, and then will come back to the discussion.

    This is difficult to me, because Heidegger is so important, and he was important to Emmanuel Levinas (maybe as a kind of important adversary) — whom I regard as one of greatest XX century thinkers…

    But – David’s mentions about authenticity and rootedness are analysed deeply by Faye. There are also a lot of recently discovered notes and manuscripts of Heidegger …

  13. Hmmm … I probably shouldn’t do this on a risk/reward basis, but on the off chance there’s some good to be had, here I rush in …

    I find this a fascinating post, not for the Heideggger, but for the process at work. The issue is right here:

    “For the original comment to be empirically true, we’d either have to show that (a) there is a clear line between those who understand and those who do not (and that reading the original language is a requirement for getting into that first bucket). Or, (b) we could say that the commenter is actually talking about having professional standing as a scholar:”

    Alternative (a) is likely what the poster meant, vaguely, but it’s rejected out of hand – “The first alternative seems to me to be ridiculous.” – and then there’s a shift to the mechanics of foggery (“the bright perimeter of professionalism to the messy web of understanding.”), and we’re off on a familiar journey.

    The mistake in rejecting (a) is that in conversational English, many words function both as variables and absolutes. Consider “tall” – it can be an absolute (“She is tall”) or a variable (“How tall are you?”). The poster obviously means “understanding” in the sense of “She is tall” – there is a certain *level* of the variable required to qualify for the absolute. This fairly simply statement is being obscured.

    It’s a bit like “Tall? Being tall is a social property defined by group norms. In this New era of the Internet, we can all stand tall relative to the messy network of our personal bonds …” (you get the idea)

  14. Seth, I don’t reject (a) out of hand. The paragraph before it gives my reason (and my penultimate paragraph expands on it): understanding has to be capable of degrees if we are going to give the idea of learning any credence: I understand H better after I’ve studied him than I did before, even though I still don’t understand him at the level that genuine scholars do.

    Your explanation of “understanding” via the example of “tall” is what I meant and obviously failed to convey with (b). The poster means, I think, that you can’t be a serious scholar of H without reading German. Not only do I agree with that, that’s what my 2nd paragraph is about.

    And, I’ll say again (and perhaps more clearly), there is truth to drawing a line around serious scholarship, with reading German being a requirement. But then I introduce two qualifications of that. First, it’s a mistake to think that only those within the circle can have any understanding (which is how the statement sounds at first). Second, even within the circle of scholars, no one person can fully understand H; even the “absolute” understanding isn’t absolute. It takes a network to understand a philosopher.

  15. The scholar not only strives to comprehend the entire philosophical ideas of one thinker, but also strives for an understanding that places the philosopher and his ideas within the context of the horizontal development of philosophy itself.

    I hope, however, that scholarship is not merely a self-referential closed off world. I would hope that scholars not only write to and for other scholars, but that they write to me as well.

    One of my poetry writing teachers has been called, ” a poet’s poet’, meaning perhaps that mostly poets read and understand him. In this Age, even creative writing has been professionalized.

    One of my reasons for holding on to printed books so tightly is that in the act of reading I am embracing another individual consciousness.

    This idea of intimate communication between two consciousnesses arrived one day log ago when I was reading Charles Dicken’s – A Christmas Carol. The author as narrator writes:

    “The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them – as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”

    I read Heidegger because he stimulates my own thinking. Perhaps and most probably I do not understand him at all. But reading his words helps me to understand and stimulate my own thinking.

    This is precisely why I find the reading of your blog and the accompanying discussions to be fruitful. Although my interests and education are quite different, the writing is extremely nourishing and stimulating.

    The Internet allows me to come face to face with ‘unearthly visitors’ as I draw aside the curtains of the computer screen. And I enjoy standing in the spirit at your elbow.

  16. Clarify – by “out of hand”, I meant “entirely dismissed”, rather than “gave no reasons”. The paragraph above essentially says that understanding is a variable, and in (a) then you’re rejecting it as sensible in terms of an absolute (“there is a clear line” == absolute, which you reject out of hand – “ridiculous” – since you’ve just said it’s a variable). The issue I pointed out is English uses many words as both variables and absolutes.

    Agreed, “understanding has to be capable of degrees if we are going to give the idea of learning any credence” – that’s “understanding” in the usage of a variable. But the poster means “understanding” in the sense of passing some threshold of the variable. To continue the analogy – “How tall do you have to be before you’re tall?”.

    But here (emphasis added) “we could say that the commenter is actually talking about having PROFESSIONAL STANDING as a scholar:” – it’s not about the status, the recognition among peers, the credentialism, i.e. social markers (“STANDING”) which supposedly will flow from that level of understanding, or a conjectured statement that that level of understanding should be required for every applicant before being granted them (in the poster’s view).

    I think what the poster means is what might be expressed as, in the poster’s view one can’t achieve a *deep* or *true* (high level meaning an absolute) understanding of Heidegger without reading him in the language he originally wrote in. Which is ultimately a matter of opinion.

    > First, it’s a mistake to think that only those within the circle can have any understanding (which is how the statement sounds at first)

    Why it is a mistake? It’s a matter of definition. Actually, “any” begs the question. That is, how many times have you heard the idea “To [truly] understand Famous Thinker, s/he must be read in the original, not translation”? (and here the “[truly]” is elided, as is often done in pontification). That’s a pretty common view. Yes, it’s snobby to use the phrasing of literally any amount of understanding, for the writer’s evident meaning of sufficiently deep understanding, but objecting to that on the basis of literal meaning seems trivial.

    > It takes a network to understand a philosopher.

    Sigh …

  17. Very enjoyable and intriguing post. I agree with much of what you and others have said, but I feel an even finer gradation must be brought to light: the quality of the translation itself.

    While this may be an obvious point of clarification (perhaps needless!), I think the skill of the translator eases the dichotomy here, enabling the reader to grasp much more adeptly the original material. This is especially true when individual footnotes are provided, wherein the translator makes available his reasoning for selecting this word or that phrase in the translated language. (Walter Kaufmann’s translations of Nietzsche’s works come to mind specifically.) I find this much more useful than the divided-page method — original language on one side, translation on the other — because more insight is provided into the mechanics of the work’s original language rather than rudimentary pattern recognition.

    I’m directing this toward both serious and recreational readers, but not toward scholars who should not have to rely solely on others’ translations for insights into the studied work. I say so not to reinforce the original sentiment behind the quotation that inspired your post, David. Rather, I’m qualifying my above statements because using the original language makes for much more concise and simple referencing, as well as more room for new interpretation.

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  20. […] in Washington (still, here is a guide to the perplexed; I can only hope that David Weinberger who once was  a Heidegger scholar would take the time to spread some Heidegger love around town). This is too bad, because Heidegger […]

  21. […] in Washington (still, here is a guide to the perplexed; I can only hope that David Weinberger who once was  a Heidegger scholar would take the time to spread some Heidegger love around town). This is too bad, because Heidegger […]

  22. […] in Washington (still, here is a guide to the perplexed; I can only hope that David Weinberger who once was  a Heidegger scholar would take the time to spread some Heidegger love around town). This is too bad, because Heidegger […]

  23. […] in Washington (still, here is a guide to the perplexed; I can only hope that David Weinberger who once was  a Heidegger scholar would take the time to spread some Heidegger love around town). This is too bad, because Heidegger […]

  24. […] in Washington (still, here is a guide to the perplexed; I can only hope that David Weinberger who once was  a Heidegger scholar would take the time to spread some Heidegger love around town). This is too bad, because Heidegger […]

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