Understanding and Comprehension

Verstehen und VerstÄndnis (Understanding and Comprehension)

            In my life I am confronted with both history and world. Neither of my own making, nevertheless they dominate my existence, and could be said to both originate and predestine it. History includes the tradition, all that which is customary in the sense of Hexis, which I must learn in order to function as a viable being in the social world-as-it-is. But history also includes all that has come to be known as ‘cultural capital’; the very ‘stuff’ of the human career, from ancient archaeology through to contemporary popular culture. It is an open question how much of this capital must be possessed in order to maintain social viability. To each is granted his specialties, perhaps, and in a complex organic social organization wherein each of us plays multiple social roles and thus wears many hats, the daily discourse of informal interaction is muted to the point where Verstehen, or ‘interpretive understanding’ is rarely called upon. This bracketing of interpretation is significant due not only to it being so by design, but also, and as a result of this, that each of us is left to assume that the other knows what she is about, as well as knowing what we ourselves meant by this or that interaction. In a word, we favor Deutung over Verstehen in everyday life.

            Since our very sanity is at stake, both in terms of our self-perception and that of the others, Deutung, or ‘interpreted meaning’ must indeed carry the day to day upon its presumptive shoulders. Most of us presume one another to already and always understand what is called for, and thus what is also called forth, in a great variety of social contexts. But since all of these are learned, and mostly in our childhood and youth, we cannot be certain that either we ourselves or any other person has fully comprehended every possible social context and thus knows how to act to a tee in each. The ‘social’ person used to be casually equated with the most ‘sociable’ person. The very conception of what can constitute a ‘social’ gathering might be interpreted by class and status, ethnicity or language, work relationship or family pedigree. Though all are social in the anthropological sense, the vast majority of us are not students of society in any formal way. It is perhaps ironic that though we do learn to tread on much or even most of the stages upon which civil behavior is to be enacted, very few of us choose to dive more deeply into just how all of this ‘sociality’ actually works.

            And there is, on the face of it, no good reason to do so. If all of us know the score in terms of how to act, what to say, and of course, the opposite as well – the shalt not is duly implied by the shalt – then what would be the point of expending the effort in order to take everything apart just to see how it functioned? Would there not be a risk, in reassembly, that I would then get it wrong? Taking society apart to examine its mechanics and its organics both would seem a risky, even radical act. And since there is no clear consensus on society itself being ‘broken’ – though many claim to know just where and how this or that part of it is broken and should be replaced by some other part, equally proclaimed as being ‘obvious’ – the idea of taking it all down and reconstructing from point zero seems to have little merit. Even the most astute and vigorous social scientist does not attempt such a cosmogonical feat, contenting herself with an examination only, noting the parts and how they interact, just as the ethnographer of modern culture might stalk the streets and observe actual human interactions. An examination of society generates the means by which Deutung can be performed. It does not require any consistent interpretation but rather looks more like a connect-the-dots diagram. The pieces lack order until the connections are made, surely, but just as certainly, all the pieces are present and can be ordered. And it is the resulting order that generates both customary performance but also much of the history of the world itself.

            Between Max Weber and Georg Simmel, ‘Verstehen-Sociology’ gained much traction in the first third of the twentieth century, making a deep impression upon other seminal sociological thinkers such as Alfred Schutz and Robert Merton. It faded post-war given the ascendence of functionalism, which is instructive for our topic as interpretation was just that tool of questioning that mere examination need not access. Taking it all apart and rebuilding it required interpretation, poring over it and noting its connections, as functionalism mostly did, required only already interpreted meaning. Not that this is an either/or situation. Indeed, one might argue that one would have to come to an understanding of the parts themselves before generating an overall comprehension of the whole. While interpretational understanding could do the first, it seemed only functionalism could do the second. Even so, in between these two stood social phenomenology. This third stance suggested that it was the very interactions of living persons that constructed and reconstructed the cultural parts of the social whole in an ongoing and even daily basis. In short, society itself was a performance, or better, a performative understanding of itself.

            The roots of this more active interpretation are diverse. Durkheim’s famous epigrammatic definition of organized religious belief is a case in point: ‘Religion is society worshipping itself’. No more concise editorial can be imagined. But within this pithy fruit is the very essence of performative social action. Borrowing from the older idea that in order for a deity to exist at all it must be actively worshipped, the very structure of society itself has to be borne up by our participation in its manifestations. I am a social actor, yes, but I am also a social founder through my action in the world. Similarly, and perhaps just as profoundly, history too is enacted insofar as we are historical beings. This is not to say that what is known as ‘the past’ must be reenacted – though Mesoamerican cultures have this as a benchmark understanding of human history; the most famous of these consistent performances is the re-enactment of the Columbian Conquest – but at the very least, history ‘continues’ only due to our actions in the present and our resolute being oriented towards the future.

            What is interesting for both the student and the social actor is the fact that performance requires interpretation. The customary scripts may be given and learned by rote, but there is always slippage between an ideal and a reality. The spectrum of improvisation is vast, ranging from stifling a belch during a dinner conversation to reworking a political speech given the pace of world events. Society in its mode of being-social is very serious theater indeed, and part of the fulfilling quality of actual theatrical performance, stagecraft and script, paid actors and paying audience, is that all involved recognize themselves outside of the drama and cast upon the wider social stage. We are, in our own way, not so different from the conquered cultures of Central America, though our settings are perhaps more abstract and work not so directly with historical narratives but rather with an indirect allegory. This too is by design; like the examination of the mechanisms of society without taking the whole thing apart, allegory allows each of us to take the broader view without fully imbricating, and perhaps thus also immolating, ourselves within or upon society’s reason-of-being. For if it is only the ‘moron’ who resists social custom and flouts both mores and moralities alike, most of us would rather preserve our semblance of sanity as part of our own social performance, so that we never risk the ire of others who can justifiably say to us, ‘Well, I’m doing my part to keep all this nonsense together, why aren’t you?’.

            Hence the suspicion and even aspersion cast up against all those who question things ‘too much’. The professional philosopher, who is only doing his job, is perhaps the only socially sanctioned role wherein the practitioner can legitimately say as part of his vocation that nothing is sacred. Outside of this, we are all expected to give at least nominal service to specific renditions of what the majority feels society to be, and to be about. The ‘what’ of society is the first, the ‘why’ the second. Even the thinker, in order to be judged as human at all, must bracket her radical investigations, insights, and indictments some of the time. Society is at once a performance and a comprehension. In true Durkheimian fashion, it performs itself in order to comprehend itself. But because such real drama requires ongoing improvisation and interpretation, society is also made up not so much of cut and dried mechanisms as quick-witted examinations and re-enactments. Society gives the appearance of a machine only insofar as we social actors have honed our individual and thence collective skills upon its various stages. A well-polished theatrical performance never leaves the fiction of its allegory, but a well-staged social performance upshifts itself into a stable social reality.

            The question for each of us then is, do I continue to improve my acting skills within the historical context of the culture into which I was born, in order to preserve the manner in which that culture enacts itself in the wider world, or do I pretend only and ever to be an understudy, letting others do the work which is in fact the duty of all? Or, do I walk off the stage entirely, into a hitherto obscured human drama called ‘conscience’ by the world and ‘the future’ by history? In fact, it is our shared birthright, as both gift and task, to accomplish both of these essential acts. For society as mechanism is only the resulting case, and society as performance the manner in which the present presents its case. In order for any modern culture to reproduce itself, it must eschew pure reproduction in favor of a self-understanding, a Selbstverstandnis or holistic comprehension-of-itself that is developed in history but seeks the future of and in all things. Interpretive understanding is both a tool and yet a way of life for human beings. But comprehension is the mode of being of the social whole, which means no one person can provide it, even for himself. That we are social beings tells upon us in two elemental ways: we are called to conscience by the ongoingness of the world, and we are called toward the future by the ongoing presence of history, which distinguishes the social world from the world at large. That I am myself never socially larger than that historical life is for me the Kerygma of existence.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.