Where does der Verstehen come from? Does it matter?

An image of a woman concentrating on a touch screen display. The point of view is from behind the screen as she manipulates the windows of information in front of her.

There is a section in American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett’s book From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017) where he takes a swipe at the German noun Verstehen (understanding) and how philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or Wilhelm Dilthey employ it. His problem with it? Understanding or comprehension is not a ‘separate, stand-alone, mental marvel’. For Dennett, this is an ‘ancient but obsolete’ idea (94). We will return to whether Verstehen is a ‘separate, stand-alone, mental marvel’ in a moment, but first some context.

In, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Dennett creates a fascinating account of the evolution of comprehension or understanding in the human being. At times, Dennett’s book echoes classics of philosophical anthropology such as Paul Alsberg’s Das Menschheitsrätsel (1922) (published as In Quest of Man in 1970) or even later thinkers who adapted Alsberg’s ideas such as Hans Blumenberg in his article ‘An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric’ (1971). I say echoes, however, because Dennett’s ideas may come from the same metaphorical mountain range (the question of how the understanding evolved) but he traverses a very different route to reach the summit. In Alsberg’s case, the understanding evolves as a tool to liberate the body from where natural adaptations, such as human strength or speed, fall short. The human being may not able to outrun a tiger or beat a gorilla in a wrestling match, but we can use our understanding to manipulate our natural environment and create a trap for the tiger. Or, more swiftly and brutally, we can create a weapon that can kill it.

While Dennett doesn’t engage with Alsberg, his point is that the persistent idea that the understanding evolved as a standalone thing, separate from technical competence is wrong footed and out of date. ‘Comprehension is not the source of competence or the active ingredient in competence;’ Dennett writes, ‘comprehension is composed of competences’ (94). There is perhaps much here. Those of us who come from the German intellectual tradition are perhaps far too precious with our Kant and our standalone noun Verstehen, present author included. As Dennett quips, ‘like all German nouns, [Verstehen] is capitalized, when it is said with furrowed brow, it conjures up in many minds a Bulwark against Reductionism and Positivism, a Humanistic alternative to Science’ (94). He is far too selective with what might be said with a furrowed brow; any non-native speaker of German who sets out to learn the language will certainly furrow their brow attempting to remember the bizarre rules of German grammar. But joking aside, in the idea a ‘Humanistic alternative to Science’, an obvious reference to Dilthey’s hermeneutics (who alongside the historian Johann Gustav Droysen can be said to be responsible for the emergence of Verstehen as a foundational concept in German thought) we see the real muddle in Dennett’s critique.

Dennett’s goal is to critique the idea of needing a standalone, quasi-otherworldly understanding in order to account for the evolution of comprehension, meaning and culture. There is much here, and Dennett’s knowledge of contemporary evolutionary biology and cognitive science is enviable. However, Dennett seems to be focused on providing a secular philosophical account of the evolution of consciousness. His purpose being that, even if one does not invoke a transcendent God, our descriptions of the understanding, as seen in Alsberg, can still seem to suggest some kind of quasi-mythical standalone source of the understanding, even if this is produced at the end of an evolutionary chain. It is a category we arrive in triumph at the end of process and emerge as the Aristotelian rational animal.

While Dennett’s point is astute and the present author is in favour of a careful rethinking of Verstehen, Dennett seems too focused on doing away with a standalone notion of the understanding to recognise another fundamental dimension to the way the noun Verstehen evolved in the German philosophical tradition. When a thinker like Dilthey uses Verstehen, whether said with furrowed or unfurrowed brow, it may indeed fall into certain logical pitfalls that don’t chime with contemporary cognitive science that someone like Dennett is right to point out. However, the use of the term in the German philosophical tradition also shows an attentiveness to the interpretive aspect of Verstehen. This interpretive aspect is ultimately functional. It is functional in that it is not simply a concept that is concerned with the nature of the understanding, but rather how understanding occurs. Whatever takes place in the evolution of understanding, arriving at understanding never takes place in a vacuum for the human being. When we hear a word, for example, we can never simply filter it through some kind of Chomskyesque Universal grammar without it also passing through our own colloquial understanding. This does not mean that a strictly evolutionary account is wrong. Dennett’s critique may show a more biologically up to date picture of the evolution of human comprehension. But if the debate is reducible to comprehension being standalone from competencies to comprehension being composed of competencies, it misses the opportunity to put the debate on new footing which seems to be Dennett’s entire aim. In other words, we don’t need to reject the insight of their being a functional, interpretive aspect of the understanding in order to reject the notion of a quasi-mythical standalone understanding. The interpretive and functional aspect of the understanding is not reducible to that even if some thinkers in the twentieth century have tried to make it so.

Forget about the source of Verstehen. At its core, the heritage of the German noun Verstehen, and all the cultural questions that come with that, presents the opportunity to ask about how understanding occurs. Not where the understanding comes from. This would seem to be a question close to Dennett’s own heart. How might we then put this functional aspect of Verstehen into conversation with contemporary Anglophone philosophy of mind in a way that preserves the essential role of cultural forms in the creation of the understanding?

I’m the Thyssen Research Fellow at QMUL’s Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations. This blog is my space for work in progress or ‘Halbzeug’.