Understanding

The ear that floats on a melody,
is the same that attends to language.

It similarly startles
when surprised by a scuffle.

Our eyes, that we tune to culture,
scan first for words and danger.

Experiences and understanding
are rarely met blankly.

Evolutionary wiring orders survival and comprehension first,
and then art.

In Aesthetics and Hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer examined the idea of understanding:

“We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said… A kind of anticipation of meaning guides the effort to understand from the very beginning.”[1]

So, for understanding to happen an “anticipation of meaning” is constructed where we place ourselves in a position of readiness to absorb what is given to us. To illustrate, we have all experienced the situation where we believe that we know already what will be stated or given when a friend or colleague announces, ‘I’ll tell you what I think’. Such a necessary pre-cursor to understanding however, all too often, follows through during the giving procedure and overrides what is given, due to the strength of what was first anticipated. In the example of the friend or colleague we quite often continue our anticipated meaning internally and miss what they say. Gadamer’s implicit claim being that the “anticipation of meaning,” in this instance, blocks new meaning and understanding from occurring because it prevents what is said from being heard.

The importance of Gadamer’s thought here is that when we block something/someone from speaking to us, we effectively stop ourselves from having new, real, experiences and subsequently gaining self-understanding from those experiences.

Quite simply, we need to be present when we are experiencing something new. Essentially, openness is required when experiencing. The production or requirement of openness, however, is something that comes from us. Plus, for us to experience and thereby understand something, such openness must successfully override any “anticipation of meaning.” Being open and overriding “anticipation of meaning”, though, is not easy.

In The Relevance of the Beautiful, Gadamer explains why being open is difficult:

“It is the case that when we look at non-objective art, we can never escape from the fact that in our everyday experience of the world, our vision is oriented towards recognising objects. We also hear the concentrated expression of music with the same ear with which we otherwise try to understand language.”[2]

Gadamer recognised that such notions of openness, such as aesthetic appreciation, are hampered because of the reliance on senses that are tuned to more primary qualities of recognition. Survival instincts and evolution, it seems, have hard-wired our senses to understand and recognise before any supplementary openness can unfold. Consequently, Gadamer understood that a difficulty presents itself when we try to be receptive to our surroundings and play with, or appreciate, them, such as when we look at a work of art.

It seems as though we need a secure environment within which to overcome our survival-based sensory approach to the external world in order to allow those same senses to be tuned towards aesthetic or playful criteria. The summation being that we cannot come to a work of art with anxiety hanging over or around us. Our senses simply won’t let us be capable of being open to it.

In addition to the need of coming to something/someone with inner anxieties (which I use in a broad sense to cover all mental pre-occupations) held at bay, I’m prompted to realise that when we converse with one another there are a whole raft of other potential adrenaline/hormone fuelled possibilities that can leap to the fore-front of our being. The potential experiences, that we allow to permeate through our primary-function-tuned hearing and sight senses, also have to run the gamut of our physicality. Let’s face it, we can also find ourselves caught up within hormone led situations of sexual desire or otherwise, whereby our ability to relax and focus with a calm and open persona can be severely compromised.

Consequently, by being physical endowed beings we might not always approach one another neutrally with the philosophical purity of intent to engage at a meaningful level. Sometimes we are just base creatures and cannot get over that simple fact. The task, of course, is to try and quieten this base side when it is not required and to listen to what is being said by the other.


[1] Gadamer, H-G. ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 101.

[2] Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 58.

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