The Nature of Verstehen

I Review:

The unitary phenomenon of Being-in-the-world is itself grounded in a multiplicity, i.e., Being-in-the-world has its structural unity in certain equiprimordial moments and these moments go to make up the Being of the 'Da' of Dasein -- the sense of its thereness:

The existential constitution of the 'Da' has two fundamental moments that receive their 'articulation' in a third and which, for the most part, occur within the Being of average, everydayness.

(A) Befindlichkeit,Verstehen, and Rede (logos)

(B) Verfallen

Let's look closely at the second fundamental moment of Dasein's "openness to the world," the moment that Heidegger terms Verstehen.

II (A) Section 31

Verstehen ("Understanding") is not a specific process of cognition, rather it is an existential, a fundamental moment that belongs to Dasein's existence. It is the moment that is involved somehow in the notion of possibility.

More specifically, Heidegger states that 'Understanding' is the Being of Sein-konnen (the 'to-be-able-to-be' in Dasein's existence). Now, this bringing together of Verstehen and Possibility occurs because the understanding has the character of projection (Entwurft). And a further comprehension of this notion of projection will consequently give us a further comprehension of Verstehen.

A clue for the investigation can be found in Kant KRV B xiii"...die Vernunft nur das einsieht, was sie selbst nach ihrem Entwurfe hervorbringt..."("Reason only discovers what it itself through its projection brings before [it]").

Projection is somehow going to involve a primordial comprehension or understanding, upon which particular structures will be encountered...How so? (this constitutes the task of sections 32 and 33)

Keep this in mind: Understanding is an existential, it is involved in the nature of possibility and it has the character of projection (in the sense of an 'antecedent comprehending').


Prior to moving on, however, we need to remind ourselves of the following:

(1) Understanding can move in two 'directions':

(2) Heidegger calls the projective character of the understanding sight (Sicht) and indicates that this is expressive of Dasein's access both to beings and to Being -- and it is in the latter case that he would speak of a kind of transparency viz., the possibility of Dasein gaining access to itself i.e., a self-understanding i.e., a 'sighting' of its own Being.

(B) Section 32 Verstehen and Auslegung

At the very outset Heidegger merges the notions of understanding, projection, and possibility by stating that the projecting of the understanding has the possibility of developing itself i.e., the understanding has the possibility of referring back to itself, of 'understanding itself.'

Now, Heidegger speaks of this reflexivity as interpretation (Auslegung).

In interpretation, the understanding "becomes itself."

Hence understanding and interpretation are intimately connected.

Now, since the understanding can project itself upon either entities or Dasein itself, there will accordingly be different kinds of interpretations (most broadly, an interpretation of 'the world', an interpretation of 'the self').

[In this section Heidegger deals with the former mode of interpretation.]

I want to approach this section in three stages: (1) a direct description of what Heidegger means by the 'understanding,' (2) Heidegger's description of interpretation, and (3) an attempt to see how these are structurally interconnected in our concernful circumspection with entities within the world.

(1) Just as Kant, in his Transcendental Deduction, further articulated his notion of the "Understanding" by connecting it with "the transcendental unity of apperception" and the "synthesis of imagination," so too, in an analogous way, Heidegger will further analyze the structure of the Understanding by analyzing the sense of projection in terms of the fore-structure (Vor-structure).

We could say that understanding projects itself by means of a fore-structure.

What is the nature of this fore-structure? What are its structural moments?
In a preliminary way, let me present the fore-structure by an empty schemata i.e., in its formal aspect. The fore-structure represents the projective character of the understanding in its structure moments as:

(i) Fore-having: the aspect of totality or wholeness that necessarily 'lies before' us in our comportment to beings (i.e., Dasein does not move in a void, but within a 'world').

(ii) Fore-sight: the particular aspect that is being dealt with, a particular point of view or definite direction which moves within (i.e., 'takes the first cut of') the totality that Dasein has before it.

(iii) Fore-conception: the conceptualization that we have of the particular 'object' or direction (fore-sight) in which we are moving within the totality (fore-having).

This is the general description of what Heidegger means by the understanding -- we will get a more concrete idea of this when we describe its various "employments".

(2) Interpretation

Here, too, I merely wish to give a general description of what Heidegger means by interpretation.

Heidegger uses the term 'interpretation' in a broad sense. It is not merely a specific 'cognitive activity' that one can sometimes perform. Rather, interpretation is the 'working out,' in a concrete sense, of the possibilities projected by the understanding. It is, in fact, a appropriation of the Understanding. To say this, is to speak of interpretation as a kind of non-thematic comportment.

Interpretation thus has a dynamic sense -- it is the manner in which, for instance, Dasein comports itself to its world. Indeed, interpretation (conceived of non-thematically) represents Dasein's primary mode of comportment to the world (to Significance).

This can be seen by the manner in which Dasein 'interprets' -- by interpreting something Heidegger means seeing something 'as' something (and in such a manner that what gets 'seen' remains within its primary categorical mode).

149/189 For example: A hammer gets seen 'as' a hammer when it remains within its referential totality, but becomes specifically pointed out in the environment in the context of a particular task ('I need the hammer in order to make fast the board').

Heidegger speaks of this 'circumspective announcement' as the way in which the hammer becomes 'explicitly' understood from within the totality of equipment. And it does so while still remaining within that totality i.e., while still maintaining its character as readiness-to-hand -- the hammer is seen 'as' a hammer.

The hammer 'stands out' from the equipmental totality but in such a manner that it retains its reference to that totality. Heidegger says: "the 'as' makes up the structure of the explicitness of something that is understood. It constitutes the interpretation." 149/189

We must see this 'as' (this hermeneutical 'as') in an extremely broad sense -- it is not always explicit, but it is always present.

In our encounter with things ready-to-hand we always 'see' them as a door, a table, a carriage or a bridge. Heidegger says: "We never perceive equipment that is ready-to-hand without already understanding and interpreting it" (149/150).

(3) Understanding and Interpretation

Now, as Heidegger's wording seems to imply, understanding and interpretation appear to go together. Interpretation is never a presuppositionless apprehending. Interpretation always involves, we could say, a development of the understanding.

Indeed, interpretation as involving 'totality' and 'direction' seems to presuppose the fore-structures.

This is the structural interconnection between the understanding and interpretation -- the 'as' of interpretation is founded upon the fore-structure of the understanding (150/191)

The example of the hammer will show how these are structurally interconnected in our concernful circumspection: "the hammer is needed to fasten the boards"

Note how the interpretation (i.e., the 'as' structure), by being based upon the understanding (i.e., the 'fore-structure'), yields the meaning (Sinn) of the entity. In this instance, the 'entity' gets interpreted according to the fore-structures as ready-to-hand. The 'meaning' (sense) of the hammer is a tool (Zeug).

Section 33 Assertion as a derivative mode of Interpretation.

This section warrants special attention by Heidegger because of the 'primary' status given to assertion (and judgments) as the 'locus' of truth. It will be of the utmost importance to critique this notion (especially in section 44) and section 33 provides us with a preliminary sketch of this problem. It seeks (1) to identify the character of assertion and (2) to show how assertion is a derivative mode of understanding the world.

With regard to the character (structure) of the assertion --

(a) it is a pointing out: in saying, "the hammer is too heavy," one is 'pointing out' a certain property of the hammer.

(b) this indicates that it involves a kind of predication: we give the 'subject' (i.e., the hammer) a definite character i.e., we 'predicate' of the hammer the property of 'heaviness.'

We tie the two (subject, predicate) together and say that the hammer has the property of being heavy i.e., 'the hammer is heavy.'

Now this lets us 'see' the hammer as heavy -- and Heidegger calls this kind of 'as' (the 'as' involved in predication and assertion) an apophantical 'as' (cf. sec. 7b).

(c) This is then connected with the notion of communication, for what gets 'passed along' is the assertion that "the hammer is too heavy." And others can understand this, can 'verify it' or simply hear about it.

156/199 Heidegger summarizes: assertion is "a pointing out which gives something a definite character and which communicates."

Now, what is crucial here is to note the kind of modification that can be involved in "asserting." Assertion involves a 'stepping back' from the lived context of involvements. It points out some definite character of the entity (viz., the hammer is 'too heavy').

Such a stepping back from the referential totality of involvements involves a break with the categorical mode of readiness-to-hand. The 'tool' becomes an object of inspection, a 'thing' present-at-hand.

Now, this derivative break from readiness-to-hand to present-at-hand shows the manner in which the apophantical 'as' of assertion (the hammer as heavy) is derived from the hermeneutical 'as' of interpretation (the hammer as hammer).

And, just as the 'as' of interpretation is founded upon a modality of the fore-structure of the understanding, so too, the 'as' of assertion involves the fore-structure.

Example, "the hammer is too heavy" --

Here the meaning of the entity gets taken as something present-at-hand (an 'object').


Note the shift in meaning from the hermeneutical to the apophantical 'as'.

And note also that Heidegger's main task here is to disclose the Meaning of Being and, more specifically, the meaning of Human Being (Dasein).

Understanding can also direct itself to the 'for-the-sake-of-which' i.e., the understanding has the possibility of developing itself in the direction of Dasein -- which is to say that the understanding can become a self-understanding, a self-interpretation. This is the peculiar task of Sein and Zeit: an interpretation of Dasein.

As an interpretation, it must involve the fore-structures of the understanding (an attempt to see Dasein 'as' Dasein -- and not something else, e.g., an object, a body, etc.).

"Being and Time" must exhibit something like the following structure:

Consequently, the meaning of the Being of Dasein gets interpreted (in accordance with the entity itself) as Time. Such is the structural unity which the work must exhibit in accordance with the structural unity of the 'things themselves' (i.e., Dasein in its character 'as' Dasein).

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Copyright: Robert Cavalier
Department of Philosophy / Carnegie Mellon University