Understanding a Philosopher 2: Bollnow’s Question

Otto Bollnow’s essay, “What does it mean to understand a writer better than he understood himself?”, begins like this:

In the interpretation of philosophical texts and literary works we often encounter the saying that it is important to understand the writer better than he understood himself. At first this saying appears presumptuous. If to understand another means to duplicate his experience, then only the one who had the experience can best know what he means by what he says; and perfect understanding would be the exact duplication and reproduction of what was immediately present in the one who had the experience. We can see how far we fall short of such perfection when we consider how weak the spoken word is as an image of actual life, and how much weaker still is the written word, which lacks the support of physical gesture or facial expression. Thus the claim to understand a writer better than he understood himself seems frivolous and presumptuous.

And yet this maxim recurs unavoidably in the concrete work of textual interpretation. It is, perhaps, not taken quite seriously; it carries a faint undertone of self-irony — but it genuinely expresses a recurring situation in textual interpretation. We must ask: does this saying, which at first appears presumptuous, actually express a legitimate aim of textual interpretation?

Bollnow answers answers his question by (first) noting that normally the answer is that “there is something correct” about the maxim, but that the answer is given while the answerer shuffles his feet:  it “cannot be asserted with complete seriousness”.  But, even so, the answerer takes the maxim to point to a significant and important problem in interpretation.  Bollnow, however, does not rest with this recitation of the normal answer.  He goes on (second) to underscore that treating the maxim as somehow or other correct too often forestalls allowing the “uncanniness” of the maxim to show itself.  Better, Bollnow thinks, to allow the maxim to sink into us, to allow it to show itself as uncanny, to allow it to reveal something of importance about products of the human spirit.

More soon.

3 responses

  1. The maxim doesn’t seem presumptuous on the face of it to me, nor does what it recommends seem particularly unusual. I may be the man who has spent the most time with…me. But intimacy seems to me to encourage certain kinds of blindness as much as – if not more than – it fosters understanding: my intimacy with myself first and foremost. And, with self-knowledge, there is so much room for self-deception, distortion, and unwillingness to examine that I tend to think our assessments of ourselves are in many cases *less* reliable than those of others. This might very well be true even for the writers of texts whose composition required Herculean feats of self-understanding. I suspect that even Herculean feats of human self-understanding still leave a person rather opaque to herself: like the grandest achievement of an ant who nevertheless has still only dragged the raisin six inches…

    • I agree. Anyone who understands me better than I understand myself has performed no feat; I understand myself so little. But when you contextualize the maxim as Bollnow does, thinking of it in application to Plato or Kant, etc., and taking it not merely to apply to self-knowledge per se, but the understanding of one’s own philosophical view, system–then I think it is easy to hear the line as presumptuous. As Oakeshott somewhere says, “Anyone who has read Plato or Hegel has long ago despaired of being a philosopher”: that’s the way of regarding Plato or Hegel that would make the application of the maxim to them sound presumptuous.

  2. I’m reminded of the Phaedrus:

    Socrates
    Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

    Socrates
    Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?

    Phaedrus
    What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?

    Socrates
    The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.

    Phaedrus
    You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.

    Socrates
    Exactly. Now tell me this. Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground, and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?

    Phaedrus
    Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.

    Socrates
    And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?

    Phaedrus
    By no means.

    Socrates
    Then he will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.

    Phaedrus
    No, at least, probably not.

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