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.

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