In his Explanation and Understanding, Georg H. von Wright gives the genealogy of his titular pair as follows:
The German historian-philosopher [Johann Gustav] Droysen appears to have been the first to introduce a methodological dichotomy which has had great influence. He coined for it the names explanation and understanding, in German Erklären and Verstehen. The aim of the natural sciences, he said, is to explain; the aim of history is to understand the phenomena which fall within its domain. These methodological ideas were then worked out to systematic fulness by Wilhelm Dilthey. (p. 5)The first passage (as far as I know) in Droysen where the distinction is made is this one:
According to the object and nature of human thought, there are three possible methods: the speculative (formulated in philosophy and theology), the mathematical or physical, and the historical. Their respective essences are: to know, to explain, and to understand. Hence the old canon of the sciences: Logic, Physics, Ethics, which are not three ways to one goal, but the three sides of a prism, through which the human eye, if it will, may in colored reflection catch foregleams of the eternal light whose direct splendor it would not be able to bear. (Outline of the Principles of History p 15.)It will be noted (von Wright acknowledges it in a footnote) that the distinction Droysen lays out is not a dichotomy but a trichotomy. It seems to have been Wilhelm Dilthey who made the reduction from three to two, beginning with his essay "Ideas for a Descriptive and Analytical Psychology." Explanatory science, he says, is a concept that
describes an ideal science which has been shaped particularly by the development of atomic physics.... the distinguishing mark of explanatory psychology is that it is convinced that it can produce a complete and transparent knowledge of mental phenomena from a limited number of unambiguously defined elements.(Dilthey, Selected Writings p 92)To this, Dilthey opposes an "interpretive" or "descriptive and analytical" psychology, which would show individual uniqueness, based for instance upon the presentation of case-histories, and which would be the object of a different mode of thinking. "We explain nature, but we understand mental life," Dilthey says, distinguishing the respective objects of explanation and understanding; or, again, distinguishing their modes:
We explain through purely intellectual processes, but we understand through the cooperation of all the powers of the mind activated by apprehension.It is not too much, I think, to see here a crucial mutation in post-critical philosophy. Kant, as is well known, distinguished in the first Critique between Reason (Vernunft) and Understanding (Verstand) as faculties of the mind. The latter is empirically conditioned; all data come to the understanding via the senses, and is organized by it according to the categorial structure of the mind. Reason takes for its material, however, not the testimony of the senses but the very concepts which guide the understanding itself. This paved the way for the Kantian critique of metaphysics, since Kant argued that Reason makes use of the Understanding's principles outside their proper sphere, generating three speculative entities: the self, the world as a whole, and God, and thus begetting three speculative discourses (psychology, cosmology, and theology). Rightly grasped, Kant thinks, these three fields give the reason no objects at all, but only regulative principles.
I hope I may be forgiven this incredibly brief sketch of the Vernunft/Verstand distinction (and I invite any Kant scholars to jump on me here). Before going on I want only to note that Kant claims that speculation arises by the misuse by Reason of the categories that guide the Understanding. Keep this in mind as we go forward.
Dilthey's expansion of Droysen's setup leaves speculation aside; form here on it will be only explanation and understanding that are at issue. The discourse of explanation is appropriate for many things, including many human phenomena, but it will not work for a certain vital class of things we may call meanings. If I hear that the price of silk has risen because a blight has killed most of the mulberry plants in a region, this claim can be investigated by various empirical means; but the claim itself must be understood first. the difference is that the utterance about the silk plants is a product of a speaker, and to understand it is to admit a certain kinship between myself and the speaker. Dilthey:
for the natural sciences an ordering of nature is achieved only through a succession of conclusions by means of linking of hypotheses. For the human sciences, on the contrary, it follows that the connectedness of psychic life is given as an original and general foundation. Nature we explain; the life of the soul we understand.Last post but one, I cited an interview with Ray Brassier, in which he lays out an interpretation of the intellectual history of humankind (an interpretation not unlike my own, though our evaluations are very different), asserting that humanity has gradually dispensed with a "narrative" view of the world. Of course, where Brassier seems to see this as an unmixed good, I am far more ambivalent; few cultural developments, it seems to me, can be unequivocally reckoned a gain. Brassier distinguishes his own nihilism from that of forerunners like Nietzsche, by insisting that his is a nihilism occasioned precisely by his belief in truth, rather than in its impossibility:
where pre-modern nihilism was a consequence of a failure of understanding – “We cannot understand God, therefore there is no meaning available to creatures of limited understanding such as we” – modern nihilism follows from its unprecedented success – “We understand nature better than we did, but this understanding no longer requires the postulate of an underlying meaning”....Like Nietzsche, I think nihilism is a consequence of the ‘will to truth’. But unlike Nietzsche, I do not think nihilism culminates in the claim that there is no truth....I am a nihilist precisely because I still believe in truth, unlike those whose triumph over nihilism is won at the cost of sacrificing truth. I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition. (Emphasis in original.)As von Wright notes, "Ordinary usage does not make a sharp distinction between the words 'explain' and 'understand,'" and I do not claim that Brassier must have had in mind the Dilthey-inflected connotations of the word each time he says "understand" in this passage. But in fact, if you substitute the appropriate form of "explain" for each "understand" or "understood," the exchange reads differently. To hold that meaninglessness can be explained, is not the same as to hold that it can be understood.
Now we could leave this aside as a semantic preference, or a finicky preciousness, except for the historical trajectory which Brassier traces, and which he believes is a salutary shucking-off of the religious narratives humankind has been telling itself about the universe since we learned to talk. I want to argue, on the other hand, that there is a way of relating understanding to explanation that can avoid both the recoil from science and the establishment of science as the sole dispositive discourse. Brassier holds that we can acknowledge the human need for narrative but that we can also understand that nothing in the structure of the universe (and there is nowhere else) answers to this need. Indeed, Brassier has entirely subsumed understanding in explanation; his claim in in effect to have (or at least that science has) "explained understanding;" and the question is whether this is the same as understanding it.
Brassier's claim is that the universe's non-narrative structure is (1) understandable, and (2) shows that the universe lacks meaning. This is the sense of Brassier's claim that his nihilism is occasioned by a belief in truth rather than, like Nietzsche's, a disbelief. My first rejoinder here is that one can usefully distinguish between theme and plot, and argue that if the universe has no plot (I have said as much before, though I may partially retract this), this is still not to say one can discern no theme. (The terms "plot" and "theme" derive from C.S. Lewis and are explicated here and here.)
It will be recalled that in this same earlier post I underscored Benjamin's assertion that story was passing out of currency in the face of the rise of news:
Every morning brings us news of the globe, but we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation [Erklärungen]. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; everything benefits information. Actually it is half the art of storytelling to keep the story free from explanation as one retells it.... The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced upon the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands [versteht] them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.(I apologize for the pedantic reiteration of what are, after all, pretty pedestrian German words, but I am aiming to show that I am not relying upon translators' accidents, which would be all too easy for someone like myself.) When Benjamin claims for the narrative of story an "amplitude" that the information in the daily newspaper does not share, this amplitude is its contact with what Benjamin in "The Storyteller" calls "counsel" or even "counsel woven into the fabric of real life[:] wisdom." This is worth quoting:
...the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today "having counsel" is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding.(Compare this to the famous Wittgensteinian "practical" account of understanding--"Now I can go on!"--which might seem otherwise starkly different from the Continental-hermeneutic contrast to Explanation.)
To seek counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. (Quite apart from the fact that man is only receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak.) Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a "symptom of decay," let alone a "modern" symptom. It is rather only a concomitant symptom of the productive forces of history, a concomitant that has gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech.(Illuminations, pp86-7)No more than Benjamin do I want to wax nostalgic about times past or indignant about today's decadence, about which I am more or less in agreement with Nietzsche--denunciations of decadence are symptoms of what they denounce. I do believe that pointing out the decadence of an age and the spiritual perils it brings with it is one function of philosophy, and indeed one of its indispensable tools-- because recoil from decadence can cultivate the experience of insight, the "spark" Plato talks about. And even in Plato's day, there was concern that Wisdom--"the epic side of truth," "counsel woven into the fabric of real life"--was dying out. In Plato's analysis, as in Benjamin's, this is attributed in part to the technological media of thought. In Plato's case it was writing; in Benjamin's it is print, but in both cases there is a feedback between thinking and the material medium, and the impact upon thinking itself is always an abstraction from lived experience.
I concluded that post with the assertion that "'Explanation' is simply the mode of engagement that separates meaning from truth." For explanation, meaning is simply not an issue. But this is simply the effect of what Benjamin's account calls modern humanity's no longer "allow[ing] his situation to speak." Explanation in the sense of modern science is the wresting of information from the world, but it is not listening to the world--a phrase that science can understand only as meaningless or at best a misleading façon de parler (I have discussed this listening somewhat here, and what we might hear in this listening, here).
Such listening does not disclose a meta-cosmological plot; but it does (I claim) open the possibility of discerning a theme. This, too, however, is too much for the nihilist, of either Nietzsche's or Brassier's stripe. To them I rejoin: one can stipulate or perhaps even accept the lack of theme in the universe, but I deny that one can understand it. If the bottom line is chaos, or Meillassouxian "facticity," this can perhaps be thought; it cannot be understood; and it cannot be celebrated, except inconsistently and by perversity.
Indeed it cannot even stricto sensu be explained. This is why Meillassoux must turn once again to the neglected third side of Droysen's prism: speculation. In order to follow this further, we will need to think more about Dilthey's abandonment of this trichotomy. This will have to be left for a follow-up post.