Trying to understand understanding

Understanding may mean giving up one’s own position

Muhammad Maroof Shah
Srinagar, Publish Date: May 16 2018 10:54PM | Updated Date: May 16 2018 10:54PM
Trying to understand understanding

It is a general complaint that one has been misunderstood or a particular thinker or scripture or verse has been misunderstood. Some commentators of sacred texts and poetry in general tell us that to understand is to be open to alternative understandings or newer readings. One authority has said that every time scripture is recited, new meaning should dawn on oneself and if this doesn’t happen, one has not duly understood it.  Although it is quite common to accuse others of failure to understand religion or this or that concept of religion, it is quite uncommon to ask what does it mean to understand in the first place. Where we dismiss too readily on the supposed ground of deviating from Tradition – or what has been received from Pious Elders, Aslaf  –  we are reluctant to debate what is Tradition and if anyone has the right to freeze its particular formation or pose as its special spokesperson or guardian.  We quarrel over truth without asking what is Truth. Our disputes are often on this or that interpretation and we fail to adequately pay attention to what is called the philosophical hermeneutics which is “an

interpretation of interpretation.” How many times we have been told that this or that scholar is deviant and should be executed, exiled or dismissed or boycotted. He/She is guilty of tafsir bir-raiy or making the canon a plaything. We are also told that we can’t understand better than certain supposedly standard understanding of Pious Elders as if there could be presented a standard understanding in the first place. Understanding may require understanding the point that God/Other knows better and one seeks to understand better after every effort to understand.  Apart from few verses calling for action that don’t require special effort in interpretation (muhkamat), sacred texts abound in verses that demand  an effort, a personal effort to understand or interpret and humility to acknowledge that one hasn’t got it absolutely right and thus the other needs to be heard.  The “simple” basic terms – Iman, Islam, Allah, Divine Names, Divine Unity, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, falah/najah – are all far too basic or primordial or complex– involving personal existential engagement – for nice packaged standard agreed upon interpretations to be formulated or imposed. The key question in interminable narratives and counter-narratives that have flourished in history is what does it mean to understand in the first instance.  And I turn to Gadamer, one of the most important philosophers  who upheld the value of tradition, exposed complacency of those who assume copyright over received wisdom and illuminated what does it mean to understand. He is one of the indispensable contributors to science of interpretation (hermeneutics), a field that has remained rather inadequately theorized in the history of Islamic tradition as noted by one of the most astute scholars of Islam, Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri (who also stated that contrary to the situation regarding hadith, the Quran has not been given attention due to it by Muslim Ummah in last 1300 years). 

Against widely prevalent fundamentalist/ Kharijite tendency that forgets that we don’t have – and can’t have – access to God’s/Prophet’s word as such but only interpreted sacred canon and interpretations of those interpretations,  Gadamer explicates the point that all we have are interpretations and none can assume God’s eye view or claim to be situated outside interpretative horizons. We are all partners in dialogue and none can transcend inherent structural biases because we deal with language and not given facts or unmediated perceptions that can adjudicate amongst rival interpretations.  We in dialogue constitute the tradition.  Companions in dialogue with one another and later generations in dialogue with predecessors constitute living tradition. As Gadamer puts it: “The dialogical character of language, which I have tried to work out, leaves behind any starting point in the subjectivity of the subject, and especially in the meaning-directed intentions of the speaker. What we find happening in speaking is not a mere fixing of intended meaning in words; it is an endeavor that continually modifies itself… The mere presence of the other before whom we stand helps us to break up our own bias and narrowness, even before he opens his mouth to make a reply….For only in the light of interpretation does something become a fact, and only within the processes of interpretation is an observation expressible.” Gadamer explains what is wrong with those who arrogate to themselves on behalf of some particular generation/scholar unmediated access to the truth.  “Understanding, whatever else it may mean, does not entail that one agrees with whatever or whomever one “understands.” Such a meeting of the minds in understanding would be utopian. Understanding means that I am able to weigh and consider fairly what the other person thinks! It means that one recognizes that the other person could be right in what he or she says or actually wants to say.” 

In Nicholas Davey’s work Unquiet Understanding: Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics we find apt paraphrase of certain insights in philosophical hermeneutics

“1. Hermeneutic encounters reveal the “negativity of experience”: a hermeneutic experience worthy of the name disrupts the expectancies one has of an artwork or text so that one is forced to think again.

2. Hermeneutic understanding is finite. It is limited by both its time and its horizon. The determinate historical location of any understanding prevents it from being able to

claim completeness.

3. Understanding is perspectival. It presents but one of several other logically possible points of view of its subject matter.

4. No act of understanding is complete. No hermeneutic encounter can exhaust its subject matter.”

These amount to rejection of any claim to be the binding interpretation on the supposition of being “whole” and complete, as it can well be “a particular expression of a more complex ‘whole’ or nexus of other understandings.”

A reading of Chuang Zu or Nagarjuna or Ibn Arabi or Wittgenstein or great poets humbles one as we are made aware of fragility of constructions of language and the costs of fixed frames applied on what by definitions requires one to be infinitely and perpetually open to the other and the troubling fact that it is ourselves being at stake in any attempt to mean. One might say that the problem of plurality of meanings and certain inescapable paradoxicality or ambiguity is ultimately due to the texture of our very being that is constituted by the other and whose salvation is premised on being open to the other, to not-yet, to unknown, to what staggers our quest to mean this or that. One could well say that the sacred texts don’t mean; they are. They are us. Since our own being remains rather dimly available for scansion, how come sacred texts could become available? No wonder most of the Quran is mutashbihat that resists meaning closure.  In fact the very quest to interpret has to be ultimately given up. One finds salvation by consenting to becoming a Question that our being is. “[W]e never know what being is . . . it always seems to be a topos, an unattainable place that never becomes (fully) accessible.”

For Gadamer, hermeneutic philosophy does not understand itself as an “absolute” position but as “a path of experiencing. Its modesty consists in the fact that for it there is no higher principle than this: holding oneself open to the conversation. This means, however, constantly recognizing in advance the possibility that your partner may be right, even recognizing the possible superiority of your partner….the hermeneutical effort to conceive of the nature of language on the basis of dialogue—inevitable for me as a lifelong student of Plato—ultimately meant that every formulation one might make was in principle surpassable in the process of conversation.”

In fact we are told that philosophical hermeneutics does not constitute a “philosophical position” but “a philosophical dis-position.” “It is a practice of disposing or orientating oneself toward the other and the different with the consequence of experiencing a dis-positioning of one’s initial expectancies.” “Good conversations have no end.”Understanding is the process of coming to understand that when we understand, we understand differently.”

What needs to be kept in focus is that predecessors – pious Aslaf – are always there in any serious attempt to understand and properly question a given view. There can’t be any great thinking outside Tradition as Heidegger has noted. There is always “the hermeneutic community in which the subject participates and through which the subject is socialized. Understanding

is far from being an individual achievement.” Thus there can’t be a Maududi or a Ghamidi disowning Tradition and their critics owning it – there is no one to claim Tradition; all of us are partners in a dialogic process. Who can lay claim to possess absolute measure/standard? The supreme test of one’s orthodoxy or authenticity is ability to respectfully (that needn’t be uncritically) engage with our predecessors. Mechanically, uncreatively, imitating them is to fail to be true to ourselves, our own gift of being and mandate to remain open. Bypassing them is impossible. Dialogue with the other to refine understanding is the only way. The question is not of agreeing or disagreeing with predecessors but seeking to understand with them. We are redeemed by our readiness to disown the self that claims its own right to be heard.  We can’t afford – if we truly listen to the other – to have already formulated views to sell in advance in the marketplace of ideologies or narratives. Listening is the key. Listening rather than interpreting is the task. Before inviting others to our views let us invite ourselves to understand them and not just their views. Truth happens in a dialogue that never finishes. 

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