Understanding is Transcendent

"[…] Human existing in its essential ground is never just an object … on the contrary, it is not something which can be objectified at all under any circumstances."

-Martin Heidegger, Zolikon Seminars

We will begin with an attempt to understand understanding. Understanding is an expression of meaningfulness or intelligibility. As meaningfulness or intelligibility, understanding is that in virtue of which we understand anything as what it is. It is also that in virtue of which we misunderstand anything as what it is not. Both understanding and misunderstanding are within the field of possible experience created by our capacity of understanding.

As Martin Heidegger writes in Being and Time, "Only when the meaning of something is such that it makes a pretension of showing itself — that is, of being a phenomenon — can it show itself as something which it is not; only then can it 'merely look like so-and-so'. […] The primordial signification (the phenomenon as the manifest) is already included as that upon which the second signification is founded."

What is it then in virtue of which we understand? How can we make this capacity of our being explicit?

We might begin by hypothesizing that our understanding is built up out of our experience through the intermediary structure of rules or steps that are followed. The example of language use is perhaps the easiest domain to see the issues involved.

In section #81 of the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that it is wrong to think that anyone who "utters a sentence and means and understands it" is "operating a calculus according to definite rules." Is this right? And if so, why?

First of all, what does it mean to "operate a calculus according to definite rules?" The act of speaking a language is not arbitrary. When we talk to someone we mean certain things by what we are saying, and we do not mean certain other things. So it is natural to suppose that there is a pretty specific structure to language in virtue of which we are able to use it in a meaningful way.

This supposition is in many ways based on an analogy with physical science. The universe is not organized in an arbitrary manner. When physical events happen, they happen in a certain way and not in others because of identifiable and describable physical laws. Therefore it seems plausible that language could operate in accordance with similar laws that determine its parameters of meaningfulness.

Within certain contexts it is possible to determine the conditions under which some statements are true and false. The description of these conditions is called logic. So it seems that logic provides some of these "laws" of language. But logic, as it stands, only provides laws for some, but not all, aspects of language. So a project emerges: to discover the logic underlying all, not just some of language. Language use that fails to abide by this logic can then be shown to be pseudo-language, or nonsense. An underlying assumption of this project is that language possesses such a fixed logic, in virtue of which it functions. Individuals who use language must therefore implicitly or explicitly be conforming their use to the laws of this language. These laws are simply awaiting discovery and description, like a set of physical laws.

It is this project that occupied the attentions of the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus and the Logical Positivists. It is this project that the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations is critical of, and whose argument is here being described.

So, again, the idea is that understanding consists in applying a set of definite rules, and that these rules are the rules of a logic. If someone gives me a sentence and I understand that sentence, then I've applied specific criterion to determine this. Language is logical in structure, and if I could get clear about the underlying logical structure of the language that I'm using, I could see how truth and falsehood are applied and solve all my philosophical problems — because I could then see where my misunderstandings arise through an incorrect application of the underlying logic of my language.

One can begin to critique this view by seeing that when we use language, we are often able to use it perfectly well without being able to explain to ourselves or to others this logical structure. Well, one might reply, perhaps it is an unconscious rule following? Already, we find it necessary to draw a distinction between observable linguistic behavior and another kind of linguistic behavior going on behind the scenes that allows us to understand things. In a way, this is the real linguistic behavior, because it is this behavior that actually applies the rules of the logic of language to produce meaningful language use.

This dualistic scenario seems problematic. However, it is not a priori impossible. We do have unconscious motivations for actions at least some of the time, as the phenomenon of parapraxes, or so-called Freudian slips shows. Sometimes I can go to say something, thinking I mean one thing, and something else comes out instead. When I then examine my larger motives, the verbal slip is discovered to capture a deeper, different and sometimes opposite meaning that expresses my real attitude. Is this, perhaps, how the underlying logical rules of language use express themselves? Perhaps or perhaps not, but more needs to be said in criticizing the idea that language = rule following than simply pointing out that I don't consciously always know the rules that I am applying when I use language. I could, it seems, know them unconsciously.

A different direction of critique seems called for. What is involved in following a rule at all, consciously or unconsciously? What rules are followed in virtue of which I understand language?

Let's take a simple rule: correspondence. I am told a word, say the word "chair", and I understand that this word corresponds to an object, namely a chair. Hence, we could say that the logical rule of this understanding could be expressed by the following proposition: "The word 'chair' means a chair." It seems that this expresses the rule being applied here quite nicely. But what is it in virtue of which I understand how to apply this rule in the first place?

An example may help to make this question clearer. Let's say that in learning the chair proposition above, and others like it, I have a chart that I use. On the left of the chart are words referring to common objects that I might need to know, and on the right of the chart, directly across, are pictures of the objects corresponding to the words. One of these words on the left is "chair", and directly across to the right of this is a picture of a chair. We might say that this chart is one possible kind of visual representation of the chair proposition. I can carry this chart with me, and whenever someone uses the word "chair", I can look across on the chart and see what object this corresponds to. Children do in fact sometimes use charts like this to learn the meanings of words.

But does having this rule, in the form of a proposition, or a chart, or any other form create, in and of itself, understanding of what the word "chair" means? Solely in virtue of applying this rule, do I understand? The answer appears to be no. For, let us say that someone refers to a chair while talking to me, and as he does so my eyes happen to fall on the chart. I might even look at the chart with the intention to use it to find the meaning of the mysterious word "chair". My eyes scan across the requisite line. But is there anything in this that makes it necessary for me to then understand the meaning of the word "chair"? All of this could occur and I might still not understand the meaning of the word. The rule, it seems, must itself be understood for it to have a role in manifesting my understanding.

There is nothing inherent in the nature of the expression of any rule that is itself understanding. Indeed, for the expression of a rule to be a rule at all it must already be understood as such. In the case of the chart, for example, I might as well have read it vertically or diagonally as straight across.

But what if I added some arrows to the chart to make it more clear how to read it in applying the rule? Or what if I added additional clauses to my original proposition to eliminate ambiguities? In either case, I still need to interpret these additional features. What does an arrow mean? What do these additional clauses mean? Understanding must again already be present.

We are led to a radical conclusion here, because it seems that understanding is not generated by the application of rules.

An objection might be raised. One might argue that it is not in virtue of an external chart, or proposition, or expression of the rules in question that one understands. Rather this is an internal, mental process. In the case of recognizing the meaning of the word "chair", for example, the word calls up a mental image of a chair, and so I can see its meaning.

In reply to this objection, it can first be asked whether it is actually the case that when someone tells me a sentence, I get a mental picture of its meaning in my mind. It seems that I don't, because sometimes I simply understand it in a flash, or with some other accompanying mental process. There seems to be no one, single type of mental accompaniment that gives understanding in any particular case.

Secondly, even if a mental picture of a chair appears in my mind with the utterance of the word "chair", what is it about this that makes me understand that this image connects with the word? And if I do connect them, what is it about a mental image of a chair that has anything to do with physical chairs? How do I understand that the mental chair refers to physical chairs? And why all chairs? Why not some single specific chair? Again, I have to already understand in order to use these internalized, mental rules. In many ways, the mental picture of the chair is no different then the chart described above, except that in the case of the mental image model of understanding I've memorized the chart, so to speak. So I no longer have to carry an external chart with me, because I have an internal one. But this internal chart needs to still be understood in exactly the same manner as the external one.

What about unconscious rule following? This still encounters the same issue. If I have an unconscious chart or rule that I am following, it must still already be understood in the same manner as the conscious chart or rule. So, again, it seems that the understanding of language is not achieved through the application of a calculus of definite rules.

But language use is only one form of understanding. Perhaps rules are being followed in other contexts. What about the phenomenon of memory, for example? Do I follow rules to be able to remember things? If we believe this to be the case then we are led into a fascinating paradox.

Memory allows me to retrieve a recognizable aspect of a past experience into my present awareness. But if this is so, then how do I know how to retrieve what I need? I am able to recognize when I have correctly remembered, so remembering is not a random process. Nor does the fact that I sometimes am wrong about a memory change the fact that I do possess the ability to remember correctly and know that I have done so. So how do I know what to retrieve? Do I have a set of rules to construct what I need and then somehow go and find it? But if I do that haven't I already remembered? So to remember is not to follow a rule. This is not to deny that we do have the real capacity of memory retrieval, but it is to deny that this capacity is possible in virtue of rule following.

Our attempts to reduce understanding to something other than understanding are systematically undermined by this line of philosophical inquiry. Saul Kripke, in his study of this style of argumentation in Wittgenstein's work suggests that it is a novel new form of skepticism. I would argue that it is neither a form of skepticism nor new.

First, it is not a form of skepticism because it does not deny the reality of the phenomenon it analyzes. Memory and understanding exist. We remember and understand all the time. Likewise, our ability to follow rules is also not being challenged. The point being made is that understanding epistemologically presupposes our capacity to follow rules, rather than the reverse. Rule following is possible on the basis of prior understanding, but understanding is not built up out of and does not itself emerge from the following of rules.

Secondly, Wittgenstein's argument is not new. Fundamentally, it is Kantian in form. Understanding is an existential, transcendental (in the Kantian sense of this word) condition of the possibility of any world existing for human beings. Understanding is transcendent. But as such it is ontologically prior to that world. It is what is always already the case. The world does not come first (meaning ontologically "first", not temporally first) and then understanding gets built up out of some configuration of objects or events. Rather, understanding comes first and the world is built up out of it.

This view seems at first strange and novel, but it is not new. It is central to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, writing his major work a few decades prior to the publication of the Philosophical Investigations, who calls this transcendental understanding lichtung, a German word referring to the light that enters a forest clearing. For Heidegger the presence of the lichtung is an existential precondition of there being a world, and it is primordially coordinated with the essential nature of human existence. But the lichtung presupposes any world. It is not itself an object appearing within that world. Furthermore, since human existing, or 'Dasein' to use Heidegger's technical term, is an expression of lichtung it means that human essence is also transcendent. It cannot be reduced to an object or set of objects appearing in a world. It is these considerations led Heidegger to declare:

"… Human existing in its essential ground is never just an object … on the contrary, it is not something which can be objectified at all under any circumstances."

This approach towards human understanding has some interesting implications. It defeats any reductionistic account of the phenomenon, such as the "mind is a computer" model, or any similar approach. In doing so, however, it delimits boundaries on our inquiries into the fundamental nature of understanding, therefore indeed of human nature itself. It appears there can be no real fundamental answer to the question "what is understanding". We can describe it but we can never explain it. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein's account of understanding it is also a fully naturalized story, describing meaning in terms of human activity in the world, rather then in terms of a purely mental or metaphysical meaningfulness that must apply or connect itself to the world from outside it. By instead providing a model of understanding that bypasses traditional philosophical dichotomies, Wittgenstein's approach can be considered a form of non-dualism.


Heidegger, Martin, Zolikon Seminars, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 2001, pgs. 3-4.

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, Harper and Row, New York, New York, 1962, pg. 51.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, The Macmillan Company, New York, New York, 1958, pg. 38.

Kripke, Saul, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.

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