We do not encounter the new with an innocent eye. We bring to each new situation a background of hypotheses and anticipations. Our fore-structures of understanding are our points of entry. They encompass the range of our existing perceptions, perspectives and prejudgments. Our prejudices may be vague or ill-informed but they are not merely negative. They are all we have and they are precisely what allow us to be open and ready to experience anything at all. This is not a limitation or deficiency of reason but rather the only way that it can work.
SOURCES FOR FORESTRUCTURE AND PREJUDICE
Andrew Brown (1999) Figure. Oil pastel and charcoal on paper.
Embodied learning is the unifying theme of the Homo discens project. Learning, knowing, understanding and interpretation are inextricably linked and overlap each other to a large degree. Learning is the development of new capabilities. Understanding is deep learning. We build it over time.
Understanding requires making connections, recognizing patterns, finding meaning, judging significance and making logical conjectures. It always has an interpretive flavor. Understanding takes place against the backdrop of previously constructed, analytical and narrative grids that allow us to make sense of the world.
Interpretation moves between the whole—in this context, the totality of our understandings, thus far—and the particular—the novel things and events that we encounter. The task is to bring particular local detail and whole global structure into view simultaneously. The interpretive spiral of projection and refinement is ongoing.
Our understanding of the world is so bound up with understanding of ourselves that we can say that learning is transformative. Incrementally, or by dramatic leap, it changes who we are.
Learning and, its intimate partner, the identity of the self are temporally situated. We dwell in that fleeting moment between the “thus far” of the past and the future orientation of the “as if.”
Andrew Brown (2006) Figure. Oil pastel, ink and charcoal on paper.
Any new learning opportunity hinges on what we have already experienced and learned. At any given moment we are construed and constrained by fore-structures of understanding which are anticipatory in nature and subject to constant revision. Current knowledge opens us to further knowledge.
Learning, like any human enterprise, occurs at a particular time and in a particular place. It is always inextricable from a specific linguistic, historical and socio-ethical context. Our life experience and associated fore-structures of understanding are bound to this finitude.
Heidegger (1962: 188-192) makes arcane distinctions between interpretation, understanding and meaning. He characterizes “interpretation” not as the acquiring of information that is understood; but, rather “the working-out of possibilities projected in understanding.” In his own, hermetic style he describes this as “Being-towards-possibilities which understands…”
Interpretation involves moving between a particular entity, or subject at hand, and a pre-established—to use Heidegger’s term—“whole of significance.” When entities have “come to be understood in this way—we say that they have meaning[Sinn].” Again, according to Heidegger:
The ready–to-hand is always understood in terms of a totality of involvement. This totality need not be grasped explicitly by a thematic interpretation. Even if it has undergone such an interpretation, it recedes into the background… In every case this interpretation is grounded in something we see in advance—in a fore-sight.
Heidegger declares that interpretation only occurs when “something is interpreted as something…” He holds that “[a]n interpretation is never a presuppositionless apprehending of something presented to us.” His argument embraces the wholesome circularity of the interpretive process.
Heidegger, Martin (1962) Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York : Harper and Row. (Originally published as Sein and Zeit, 1926.)
German philosopher [1889-1976]
We learn by large and small personal transformations or transpositions. In Gadamer’s terms: we expand our “horizons.” The horizon is a powerful metaphor reminiscent of Heidegger’s “fore-sight.” It encapsulates both the limitations and possibilities inherent in “every finite present.” “The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point” (1994: 302). Gadamer speaks of the “fusion of horizons” when the extent of our own forestructure is elevated or broadened by the horizon of a “text,” an encounter with an “alien” culture or (often in exhilarating fashion) when in true conversation with another person. He (1994: 305) states that:
transposing ourselves consists neither in the empathy of one individual for another nor in subordinating another person to our own standards; rather it always involves rising to a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other.
In Gadamer’s view, “Understanding is a special case of applying something universal to a particular situation” (1994: 312). Interpretation, quite literally, is the ongoing process of testing, or better, risking our fore-structures of understanding within the context of “things in themselves”—the material we are attempting to understand. He (1994: 267) declares that
every revision of the fore-projection is capable of projecting before itself a new projection of meaning... Working out appropriate projections, anticipatory in nature, to be confirmed ‘by the things’ themselves, is the constant task of understanding.
In Gadamer’s (1994: 270) view, “the recognition that all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice gives the hermeneutical problem its real thrust.” In this sense, prejudices are not negative “baggage” or mere “overhastiness”—which must be discarded in a chimæric quest for brute objectivity—but are a positive aspect of our being: precisely what allow us to be open to experience itself.
Gadamer, Hans Georg (1994) Truth and Method. Second Revised Edition Revised translation by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum. (Originally published as Warheit und Methode, 1960.)
HANS GEORG GADAMER
German Philosopher [1900-2002]
Understanding is a temporal event an event where “theory is applied to practice,” or—as Clifford Geertz (1979: 239) has written—
a continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and most global of global structure in such a way as to bring both into view simultaneously...
Geertz, Clifford (1979) From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. In Interpretive Social Science: A Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan. Berkeley : University of California Press.
American anthropologist [1926-2006]