Heidegger’s Verstehen

My students and I agree — Heidegger’s use of the term “understanding” (Verstehen) in sec. 31 of Being and Time seems very counter-intuitive. His “interpretation” (auslegung) seems to be closer to what we would commonly designate as “understanding,” insofar as it involves something like reflection. By contrast, “understanding” seems to be almost reducible to action, given that “understanding” has the structure of projection (entwerfen). This connection to action is reinforced by the implicit contrast between state-of-mind (Befindlichkeit), which is a more passive condition of “finding oneself” in a given mood and which is associated with Dasein’s “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). Having been thrown (state-of-mind), Dasein then has no choice but to throw itself (understanding).

This makes me wonder if Heidegger is leaning harder on the etymology of Verstehen than he explicitly lets on. The English translation “understanding” (which seems essentially unavoidable) does bring us the connection with “standing” that makes “understanding” a kind of Being-in — but what I wonder about is the ver-. I find ver- to be the German prefix that is most difficult to get a handle on, particularly insofar as it sometimes has a negative or privative meaning but also sometimes serves as an intensifier. Perhaps the common usage of would lean more heavily on the latter, insofar as “understanding” something means dwelling upon it in a more intense way than usual. But if Heidegger’s Verstehen is associated primarily with the kind of projecting or throwing of oneself that responds to a situation of thrownness, perhaps the ver- is meant to carry its negative connotation — Dasein finds itself in a situation in which it can’t just stand still, in which there is no secure place to stand.

If Dasein is always already in a state of Verstehen, then that would mean that its ground is always being cut out from under it, that part of the possibility of its Being that it has to be requires Dasein to constantly de-stand — it is always forced out of what it factually (tatsachlich) “is” into its factical possibilities. Or perhaps we can even hear the ambivalence of the prefix, insofar as Dasein’s “ground” is precisely the perpetually ungrounding possibility that weirdly serves as something like an “essence” for Dasein. Dasein very emphatically stands in a place where it cannot merely stand.

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5 Responses to “Heidegger’s Verstehen

  1. Lauri Says:

    A long-time lurker, I cannot bear to see this post uncommented! So here’s one thought on ver-. Not that I can really think of a way this might bear on Heidegger’s Verstehen. Nor is my German all that good. Anyway.

    It seems to me that ver- often adds a sense of something like completion, formal accomplishment, or bringing about. Consider urteilen, to judge, and verurteilen, to issue a formal judgement. Veröffentlichen, to make public. Verbrechen, not just to break something but to commit a violation that has formal consequences in the realm of law. Or versöhnen – here I would compare with Swedish, which has the cognate sona and försona as separate words: sona is to atone, to make amends, and försona is to make peace, to mediate a conflict or dispute.

    Another thing: there’s “sich auf etwas verstehen”, which is nicely analogous to “sich auf etwas werfen” and suggests something like having a good command of something, knowing how to deal with something.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Lauri, Thanks — that is a much more detailed and rigorous account of what I meant by the “emphatic” meaning of ver-.

  3. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Don’t have the text in hand, but methinks this be the common case of Heidegger the Fox twisting etymology to suit his purposes, and then legitimating/enhancing his philosophical argument with it – an instance of his occult of the (linguistic) origin. In other words, it’s mesmerizing bullshit. A more likely sense of Verstehen/verstehen (ver- having the basic sense of “apart,” “away” or “off” with an undertone of dispatch and acquittal – which can encompass what both Adam and Lauri think of the prefix) is “standing apart or away,” the assumption being, presumably, that when you stand away from something instead of being immersed in it, then you can scrutinize it more carefully and thoroughly, take good stock of it. (This is why Dilthey thought (historical) context was crucial for understanding.) That said, the dubious etymology need not subtract from the interest of his larger conception of Dasein, which dwells and moves in the dynamic sublimity of a perpetual Ungrund (copped from Meister Eckhart’s Ungrunt). It’s just that this calls for a new notion of understanding beyond the constraints of the German word Verstehen/verstehen – maybe something closer to an expansive sense of proprioception.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The etymological work in this post is purely my own.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Your meaning of “standing apart” seems a more intuitive fit with Heidegger’s argument, in fact.


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