Monday, 8 August 2011

Why You Can't Understand Anything By Reading Alone

In "Ecce Homo" Nietzsche suggests that you can only take from a book what you already have. Despite how dubious it might seem at first, given that the written word is there to convey information, and that it does in fact regularly convey information to people, I happen to think he's right. It seems paradoxical to suggest that you pick up a book and cannot grasp it unless you've already understood the content within its pages, but let me see if I can show you what is meant...

Words express significations which arise in our involvements with things. When you pick up a book to read it, the author (and you) assume some background familiarity with the meanings of the words in the book. However, what cannot be assumed is that you know what it is like to understand or encounter the phenomenon being written about. If you do not grasp what the author is trying to say (though you may be able to get a hold of it purely intellectually by simple virtue of knowing what the sentences mean) then you won't truly understand the significance of what is being expressed, though you may come to see it in future.

Phenomenology is the finest example of philosophy in my view because it encourages its readers to go out and check the findings of the text with their own encounters and see if the story fits. Not so much explicitly, but simply because the words cannot at all be understood without the reader's own first-hand experience. You cannot, for instance, see what Merleau-Ponty means for the body to be the basis against which space is intelligible without looking at how you yourself are able to grasp spatiality. Nor can you understand what Heidegger means by significance-whole without going and looking at your own involvements in the world and noting how significations arise from them.

One of the most important things my study of Heidegger has shown me is that first-person access to things is absolutely vital if you are serious about understanding anything. As Magda King writes, it is a habit of Western thinking to dismiss so called "subjective" understanding as superfluous or illusory - but if we could not let things be relevant to us by letting them be significant to our own being (reaching out to the apple tree for food for-the-sake-of nourishment, a necessity of our being) then we couldn't encounter them at all. But if the apple tree were not in itself available in this manner, with its ontic properties making it ideal for producing food, then it could not be understood as such. Because we have to access it on a first-person basis to understand this, i.e. by having to be such as to have nourishment as a necessity of your being, does not make it illusory or superfluous to understanding the apple tree. It's only on the basis of this first person phenomenological aspect with its world-disclosing activity that anything can be understood. Their relevance to our being is the first place our existence reveals innerworldly beings as what they are.

As this is so, to truly understand anything it does not do to simply read about it. As in Jackson's "Mary's Room" thought experiment, it is not enough to amass as many facts about colours in order to build up a picture of them. In "Mary's Room" we are to imagine a brilliant physicist by the name of Mary who can only see in black and white. She has an exceptionally vast understanding of all the factual elements which go to make up colours like red, green, yellow. She can recall at the slightest whim precise details regarding the wavelengths of certain colours, and all other physical facts regarding them. Yet she doesn't know what red or green or yellow look like. Mary has never seen reds or greens, and no matter how many facts she collects about them, she will never understand them because she cannot see these colours to experience them in a first-person aspect.

It's wise to remember that not everything about our understanding is factual...

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