The Commitment of Understanding

Knowledge Beyond Scientific Objectivism

As Zimmermann clearly states in the preface to his Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction (2015), hermeneutics is both “a defining trait of our humanity” and “foundational to every field of human knowledge” (xiii). This is the basic premise of hermeneutics as a “philosophical school of thought” (xiii)—that interpretation so pervades our being and our thinking that all experience, all knowledge, and all understanding is mediated by it. We constantly interpret the world around us; indeed, our sense experience is inextricably connected with our conceiving of it. In this way, the maxim of the “hermeneutic circle” (25)—understanding by way of “a circular movement between part and whole” (25)—is extended to the “universal existential dimensions of life” (36). Zimmermann argues, following Heidegger, that “[h]uman life is an essentially interpretive enterprise, a continual future oriented movement of self-understanding” (37). Every moment, every instance, every action, is understood in terms of the whole of one’s life, and one’s life is understood through these parts. In Zimmermann we see, then, that the mediating function of interpretation is not just an accidental feature of human experience, but is, rather, essential to it, a feature of the unique temporality of human being which is, simultaneously, immersed in the present, reflected from the past, and projected into the future. Hermeneutics gives sense to time, mediating between life as a whole and the succession of events that constitute it. As such, hermeneutics is not merely a human behaviour, but the behaviour that makes us human. We are hermeneutic creatures all the way down.

In Chapter 7, “Hermeneutics and science,” Zimmermann applies his philosophical hermeneutics to the question of science, unsettling the rigid divide between knowledge and belief that characterizes so much of modern understanding (116). Specifically, Zimmermann takes to task the notion of “Scientific objectivism” (117)—that the “highest form of knowledge” can be attained only through “scientific experimentation” (117). Such knowledge is concerned with constraint and repetition, and indeed “has nothing to do with meaning” (119). Meaning is irrelevant to science, because science cares only for “observational accuracy, precision, and predictability” (119). Meaning is superfluous, a human artefact that interferes with things as they are, polluting experiments and thus tainting knowledge. This is scientific objectivism, a mode of understanding that “no longer involves any personal relation to the knower, but concerns simply a functional grasp of a mechanism or instrument” (119).

The problem with such a position is that, in grasping the instrument, the scientist is, himself, instrumentalized. Scientific objectivism strives to remove the human from its equation, to place the observer at an Archimedean point somewhere outside of the system, failing, in the process, to recognize the constant entanglement of persons and the systems that they manipulate. To deny this is to reduce presence to objectivity, and thus the person to an object, one amongst many, devoid of real agency, insight, or potentiality. As John Macmurray has argued, this mechanical way of thinking can only account for matter, and so, paradoxically, must posit a will outside of itself that somehow imports cause to the system, neglecting the immanence of human will in the world of objects. This is the difficulty with scientific objectivism that Zimmermann identifies as well. Far from being an accurate representation of the world, scientific objectivism designates an entire realm of reality as insignificant. The mechanical cannot account for the personal, and to try to exclude the personal from knowledge is in fact to limit what one can know. The personal is always involved, whether we recognize it or not.

For Zimmermann, and the hermeneutically inclined thinkers that he surveys, the positivist perspective is fundamentally flawed. Our “judgments and insights require personal commitments” and these commitments “are not themselves subject to verification by rules” (120). This unverifiability does not make our commitment invalid, either. Rather, our commitments are given force by something outside of mechanistic knowledge, something unaccounted for by science, something unquantifiable, and it is this something that must be thought through. Indeed, we cannot be certain about a commitment in the same way we can be certain about a scientific observation, and yet to have a scientific observation one must be committed to the paradigm that enables it. Belief is necessary. How then do we account for the personal commitment that shapes our knowledge, that precedes our knowledge?

Citing Michael Polanyi, Zimmermann argues that “understanding is not a theoretical concept, but originates in the most basic impulse inherent in living species from the lowest animal to our own kind, namely to control and master one’s environment” (121). All understanding is an “attempt to make sense of one’s situation” (121), and in making sense one “internalize[s]” the percepts of experience as concepts, as identifiable, definite patterns. We are always “intensely engaged” with the world in our understanding of it, in what Zimmermann calls “involved commitment” (122). Understanding is always with an aim to application, as Gadamer argued (122). Our concepts of the world never simply remain locked away in our minds once they have been derived, but are mapped on to the world so as to enable action. This is Polanyi’s “from-to pattern” that Zimmermann cites (122). In this frame, we “think from and through our received knowledge and prior experience towards our goal, bringing this know-how to bear on a certain task” (122). Thus, for Zimmermann, knowledge is a “skilful pattern of inhabiting an activity whereby we integrate our intellectual movements and passions to focus on a goal” (123). We cannot escape interpretation; we cannot escape the personal element in knowledge. It is, rather, the commitment of personal interpretation that makes knowledge possible in the first place. Without concern, without need, understanding is not necessary. Understanding is always, in the Heideggerian sense, “in-order-to” (123). Understanding always has an aim, and this aim is always human, always personal. Thus, Zimmermann can claim that to “know is to interpret” (130). Interpretation is the essentially human method of environmental manipulation that manifests itself in science and art and industry and games, in every aspect of human being. As material beings conscious of our temporality, interpretation enables action.

To look beyond the specificity of science as a discipline, then, it is for us now to recognize and challenge the positivist impulse that has so shaped our present conditions of existence. If we remain within such a paradigm of thought we must, necessarily, deny the agency and personhood of humans, ultimately standing over against ourselves as observers deprived of understanding. Our actions and projects, dreams and desires, become manifestations of structures and systems, accidents of some primal, inexplicably external cause. Any intervention in the order of things is made impossible, and responsibility is rendered an artefact of an unenlightened past. The complexity of experience is given an inevitability, and thus a telos, in its reduction to physical processes, and history is made a function of the arrow of time, or more, is made time, as George Grant has argued elsewhere. Our willing is deprived of any meaning outside of itself, and as such is validated in terms of accomplishment, not effect. It does not matter what one wills, so long as one wills it, so long as one makes something happen, because happening is the way of the world, the nature of time as a concurrence of events. Only in recognizing the personal dimension of knowledge, the entanglement and commitment of it, can a change be possible.

Works Cited

Zimmermann, Jens. Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2015.

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