The Art of Understanding According to Schleiermacher


The Art of Understanding is a term declared by Schleiermacher in his hermeneutics. He saw hermeneutics as the “Art of Understanding”. Understanding is of course different from knowing. Those who know have not come to understand.

Understanding is the activity of capturing meaning. While knowing is nothing more than the act of gathering data. Data can be known by something, for example: genes, neurons and computers, while meaning can only be understood by someone. What does it mean to “understand” and why is this activity considered an “art”? We will find the answer in the philosophical ideas promoted by Schleiermacher.

A Glimpse of Schleiermacher’s Life

This time I would like to invite readers to philosophize with Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834). Schleiermacher is known as a philosopher and founder of modern Protestant theology who lived in the Romantic era. Romanticism is nothing but a movement critical of the enlightenment of the 18th century.

Romantic thinkers saw the progress of Europe’s science, industry and technology at that time as a decline rather than progress of civilization. On that basis, romantic thinkers were more interested in myths, traditions and religion as objects of interpretation studies. They try to explore the meaning behind this ancient wisdom and then live it anew. Schleiermacher was deeply influenced by the Romantic movement.

Schleiermacher was born on November 21, 1768 in Breslau, Silesia in what is now Poland. He grew up in a Protestant family. His parents even planned that Schleiermacher would be prepared as early as possible to become a preacher.

Schleiermacher then entered into a seminary in Barby/Elbe. At the seminary, Schleiermacher became acquainted with philosophical literature, theology and non-religious romances. This made him confused, between becoming a preacher or a scientist.

This hesitation prompted Schleiermacher to pursue philosophy, theology and philology at the University of Halle. There, he even – for the first time – became acquainted with Kant’s critical philosophy. From the time Schleiermacher taught at Halle in 1805, he began to concern himself with hermeneutics. He died in Berlin on February 6, 1834. Since then, Schleiermacher is known as the founding father of Modern Hermeneutics.

About Hermeneutics

Budi Hardiman in his book entitled “The Art of Understanding: From Schleiermacher to Derrida”, emphasizes that the term “Hermeneutics” is actually not a term that has just appeared in modern times. This term can even be traced in the religious culture of ancient Greece. Hermeneutics etymology is related to the figure of Hermes, who mediates between gods/goddesses and humans.

In Greek mythology, Hermes served as the party that conveyed the messages of the goddesses to humans. However, before Hermes delivered the message, he first understood or interpreted the message for himself. After he understands the intent of the message, then he articulates the intent of the message in a language understood by humans. The gap between the sender of the message, the sender of the message and the recipient of the message must be bridged by this activity called “hermeneutics”.

Hermeneutics in English is called “Hermeneutics”. This term is derived from the Greek word, namely: “hermeneuein” which means “to translate” or “to act as an interpreter”. The activity of translating one language into another is actually nothing but what we call “Hermeneutics”.

The activity of translating is actually not just exchanging a foreign language into our own. More than that, translating is interpreting so that it can be articulated in the taste of our language. In other words, translating is the activity of capturing meaning according to the author’s intent in a language that readers understand.

It should be noted that early hermeneutics was nothing more than an activity carried out by clergy in order to interpret sacred texts, such as holy books. This activity aims to reveal the meaning of Divine Revelation written in sacred texts. The different ways or methods of interpreting then give birth to different and even contradictory interpretations.

This happened in the early development of Christianity. Since its inception, Christianity has been peppered with hermeneutical polemics. The Christian congregation in the city of Alexandria has a way of interpreting the scriptures that is different from the Christian congregation in Antioch.

The divisions that occurred in western Christianity, namely: between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers were rooted in different ways of interpreting Scripture.

So, since when did hermeneutics become a philosophical problem? We should be grateful to the thinkers of the renaissance in the 18th century who brought out hermeneutical activities from the medieval religious cage. If the medieval clergy limited hermeneutics to the interpretation of scriptures, the Enlightenment thinkers extended the field of interpretation to profane texts. Enlightenment thinkers even looked at the scriptures the same as other profane texts. In the minds of enlightened thinkers, sacred texts are no more special than other texts.

Enlightenment thinkers uprooted the sacredness of the books considered sacred by medieval clergy. Enlightenment thinkers wanted to go beyond radical medieval ways of interpreting a text. In other words, they use rationality – without being driven to strengthen their faith – in order to grasp the meaning behind the sacred texts. That’s what Schleiermacher will do.

The Art of Understanding a la Schleiermacher

We first understand what Schleiermacher meant by the term “understand” (verstehen). According to Schleiermacher, understanding is nothing but the activity of capturing understanding (verständis). While understanding is the result of the process of understanding. The object of understanding activity a la Schleiermacher is none other than language. However, please note that

What is captured from the language is not words as far as words or sentences as far as sentences. In everyday life we often try to catch the meaning behind the words of people who are talking to us. Because for Schleiermacher, the spoken word is never separated from the thoughts of the speaker.

He further emphasized that humans do not think about the same thing, even though they use the same word. A philosopher and a doctor both use the word “human” but their perspectives on this one word are of course different and even contradictory.

Understanding in Schleiermacher is thus the activity of capturing what is thought rather than the grammatical meaning of the language being spoken by the speaker. Therefore, we need to distinguish between “understanding what is said in the context of language with its possibilities” and “understanding (what is said) as a fact in the mind of the speaker”.

Hermeneutics a la Schleiermacher actually tries to capture what the speaker understands by the word he is saying. In everyday life, we often encounter discrepancies between the text and the intent of the text, between the words and the thoughts of the speakers, and between the text and the author’s intent. This gap tends to give rise to misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding then has the potential to cause racial, social, religious conflict and so on.

Then why is understanding a la Schleiermacher considered an art (Kunst)? In order to understand this term, we first need to distinguish between two types of understanding, namely: “understanding spontaneously and understanding with effort”. Understanding spontaneously can be felt in our lives every day. We will easily understand the words of our parents, because we are born and live in the same social, cultural and religious environment. In this context, we understand each other spontaneously.

However, Schleiermacher did not develop such a hermeneutic. The starting point of hermeneutics a la Schleiermacher is nothing but a misunderstanding or lack of mutual understanding. For Schleiermacher, misunderstanding characterizes modern society. Modernity, which is characterized by a plurality of ways of thinking, ways of life, religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs and ideological pluralism, is prone to misunderstandings. Or in Schleiermacher’s words, “in modern times, misunderstandings are inevitable”.

Misconception has become an indisputable fact, in modern times.

Schleiermacher further emphasized that misunderstandings are often caused by prejudice (Vorurteil). Prejudice occurs when readers or listeners feel their perspective is superior to the intent of the author or speaker of the word.

Therefore, understanding in this case can be said to be an art for two reasons: First, because efforts to overcome common misunderstandings are always using “sophisticated” methods and not just spontaneously. Second, because overcoming common misunderstandings is always done with certain rules. Art, in this case is defined as ‘smartness’. This is the same as when a music artist produces beautiful harmonic tones.

The art of understanding is thus the activity of capturing meaning (with sophisticated methods) to overcome common misunderstandings. What you are looking for is the thinking behind a

Expression. In this sense, hermeneutics is nothing but the art of listening rather than the art of speaking, the art of reading rather than the art of writing. Schleiermacher asserted that hermeneutics is nothing but the art of thinking and therefore is philosophical in nature.

With that way of thinking, Schleiermacher made hermeneutics a method in order to capture the meaning behind speech or writing. The use of hermeneutics methodology is not limited to specific texts. For him, all texts, whether spoken or written, can be interpreted in the same way. In fact, interpretation has become an ability possessed by every human being.

Schleiermacher’s art of understanding is nothing but an attempt to capture the meaning of text (written or spoken) both from a grammatical point of view and the objective condition of the writer or speaker. If the writer expresses his thoughts through writing in the form of sentences, then the interpreter tries to use the language (sentences) to understand the mental objective condition of the writer or speaker.

Thus, the interpreter is able to understand every writing and utterance based on the perspective of the writer or speaker. According to Schleiermacher, this kind of hermeneutical methodology is effective in overcoming misunderstandings in modern social, cultural and religious life.