How can we understand people?
Comprehension is a hierarchy, resembling a pyramid, with awareness at the base followed by consciousness, succeeded by knowing, with understanding at the pinnacle.
I have concocted a metaphor set that might relay my comprehension of the difference between knowing and understanding.
Awareness--faces in a crowd.
Consciousness—smile, a handshake, and curiosity.
Knowledge—long talks sharing desires and ambitions.
Understanding—a best friend bringing constant April.
For Dilthey, “understanding is insight into the working of the human mind, the rediscovery of the ‘I in the Thou’…Thus I can understand why John paces up and down the room but not why my plant won’t grow. In the latter case I would have to say, ‘I know why it won’t grow’. The notion of understanding would also apply to what human beings have produced; thus I might understand a poem as well as a gadget.”
The human world is filled with meaning, thus the theorist of the human sciences is concerned with causality and meaning, whereas the theorist of the physical world deals almost completely with causality. The human world needs understanding and interpretation, whereas the physical world requires knowledge and explanation.
Herein lays the reason why human relationships cannot be intellectually embraced in the same manner as is physical relationships.
Dilthey proclaims that the depths of human meaning and understanding are particularly accessible for interpretation in the works of art and literature. He called this work of interpreting the products of human activity which reveal the qualities of human life, the “hermeneutical art.”
When the wind blows down a tree we seek a relationship between wind force and tree strength. A man fells a tree; we seek an understanding of intention. A woman slaps a man’s face; there is a world of intentional acts to be considered, because we are dealing with the actions of human beings.
Our insights that result from our own humanness allow us to understand other people. Therein lay the difference between physical science and human science; human science will never reach the precision of the physical sciences but there is the great advantage of moving within a world that is familiar to us. Human life is not only meaningful but it is also articulate in expressing its own meaning, which we can understand.
As we reflect on our own life we can reflect on and understand the life of others. Their patterns are available to me just as my own patterns are available to me. I understand their meaning because I understand mine, more or less. Human life is not only meaningful but it can be articulated.
The life of the individual must also be considered in light of the society. The context in which the individual stands is constructed from tradition, beliefs, and language. Everywhere there is human life there is pattern and meaning that can be articulated and understood, more of less.
The process of comprehending individual units of life’s experiences, such as being in a chess club, or being a Catholic, or being a Republican, Dilthey calls an ‘objectification of life’. Dilthey makes no metaphysical claims here, these units are marks on paper or formed by bricks but they are units of created meanings and can be grasped by humans. Dilthey says ‘Poetry has influenced my life’…‘Protestantism is an important factor in the history of England.’ In other words these are units for understanding individuals and also for understanding community relationships.
Ideas and quotes from Pattern and Meaning in History—Wilhelm Dilthey