Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pax Verstehens

In German, to understand is verstehen. The noun, understanding is Verstand, although this is used for the faculty, while Verstehen is used for the activity of grasping or comprehending. This distinction allows us to raise a philosophical question about the motto, "Peace through Understanding". What is it that is to be grasped or understood that will bring peace? Is the idea merely that we should look at the unisphere and realize that all human beings share the same planet and so we ought to get along? That seems too handy, oversimplistic, a false start for an easy way out. We will have to work at understanding. If we want to defend the claim that peace can be won through understanding, we need to look at what sort of work understanding entails, and how peace can be found among the fruits of this work.
Plato distinguished three sorts of cognition, corresponding to successively superior areas on his divided line: doxa (opinion), dianoia (discursive reasoning), and noesis (intellection). The method of dianoia is analysis, while the method of noesis is dialectic. In Boethius (d. 525?), dianoia and noesis are considered the activities of ratio and intellectus, respectively. This distinction was introduced into German by Meister Eckhart (d. 1327?) as that between Vernunft and Verstand.

Vernunft is the conceptualization of the sensory world and its contents, while Verstand was taken by the mystics as the intuitive understanding of God.
Of course, mystics like Eckhart also held that there is a kind of peace that can only be achieved through the intuitive understanding of God. This is another sort of peace through understanding.


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