UNDERSTANDING

 

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In political space we use popular language and common sense.

Debates help us understand the world. Even though the facts may be clear, it can still be hard for us to really comprehend what is going on or what has happened. In these cases it is very helpful to “talk things through” with others.

The exchange of opinions about the world is not only a way to prepare decisions in order to shape the world in which we would like to live. It also helps us to understand the world as it is. “Understanding, as distinguished from having correct information and scientific knowledge, is a complicated process which never produces unequivocal results.” (EU: 307) For Arendt, understanding is so important that she calls it “the specifically human way of being alive; for every single person needs to be reconciled to a world into which he was born a stranger and in which, to the extent of his unique distinctness, he always remains a stranger” (EU: 308). Without understanding, in other words, we could never feel at home in the world.

The relevance of understanding and coming to terms with the world of human affairs is perhaps not as evident as the significance of our decisions about its future. Still, today we can sense more and more the desperation of all those who have the feeling that “I don’t understand anything anymore!” because it seems that the world has become too complex and too confusing.

“If the essence of all, and in particular of political, action is to make a new beginning, then understanding becomes the other side of action, namely, that form of cognition, distinct from many others, by which acting men […] eventually can come to terms with what irrevocably happened and be reconciled with what unavoidably exists.” (EU: 321f)

Understanding is a mental process and as such it goes on inside the individual. Hence just like nobody can deliberate for us, nobody can understand for us. Even though it is essentially a solitary business, the process of understanding is related to the public-political realm in at least three ways: First of all, it is concerned with what is going on in the common world. Secondly, it is stimulated by the presence of and our exchange with other people. Others help us to understand because they confirm, correct and complement our thoughts. Thirdly, understanding can be meaningful only when it is rooted in popular language. “Popular language, as it expresses preliminary understanding, thus starts the process of true understanding. Its discovery must always remain the content of true understanding, if it is not to lose itself in the clouds of mere speculation – a danger always present.” (EU: 312)

Political action is not only the government of public affairs which comes about through decision-making. It also helps us to come to terms with reality and history. Hence political space is not only a space for governing, it is also a space for understanding. We can expect from political space that it helps us to “be at home” in the world in which we live, but only under the condition that it is a space of popular language and common sense.

 

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