Books / Digital Text

3. Conception and Understanding

3. The Irrational as an Object of Cognition

All attempts at scientific explanation can at best succeed only in explaining the changes in something given. The given itself is inexplicable. It simply is. Why it is remains hidden from us. It is the irrational?that which reasoning cannot exhaust, that which concepts are unable to grasp without leaving something still unexplained.

For the science of human action, the valuations and goals of the final order at which men aim constitute the ultimate given, which it is unable to explain any further. Science can record and classify values, but it can no more "explain" them than it can prescribe the values that are to be acknowledged as correct or condemned as perverted. The intuitive apprehension of values by means of understanding is still not an "explanation." All that it attempts to do is to see and determine what the values in a given case are, and nothing more. Where the historian tries to go beyond this, he becomes an apologist or a judge, an agitator or a politician. He leaves the sphere of reflective, inquiring, theoretical science and himself enters the arena of human action.

Science belongs completely to the domain of rationality. There can no more be a science of the irrational than there can be irrational science. The irrational lies outside the domain of human reasoning and science. When confronted with the irrational, reasoning and science can only record and classify. They are unable to penetrate more "deeply," not even with the aid of the "understanding." Indeed, the criterion of the irrational is precisely that it cannot be fully comprehended by reasoning. That which we are able to master completely by reasoning is no longer irrational.

The purest example of the irrational as an object of scientific activity is to be found in what is called Kunstwissenschaft.* Kunstwissenschaft can never be more than the history of the arts and of artists, of art techniques, of the subjects and themes treated by art, and of the ideas governing it. There is no universally valid theory of the artistic, of aesthetic values, or of artistic individuality. What writers on art say about it, whether in commendation or in condemnation, expresses only their own personal experience of the work of art. This may be called "understanding," but, as far as it goes beyond the ascertainment of the irrational facts of the case, it is definitely not science. One who analyzes a work of art breaks it up in the strict sense of the word. Its specific aesthetic quality, however, is effective only in the whole of the work, not in its parts. A work of art is an attempt to experience the universe as a whole. One cannot analyze or dissect it into parts and comment on it without destroying its intrinsic character. Kunstwissenschaft, therefore, can never do more than skirt the fringes of art and works of art. It can never grasp art as such. This discipline may nevertheless appear indispensable to many because it provides access to the enjoyment of works of art. In the eyes of others it may be clothed with a special dignity reflected from the splendor of the objects of art themselves. Still others say that it cannot ever approach the specifically artistic. This too is true, although one is not therefore justified in looking down upon art historians and art history.

The position of science toward the other values of acting men is no different from that which it adopts toward aesthetic values. Here too science can do no more with respect to the values themselves than to record them and, at most, classify them as well. All that it can accomplish with the aid of "conception" relates to the means that are to lead to the realization of values, in short, to the rational behavior of men aiming at ends. History and sociology are not fundamentally different in this respect. The only distinction between them is that sociology, as a theoretical science, strives for universally valid laws of rational behavior, whereas history, employing these laws, presents the temporal course of human action. The subject matter of history is the historically given in its individuality. It must treat this with the means provided by theory, but as long as it does not overstep its bounds and attempt to prescribe values, history cannot exhaust the individuality of the given even with the help of "understanding." History may, if one insists, be called a science of the irrational, but one must not forget that it is able to gain access to the irrational only by means of rational science. At the point where these means fail, history can succeed in nothing beyond the ascertainment of the irrational facts of the case through empathic understanding.

Understanding does not explain the individual, the personal, or the values given in experience, because it does not grasp their meaning by way of conception. It merely beholds them. Hence, as far as understanding is involved, there can be no progress in the historical sciences in the sense in which there is progress in the natural sciences or in sociology. There is progress in the historical sciences only as far as conception is involved; i.e., as far as improvement in the treatment of sources and more penetrating sociological cognition enable us to grasp the meaning of events better than was previously possible. Today, for instance, with the help of economic theory we are capable of comprehending the events of economic history in a way that was not available to the older historians. However, history must be repeatedly rewritten because the subjective element in the passing of time and the change in personalities again and again open up new vistas for the understanding.

This subjective element, which is always mixed in with understanding, is responsible for the fact that history can be written from a variety of points of view. There is a history of the Reformation from the Catholic standpoint and another from the Protestant standpoint. Only one who fails to recognize the fundamental differences that exist between conception and understanding, between sociology and history, will be prone to assume that these differences exist in the sphere of sociology as well and to contrast, for example, a German sociology to English sociology or a proletarian economics to bourgeois economics.

  • *. Translator's note: The German term Kunstwissenschaft, which is used in the original, means a discipline that deals both with the history of art and with aesthetic evaluations of it.