Embodied Understanding in Pedagogical Contexts
In the following talk, I will analyse the phenomenon of understanding in greater detail. The
goal is to develop a theory of understanding with regard to a theory of the lived body as well
as social theory. In the course of this, I will try to answer two questions:
1. How do we understand each other?
I will differentiate hermeneutic theories of understanding from phenomenological ones,
especially from phenomenological theories of the lived body. I will focus the event of
2. Can a pedagogical understanding be regarded a special practice of understanding
and be defined as such?
In order to answer this question, I will make use of a draft from intercorporal hermeneutics,
which focuses on pedagogical pointing, showing in a theory of inter-attentionality.
1. The Subject’s Understanding
In early texts by Schleiermacher, Dilthey and Husserl, understanding is conceptionalised as
starting from the subject. The subject’s understanding – as subjective genitive and objective
genitive – marks a duality. The subject understands something or someone other than
himself (subjective genitive) by conceptionalising understanding under his or her own
constitutive conditions. Understanding of the other (objective genitive) is thus determined
from the perspective of self-understanding.
1.1 Understanding as a Process of Decoding (Textverstehen, Dilthey)
“We call the process, in which we decipher a meaning out of sensual exterior sings,
understanding.” (Dilthey 1961, p. 217) Dilthey gives an example for this process: The face of
a child. The exterior of his face articulates itself in the form of facial expressions. His interior,
however, has a certain meaning, a sense: complacency, grief, pain, disgust, or the like (cf.
I would like to thank Sales Rödel for the translation.
Danner 1989, p. 42). Understanding is therefore defined as a process of decoding, which
moves from the exterior to the interior. I understand the meaning of the facial expression by
understanding a ‘deeper’ sense behind the surface of expression. This understanding
depends on a preconception, which as a referential historical context makes up the general
from which the particular (the face) can be deduced and understood meaningfully. Meaning
therefore presupposes a sign and the sign itself presupposes that it is already understood as
such. The process of understanding thus can be seen as a circular motion. Schleiermacher
already defined the hermeneutic circle in a way that presupposes a schematic conception of
the overall sense of the phenomenon before the actual process of understanding begins, in
order to be able to understand or see something at all (Danner 2006, p. 65).
According to Dilthey, signs are read as expressions of an underlying meaning. Thus, an
objectificated expression in the form of a text or an expression has to be presupposed.
Understanding is thus oriented on the model of understanding a text.
The understanding of
the other as understanding the foreign (Fremdverstehen) is conceptionalised starting with
the intentions and actions of the subject. Understanding is defined as a semiotic, text-based
and subject-based inference. With his model of semiotic understanding, Dilthey paved the
way for methodising the process of understanding, marking hermeneutics a text-based
1.2. Understanding as empathy (Einfühlung, Husserl)
Along with his analysis of intentionality and attentionality, Husserl also developed a theory
of empathic understanding. The key concept in this theory is the act of appresentation: if I
see the face of the child from our example, I cannot see the back of the head. By
appresenting the back of his head, by apprehending it along with the front side, the whole
head is given to me in perception (Hua I, S. 137). I perceive the other (the child) in the same
way as I perceive things.
With these thoughts, Husserl can show that a simple conclusion by analogy – that is from
outer appearance on inner processes – is not sufficient. He thus disagrees with
Without an anticipation of the whole, without a preconception, nothing can be understood.
(This tradition within hermeneutics’ long history, starting with Christian interpretations, persists in Protestant
Schleiermacher and Dilthey on this point. He argues, that one has to work out the
intentional mode of the experience of someone else, along with its corresponding mode of
fulfilment. It is only then that we can understand other modes of perception in comparison
to our own.
The other (in our example: the child) is appresented in an intentional act as an embodied
other. We can never completely transfer the other in our own sphere – there will always
remain a difference. We can appresent the other, but his whole perception and his
intentions and emotions cannot be understood. So Husserl only speaks of a “kind of
appresentation” and a “sort of making something apprehensible along with something else”
(ebd.). The constitution of the other in appresentation and intention of the subject is taking
place in the mode of “passive synthesis”.
Given this, understanding is based on a relation of similarity and thus on empathizing with
the other – within the limitations of our own self. Husserl is tackling the problem of the
difference between understanding the self and understanding the other, without giving up a
transcendental-philosophical and subject-centered perspective. Perception and
understanding is oriented on the perception of things and objects (vgl. Fink).
1.3. Understanding as ‘understanding-differently’ (Anders-Verstehen, Gadamer)
While Husserl gives relevance to the lived body in the process of understanding
remains in the hermeneutic tradition. Gadamer claims, that the practice of understanding is
determined by tradition, (Überlieferungszusammenhang, Context of tradition) und
Wirkungsgeschichte (history of effect) (Gadamer 1990, S. 270ff., S. 305ff.).
In this way,
Gadamer criticizes both Dilthey’s model of semiotic understanding and the theory of
empathic understanding: Understanding cannot mean, to understand the author of a text
better than he understood himself – as Schleiermacher and Dilthey would claim (Dilthey
1961, S. 55). To quote Gadamer: “Understanding is not, in fact, understanding better, either
in the sense of superior knowledge of the subject because of clearer ideas or in the sense of
fundamental superiority of conscious over unconscious production. It is enough to say that
However, this still takes place in the “sphere of ownness” (Meyer-Drawe 2001/1984, S. 97). With such a
perspective, understanding the other in his otherness becomes impossible. Foreignness and otherness can only
be understood through the subject, in an empathizing and analogical act.
he calls it ‚Umschlagstelle‘/turning point) (HUA IV, S. 161)
Gadamer uses Husserls term of horizon (from “Erfahrung und Urteil” – Experience and Judgment) which is
interpreted as a horizon of anticipation, drawing on the concept of subjective intentionality.
we understand in a different way (anders versteht), if we understand at all.” Understanding
the other bears the danger of “’appropriating’ the other person in one's own understanding
and thereby failing to recognize his or her otherness” (Gadamer 1990, S. 305)..
Understanding the other thus plays between the own and the foreign. Gadamer finally
mediates this difference with the concept of ‘fusion of horizons’ (Horizontverschmelzung)
(ebd., S. 311). Within this fusion, the matter which is understood is merged with the
understanding subject. This merging becomes possible, because both the understanding
subject and the matter of understanding are taking part in the same history of effect
(Wirkungsgeschichte). The historicity of understanding and the “authority of tradition”
vouch for understanding the other.
However, in this theory the otherness and foreignness of the other is egalized by the
harmonistic model of ‘fusion of horizons’.
The hermeneutic unity of interpreting and
understanding finally guarantees a kind of self-understanding, which is oriented on the
model of text and language (vgl. Brinkmann 2014).
1.4 Understanding as being-in-the-world in the mode of understanding
(Verständigt-Sein). Verständigt-sein (Daseinshermeneutik, Heidegger)
Heidegger withdraws from both Husserls subject-centered perspective and traditional, text-
based hermeneutics. Based on a critique of Husserls concept of intentionality and his idea,
that phenomenology is based on transcendental consciousness, he develops a hermeneutic
phenomenology of Dasein (in Sein und Zeit, Heidegger 1927/2001).
Our perception is „obstructed“ or „shadowed“ by theoretical, scientific and language-based
This excludes the occurrence of experiences of radical otherness as well as it marginalizes the embodied
dimension of understanding, which had been indicated by Husserl. Understanding thus becomes the
explication of a hidden meaning, which becomes manifest in Wirkungsgeschichte (history of effect) and works
as a connectional element, that enables the ‘fusion’ of the own with the foreign.
In his work, he re-conceptualizes phenomenological description as an existential process of understanding
being and the self. The “truth of being” shows itself in the interplay of concealing and revealing, in the
ontological difference towards a being (Heidegger 2002).
“Factually, […] our most humble perceptions and conditions are signified ones, even more:
they are already interpreted in a certain way. We do not primarily and originally see things
and objects, but we first speak of them, more precisely: We do not express what we see – it
is the other way round. We see what one [man] says about the things.” (Heidegger 1994, S.
To come to a representation of a phenomenon within perception, that is the “simple
grasping of what we find” (ebd., S. 57), we do not need to use reduction (vgl. Brinkmann
2014, S. 216f.), but a hermeneutics of Dasein. This hermeneutics needs to examine lifeworld
and existential practices (such as our dealing with Zeug, equipment) as well as existential
structures, such as Angst (dread, anxiety), being-with-others and Gelassenheit. The basic
ontic-ontological difference, that is the difference between the concrete beings and the
fundamental being implies, that understanding does not follow the subject-object model any
Within being-with-others, an ontological sense of understanding as being already
understood (Verständigt-Sein) occurs. This might be translated as “being-in-the-world in the
mode of understanding”. Before we are able to understand in an explicit, semiotic or
analogy-based way, we are already placed in certain relations of Dasein, which are
constitutive for an understanding of our self- and world-relations.
Understanding, with Heidegger, becomes a fundamental ontological relation under the
condition of de(con)struction of Western metaphysics. He criticizes the metaphysic
presumptions of previous philosophical and hermeneutic approaches to understanding. In
Heidegger’s philosophy, the other is the radical other of the being, which cannot be grasped
or experienced in ontic, grammatical or theoretical categories. This event of understanding
can only be approached – according to Heidegger – in a literary or poetic way (for instance in
If we already exist in the mode of understanding, we first have to a give in to our relation of ‘Verständigt-
sein’, before understanding as an intentional act can take place. This relation of being becomes present in the
“Geschick”, that means it is a passive experience.In Heideggers later works, this hermeneutics of being are
further developed into a phenomenology of existence (Ek-sistenz, auf englisch ek-sistence) as a “standing out
into the truth of being” (Heidegger 1968, Letter on Humanism), and also into a philosophy of language as
“house of being” (Heidegger 2012). Understanding is now the understanding of the claim of being in in the
“clearing”. The occurrence of the being is singular. It breaks into the order of objects, in the order of the social
and history and in the subject and so disrupts these orders.
the work of Hölderlin or Trakl). With the critique of subjectivity, understanding the other is
seen as a passive experience within the horizon of an event related to being (Sein).
2. Problems of hermeneutic conceptions of understanding
If understanding is conceptualized in a subject-centred way, we can point out three main
problems (vgl. Brinkmann 2014):
1. Understanding in hermeneutic tradition as semiotic and empathic understanding
(Dilthey, Gadamer, Husserl) cannot account for radical otherness (Levinas 1983). It
can only grasp the otherness and foreignness of the other in a trivializing, equalizing
and even colonizing way (vgl. Lippitz 2007).
2. The primacy of language and the spoken word within texts also brings along a
‚presentism‘ of the sign (Derrida 1994). This implies the need to conclude from the
surface to a so called “Hinterwelt” (Nietzsche), a world beyond the sign by
interpreting the sign. Understanding becomes explication of a concealed, latent
meaning. The presence of that which is visible is devalued in favor of the latency of
the non-visible. The question now is: How can something latent, enigmatic and
implicit be brought to the surface? How can something, which might not be
expressible in words but which shows itself, be expressed anyway? How can we – to
quote Nietzsche – get rid of the belief in grammar (as semiotic God)?
3. The general frame (das Allgemeine) in understanding is – according to
Schleiermacher, Dilthey and Gadamer – the context of tradition, the history of effect.
This context generates the greater common of understanding as a precondition for
the possibility of inter-subjective understanding. The question at hand is, what
happens, if this greater common (das Allgemeine) – be it society, the nation state,
religion or community – is fractured in many small parts and is replaced by
difference, heterogeneity, singularity? What if there was no generally binding whole,
no final synthesis but only decentered and heterogeneous units? What does this
mean for the practice of understanding?
3. Understanding the other
3.1. Understanding as response to the call of the other: Embodiment
I would like to draw to a philosophy of otherness, to explore the phenomenon of in-between
in more detail (in the inter-subjective, the inter-generational and the inter-actional). This
philosophy is based on the inversion: It is not the subject, who constitutes understanding,
but the other. The call of the other forces me to respond to it. However, it would be
inadequate, to only think of this call as a verbal utterance. Even a gesture, a certain look on
the face, a gaze can provoke me to enter into a certain relation with the other, which Levinas
calls “Verantwortung” (1983), Waldenfels calls “responsive event” (Antwortgeschehn) and
Nancy calls “Expeausition” (2000/2014). The call of the other is not something we react to
(Schäfer 2012, S. 131). Even ignoring a call or overlooking a gesture would be a reaction to
The response is an event, not a state or an intentional action, not a reaction to a trigger and
it also is not the effect of a certain cause. In fact, the embodied response to a call shows the
passivity of every experience. With a response, an embodied space of resonance opens up.
Thus, the responsive event as embodied act has to be seen in the difference of ownness and
otherness, like Bernhard Waldenfels points out (Waldenfels 2007).
Understanding the other as translating (Ethnography/Anthropology) In the subject’s process of
understanding, the other is conceived, but only as a reflection of ourselves/our ownness. The difference
between self-understanding and understanding of the other as well as between impression and expression is
not as easily ‘mediated/conciliated’, let alone resolved. The understanding of the other, of his intentions and
emotions, his way of experiencing, are out of reach for a semiotic-hermeneutic approach. This problem leads to
a critical stances towards hermeneutic approaches, one of them put forward by Clifford Geertz within the field
of anthropology and ethnography (Geertz 1987). To evade the accusation of egalisation or colonisation,
“sensitive anthropology and ethography” (Kalthoff) defines understanding as a Trans-scription, which does not
presuppose a common, cultural, ethnical or societal matter as a unifying element (Kalthoff 2006, p. 155, 165).
In the course of the Practical Turn, understanding has been related to social practices. The difference between
discursive-explicative and silent, tacit knowing (ibid., p. 150) remains constitutive in this context. My argument,
therefore, is that the recent ethnography remains in the field of the semiotic sign and the objective (cf.
Brinkmann 2015). It fails to make the difference between self-understanding and understanding of the other
fruitful as an intermediate space, a gap, in which the alterity of the other as well as the singularity of the self
He has described the responsive event with reference to Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas in its sensory,
motor and expressive spheres as a situated “embodied responsory”
The call of the other can be described as that, which cannot be expressed in words.
also implies, that there is a sphere prior to the linguistical, which becomes visible in
embodied expressions (in gesture, mimics and the gaze) (Brinkmann 2016a). Understanding
is thus an affective and embodied response, which encompasses emotions, moods,
atmosphere as well as materiality and symbolic spheres of pedagogical regimes and
3.2. Embodied response and understanding
Husserl differentiates in the „Logical Investigations“ (Logische Untersuchungen) the sign as
an expression (Ausdruck) from the sign as an indication (Anzeichen) (Hua XVIII). I will now
describe the difference between embodied expression and semiotic indication or between
showing and saying, which is at the foundation of a theory of understanding as responding
to the call of the other (Levinas, Waldenfels) in more detail. In a second step, I will sketch a
theory of intercorporal understanding in pedagogy (vgl. Brinkmann 2016a/b, 2017c, 2018).
Husserl underlines the pre-predactive and pre-objective dimension of embodied experience.
The lived body is the “zero point of all orientation” Hua IV, S. 148, which enables temporal,
spatial, social and worldly orientation
. At the same time, the lived body withdraws
(entzieht sich) from all rational disposition, as we can see when we look at experiences such
falling asleep, waking up or shame, disgust, pain, laughing and crying. All these embodied,
“mute” experience (Hua I S. 77) can only be expressed in language in an ex-post way. Within
the linguistic expression, we articulate something which is elusive and withdraws from our
grasp at the level of relation. Merleau-Ponty shows, that the ex-post articulation of
experience is not a simple representation or translation of the “mute” experience.
In fact, the embodied expression has to be differentiated from the symbolic expression, and
the lived body has to be differentiated from language. Thus the “double sense” of the sign
between expression and indication comes into play (vgl. Brinkmann 2017c, 2018).
In fact, it takes language as a precondition and also is the initial point of speech.
Only by and through the lived body it is that we can experience in different qualities, such as here and now,
top and bottom, right and left or sooner and later.
The withdrawal (Entzug) of the lived body and of embodied experience can be described in a twofold way:
On the one hand, the body withdraws itself from the subject’s disposition within concrete experiences. Within
embodied experience, experience itself is never completely with itself. On the other hand, the lived body
withdraws from any act of signifying, as it can only be interpreted as a sign in an ex-post way and in a different
With these assumptions, understanding cannot be seen in the mode of symbolic
representation and decoding of signs and symbols anymore, but as a response to a call.
Understanding is not concluding inner states from outer appearance (Dilthey), but an
embodied, responsive practice. The difference between understanding the self and
understanding the other or the difference between impression and expression is not
mediated but kept alive as a fruitful difference. It is through embodied expressions that we
can approach the other. The intentions and emotions of the other, his experiences become
obtainable in call and response. Understanding as a non-objectifing response can come to
linguistic expressivity in an ex-post mode. We thus deal with a circular structure of
antecedent parts (the expression, the gesture) and subsequent parts (the response), which
cannot be skipped or overcome (vgl. Brinkmann 2015).
3.3 Materiality and the event of embodiment
I will now try to flesh out the differences between linguistic-semiotic and non-linguistic,
embodied understanding in order to answer my first question about understanding. I refer
to visual studies, the pictual turn and studies of pointing and showing from the field of
cultural studies and phenomenology.
a. Materiality of embodiment
On the one hand, embodied expressions require a cultural system of symbols and language,
in which they are situated. As embodiments – e.g. expressions and responses – have a
cultural and social dimension. The body and its materiality are thus part of the processes of
normalization, which go along with social order and regimes.
In their ability to be repeated and reproduced, embodiments are also based on conventions
and norms, which are cited and varied in repetition (vgl. Derrida 2001). Mimics and gestures
are based on a material ability to be repeated, which leads to conventions that reproduce
cultural and social norms. It is this conventionality and normalization, which makes the
gestures and embodiments understandable.
Instead, we have to try to get into the circle of understanding “in the right way” (Heidegger 1993, §32, 153)
The cultural and social horizon is in this perspective the condition for the process of
conventionalizing and normalizing embodied expressions. We could call this – in Judith
Butlers terms – an embodied subjectivation.
a. The event of embodiment
On the other hand, embodiments are based on differences in following the rules, in the very
moment in which they are performed (Derrida 1988). A repetition as a copy true to original
is, in fact, impossible (Schäfer 2012, S. 143). There is always a kind of interruption,
discrepancy and variation, something singular which is not repeated because it cannot be
repeated. Within repetition, there is a moment of withdrawal from symbolic and discursive
decoding and representation. This singular event marks a surplus of the lived body, which
cannot be signified. It is the performativity of repetition, which makes repetition become an
But in the moment of showing himself and in the response to the call of the other,
the one showing himself and the one responding to it both show themselves. Embodiment
thus is based on an existential “expeausition” and “revealing” (Nancy 2000).
The symbolism of the cultural order, which is basically decodable in a semiotic way, is being
undermined by the non-representable specific sense of the lived body. Within the
performativity of embodiment a surplus emerges, which can imply something existential
within ‘expeausition’. Expression and response withdraw themselves from the convential,
social norms and as a consequence also from symbolic understanding, as they occur as
performative events and experiences.
3.4 Pedagogical understanding: Intercorporal understanding
Along this borderline between the speakable and unspeakable – or between subjectivation
and individualization (vgl. Schäfer 2011, S. 91; Schäfer 2012, S. 33) – the event becomes
manifest as the “showing-itself” of an existential expression and individual sense. The
duplicity of embodiment between materiality and performativity enables a description of
embodied responses. This duplicity rejects the logics of grammar, by making the specific
sense of the lived body comprehensible. (vgl. Brinkmann 2015b). Embodiments are visible
and can be described; they can be felt and experienced. Social situations become readable
. This event shows itself in a moment of pure presence of embodiment, which Husserl calls “Daß-Sein”.
as expressive, responsive events which take place in front of others (vgl. Bedorf 2010).
Within the process of intercorporal understanding, subjective expressions can be described
in their non-linguistic dimensions. It may sound paradox, but here lies the impossible
possibility of signifying something, that is at the same time prior to language and for which
any linguistic description always comes too late.
Concerning my first question – how do we understand each other – I have been trying to
sketch a perspective on understanding as intercorporal event, which takes place in the mode
of embodied responses to embodied expressions. To conclude my talk, I will try to answer
the second question about pedagogical understanding.
At this point, we can draw to Husserls concept of the “expressive field of the lived body”
(Hua IV, S. 354) to develop a hermeneutic of expression. Such a hermeneutic of expression
opens new perspectives for a theoretically informed research in Bildung and education, for
pedagogical empiry (Brinkmann 2015a) and especially for pedagogical videography
(Brinkmann/Rödel 2017). This also offers a shift of perspective from dialogue and discourse
to the implicit and the embodied.
2.5. Further perspectives: Pedagogical inter-attentionality
Given this background, I have suggested a theory of Pedagogical inter-attentionality
(Brinkmann 2016). Shared attentionality is based on two different practices: The practice of
becoming attentive (as a singular experience) and the practice of showing, (which aims
attentiveness in pedagogical contexts). The basic assumption to draw this conclusion was,
that showing is aims at attentionality and attentiveness. Attentiveness is “the beginning of
Bildung” (Hegel). This renders attentiveness an important category for theory of Bildung.
Phenomenological analysis can show, that we can only be attentive to something which
shows itself, which really concerns and affects us.
From this perspective, meaning is not something which can be deduced from an intentional aim of the
actors, and it can also not be found in an authentic presence of the subject. It can only be explored by looking
at embodied and bodily responses of the others, which correspond with showing and showing oneself.
Following Heidegger, we can say, that first there has to be something which shows itself –
the phenomenon. It is only afterwards that we can show something to someone, as this
something shows itself as something specific. In a pedagogical context, there is mostly
someone who shows something as something specific in front of others. This is accompanied
by the fact, that the person showing something also shows him- or herself and that the
others show themselves in front of a group of others. Given this complex situation, showing
can be seen as a singular experience of showing oneself on the one hand and as a
pedagogical interaction on the other hand (Prange/Strobel-Eisele 2006, S. 40ff) – either as
pointing at something, in showing something or in revealing something (Wiesing 2013).
In this interplay, gesture-based showing is mostly prior to the spoken word.
Processes of learning and educating can thus be described as embodied practices in an
intercorporal responsive event. The sociality of education as shared experience in learning
and teaching (Brinkmann 2017). In these situations (and not only interactions), participants
respond to the expression and the call of the other – or they don’t. This can happen in
different ways: In conversation, in mimics and gestures, by showing something or showing
oneself, and even by concealing something. Such a perspective could prove fruitful for a
theory of pedagogical understanding, which includes the dimensions of the lived body and
embodiment. It could be applied to the fields of inclusive education, early childhood
education, cultural education and in other fields, where tacit dimensions and aspects of the
lived body become relevant in learning and teaching.
Thank you for your embodied understanding
Pointing, showing and appellative showing, that is acts of showing something in order to provoke an action,
are interlaced with each other. In situations of showing, we often find that besides gestural or bodily showing
something participants use language to refer to what other participants say or show from their side and
sometimes they respond by showing instead of speaking. In this way, moments of intense shared attentionality
emerge and the practice of showing is part of an inter-attentional responsive event.
In this situation, the teacher shows something which does not show itself as something concrete or directly
visible: The lesson is about the Mole, a unit of measurement in chemistry and thus an abstract unit in a
scientific symbolic system. However, the teacher tries to illustrate this unit with a concrete, life-world example
(a certain number of walnuts and a box of eggs). This example stands for a decisive moment of teaching and
learning in schools – not only for science subjects. The teacher shows something in order to conciliate /to
mediate the phenomenological difference (Brinkmann 2017b) between concrete, life-world knowledge and
scientific, abstract knowledge and at the same time he has to make plausible how they both relate to each
other/how they build on each other – one of the core elements of classroom teaching.
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