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MLN 121.3 (2006) 592-616

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Comprehending Romantic Incomprehensibility.

A Systems-Theoretical Perspective on Early German Romanticism

Bowling Green State University
Meiner Doktormutter gewidmet, bei der ich als selbstverständlich das Unverständliche verstehen lernte.

Unbestimmt enthält im Grunde, eine Bestimmung durch den bloßen Begriff Bestimmung—es drükt das nicht aus, was es ausdrücken soll. Es soll Bestimmung gänzlich negiren.1

Depending on your definition of comprehension, promising to comprehend incomprehensibility will either seem unproblematic—as a commonly used concept, incomprehensibility surely is as comprehensible or incomprehensible as any other concept—or utterly paradoxical: for, by definition, incomprehensibility must elude comprehension. The former stance suggests that we look at incomprehensibility from a pragmatic point of view, as a concept that is used regularly and poses no specific challenges to communication when it is used. It understands comprehension as a social practice in whose rules individuals learn to participate. From this pragmatic point of view, we can argue that the [End Page 592] concept of incomprehensibility enables, even completes comprehension in a substantial way, making in effect everything comprehensible—at the very least as something incomprehensible (e.g. when we comprehend God, love, or a suicide attack as something incomprehensible rather than, for example, as something eternal, physical, or rational).2 The latter stance, the idea that incomprehensibility is itself incomprehensible, assumes a "representational" point of view, supported by the basic thought that words and concepts acquire meaning not through their particular usage, but by representing something that they are not (be it a "thing," an idea, a "signified," or, more generally, the intentions of a speaker). Richard Rorty traces this stance back to the Platonic analogy between perceiving and knowing and the simple prejudice that "the object which the proposition is about imposes the proposition's truth."3 The representational view can be applied both to comprehension defined cognitively, for example as an adequatio intellectus et rei, and to comprehension defined socially, as the transmission of meaning, as the successful communication of thoughts, ideas, (mental) representations (Vorstellungen), or (a speaker's) intentions. From this perspective, comprehending incomprehensibility is a paradoxical proposition: for as long as we comprehend it, that is, as long as we attach a particular meaning to incomprehensibility, we are always already mis-comprehending it, namely as something comprehensible when by definition it ought to represent, designate, or express what is incomprehensible. In other words, if comprehension is defined as the understanding of an independent reality rather than as a social practice, then incomprehensibility must indeed elude comprehension. Following this representational point of view, one might go one step further and argue that without the ability to comprehend incomprehensibility, we have no grounds to claim with any certainty that we comprehend anything; for we are unable to decide if what we thought we comprehended is perhaps not incomprehensible after all. And yet, if nothing is comprehensible with (representational) [End Page 593] certainty, then this claim cannot be certain either. Which, in turn, might lead us back to the first point of view, claiming that everything is comprehensible—at the very least as incomprehensible.

In the following, I want to use the basic distinction between the pragmatic and the representational mode of comprehension as an observational directive to approach the paradoxical explorations of incomprehensibility that mark early German Romanticism. The problem of incomprehensibility asserts itself most clearly in the Romantic reflections on the absolute. As Novalis puts it in the above quote, the moment we speak about, reflect on, or otherwise try to comprehend the indeterminate, we will have determined it and hence will always already have turned it into something that it is not. Much of Novalis's "Fichte Studies" explore incomprehensibility in terms of this representational quandary. A few years later, however, in particular in Novalis's "Monolog" and Friedrich Schlegel's "Über die Unverständlichkeit," incomprehensibility is explored with regard to the successful communication of a speaker's intentions. My claim is that incomprehensibility in these later texts is comprehensible once we understand more clearly how they move...


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