I’m on a mailing list that discusses the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Many years ago I was a fledgling Heidegger scholar, but now I am on the list strictly as a tourist.

Today someone posted: “If you don’t know German you don’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding Heidegger.” A few people posted immediately in reaction to the “dismissive” tone of the comment. I felt the same way, but then thought, hmm, this is an empirical question, isn’t it? List the people you think understand Heidegger best — or pick some other writer in some other language — and see how many of them don’t read him in his original language. There is something true about the dismissive remark.

But, there is something false as well. It draws too strong a line between understanding and not understanding. I obviously don’t understand Heidegger as well as the full-time scholars on the mailing list do. But, having studied Heidegger for several years of my life (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on him), I’m pretty sure I understand him better than most who haven’t studied him do. If we acknowledge that our understanding improves as we read and study more, we acknowledge that understanding doesn’t fall into only two buckets: understands or doesn’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding.

For the original comment to be empirically true, we’d either have to show that (a) there is a clear line between those who understand and those who do not (and that reading the original language is a requirement for getting into that first bucket). Or, (b) we could say that the commenter is actually talking about having professional standing as a scholar: You cannot claim to be a Heidegger scholar if you can only read him in translation. The first alternative seems to me to be ridiculous. The second seems far more plausible. The problems arise when someone applies the bright perimeter of professionalism to the messy web of understanding.

I certainly do believe that had my German been better — it was barely adequate at the time, and now has devolved into very basic travel glossary stuff — I could have understood Heidegger better. Likewise, better understanding the history of philosophy, knowing early 20th century German politics, reading Greek and Latin, and being conversant in German poetry all would have helped me understand Heidegger better. There is no end to what we need to know in order to understand the thought of another, because there is no such state as Understanding that excludes all doubt, excludes all errors, and excludes all others.

Finally, it’s not at all clear to me that if we list those whose understanding of a thinker we most respect, they will be in rank order based upon how many of the Professional Requirements they’ve mastered. Some of the best Heidegger scholars — and you can pick your own criteria of bestness — may be weak in Greek, weaker in German politics, but very strong in poetry. Others might have other sets of strengths and weaknesses. Not only doesn’t understanding necessarily correspond to the fields mastered, the community of scholars ameliorates the weaknesses of individuals by writing works that others read: A scholar weak on politics reads the work of scholars strong on politics. Understanding in this sense is a networked property, and a very messy one indeed.