Why I Use Tarot: Understanding vs. Explanation

The early German sociologist Max Weber had a lot of really important ideas that shaped the way we think about the world. One of those ideas, which I find particularly useful in my day-to-day life, is the distinction between understanding and explanation.

The German words for these concepts are verstehen and erklaren, respectively, and there’s a great Wikipedia article on the former, if you’re interested. Essentially, these two words mark a distinction between the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology, primarily) and the social sciences (history, psychology, sociology, and the like).

Das ist Herr Weber.

You see, the “real” sciences serve to explain the world around us. They provide accounts of events through chains of causality: The eight-ball rolls into the corner pocket because it was hit by the cue ball at a certain angle with a certain velocity on a plane with a certain amount of friction, and so on. The idea of scientific explanation is that it gives you a certain set of rules, and if you know those rules, than you can predict or account for any physical phenomenon in the known universe.

Did anyone else learn geometry by watching Donald Duck play billiards?

Social sciences, on the other hand, can’t really provide this kind of cause-and-effect relation. (Well, some contemporary American political scientists would argue otherwise, but generally speaking, it’s accepted that social science deals in correlates rather than causates. And at the very least, people back in Max Weber’s day didn’t think of sociology as possessing such explanatory powers.) I can talk all the livelong day about inflation in the Weimar Republic contributing to the rise of Nazi Germany, but I certainly can’t spit out a universal rule. Whereas physics can tell me that any object falling in a vacuum on earth will accelerate at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared, I can’t competently say that when currency inflation rises above 10%, a genocidal fascist dictatorship is guaranteed to emerge. It just doesn’t work that way.

Yet all is not lost. The social sciences lack the explanatory power of disciplines like physics and chemistry, but they can offer us something that hard science cannot: understanding. Whereas explanation was a matter of objective causality, understanding is something subjective that we acquire through personal experience. We may never be able to completely quantify what caused the rise of the Third Reich, but on a certain subjective, emotional level, we can understand it. We can understand the families who had lost their husbands and sons in the War, who had no income and whose savings were being eroded by hyperinflation. We can understand the fear and insecurity that these people experienced, their need for a strong authority figure to take control and tell them things would be all right, and their resentment towards the Triple Alliance powers that had so routed them in the First World War. To an extent, we can even understand the bigotry and xenophobia that emerged in Germany, because we all know that when people get scared, they look for a scapegoat.

Children in Weimar Germany using stacks of money as toys because doing so was cheaper than buying wooden blocks.

And this subjective sort of understanding, though not necessarily “scientific”, is something that the hard sciences can’t offer. We will never understand (in a messy, subjective, intuitive-emotional way) why the gravitational constant is 9.8 meters per second squared. We can explain it, to be sure. But we can’t connect to it on that same human level.

This is the trade-off, then, between verstehen and erklaren. Both are important, and neither can do what the other does. Even now, when the explanatory power of disciplines like psychology has greatly advanced and we can talk about the effect of hormones like serotonin and cortisol and oxytocin, we still need that element of verstehen. We need to humanize the social sciences with a healthy dose of verstehen, because strict causal explanation doesn’t seem sufficient to us when dealing with the workings of the human mind. That’s why we still have things like talk therapy.

What’s the connection to Tarot here?*

Well, for those of you who have adventured around the blog before, you probably know that I don’t consider myself much of a spiritual/religious person. I’m very much a materialist and a reductionist in the philosophical sense (that is to say, I’m of the opinion that everything in our universe is, when you reduce it down far enough, just a whole bunch of swirling matter-like gunk without any divine or spiritual organizing principle to it). And if we’re being completely open and honest, I do have a tendency to get a little huffy around people who have more lenient views on anything having to do with the immaterial plane.**

But that stance is a strictly scientific, explanatory one. I think that everything in the universe can be explained by the hard sciences, even if we sometimes have to resort to wackier ones like quantum mechanics.*** However, that does not mean it can be understood.

I went a little crazy with the pictures on this post.

A biochemist can tell us that love is caused by a hormone that’s chemically more or less the same thing as consuming large quantities of chocolate. That explanation is absolutely correct, and I stand by it. But that same biochemist goes home from his lab at the end of the day, kisses his spouse, and experiences chocolate-hormone feelings that are no less real or intense for their being explainable by science. We can explain love until the cows come home, but that explanation has nothing to do with our subjective, personal, experiential understanding of it.

The same is true of me. For the most part, I live in a cold, disenchanted, demythologized world. But when I go for a late-night walk and look up at the moon, I’m filled with wonder and awe. When I go to the theatre and see Iago destroy Othello out of pure spite, I’m filled with anger and pity. I love this universe and the people–real and imagined–who inhabit it. We live in a crazy, amazing, downright impressive place, and my unshakeable faith in its explainability doesn’t do anything to change my emotional need for understanding. For verstehen.

That’s where Tarot comes in.

Tarot is not explanatory. It doesn’t provide a rigorous system or a consistently applicable mechanism to account for why people behave the way they do. Despite the claims of some readers, I don’t think Tarot can be said to predict the future, at least not in an erklaren way, because any one card can mean a whole variety of things in different circumstances and reader interpretation is essential to the art of cartomancy.

But oh, boy, is Tarot good for understanding. With Tarot, I look at the moon (the Moon) and see not a chunk of rock and dust caught in the Earth’s gravitational orbit, but a deep symbolic representation of emotion, intuition, and duplicity. With Tarot, I see the Devil in Iago and can understand what he does; perhaps more frighteningly, I can see a reflection of Iago in myself. I see Christ in the Hanged Man, although I’m not Christian, and I understand an endless cycle of death and rebirth in the World, although I don’t believe in reincarnation. The language of Tarot speaks to the emotional part of me that craves understanding and that will never be satisfied with a mere cause-and-effect explanation.

The boundary between these two ideas–explanation and understanding–is thin and permeable. In a way, the sun (the Sun) is, to me, simultaneously a ball of burning gas and a light of divine truth (even if, in a literal sense, I really don’t think the latter exists). But at the same time, I think it’s important to remember that there is a boundary, however fine. Science can’t provide us with a subjective understanding of human experience. Neither, however, can the subjective world explain the objective; it’s just as faulty to try to use Tarot (or any of the multitude of other spiritual disciplines listed in my second footnote) to try to explain the external world as it is to use science to understand the internal one.

This has been a long, rambling post, and I’m starting to doubt whether there was much of a point to it. (I had actually half-written the first in a series of Kabbalah posts, before I got frustrated with it, scrapped the whole thing, and started this instead.) I suppose the point is this: Most things, science can explain, but some things it doesn’t even try to. Tarot is my way of understanding those other things, those aspects of human existence that are in their nature unscientific but that are no less important in the way we live our lives.


*To be honest, sometimes I start these rambles for no real reason and am not actually sure that there is a connection to Tarot. There usually is.

**You know. Angels, auras, reiki, chakras, spirit guides, fairies, deity and deities of various forms, past lives, ESP, life after death, ley lines, messages from the great beyond, and so on. Anything that your angry cousin Herb the evolutionary biologist would probably disparage.

***Although frankly, the way that the discipline of quantum physics has been appropriated by certain parts of the New Age movement is a little frightening to me. Quantum mechanics is weird, but it in no way implies the things that a lot of people seem to think it does.

6 thoughts on “Why I Use Tarot: Understanding vs. Explanation

  1. Thank you for writing this! I’m actually studying a bit of biochem and evolutionary bio at the moment and the idea of explanation vs understanding really hit home for me. And yes, the New Age quantum mechanics appropriation is strange — reading up on it reminds me of why I never got beyond a cursory interest in Wicca.


  2. Wow! Lots to think about here. I am a mystic at heart and tend to see the spiritual in everything. However, I totally understand and appreciate your viewpoint in this post, especially regarding your understanding of the Tarot. Beautiful words, brother!


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