To understand it on its own terms

We commonly hear it said that a work of art must be understood “on its own terms,” and that phrase is used in other contexts as well; people, especially people very different from ourselves, are said to have to be understood on their own terms. But what is the meaning of the expression “on its/their own terms?” Note that we do not say of every possible object of understanding that it must be understood on its own terms. The statement, “Chemistry must be understood on its own terms,” sounds odd. The “on its own terms” appears to lack point. It invites the retort, “Good grief, on what other terms had you expected to understand it?!” We seem to be brought to this: where the exhortation “understand it on its own terms” is to be used in reference to some object, there must be some reasonable way of understanding that object alternative to understanding it on its own terms. We may ask the child its own childish reasons why it keeps clobbering little sister (“She took my dolly!”), or we may account for its actions in terms the child does not comprehend (“sibling rivalry”). We may on occasion even do the same sort of thing with adults, perhaps giving a reason out of Freud for something done by a person who never heard of Freud or psychoanalysis. But naturally, distinctions between “their terms” and “our terms” become of extreme importance when we attempt to understand the peoples of other cultures. In such cases there literally are different systems of terms, that is, different languages, within which we must make sense of activities.
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DOI 10.2307/2106636
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