The idea of Verstehen (German for “understanding,” “comprehension”) has come to denote a form of conceptual activity held by some theorists to be peculiar to the social sciences and humanities in contrast to Wissen (“knowing,” “acquaintance”), which is conceived as denoting a form of conceptual activity peculiar to the physical sciences. Numerous methodological and theoretical controversies have raged in the social sciences since the late nineteenth century over these dialectically conceived and contrasting modes of thought. These controversies reached a high point in the period immediately before World War I, at the time sociology was being converted into an academic discipline. They have been endemic to the social sciences ever since.
Positivism and antipositivism. The lines of controversy have formed between those who do and those who do not draw a distinction in principle between two presumed alternative modes of thought present in the physical and social sciences. Theorists rejecting any fundamental distinction are usually called positivists; they assume that the same methods which have proved their unparalleled value in the analysis of the physical world are applicable to the materials of the social sciences, and that while these methods may have to be adapted to a special subject matter, the logic of explanation in the physical and social sciences is identical. Theorists who draw the distinction between Verstehen and Wissen can be labeled anti-positivistic. The critical element in antipositivism is the insistence that the methods of the physical sciences, however modified, are intrinsically inadequate to the subject matter of the social sciences: in the physical sciences man’s knowledge is external, experimental, and quantitative, while the social sciences are concerned with man’s experience.
In accord with their distinction between experience, which is understood from within, and the world of objects, which is known from without, the antipositivists have drawn a series of methodological contrasts between the social and physical sciences. The world of experience, including the social world, is conceived as presented by direct intuition; the world of physical objects is conceived as apprehended by sensuous observation. Thus introspection is the normal procedure of sciences dealing with experience, just as experiment is the natural procedure of sciences dealing with physical objects.
Generalization is also conceived by the antipositivists as assuming a different character in physical and social science. The physical scientist, they believe, seeks by means of repeated experiments to obtain measurable data: statistical regularities and mathematically formulated laws are the forms taken by general knowledge in the physical sciences. The social scientist, on the other hand, is seen as elaborating an idea on the basis of careful introspection: he makes the leap to the experience of other persons by empathic interpretations based on his direct intuitive experience. In the end the most significant of social science “understandings” remain qualitative rather than quantitative.
Positivism is basically opposed to all these distinctions and contrasts. The consistent positivist either wipes them away as mere distinctions without a difference or, at best, admits them as mere differences of degree or emphasis. In the course of continuing social science research, according to the positivist, experimental, quantitative, and mathematical knowledge is gradually approximated, if not attained.
The controversy between positivists and antipositivists is deeply rooted in Western thought. Accordingly, there is a strong likelihood that it will continue. The protean forms it has taken can be traced to various historical incidents in the rise of the social sciences. In its most elemental sense the doctrine of Verstehen rests on a presumed intrinsic difference between mind and all that is nonmind. The Verstehen controversy in the social sciences is thus a continuation of the debate over the mind-matter distinction—a debate that, in the West, is already over two thousand years old.
The distinction between the mental world of ideal objects and the world of physical things, while unknown to the first school of Ionian philosophers, was gradually elevated to a central position in ancient Greek philosophy. By the time of Socrates and Plato extensive epistemological considerations (including the problem of universal knowledge) were ordered in terms of the distinction. Plato and his followers considered knowledge of ideal objects to be of a higher order of perfection than knowledge of physical things.
In the course of the Hellenization of Christianity these ancient mind-matter distinctions were taken over by the theologians. With the elaboration of Christian dogma in the European Middle Ages the distinction between mind and matter was assimilated to that between spirit and flesh, sacred and profane. The ancient problem of universals was also revived, giving rise to the realism-nominalism controversy of the Dominicans and Franciscans.
Modern philosophy, which dates from Descartes, did not by any means eliminate the mind-matter problem. Descartes proclaimed a new program for establishing the rational unity of human thought in all major spheres: empirical, theological, and ethical. Beginning with the concept of the thinking individual (Cogito ergo sum) as the one unquestioned first premise, Descartes sought by a chain of logical deductions to prove all other ideas, including the idea of God, with the certainty of a mathematical demonstration.
Even in the works of Descartes the enterprise of achieving a rationally unified body of thought encountered obstacles in the notion of mind and matter as two distinct substances. Mind and matter presumably met in the individual, where they had influence upon one another. But where did such interaction occur? And how did mind influence the body without itself acting like matter, and vice versa? Descartes assigned this interaction to the pineal gland, which had been described but not functionally explained by the physiologists of his day. He also posited the existence of “animal spirits” that transmitted the mutual influence of mind and body—a theoretical expedient that resembles the positing of a substance called ether to support the wave theory of electromagnetic phenomena.
The functions Descartes assigned to the pineal gland and animal spirits were so obviously ad hoc inventions that they failed even to convince his contemporaries. A school of philosophers called the occasionalists attempted to solve his problem by postulating that mind and matter did not really interact at all, but developed as synchronized events, much like preset clocks, so that when the mind was in a given state the body was in a corresponding state—as if the two were in interaction. The occasionalists were not very convincing either, but they did succeed in finding a function for God in a world that was coming to seem increasingly mechanized: He preset mind and matter on their respective courses.
It is unnecessary to rehearse here the story of the first wave of modern Western philosophical development from Descartes to Kant except to observe that this development represents, above all, a series of attempts to develop a rationally unified system of human thought while at the same time preserving the concept of mind and matter as intrinsically different universal substances. The last and most dramatic failure of this enterprise was the skepticism of Hume; the last and most dramatic attempt to salvage the whole philosophical program was Kant’s monumental synthesis. Kant presented three spheres in which universal judgments are possible: the world of science (that is, the study of empirical events), ethics and the world of the self, and the world of religion. The capacity to make universal judgments he took to be the essence of rationality. But—to avoid those conflicts which had brought down earlier formulations—Kant asserted that various contradictions are inevitable if one transfers judgments appropriate to one sphere (such as the empirical world) to another (such as that of morality). The world of empirical things, he contended, is ordered by the principle of mechanical causality; the world of morality by the principle of freedom. Each principle produces contradictions if transplanted to the sphere of the other. If one asks of the great Kantian synthesis how these spheres are supposed to interact, one quickly sees that, in the last analysis, they do not; Kantianism is only another form of occasionalism. However, Kant did his work so thoroughly that it became the natural starting point for most developments in Western philosophy since his time.
While the philosophers were wrestling with the mind-body problem, various other scholars, researchers, and scientists were pursuing special areas that could ultimately be classified as belonging primarily to the sphere of mind or to that of matter. The study of various categories of culture (literature, art, music) belonged to mind; the study of the celestial bodies, the physical and chemical properties of things, or the earth’s surface belonged to matter. The study of human history was concerned with man’s experience and belonged to mind; the study of human physiology to matter. Sometimes these spheres tended to come together and a discipline sought to bridge the two spheres, but usually the special area belonged unmistakably to the humanities or to the physical sciences. A given discipline would elaborate whatever methods of study yielded dependable results and would pay little attention to the methods of other fields except to borrow an occasional promising procedure. Thus a considerable number of special fields were gradually established inside and outside the universities. By virtue of their very specialization most of the scholars in these special fields were able to ignore the mind-body problem. Only when a given theorist sought to generalize more widely and relate his specialty to others might he encounter it.
The changed social and intellectual situation of the nineteenth century ensured the migration of the mind-body problem outside the circles of philosophers. The modern national complexes were consolidated; the twin movements toward mass democracy and socialism were launched. The universities were reoriented to national requirements. Since science was playing an unparalleled role in the consolidation of the nation-state and the rise of the new capitalistic economies, the academically based sciences mounted in prestige compared to other disciplines. The time was ripe for a major and sustained invasion of scientific perspectives into areas formerly reserved to the humanities.
A primary cultural consequence of the changed intellectual milieu of the nineteenth-century Western world was the rise of the social sciences. In rapid succession anthropology, economics, geography, jurisprudence, political science, psychology, and sociology made their appearance. All of them developed in spheres originally reserved to the humanities. For the most part the materials out of which they were formed were originally historical or anecdotal. The methods by which their subject matter was first studied were philological, historical, and introspective.
Thus the formation of the social sciences could not have taken place without a powerful impetus toward positivism. In fact Auguste Comte, often noted as the founder of sociology, was also the author of the term “positivism.” In proposing to extend methods that had proved their effectiveness in dealing with the physical world to social subject matter (the world of mind), Comte automatically laid the foundation for a new series of controversies on the mind-matter problem. Since the social sciences had arisen in territories formerly divided between the humanities and physical sciences, they became the primary scene of contests that could no longer be confined to philosophical circles.
Positivism as sponsored by Comte in France and by Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill in England proposed to analyze human events purely in terms of what is empirically presented. It radically rejected all concepts of eternal ideas, transcendent principles, or hidden essences at the heart of social events and held that the proper methodology for the study of society is to be found in the physical science concepts of succession, coexistence, and cause and effect. These concepts, the positivists maintained, enable scientists to establish the laws of social evolution, of climatic influence, and of social organization. Thus Mill (1843) proposed to found sociology on a scientific psychology deduced from physiology and implemented by the extension and generalization of the procedures of physical science.
The positivistic orientation in social science was calculated to arouse anxieties in traditional humanists, for they suddenly discovered that various psychological, social, and cultural phenomena were being treated, in the words of Durkheim (1895), “as things.” Moreover, the worst fears of the traditional humanists were apparently confirmed when the abrupt transplanting of physical science perspectives into fields for which they had not been designed resulted in numerous crudities and vulgarisms. The positivists brushed aside long-established subtleties and insights associated with humanistic analysis. Finally, the procedures of the positivists were still largely untested, and led to contradictory constructions of the same evidence.
Positivistic social science borrowed its theoretical perspectives from philosophy, its methods from physical science, and its empirical material from history. The various crudities and, at times, outright contradictions it produced suggested the necessity either of abandoning the social sciences or radically modifying them. The rise of the social sciences accorded with the needs of the time, and it was out of the question to abandon them. Instead, as might have been expected, there began a serious review of the philosophic origins of social science, the methods it tried to take from the physical sciences, and the legitimacy of its employment of materials from history.
Positivistic social science traced its philosophic origins to Francis Bacon, to the British empiricists, particularly David Hume, and to the utilitarians. The two best-organized systems of antipositivism were the neo-idealistic (tracing its philosophic origins to Hegel, Schleiermacher, and other idealists) and the Neo-Kantian. Adherents of both positions have questioned the positivistic reliance on history and application of the methods of physical science to historical materials.
The two most famous representatives of neo-idealism and Neo-Kantianism in the social and cultural sciences were Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert. They drew their distinctions in somewhat different ways. Dilthey followed the lead of Johann Gustav Droysen, professor of history at the University of Berlin, in drawing a sharp distinction between the subject matter of the physical and the human sciences. The peculiarity of the latter was that they were concerned with the ever-changing living processes of human experience. The essential character of life, moreover, was to be found in the meanings it sustains or, perhaps better, strove to realize. These were directly given in one’s own experience and empathically understood in the experience of others. Full understanding, however, required reliving. The meanings of life as it moved toward intelligent synthesis were never complete. Hence one most fully grasped the life process by means of ideal types representing unrealized end points in the movement of life toward perfection. [See the biography of Dilthey.]
Rickert, in accord with Kant and the Neo-Kantians of the Marburg school, stressed the contrast between a priori form and content in a manner different from Dilthey, who thought rather in terms of ever-changing process. Moreover, Rickert rejected Dilthey’s distinction between the human and the natural sciences; science, he thought, is the study of phenomena, whether social or physical. The positivists had proposed to use history as the content and physical science as the methodological procedure of social science. In contrast, Rickert saw history and science as two distinct ways in which nature might be conceived. Science dealt with recurrent relations, history with particulars. They were nomothetic and idiographic disciplines, respectively. As an idiographic discipline, history consisted of judgments of significance, of discovering the unique character of an event which provided its identity. Judgments of unique significance in turn involved locating a historical individual within a more comprehensive whole. Science generalized by simplifying. The comprehensive individualizing concepts of history, on the other hand, comprised ever more heterogeneous complexes of historically significant objects.
It is evident that both neo-idealism and Neo-Kantianism rested on the mind-matter dichotomy. Both resisted positivism as a reduction of mind to nature. Both attempted to restore mind to what was conceived as its rightful place as subject matter for the sciences of experience. Neo-idealism sought to accomplish this by distinguishing between types of subject matter, Neo-Kantianism by specifying a set of methodological distinctions. The method of Verstehen therefore had somewhat different implications for each. For the neo-idealists Verstehen was an act of thought that moved from the immediate grasp of meanings in one’s own experience, through empathic understanding of others and the process of reliving as implemented by type concepts, to a generalized understanding of the experience of mankind. For Neo-Kantian social scientists, on the other hand, Verstehen consisted of isolating formal categories of value that permit the subsumption of historical individuals and of the significant changes to which they are subject under progressively more complex heterogeneous wholes.
Ever since the beginnings of sociology it has been possible to distinguish between positivists and antipositivists by noting whether they reject or accept the method of Verstehen. The founders of sociology—Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Lester Ward—were more or less pure positivists. Antipositivism with a Verstehen orientation appears in the works of Georg Simmel and Alfred Vierkandt. Émile Durkheim continued the positivistic tradition; Max Weber, though more of a positivist than either, was strongly influenced by Dilthey’s method of “understanding” and Rickert’s “ascertainment” of historical significance. These influences appear particularly in Weber’s methodological discussions.
In American sociology, Verstehen orientations appear—to choose only a few major examples—in the works of Charles Horton Cooley (1894-1929), Florian Znaniecki (1934), Robert Maclver (1942), and Pitirim Sorokin (1937-1941). Talcott Parsons’ first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1937), was strongly antipositivistic in orientation and deeply influenced by the Verstehen point of view. During the same period the works of George Lundberg expressed a relatively radical positivism. Theodore Abel (1948) developed a sophisticated positivism in the course of a careful critique of the claims of Verstehen to special methodological significance.
In the period following World War n, C. Wright Mills (1959) denounced physical science as a false and pretentious Messiah and argued for a concept of social science somewhat similar to that of the Neo-Kantians. Werner Stark (1958) has made a Verstehen orientation and a revised Neo-Kantianism central to his studies in the sociology of knowledge. The emergence of a group of young sociologists describing themselves as exponents of a “new sociology” following the example of C. Wright Mills, of an existentialist impulse in sociology, and of a sociological coterie, reminiscent of the Neo-Kantians, interested in thrusting the problem of value judgment into central focus and whose adherents call themselves humanistic sociologists, shows that the mind-matter problem continues to be critical for mid-century sociology and that the Verstehen orientation is still sociologically relevant.
One may surmise that the problems in social science generally identified with the notion of Verstehen will continue to arise as long as the mind-matter distinction persists in the West. The recurrent controversy will not be eliminated merely by a choice between positivism and one or another variety of antipositivism, for most of the positivists have retained the mind-matter distinction and propose only to reduce the problems of mind to those of matter. When this is done the Verstehen point of view is only suppressed for a time, emerging once again as soon as one attempts to account for those properties identified with mind. In the course of the conceptual turmoil of the present world there has been some attempt to cut beneath the mind-matter distinctions present in Western thought from the time of classical Greece and return to the pre-Socratics for a new set of suppositions. Perhaps one outcome of this enterprise will be to do away with these distinctions and the recurrent methodological problems associated with them. In that case a form of social science would be established that could no longer be classified as positivistic or antipositivistic.
[Directly related are the entries History, article on The philosophy of history; Interaction, article On Social Interaction; Knowledge, Sociology of; Positivism. Other relevant material may be found in Phenomenology; Sociology, article on The field; Utilitarianism; and in the biographies of Bacon; Comte; Cooley; Descartes; Dllthey; Durkheim; Hume; Kant; Lundberg; MacIver; Mill; Mills; Plato; Simmel; Sorokin; Spencer; Ward; Weber, Max; Znaniecki.]
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