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Historical perspectives on erklären and verstehen


Uljana Feest

pp. 1-13

The conceptual dichotomy of Erklären and Verstehen (explaining vs. understanding) has a revealing dual status. On the one hand, it has something of an antiquated air to it, as we loosely associate its origins with the work of Wilhelm Dilthey and other nineteenth-century German philosophers who are not widely read any more, at least not within contemporary Anglo-American history and philosophy of the human sciences. At the same time, however, remnants of the dichotomy still come up in various guises and in various areas of contemporary philosophy and philosophy of science. One example is the long-standing debate over the logical status of action explanations ("reasons vs. causes") in philosophy of mind (Davidson 1980), and associated issues of "teleological explanations' and the explanatory status of laws of nature in the philosophy of the human sciences (Dray 1957; Hempel 1965; von Wright 1971). Another is the question of whether the subject matter of the social sciences requires a special type of interpretative, hermeneutic, or perhaps even empathetic, "access' (Collingwood 1946; Winch 1964; Taylor [1971] 1985). More recently, there has been renewed interest in the question of how to explicate our capacity to interpret another person's actions (see the recent suggestion that the "theory-theory" vs. 'simulation theory" distinction is similar to some aspects of the Erklären/Verstehen distinction) (Kögler and Stueber 2000). And within mainstream analytical philosophy of the social sciences, one of the central topics has long been the question of whether social facts/events can be reduced to the explanations of the actions of individuals (e.g., Kincaid 1997), raising questions about the units at which explanatory and/or interpretive efforts ought to be directed. ("individualism" vs. "holism"). This question can be traced back to early twentieth-century debates in economics and other emerging social sciences (Udehn 2001).

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-3540-0_1

Full citation:

Feest, U. (2010)., Historical perspectives on erklären and verstehen: introduction, in U. Feest (ed.), Historical perspectives on Erklären and Verstehen, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 1-13.

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