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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 January 2010
A subtitle for this paper might have been ‘The ugly face of Verstehen’, for it asks whether the theory of Verstehen has, to switch metaphors, ‘dirty hands’. By the theory of Verstehen, I mean the constellation of concepts—life, experience, expression, interpretative understanding—which, according to Wilhelm Dilthey, are essential for the study of human affairs, thereby showing that ‘the methodology of the human studies [Geisteswissenschafteri] is … different from that of the physical sciences’ (SW 177):1 for in the latter, these concepts have no similar place. Even critics of Dilthey tend to agree that his heart, if not his head, was in the right place: that Verstehen was designed as an antidote to ‘dehumanizing’ attempts by positivists to reduce the categories used in explaining human behaviour (value, meaning, purpose etc.) to just those equally operative in the physical sciences (cause and effect, stimulus and response, etc.). As Dilthey himself put it, ‘there is no real blood flowing in the veins’ of human beings as examined by the positivists and their precursors: they do not treat of ‘the whole man’ (HS 73). The idea of Verstehen, it seems, is doubly humane: a humanizing approach to the humane studies.
1 References in the text to Dilthey are to page numbers of Dilthey: Selected Writings (SW), ed. Rickman, H. P. (Cambridge University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Introduction to the Human Sciences (HS), trans. Betanzos, R. (London: Harvester, 1988)Google Scholar; Gesammelte Schriften (GS), 19 volumes (Leipzig: Teuber, 1923- )Google Scholar; and The Essence of Philosophy (EP), trans. , S. and Emery, W. (Chapel: University of North Carolina Press, 1954)Google Scholar.
2 On Social and Political Culture, trans. Barnard, F. (Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 181.Google Scholar
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9 Quoted in Wolin, Richard (ed.), The Heidegger Controversy: a critical reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. 142.Google Scholar
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11 ‘Holism and Hermeneutics’, in Hollinger, R. (ed.), Hermeneutics and Practice (Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1985), p. 240.Google Scholar I am much indebted to this perceptive essay, but take issue with its judgment that Heidegger was the first to articulate certain themes which, in fact, Dilthey had already announced. For an historically more judicious account, detailing the younger thinker's debt to the older, see Guignon, Charles B., Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), pp. 45ffGoogle Scholar.
12 Quoted in Gay, Peter, Weimar Culture: the outsider as insider. (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1968), p. 85Google Scholar.
13 Gentile, Giovanni, Genesis and Structure of Society, trans. Harris, H. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), p. 82Google Scholar; Hitler, , Mein Kampf, pp. 270–271Google Scholar; Hans Freyer, quoted in Herf, Jeffrey, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 125Google Scholar.
14 Dilthey never resolved a number of deep tensions in his position; those, for example, between relativism and rationalism, and between a reductive and non-reductive account of the individual. The aspects on which I focus are, therefore, only part of the story. For an emphasis on the opposing aspects, see Emarth, Michael, Wilhelm Dilthey: the critique of historical reason (University of Chicago Press, 1978)Google Scholar.
17 Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), p. 437.Google Scholar
18 Guignon, Heidegger, p. 141. The point I make in n. 14 above should be borne in mind here.Google Scholar
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