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Verstehen, Holism and Fascism

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.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 1996

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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

3 See Finkielkraut, Alain, The Undoing of Thought, trans. O'Keeffe, D. (London: Claridge, 1988)Google Scholar and Fleischacker, Samuel, The Ethics of Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994)Google Scholar on Herder's influence on fascism and multi-culturalism.

4 The Destruction of Reason, trans. Palmer, P. (London: Merlin, 1980), pp. 536ff.Google Scholar

5 Man and Technics: a contribution to a philosophy of life, trans. Atkinson, C. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1932), pp. 10ff.Google Scholar

6 Destruction of Reason, p. 430.Google Scholar

7 Klages quoted in Schnädelbach, Herbert, Philosophy in Germany 1831–1933, trans. Matthews, E. (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 151Google Scholar; Lawrence quoted in Lichtheim, George, Europe in the Twentieth Century (London: Cardinal, 1974), p. 184.Google Scholar

8 Mein Kampf, trans. Watt, D. (London: Hutchinson, 1974), pp. 271, 258.Google Scholar

9 Quoted in Wolin, Richard (ed.), The Heidegger Controversy: a critical reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. 142.Google Scholar

10 See, e.g., Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 350ffGoogle Scholar.

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. 270271Google 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.

15 Hitler, , Mein Kampf, p. 358Google Scholar; Mussolini, quoted in Neumann, Franz, Behemoth: the structure and practice of National Socialism (London: Gollancz, 1942), p. 378Google Scholar.

16 Spengler, The Decline of the West, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1939), I, pp. 40ffGoogle Scholar; Jünger, Der Arbeiter, in Essays II (Stuttgart: Klett, 1964), p. 159Google 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

19 Being and Time, p. 436.Google Scholar

20 In Wolin, The Heidegger Controversy, p. 39.Google Scholar

21 Quoted in Herf, Reactionary Modernism, p. 34Google Scholar.

22 Three Faces of Fascism (New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1965).Google Scholar

23 Griffin, Roger, The Nature of Fascism (London: Pinter, 1991), p. 188.Google Scholar

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