Intellectual historians have often remarked that German thought from its earliest beginnings is marked by two major features that distinguish it from the greater part of the remainder of Western European thought. These are, first, the tendency to seek some kind of participatory relationship with nature and the universe conceived in quasi-animistic terms, which represents a kind of reversion to a much older, much more primitive way of conceiving the world and man's place in it, and has led to all kinds of mysticism. It is a strain in the history of German thought which has been brought out very clearly by Lévy-Bruhl and others. In all its forms the essential core of this view consists in the thinker's desire to place himself in the position of the creator, to become in some sense privy to his master-plan and, by engaging the productive part of his own nature, thereby himself to enter into the great act of creation by a species of co-creation. The second defining characteristic is that of antinomianism, that is to say, a hatred of laws and rules as such. This usually went hand in hand with a distrust of traditional forms of logic and reasoning and, in the more extreme cases, of all conceptual thought.
It is generally agreed by historians of modern thought that, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, philosophers in the German-speaking world identified and defined a type or species of knowledge whose peculiar independent status had hitherto been largely overlooked. It was developed, clarified, and, with a sharpened awareness of its unique possibilities, made to work in practice above all by Dilthey, Windelband, Rickert and their numerous followers; and, to a degree, also by Max Weber. The general name by which it was, and is, most often referred to is ‘Verstehen’—understanding. It has to be admitted that it was from the first, and remains to this day, a highly problematic and hotly disputed concept. Positivists, materialists, behaviourists and monists of all kinds—all those whose ideal is a single structure of organized systematic knowledge—have tended to view it with deep suspicion, and even to deny its existence altogether, claiming that it is wholly illusory and doomed to disappear before the inevitable advance of positive scientific method. However that may be, it will not be my purpose in this paper to enter into these difficult controversies. It may indeed be that no watertight definition of it is possible; that its putative boundaries with other forms or types of knowledge are vague and shifting; and even that there is no ultimate discontinuity in principle between it and the knowledge we gain from other spheres of research and investigation.
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