During much of the twentieth century, the dichotomy between verstehen (interpretive understanding) and erklären (causal explanation) helped frame the debates about the epistemological foundations, purposes, and methods of the social sciences. Similar in many respects to the nomothetic/idiographic controversy, the key issue was whether it is possible – or desirable –to achieve unity between the natural and social sciences. The concept of verstehen, in particular, posed a challenge to this idea of unification. By the end of the twentieth century, the coexistence of multiple forms of inquiry had become an accepted state of affairs in all of the social sciences, including communication research, and dampened the urgency of this issue. However, the legacy of the verstehen/erklären dichotomy lives on in the worldviews and practical activities of scholars. In such realms as the methods they use, the theoretical traditions they uphold, and the curricula they teach, there can still be found the imprint of the split between interpretive inquiry and causal explanation.
Origins of The Concepts
The verstehen/erklären debate originated during the rise of positivist social science in the nineteenth century. Informed by the empiricist philosophies of John Locke and Francis Bacon, and especially by David Hume’s arguments about causation and the importance of sensory experience, sociology made its appearance as a fledgling science of “social physics.” Sociology, as Auguste Comte conceived it, would achieve scientific legitimacy only by adopting the deterministic, quantitative model of research that was proving so successful in the natural sciences. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, sociology and the nascent fields of anthropology, political science, psychology, and economics were rapidly usurping the subject matter of history and the other humanistic disciplines. Also in full retreat from the positivists’ influence was the use of methods like introspection and textual analysis for studying social and moral problems.
In the midst of these changes, the German historian and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey argued in a series of works that the subject matter and methods of the Geisteswissenschaften, or “human sciences,” were of a different order from those of the natural sciences like physics and chemistry. Dilthey included among the human sciences of that era not only the social and psychological sciences, but also history, moral theory, legal and political studies, and literary criticism. All of these fields had in common the study of processes of human understanding and expression. By claiming these processes to be the special province of a science of man, Dilthey rejected the model derived from the natural sciences. His viewpoint is distilled in the famous saying, “Nature we explain, psychic life we understand” (Dilthey 1914).
The German verb erklären refers to the process of explaining by citing the antecedent causes of events. Applied to the natural world in the context of Newtonian physics, this statement is unexceptional. However, applying erklären to the study of human conduct, as advocated by the nineteenth-century philosophers and social scientists John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and August Comte, was far more controversial. Human nature, in the positivists’ view, is little different from physical nature. By reducing the action of human beings to a limited number of purely physiological functions (such as “stimulus,” “response,” and “drive”), and analyzing how these functions interrelate in terms of chains of cause and effect, the science that Dilthey labeled erklärende Psychologie (“explanatory psychology”) hoped to achieve the same level of certainty as physics and chemistry. Thus, erklären science engages in the search for laws of causation that would cover animate as well as inanimate matter. The physical sciences also supplied the nomological-deductive logic and experimental methodology that could be used to test hypotheses about human behavior. Meanings and intentions were left out of the erklären conception of science. Only sensory objects that could be directly observed were deemed suitable for empirical investigation.
Verstehen, on the other hand, arose out of Dilthey’s belief that “[a]n empiricism which renounces the attempt to ground what happens in the mind on an understanding of the system of mental life is necessarily sterile” (Dilthey 1974, 15). It was self-evident to Dilthey that human beings express themselves in complex ways precisely because they ascribe meaning to things. Moreover, human consciousness is constantly evolving and reshaping objects into outward signs of these meaning ascriptions. Only by “reliving” a person’s line of action can scholars gain knowledge of the contents and qualities of meaningful experience. The methodology of natural science, he declared, was ill-suited to this task. The verb verstehen (to understand) refers to a method especially suited for the human sciences: empathetic understanding. According to Dilthey, one practices a science of understanding by studying psychic life from the inside. The investigator enters the lifeworld of the subject by whatever means available – for example, texts, conversation, and social participation – and tries to reconstruct the totality of what the subject believes, values, and desires. This subjective knowledge is broadened and enriched by relating it to relevant contexts of history, politics, religion, and so on. The method of verstehen, then, is closely aligned with that of hermeneutics, in which the meaning of one text is grasped (tentatively) by relating it to an array of related texts.
Although Dilthey thought that empathetic understanding was far more pertinent to the human sciences, he also recognized that erklären and verstehen are not inimical kinds of inquiry (Harrington 2000). Dilthey claimed that the natural and human sciences do not differ so much in the objects studied as in how each considers the “facts” of an object. For example, the sensory data of a public speech can be analyzed either as a purely physiological event, requiring little or no recognition of the human being as a purposeful subject, or as a communicative event in which evidence of the speaker’s motives, expectations, and constructions of meaning becomes relevant. Dilthey also maintained that the subjective understanding of human action always depends on knowledge of material facts. For example, if we wish to learn about the meanings the Internet has for people, we must first possess knowledge of the Internet’s structure and physical properties. Finally, Dilthey realized that interpretation and human interests suffuse even the most objective-seeming inquiry. Not only do natural scientists engage in “interpretations” of their own constructs; the historical and discursive circumstances of scientific explanation can also be treated as “facts” in hermeneutic investigations of science.
Criticisms and Refinements of Verstehen
The concept of verstehen – and more generally, the notion of a special methodological approach for the social sciences – has come under critical scrutiny since it was introduced. Initially, defenders of erklären science argued that if an explanatory psychology had not yet produced the same impressive accomplishments as the physical sciences, it was not due to failures of the experimental method itself, but rather because the appropriate research tools had yet to be developed (Harrington 2000, 440). Later, mid-century logical empiricists like Ernest Nagel (1961) and Theodore Abel (1948) mounted attacks on the scientific adequacy of verstehen. Empathetic understanding, they argued, cannot produce real insights into another person’s subjective states because it depends on verification from a social actor (the researcher) who already possesses similar knowledge. Without going the additional steps to engage in controlled observation and verification of behavior, the verstehen method can only offer “hunches” about the possible meanings of someone’s experience. Therefore, if verstehen has a role to play at all in social research, it is as a heuristic tool for generating hypotheses. Similar arguments against interpretivism continue to be voiced by logical empiricists today.
In spite of these criticisms, the verstehen view of human action attracted many adherents over the course of the twentieth century, especially in the emerging schools of social phenomenology, symbolic interactionism, and social constructivism. These “creative sociologies” (Morris 1977) have a common interest in describing action from the social actor’s point of view. Another reason why verstehen gained wide appeal is that the concept itself was given new meaning. Max Weber (1947), for example, considered the analysis of subjective meanings of action to be an essential step in the construction of ideal social types. Others sought to improve upon Dilthey’s version of verstehen, which was often considered too metaphysical or “introspective” for empirical application. Trying to resolve confusion about what the concept meant, Alfred Schütz (1970) asserted that it had nothing to do with introspection. Instead, he identified three distinctive uses for verstehen – as a form of commonsense experience; as an epistemological problem; and as a research method unique to the social sciences. More recently, such philosophers as Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989, 1st pub. 1960) and Charles Taylor (1971) refigured verstehen as a fundamentally intersubjective phenomenon, one which requires the sharing of discourse traditions within a living community.
Although the concept of verstehen as such does not play a large role in theoretical discourse in communication research, it loomed large as a foundational idea for the growth of interpretive communication studies from the 1970s onward. The study of organizational cultures, relational management, and media audience interpretation, to name just a few areas, owe a significant intellectual debt to verstehen and its varied articulations in the social sciences. Theories of intersubjective understanding also proved very important to nearly all of the varieties of qualitative research methods used in communication studies (Lindlof & Taylor 2002).
In recent years, the interpretivist research program in communication, and the method of verstehen on which it is largely based, has faced skepticism about its capacity to render the inner realities of individuals, groups, and organizations. Critical theory, in particular, suggests that people’s modes of understanding are constituted and organized in large part through the governing ideological structures in society and the institutional forces that serve to reproduce these structures. Because power is left out of the usual definition of verstehen, the role of dominant discourses in shaping people’s understandings of their lived experience can be seriously underestimated or ignored (see Deetz 2001; Giddens 1993). Other theoretical positions, such as standpoint epistemology (Harding 1998), seem to complicate the ability of anyone other than members of the group being studied to get “inside” their perspective. In addition, postmodernist conceptualizations of communication suggest that personal agency is so fluid and subject to multiple, contradictory interpretations that “subjective understanding” lacks any stable point of reference. Although verstehen is not a lost or discredited idea, there may be a need to rethink its assumptions in a changed epistemological terrain.
Conversely, the term erklären is seldom cited in the English-speaking communication literature. It has been replaced by other terms – e.g., objective empiricism (Anderson 1996) – that convey the same defining characteristics, especially that of causal determinism. Probably the majority of empirical scientific research on communication today follows some form of causal logic. However, the materialist unity of science that the supremacy of erklären science was supposed to usher in has never happened. Multiple domains of epistemology and methodology now thrive in communication research, a circumstance that is largely due to the “interpretivist turn” that occurred in the last two decades of the twentieth century (Anderson 1996).
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- Deetz, S. (2001). Conceptual foundations. In F. M. Jablin & L. L. Putnam (eds.), The new handbook of organizational communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 3–46.
- Dilthey, W. (1914). Gesammelte Schriften. Leipzig: Teubner.
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