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Verstehen
pronounced roughly "fair - shtay - en"

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: May 18, 2001
Latest update: March 1, 2002
E-Mailjeannecurran@habermas.org

Social Theory Today

by Anthony Giddens and Jonathan Turner

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata.
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, May 2001. Fair use "encouraged."

This teaching essay is based on Social Theory Today, by Anthony Giddens and Jonathan Turner. Stanford University Press. 1987, Polity Press. ISBN: 0-8047-1514-9. These initial remarks on verstehen will be found in the Introduction, pp. 1 ff.

This text presents a good starting place for broaching social theory. Giddens and Turner stress there is no one specific discipline that encompasses social theory. Social theorists are found in philosophy, history, the humanities, cultural studies, American Studies, and so on. The four primary issues addressed are listed by Giddens and Turner:

Such a list, of course, defies the complexity of the social sciences and the extent to which they are interdependent on other aspects of our social world. But these are the big issues that encompass the questions we must ask as we attempt to guide ourselves into a sustainable future.

As Giddens and Turner point out, "Summarizing the newer conception [of the philosophy of science] boldly, the idea that there can be theory-neutral observations is repudiated, while systems of deductively-linked laws are no longer canonized as the highest ideal of scientific explanation." (At p. 2.) That doesn't mean that there are not those amongst us who are still convinced that science permits them to "know" that certain concepts and laws are "right," meaning that we may rest secure and comfortable in the arrogance of our beliefs. Fortunately, there are enough of us who disagree with such arrogance, enough of us to trust to the ambiguity of knowledge that will come interdependently with future agency and structural contexts to make our voices heard along with those of the remaining "logical positivists," who have such faith in their "neutral" science.

"Verstehen" is the name we give in German to the "understanding of meaning." Giddens and Turner define "verstehen" as "[e]mpathic understanding of the outlook and feelings of others." Those of you who study with us will recognize how closely this matches our definition of alterity as "listening in good faith to the validity claims of others, and respecting their right and need to make such claims."

. . . More soon. jeanne May 18, 2001.

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