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Created: April 19, 2002
Latest Update: April 19, 2002

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Habermas and the Tradition of Verstehen

Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, April 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This essasy is based on Verstehende Sociology, Thomas McCarthy's introductory note to Habermas' collection of essays on critical theory and its role in sociology. jeanne's notes from her readings of Communication and the Evolution of Society, Jurgen Habermas, Beacon Press Edition, 1979, English Translation by Thomas McCarthy. At pp. xi-xii. Link added Arpil 19, 2002.

Verstehen, in German, means "to understand," and Verstehende is the adjective from, "understanding." So, a sociology that understands because it takes many factors into account. Those many factors include "situatedness," understanding the fit of the observed facts or actions in the context in which those facts or actions are situated, multiple perspectives, the need for stability and closure at some point, access and opportunity for the expression of validity claims..

For example, my neighbor's cat hissing, growling, and lunging at me with fangs bared when he encounters King Tut, the new kitten, is not at all the same thing as that same cat with the same actions when he sees me walking along the street.I have to take the context into account. The cat's jealousy of the new kitten causes behavior that could have concerned us had it occurred in other circumstances. The cold facts, the "evidence," are the same in both cases, but the meaning, the "understanding," is different.

And we humans have done little over the centuries to recognize the pent up nature of such jealousy and frustration in either other humans or our domestic pets. To be displaced, disempowered, dismissed hurts. And if we do not acknowledge and dissipate that hurt, it is very likely to be repressed and come out in other ways, such as hissing and growling and lunging. Or maybe even in terrorism, though probably not with the cat.

Habermas' life-long research has dealt with the big problems: How do we communicate effectively? How do we know that we really understand one another? How do we live together in a crowded world? How do we govern oursleves without killing ourselves? All of these big questions relate to "verstehen," lots more than just the facts, Ma'am. Because the facts really do look different according to the context. Feelings are real. We cannot wish them away. We need to resolve them. And largely that means we need to talk about them.