restricted access 15 The Meaning of Meaning: Verstehen Explained
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chapter fifteen The Meaning of Meaning Verstehen Explained The previous chapter introduced the concept of Verstehen as a key alternative to the biopsychosocial (BPS) model. Some readers will want more detail, though; so now our thinking caps will really be needed, as we try to deepen our understanding of the meaning of meaning. (This chapter is philosophical and somewhat unavoidably technical at times; it can be skipped by those already convinced of the rationale and utility of the Verstehen concept.) The Rise of Science To better understand Verstehen, we might begin with the major impact of science, especially Newtonian physics and Darwinian biology, on the nineteenth-century Western world (Von Wright 1971; Truzzi 1974; Makkreel 1992). These revolutions in science also affected religion, philosophy, history, and all the humanities. Newton showed that the world could be subsumed under clear physical laws that could be understood by human reason. Understanding these laws had practical benefits: physics led to engineering, science produced technology, and the industrial revolution vastly improved the life of humankind. Darwin showed that the human body and the world of nature also could be subsumed under biological laws that could be understood by human reason.The implications of his ideas provided a scienti fic rationale for what previously had been explained only by religion and myth. The power of Newton and Darwin as exemplars of modern science was immense . Philosophers took note, and some of them began to feel that the methods of modern science should be applied everywhere, not just in physics and biology but also in philosophy, religion, history, and literature. At the lead of this pack was Auguste Comte, the mid-nineteenth-century French philosopher who is generally seen as the founder of the positivistic philosophy of science, as well as of modern sociology. Comte claimed that humanity had gone through prior stages of religious belief, followed by rationalist philosophy, and had finally arrived at the state of positive knowledge based on science. Science revealed the actual facts of the world, the real positive things that exist, as they are, without any distortion or error. This is the view of science that is called positivism, and, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in another context, most modern human beings are positivists in their bones. We may never have read or heard of Comte, but this interpretation of science is the one we implicitly accept in our culture. Another important figure was Thomas H. Huxley, a friend of Darwin, who argued that scientific training was key to modern education and that classic humanistic fields needed to be replaced by scientifically oriented thinking. Huxley had a famous debate with British poet Matthew Arnold about the merits of science versus the humanities, a precursor to C. P. Snow’s 1959 lecture on the “two cultures.” By the late nineteenth century, science was on the offensive; religion and the traditional humanities were reeling; philosophy and academic humanists were wavering. The Attempt to Accept Science but Reject Positivism Here is where an interesting group of thinkers popped up. They were generally scienti fically trained and thus sympathetic to science. They had often been raised in religious households, so their fathers’ religion had also seeped into their bones. While they had consciously banished religious faith from their beliefs, being agnostic or atheist, they were not antireligious either. They saw that the faiths of the past could not hold, but their experience with science suggested to them that the new religion of positivism was a poor substitute. This group was not homogenous, and most intellectual historians have not grouped them together, but they share a common aversion to positivism along 168 What Next? with a healthy respect for science. Here we find the most uniquely American contribution to modern philosophy: pragmatism (Menand 2002). The leading figures of this way of thinking, indeed its founders, were Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Later figures that followed in the wake of this approach were John Dewey and W. V. O. Quine. Through Quine, this attitude has had extensive influence in contemporary American philosophy, among such thinkers as Daniel Dennett and Richard Rorty. In Europe, the leading figure was Wilhelm Dilthey (sometimes called the“German William James”[Ermarth 1978]). In fact, in 1867, Dilthey and James once had dinner together at the home of a mutual friend; both were young and not yet famous,and they were impressed by each other.Dilthey later explicitly valued and approved of James’s...