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Epistemology and Verstehen

There are a number of standard epistemological approaches to the questions of what counts as knowledge and how our beliefs about the world might be justified. We may focus on evidential foundations for beliefs, on the coherence of beliefs with one another, on whether people use reliable methods to discover things, or on whether people who discover things exercise epistemic virtues - virtues like being honest about the state of the evidence, thinking creatively, and being responsive to criticism.

These approaches have been very widely applied to scientific knowledge, as well as to everyday knowledge. But in the study of history, and in some of the social sciences, we achieve a kind of understanding that is rather different from scientific knowledge. It depends on our seeing the people studied as being like us: we and they share a distinctively human nature. This kind of understanding is often called by the German name Verstehen. It is contrasted with the Erklären, or explanation, that we get in the natural sciences.

I shall take some of the standard approaches of epistemology, and apply them to this type of understanding to see how we might judge the claims made by historians and social scientists. What matters to the worth of those claims? And what does this tell us about the nature of the understanding we can gain?

Richard Baron