Hermeneutics is no longer conceived as a subdiscipline of humanistic studies or even as the characteristic Method of the Geisteswissenschaften, but rather as pertaining to questions concerning what human beings are. We are ‘thrown’ into the world as beings who understand and interpret—so if we are to understand what it is to be human beings, we must seek to understand understanding itself, in its rich, full, and complex dimensions. Furthermore, understanding is not one type of activity to be contrasted with other human activities…. Understanding is universal and may properly be said to underlie and pervade all activities.
The crux of this chapter is the relationship between the theorist and his subject matter. The object is to clarify the first-person perspective of subjectivism, as contrasted with the third-person perspective of positivistically inspired equilibrium theories, by examining how the conception of interpretative understanding (Verstehen) has altered within the subjectivist tradition. The changes are associated with different views about the nature and task of social science and, in particular, about the objectivity of social science. They also signify different views of the relationship between the theorist and his subject matter, and the analysis will help to identify the different views, and to contrast the relationship inherent in earlier forms of subjectivism with that of modern hermeneutics.
My interest is solely in ‘mainstream subjectivism’, the tradition of Verstehen that includes phenomenology, and in the work of contemporary hermeneutical writers that leads to the radical rejection of the epistemological basis of positivist science. The analysis specifically ignores contributions, such as that of Talcott Parsons, which make an effort to assimilate Verstehen into a positivistically inspired methodology. Because my standpoint is that subjectivism offers a serviceable, advantageous, and constructive foundation for social theories, there is no further reference to