Verstehen: understanding what the ideas of others mean

Of course, Verstehen is the German word for understanding. It is a way of knowing through the expressions of others. Therefore it can be called an indirect way of knowing. The direct way of knowing is that of the empirical sciences: observation and using causal explanation. Verstehen is an important supplement to empirical knowledge. It allows us to understand meanings and values, or the purpose of something. It should, however, not be confused with empathy, which basically is a psychological skill, directed toward a person. Verstehen, however, is an intellectual skill, directed toward a text or a work of art, which is external to me (not my own).
The theory of Verstehen has been developed by the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) on the basis of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. For the history of ideas Verstehen is of great importance, both in the sense of ‘understanding’ and of ‘interpretation’. To be sure, the working of ideas (the way they influence other people and lead to certain results) can be observed. Nonetheless, the historian of ideas cannot do without the ability to come to grips with, and deeply understand, what other persons wrote, said, and created.