One essential methodological dichotomy introduced by Karl Jaspers into the field of psychopathology is the difference between ‘understanding' (‘Verstehen') and ‘explaining' (‘Erklären'). Jaspers emphasizes a critical epistemological divide between both methods: whereas ‘explaining' relates to the attempt to consider mental disorders as consequences of impersonal natural laws, ‘understanding' refers to the empathic appreciation of conflicts, hopes, and desires of an individual person. This distinction is related to the difference between ‘persons' and ‘things' according to Fritz Heider, founder of the so-called ‘attribution theory' in social psychology that deals with our ability to ascribe mental states to others. Whereas the behavior of persons is based on psychological rules that are inherently characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty and are thus only partly predictable, the behavior of things is based on natural laws and is therefore fully predictable. This suggests a close resemblance of both accounts where ‘understanding' is related to the domain of persons and ‘explaining' is related to the domain of things or physical objects. Recently, understanding others has also become a central topic of modern cognitive neuroscience, constituting ‘social neuroscience' targeted at explaining our human capacity of ascribing mental states to others. This shows that this distinction introduced by Jaspers still is an important and fundamental differentiation for various research fields dealing with communication and interaction between persons.

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