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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


DILTHEY

(1833 — 1911)

 

'CRITICAL EMPIRICISM'/ HISTORICISM

Born at Biedrich near Wiesbaden in Germany, the son of Lutheran theologian, Wilhelm Dilthey was educated at the Wiesbaden Gymnasium and at the Universities of Heidelberg (theology) and Berlin (history and philosophy), gaining his doctorate in 1864. After teaching for a time in secondary schools he became a university professor successively at Basel, Kiel, Breslau, and finally Berlin in 1882. He lectured and wrote prolifically both on philosophy and the history of ideas.

 

METAPHYSICS / 'PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE'/ CULTURE

[1] Central to Dilthey's later philosophy [The Construction of the Historical World] is the concept of Life (Leben). By this he means the totality of human experience — thoughts, feelings, actions, institutions, sciences, religions, expressed through the multitude of different societies as a dynamic historical process. Life is what we actually experience: experience (Erlebnis) is 'lived', arising as it does from the interaction of the whole individual (reason, feeling, volition, as manifestations of the functional unity of his mental life) with his social and cultural environment [a]. (This is to be contrasted with Nature itself, as studied by the natural sciences [see sec. 2], which, he says, is produced independently of the active mind.) In Life we experience a relationship of unity with other persons, and with phenomenal manifestations of culture — works of art, religious ceremonies, and so on, though these may be ultimately analysable into sensations and impressions. The knowing subject is itself also part of Life and cannot transcend it to know from some 'objective' or 'absolute' standpoint. Ideas and values are all produced by individuals situated and interconnected in particular societies or cultures at particular times in history and are thus relative [b]. Life, he says, does not come to us as a mass of disconnected elements. It is already connected, organized and interpreted as a result of fundamental principles or categories. But these are not a priori categories; they arise out of empirical generalizations. Ultimately "the mind understands only what it has created" [Construction of the Historical World]. The categories operate mainly at the subconscious level, but we also use them intentionally and consciously so as to make our experiences more meaningful. The basic categories, however, cannot be fully explicated. Thus he identifies the cognitive concepts of 'inner' and ' outer', which relate respectively to mental contents and their expression in symbolic language, and through these we attempt to understand the world of facts (the things and processes of independent Nature). Other categories are power, in terms of which we account for the effects the environment, including other people, has on us (in the context of scientific explanation this category would be termed causation); and value and purpose (which relate to feeling and desire) [c], through which we experience the present or look to the future, with a view to achieving pleasure or happiness (wherein lies the good). He also identifies the categories of 'development' and the 'ideal'. The primary category, however, is that of meaning (Bedeutung). The central question he poses is, 'How is meaningful experience possible?' Dilthey first understood meaning as the means by which we experience, that is, 'relive' (nacherleben) the past. But later it became the category of which all the others are different aspects, employed or manifested in different concepts [d]. The application of the categories (comprising thinking, feeling, and desiring) gives rise to interpretations of Life — myths, religions, works of art; while values and purposes can be made explicit in moral principles and systems, political constitutions, and so on. These various interpretations together form different world-views (Weltanschauungen) each of which expresses Life — albeit partially and from particular standpoints [e]. Dilthey classifies these into three types: (1) naturalism; (2) the idealism of freedom; (3) objective idealism.

While Dilthey seems to be committed to some form of relativism and regards the 'world-views' as one-sided, he considers an intuitable overall 'vision' of reality as the ideal. However, he recognises that a complete or final synthesis cannot be achieved [f].

 

METHODOLOGY/ KNOWLEDGE

[2] [See The Construction of the Historical World.] A philosophy of life, if it is to be as complete as possible, must rely not just on general observation of events or on broad 'interpretations'. A firm theory of knowledge and a reliable methodology will also be required. Dilthey distinguishes between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and the 'cultural' or human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) (that is, the sciences of mental life). The natural sciences are objective, systematic, and involve observation, classification, induction and deduction, models and hypotheses, testing procedures, and the formulation of general laws, and are generally anti-metaphysical [a]. The human sciences may use some or all of these elements, but in addition and essentially they are grounded in the lived experiences and freely willed activities of individuals and in the concept of understanding (Verstehen), by which Dilthey means the grasping and penetration of some inner structure or mental content — idea, feeling, intention, which is expressed through empirical phenomena such as gestures, words, or works of art. (In his early writings [especially Introduction to the Human Sciences] Dilthey had interpreted this mental content psychologically and indeed had regarded a scientific or methodological 'descriptive' psychology as foundational for the human sciences, but one which would examine causal relations and 'typologies' as well as mental phenomena. However, later he thought of the 'inner life' more transcendentally — as spiritual, in terms of 'life relations' [b] which constitute the conditions for the world to be understood as meaningful.) If understanding is to be achieved, there are, he says, three conditions which have to be met. (1) We have to be aware of the mental processes which underlie our interpretations of human activities as meaningful. This requires us also to have some knowledge of psychology and literary studies of the individuals whose lives and works we are seeking to understand. (2) We should study systematically the particular context (time, place, situation) in which the expression (discourse, text, and so on) of the mental contents occurs. (3) We should have a comprehensive knowledge of the relevant social and cultural background. Dilthey adds that investigation of, for example, works of art, texts, or political and legal constitutions may be more complicated than the study of the thoughts and feelings of an individual; and that such systems are therefore best dealt with as 'entities' which, although part of the whole culture, have some independent existence.

 

HERMENEUTICS

[3] Life is of course not static, and change takes place in a historical dimension. Dilthey's philosophy thus leads to a 'hermeneutic' — a "critique of historical understanding". Underlying his project are three basic principles. (1) Everything that man says or does is part of this continuing process and should be explained in historical-cultural terms. This means that our understanding of individuals, families, nations is not to be measured against some abstract absolute standard; such 'entities' have different expressions in different historical periods. (2) To achieve understanding we must enter imaginatively into the points of view of individuals living in these periods. And this requires us first to be able to experience and understand our own social-cultural context. We can then empathize with them and relive their experiences. (3) However, we must also recognise that the historian himself is limited by his own prejudices and concerns, and that these presuppositions have to enter into the 'meaning' or interpretation of the past [a].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Arguably the major figure in nineteenth century development of the philosophy of culture and philosophical anthropology, Dilthey extended the scope of hermeneutics beyond texts alone to take in all situations in which meaning as subjective intention might be discovered by abstracting from and transcending as far as possible from one's own individual and cultural prejudices. The key features of his thought are his concepts of Life and understanding, and the categories.

Subsequent debate has centred on the question whether it is possible to discard prejudices and presuppositions to achieve genuine insight into 'meanings'. To the extent that Dilthey's view of life as a historical-cultural unity is one of a process of continual approximation to a putative objective vision of reality and human self-knowledge, he may be supposed to have avoided the excesses of relativism and historicism. Nevertheless some later critics have argued that to acquire some grasp of meanings we should actually have made use of the techniques and methods of interpretation available in our own contemporary culture so as to achieve the fullest possible (albeit necessarily incomplete) 'fusion' of our own 'horizons' (to use Gadamer's phrase) with that of the object of our interpretation. In this respect Dilthey's hermeneutics has been criticized as being limited or one-sided, and too optimistic as regards the success of any interpretative venture.

 

READING

Dilthey: [of many writings] Einleiting in die Geisteswissenschaften (1883) (Introduction to the Human Sciences, trans. R. J. Betzanos); Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften (1910 — unfinished) (The Construction of the Historical World in the Human Sciences). Selected passages from these works and manuscript notes are included in H. A. Hodges, Wilhelm Dilthey: An Introduction, and (more extensive) in Rickman, H. P. (ed.), W. Dilthey: Selected Writings.

Studies

Hodges, H. A., The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey.

H.P. Rickman, Wilhelm Dilthey: Pioneer of the Human Studies.

H. P. Rickman, Dilthey Today: A Critical Appraisal of the Contemporary Relevance of His Work.

T. Plantinga, Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Dilthey

 

[1a; cf. 1c] 'Life' — totality of experience of whole individual expressed in societies as dynamic historical process

   Kant

   Herder

   Schleiermacher

   Hegel

   Husserl

Scheler

Ortega y Gasset

Heidegger

Sartre

Ricoeur

[2a]

[1a]

[3a]

[1b]

[6a]

[1b 2a]

[1c]

[1c 3d]

[6c e]

[6a]

 

[1b; cf. 1f] Knowing subject also part of Life; interconnection; ideas and values relative to society/ culture in historical context

   Protagoras

   Herder

   Schleiermacher

   Hegel

Husserl

Scheler

Ortega y Gasset

Heidegger

Gadamer

Sartre

[3a]

[1a e 2e]

[3a]

[3d 9a b]

[2b 5b 8a]

[1b]

[1c]

[1c]

[1b]

[5a]

 

[1c; cf. 1a] Life connected, organized by categories (empirical not a priori and ultimately indefinable) relating to knowledge of nature, 'power' (causation), purpose, feelings and values, (the good)desires and ends; mind under-stands only what it has created

   Aristotle

   Vico

   Kant

   Hegel

   Spencer

   Husserl

Scheler

[4a b]

[1d]

[2c 6a]

[2a]

[1b f]

[2d]

[4b]

 

[1d] 'Meaning' as primary category means for 'reliving' the past, later as that of which all other categories are aspects    Schleiermacher [3c]

 

[1e] Application of categories produces interpretations of Life which form 'world-views' (Weltanschauungen) — myths, art, etc.)    Kant [2c]

 

[1f] World-views one-sided — relativism, but overall intuitable vision is the ideal (albeit unattainable) transcending history and intuitable

   Schleiermacher

   Hegel

   Schelling

   Spencer

Gadamer

[1a]

[9b]

[3c]

[4d]

[1b]

 

[2a] Natural sciences empirically grounded, anti-metaphysical, systematic (observation → testing, general laws, etc.)

   Hume

   Kant

   Schleiermacher

   Comte

   Mill

Husserl

Heidegger

Gadamer

Habermas

[1c]

[2d 4a]

[1a 3d]

[1b c]

[1j]

[2a 8a]

[6b]

[3a]

[2a]

 

[2b] Human sciences grounded in 'lived experiences', freely willed activity, and 'understanding' (Verstehen); a 'descriptive' psychology needed (in later work 'inner life' thought of in terms of 'life relations')

   Vico

   Hume

   Kant

   Herder

   Schleiermacher

   Hegel

   Comte

   Mill

   Spencer

   Brentano

Husserl

Heidegger

Gadamer

   Hempel

Habermas

[1d]

[1a]

[7a]

[1e]

[1a 3d]

[9a b]

[2a-c]

[1kl]

[2a]

[1a]

[2a 4b 8a]

[6b]

[3a]

[2a c]

[2b]

 

[3a]

Hermeneutics ('critique' of historical understanding):

i. man's life explicable in historical-cultural terms;

ii. empathy required;

iii. account to be taken of 'pre-judices'

   Vico

   Kant

   Herder

   Schleiermacher

   Hegel

Husserl

Gadamer

   Popper

Sartre

Habermas

[2a CSa]

[1c]

[2e]

[3c]

[9b]

[7b]

[1b 1d 2c]

[3a]

[6b]

[2b]