Wilhelm Dilthey Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)
0111207225-Dilthey.jpg Wilhelm Dilthey (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Combining major aspects of German idealism and British empiricism, Dilthey formulated humanistic methods for understanding and interpreting human behavior. He is known for his work to establish a distinction between the methodology of the humanities from that of the natural sciences.

Early Life

Wilhelm Dilthey’s father was a liberal Reformed clergyman with a strong interest in history, philosophy, and politics. His mother was the daughter of a conductor and was talented in music. Both parents had a profound influence on his development. In addition to his work in philosophy and history, he wrote many essays on music and always enjoyed playing the piano. After completing his secondary education in Wiesbaden, he intended to study theology and to become a clergyman. In 1852, he enrolled at the University of Heidelberg, and the following year he moved to Berlin. As a student, he regularly worked from twelve to fourteen hours a day, and he was recognized as a competent scholar in Greek and Hebrew, as well as the classic works of literature, theology, and philosophy. Although especially interested in German idealists such as Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, he was also attracted to the history of science and British empiricists such as John Stuart Mill.

Dilthey gradually determined that he lacked the religious faith that would be necessary for a career as a clergyman, and he decided to become a university professor. He was supported by his parents during his long period of study, and his letters of the time, later published by his daughter, demonstrate an extremely close relationship with his family. In 1860, Dilthey was invited to complete an edition of philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher’s correspondence, and he was awarded two prizes for an essay on Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. In 1864, he was awarded a doctorate for his dissertation on Schleiermacher’s ethics, and his “habilitation writing” on ethical theory was also approved, which meant that he was qualified to lecture in a university.

Life’s Work

After he completed his doctorate, Dilthey spent the rest of his life as a respected and dedicated university teacher and scholar. He continued to work grueling hours, and although he published only a few books in his lifetime, his published articles and unpublished drafts totaled seventeen volumes. In 1866, Dilthey was appointed to a chair of philosophy at Basel, and for the first time he was free of financial worries. At Basel, he was influenced by the Renaissance historian Jacob Burckhardt and began a serious study of psychology and physiology. He was called to the University of Kiel in 1868, and he remained there for three years. During this period, Dilthey spent much of his time doing research for a two-volume biography about Schleiermacher.

In 1867-1870, Dilthey finally published the first volume of the biography, which was quite detailed and massive. In writing the biography, Dilthey developed a thesis about the reciprocal interaction between a strong-willed individual and his or her environment. Although largely shaped by cultural and social forces, a strong-willed individual could nevertheless exert a powerful influence on the environment. In order to illustrate the relationship of the parts to the whole, the biography examined matters such as religious groups, philosophical works, friendships, and even cities that were relevant to Schleiermacher’s life. Because Dilthey believed in the interdependence of empirical and philosophic activities, moreover, he did not believe that his work in intellectual history and biography was separate from his work in philosophy. These themes, expressed in a variety of ways, would constantly reappear in Dilthey’s theoretical writings. Although Dilthey continued to do research and write drafts for the promised second volume, his interests kept going in other directions, and he never completed the ambitious project. However, the first volume firmly established his academic reputation, and in 1871, he was called to a more prestigious position at Breslau.

Because Dilthey cherished his privacy, only limited information is available about his personal life. In 1870, he was engaged for less than a year, but the engagement ended abruptly after he discovered that his fiancée was the mother of an illegitimate child. At the age of forty-one, in 1874, he married Katharine Püttzmann, and the couple eventually had three children, including Clara, who became his helper and confidante. Although the couple generally seemed happy, they had their disagreements. Dilthey wanted to work all the time, but his wife was more interested in entertainment and travel. Fortunately for his work, Dilthey did not have to worry about any financial distractions, and he was able to hire enough servants to take care of daily tasks such as cleaning and cooking.

While at Breslau, Dilthey’s study of Mill and the positivists led him to make a sharp dichotomy between the sciences of nature (Naturwissenschaften) and the various studies dealing with human reality (Geisteswissenschaften). At the same time, he recognized a fundamental similarity among all the human studies, including fields as diverse as history, sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy, and poetry. In 1875, he published his first essay devoted to this issue. In 1882, Dilthey was called to Berlin to occupy the prestigious chair of philosophy that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had earlier held.

Shortly after moving to Berlin, Dilthey published the first volume of his influential Introduction to the Human Sciences. After devoting two-thirds of the book to the historical emancipation of the human intellect from religion and metaphysics, Dilthey sketched a general approach to the epistemology of the human sciences. Influenced by both idealists and empirical thinkers, he argued that knowledge is acquired by “lived experience” (Erlebnis), although this experience is mediated through self-reflections. He then attempted to show that knowledge in all the human sciences was based on the same mental processes. Although willing to examine reality from different perspectives, he was seeking a consistency in approach that would provide for objective knowledge in all aspects of human affairs, and at this point in his career, he had a great deal of confidence that psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt could provide such a foundation. Dilthey had no difficulty in demonstrating the...

(The entire section is 2680 words.)