An Understanding of History

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

Dilthey’s goal in Meaning in History is to formulate a valid “critique of historical reason.” By the term “historical reason,” he referred to the process of understanding the phenomena of human history, and he did not mean to suggest that history had any ultimate purpose or intelligence of its own. He hoped that his work would be a continuation of Immanuel Kant’s critiques of pure and practical reason. As a strong partisan of the historical school, Dilthey assumed that an objective understanding of history was entirely possible, and therefore much of his effort is directed at answering the epistemological question: How is it possible to acquire understanding in human history? His answer was that the human mind is able to understand what other human minds have done and created. He wrote: “The fact that the investigator of history is the same as the one who makes it, is the first condition which makes scientific history possible.”

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In arguing that historians were able to produce “scientific” knowledge, Dilthey meant that they could write statements about historical reality that were objectively true, even in regard to the motives of other people. His epistemology was tacitly based upon a correspondence theory of truth. In contrast to the natural sciences, the study of history dealt with unique and nonrepeating phenomena, with motivated choices as the effective causes for most human actions. Thus, historians were limited in their capacity to explain events according to established laws or theories. At the same time, however, historians could formulate and utilize general knowledge based upon certain regularities of human nature. Dilthey did not appear to appreciate sufficiently the inherent limits of all interpretations of motives, especially when using a subjective approach such as empathetic understanding. Despite his strong aversion to historical relativism, Dilthey did allow for some pluralism of perspectives by different observers, but he might have further strengthened his case by recognizing a distinction between absolute truth and verisimilitude, or the approximation of truth.

Dilthey looked upon history as encompassing the entire sphere of human life, including both the present and the past. While accepting the principles of Darwinian evolution, Dilthey was not especially interested in the biological nature of humans, and his conception of history was limited to the activities of Homo sapiens. Because his specialties were philosophy and the history of ideas, Dilthey tended to approach history from something of an elitist perspective, and he had only limited concern about the historical experiences of the inarticulate masses.

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