An Understanding of History

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.”

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...

(The entire section is 414 words.)