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After publishing the first volume of Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (1883; Introduction to the Human Sciences, 1988), Wilhelm Dilthey intended to write a second volume that was to include an analysis of the nature of historical understanding. (Verstehen ) Because of other projects, however, he was never able...

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After publishing the first volume of Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (1883; Introduction to the Human Sciences, 1988), Wilhelm Dilthey intended to write a second volume that was to include an analysis of the nature of historical understanding. (Verstehen) Because of other projects, however, he was never able to complete the second volume. After 1896, Dilthey began to emphasize the method of using empathy in human understanding, and about 1900, he combined this approach with hermeneutics, or the systematic interpretation of human expressions. From about 1905 until his death, Dilthey used these two methods to attempt to produce an analysis of the nature of historical understanding. As part of this effort, he presented his essay, “De Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften” (the construction of the historical world in the human sciences) to the Prussian Academy in January, 1910, and the essay was published in the academy’s proceedings later that year. After his death, Dilthey’s collaborators included this essay in a volume of his collected works, which contained other writing on historical methods. In 1961, Hans Peter Richman produced an English translation of the most significant parts of this volume, Meaning in History, a relatively concise introduction to the key ideas in Dilthey’s mature thought.

Meaning and Hermeneutics

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Reflecting his optimistic temperament, Dilthey believed that all life is meaningful in the sense that individuals find meaning by acting in pursuit of their goals. A confirmed skeptic in matters of religion and metaphysics, he did not see any evidence that a meaning resides in history apart from human consciousness. One of the goals of the historian was to understand and interpret meaning within the minds of the historical actors. Although one human could not directly penetrate into the mind of another, the outward expressions of an individual “originated as the expression of a mental content and thus helps towards the understanding of that content.” As examples of such outward expressions, Dilthey pointed to the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the scientific writings of Sir Isaac Newton, and the politics of Otto von Bismarck. Dilthey did not deny that people sometimes were deceitful or unaware of their own motives, but he apparently believed that a careful study of the total context of an outward expression would allow a thoughtful observer to detect instances of conscious or unconscious deception.

Recognizing that each normal person finds meaning in a complex pattern that is unique to that individual, Dilthey analyzed meaning, dividing it into various categories. In contrast to Kant’s categories of “pure reason,” Dilthey considered that all categories of meaning were derived from life experiences. Such categories, which were perhaps unlimited in number, include general concepts such as value, purpose, development, and power. The content of history includes both individual and social memories, and both individuals and societies remember those experiences that are relevant to “a conception of the meaning of life.” In human life, moreover, the parts are significant only if they are relevant to the whole, and “the whole is only there for us when it becomes comprehensible through its parts.”

This recognition of the interaction between the parts and the whole was one of the major components of Dilthey’s hermeneutics. The process of interpreting a human activity was like interpreting the meaning of a sentence. Often words have different meanings; therefore, sometimes a word’s meaning is inferred from the context of the entire sentence, while the understanding of any sentence depends on knowing the meaning of the individual words. He called this interaction, which operates as a kind of shuttlecock movement, a “hermeneutic circle.” Dilthey also believed in a similar interaction between the subject and object, which presumably facilitated historical interpretations that were objectively true.

Understanding and Interpretation

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Despite his radical skepticism in religion and metaphysics, Dilthey was certainly not a materialist, for he believed that all historical outcomes were the products of the human spirit (or mind). Rejecting pantheism, he saw no evidence of any transcendent intelligence, such as Hegel’s notion of a world spirit. Throughout Meaning in History, Dilthey uses the term “objective mind,” but by this term, he really meant no more than the concrete realizations of human thinking, as expressed in things such as works of art, scientific achievements, or political institutions. Influenced by Giambattista Vico, he emphasized that one human mind could understand what other minds had created, and this assumption was basic to his epistemological method. He insisted, “Understanding and interpretation is the method used throughout the human studies, and all functions unite in it. It contains all the truths of the human studies.”

In writing about the processes of understanding and interpretation, Dilthey often appears to have described the common sense of a reasonably intelligent and educated person, with or without any formal training in philosophy. In fact, competent historians since Herodotus have always practiced many of Dilthey’s suggested methods, whether or not they have spent much time in reflecting about the methodology and epistemology of the historical craft. Apparently Dilthey recognized that much of what he was writing was simply a description of common sense at its best, but he seemed to assume that a systematic analysis of methodology could help historians do a better job of understanding and interpreting human activity. The same principles, of course, would also be used by lawyers, sociologists, journalists, and even novelists.

Numerous critics have noted a basic contradiction in Dilthey’s thought. Horrified by the notion of relativism, he insisted on historical truth rather than mere opinion. On the other hand, his methods of understanding and interpretation relied upon the subjective evaluation of the fallible observer. Reflecting the climate of opinion at that time, Dilthey underestimated the extent to which the beliefs and paradigms of an observer will help determine what the observer sees, and he did not really consider the role of unconscious motivations in making interpretations. Although Dilthey’s prescribed methods are a reasonable means for arriving at verisimilitude, it is difficult to see how such methods can achieve the degree of certainty that he demanded.

The Philosopher’s Influence

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Dilthey is primarily remembered for his methodological approaches to understanding (Verstehen) and hermeneutics, and these two aspects of his work are most clearly articulated in his later works, including Meaning in History. His ideas have had their greatest impact on philosophers. Although it is unlikely that many historians and social scientists have spent much time reading Dilthey, these scholars often have general notions about his views on methodology. Scholars with humanistic sympathies usually are attracted to such methods. On the other hand, social scientists who refer to themselves as behaviorists and positivists usually aspire to emulating the methods of the natural sciences, and they are more impressed with quantitative data than with the subjective understandings of motives. In describing Dilthey’s methods, unfortunately, there is often a tendency to present an oversimplified summary. It is commonly overlooked, for example, that Dilthey was a flexible thinker who was open to a pluralism of different methods, including the use of statistics whenever appropriate.

In the twentieth century, Dilthey’s greatest influence was on German and European thinkers, but he also had considerable influence in North America. There appears to be a consensus that he made important contributions to the intellectual movements of phenomenology, existentialism, critical theory, and postmodern hermeneutics. Often these movements have tended to discard his optimism, his positive views of the Enlightenment, and especially his concern for objective truth. Dilthey never intended to establish a distinct philosophical school, and not many thinkers have referred to themselves as his disciples. Sometimes the ideas in Meaning in History appear obvious and even commonsensical to contemporary readers. One possible explanation is that Dilthey’s ideas have filtered down to the educated public over the years, but an alternative view is that he was simply describing approaches that are natural and efficient means for trying to understand the thoughts and actions of other people.


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Additional Reading

Bambach, Charles. Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Crisis of Historicism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. Although he does not establish a “crisis of historicism,” Bambach provides a coherent treatment of Wilhelm Dilthey’s thought, recognizing a continuing contradiction between his historical view of “truth” and his demand for objective knowledge.

Ermarth, Michael. Wilhelm Dilthey: The Critique of Historical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Ermarth emphasizes the continuity in Dilthey’s thought and interprets Dilthey’s project as an attempt to synthesize idealism and positivism, a perspective that Ermarch calls “ideal-realism.”

Hodges, Herbert. The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952. Despite its age, this remains one of the most readable and scholarly studies of Dilthey’s thought. Especially good on his relationship to other philosophers.

Hughes, H. Stuart. Consciousness and Society: The Reconstruction of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. New York: Random House, 1958. A standard work that places Dilthey in the context of “a revolt against positivism.” Although sympathetic, Hughes concludes that Dilthey attempted “a synthesis too mighty for the human mind” and that he was unable to overcome the “relativist implications” of his methods and ideas.

Iggers, George. The German Conception of History. Middletown, Vt.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968. Highly recommended for readers who wish a broad historical perspective, with an excellent summary of Dilthey’s thought. Iggers emphasizes the subjective character of his interpretive methods.

Makkreel, Rudolf. Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. Emphasizes Dilthey’s theories of aesthetics and the imagination, and argues that his views on historical understanding are in the Kantian tradition. Includes a good account of the dispute with Windelband and Rickert. Not for beginners.

Owensby, Jacob. Dilthey and the Narrative of History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. While accepting some poststructural criticisms, Owensby defends Dilthey’s hermeneutics as undiminished. The first part of the book has an excellent account of Dilthey’s career and a useful guide to secondary literature. Parts of the book are rather vague and abstract.

Plantinga, Theodore. Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980. Divides Dilthey’s development into three periods, criticizes his attempts at psychology in the 1890’s, and is highly favorable toward his approach to interpreting life experiences during the post-1900 years. Not the place for beginning students of Dilthey to start.

Richman, Hans Peter. Wilhelm Dilthey: Pioneer of the Human Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Richman, a philosopher who has devoted many years to Dilthey’s writings, presents a very readable introduction. Richman sometimes gives too much attention to commonplace ideas and probably exaggerates the continuity in Dilthey’s thought. Recommended for the general reader.

Tuttle, Howard. Wilhelm Dilthey’s Philosophy of Historical Understanding: A Critical Analysis. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969. In this small but perceptive account, Tuttle argues that Dilthey’s methods of understanding and interpretation, while somewhat useful in biography, are ambiguous, incomplete, undeveloped, and unable to account for nondeliberative actions.

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