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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2680

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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 interconnectedness of the various human sciences, but he was unable to establish much methodological consistency among them. He hoped that in his second volume, he would be able to incorporate all his disparate ideas into a systematic and dependable method for arriving at objective knowledge, including a “critique of historical understanding.” Despite several drafts and many sleepless nights, Dilthey would never resolve numerous contradictions, and his anticipated second volume was never completed.

During the period from 1883 to about 1896, Dilthey wrote a number of historical and philosophical essays devoted to the topics of educational psychology, ethics, and aesthetics. In an 1888 essay about “the possibility of a universally valid pedagogical science,” he emphasized the importance of volition and purposiveness to human development. In 1894, he wrote a controversial essay that outlined his ideas concerning “descriptive and analytic psychology,” expressing a strong skepticism about the ability of psychology to provide valid explanations. Rather, he proposed that psychology should have the more modest goal of providing descriptions about the structure and development of the human psyche. This essay appeared to anticipate Dilthey’s later methodological writings about “understanding” and hermeneutics.

Philosopher Wilhelm Windelband’s seminal lecture of 1894, “History and the Natural Sciences,” initiated an important epistemological controversy between Dilthey and the neo-Kantians. Windelband argued that Dilthey’s distinction between the natural sciences and the human sciences was inadequate, especially when applied to psychology. Rather than Dilthey’s subject-matter distinction, the crucial distinction was between the “nomothetic” sciences and the “idiographic” sciences, with the former establishing lawful uniformities and the latter describing unique historical patterns. Responding to Windelband in his 1895 essay “On Comparative Psychology,” Dilthey insisted that psychology was indeed one of the human sciences, and he advocated a psychology based on reflections of “inner experience.” More significant, he rejected any rigid nomothetic-idiographic separation, and he argued that historical material could become meaningful only when considered in connection with general regularities. The dispute with Windelband apparently had an impact on Dilthey’s thinking. In his later works, he showed less interest in psychology and acknowledged a distinction between descriptive historical studies and the “systematic human studies,” such as economics, which established causal regularities.

Although the concept of “understanding” (Verstehen) had appeared in some of Dilthey’s early writings, it was following the Windelband dispute that Dilthey increasingly emphasized this concept in place of psychology. By the term “understanding,” Dilthey basically referred to the process by which one person attempts to understand the motives and activities of another person. He assumed that all “life assertions” were products of cognition within the human mind and that all human minds were similar in their fundamental structures, despite great differences in beliefs, capacities, and knowledge. By carefully examining the words and actions of another person, therefore, it was possible that the observer would be able to infer the “inner” experience of another person, whether dead or alive. People share many of the same perceptions and subjective experiences (Erlebnis), and this allows one person to empathetically feel (Einfuhlung) someone else’s experiences. Thus, it was even possible to relive (nacherleben) such experiences.

From 1896 to 1905, Dilthey devoted the bulk of his efforts to writing works of intellectual history and biography, with an emphasis on German thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Topics included Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his age, Frederick the Great, leaders of the Enlightenment, scientific historians, and the intellectual development of the young Hegel. His popular book Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung (1905; partial translation in Poetry and Experience, 1985) consisted of literary biographies of four romantic writers. Dilthey’s historical studies provide concrete illustrations of what he meant by Verstehen/understanding and interpretation, and he often referred to these studies as “historical research with a philosophical aim.”

In the middle of his historical period, Dilthey published his essay “Entstehung der Hermeneutik” (1900; “The Rise of Hermeneutics,” 1996), in which he sketched the methodological approach that he would advocate during the last decade of his life. Influenced by Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic theories, the basis idea of the essay was that understanding others should begin with an interpretation of outward expressions, especially oral and written communications. Dilthey also emphasized the concept of a “hermeneutic circle,” meaning that the parts make sense only in terms of the whole. Every human expression, therefore, should be interpreted from the perspective of its historical context. Apparently Dilthey meant for his hermeneutics to provide objective balance to the subjectivity inherent in “understanding,” and he conceived of the two methods as complementary to one another.

After his retirement in 1905, Dilthey returned to the task of attempting a “critique of historical understanding.” He conceived of his 1910 essay, Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften (1910; and related writings, 1905-1910; partial translation in Meaning in History: W. Dilthey’s Thoughts on History and Society, 1961), as a continuation of his 1883 book, Introduction to the Human Sciences. In contrast to the earlier book, however, the essay did not emphasize the importance of psychology, and it reflected his later theories about understanding and interpretation. In addition, Dilthey appeared less certain about the possibility of neutral descriptions, and he gave more explicit recognition of the role of the observer’s presuppositions in constructing interpretations. He continued, nevertheless, to insist that objectively valid interpretations of human motives were somehow possible.

Dilthey continued to work on some of his unfinished projects, but at the age of seventy-seven he died unexpectedly from an infection while vacationing in the Tirol.


In view of Dilthey’s emphasis on interpretation, it is interesting to observe the extent to which his own writings are open to numerous interpretations. It is not difficult to find tensions and even contradictions in his works, and he sometimes tended to write in a rather loose and tentative style. For this reason, scholarly studies of Dilthey disagree about basic issues, such as whether there was continuity in his thought during his long career. At the same time, readers with a variety of viewpoints find that Dilthey’s works are full of provocative and challenging ideas, and almost everyone is able both to agree and to disagree with various aspects of his works. As a result, few people have considered themselves to be disciples of Dilthey, but different aspects of his writings have clearly influenced numerous writers and intellectual movements of the twentieth century.

Any listing of Dilthey’s influences would have to include Edmund Husserl’s methods of phenomenology, Max Weber’s combination of empiricism and ideal types in sociology, Martin Heidegger’s version of existentialism, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical approach to hermeneutics, R. G. Collingwood’s approach to “re-enactment” in historical analysis, and Karl Popper’s method of “situation logic.” It should be emphasized, however, that most of these writers have sharply disagreed with many of Dilthey’s ideas. Although his project for a life philosophy has enjoyed some appeal, he is primarily remembered for his methodological theories about “understanding” and hermeneutics. Although humanistically oriented historians have often found that these methods are useful to their craft, philosophers and social scientists have tended to exploit Dilthey’s ideas as a springboard for moving in other directions.

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.