Heinrich Rickert and the Logical Concept of the Historical

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
12 min readMay 28, 2024

Saturday 25 May 2024 is the 161st anniversary of the birth of Heinrich Rickert (25 May 1863–25 July 1936), who was born in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) on this date in 1863.

A few days ago I was reading Moritz Schlick’s posthumously published Philosophy of Nature and I found the follow in the first section of the book:

“…we have the universal quality and all embracing character of natural science which prevents it from being subordinated to, or ranged alongside, any one of the Arts or cultural sciences. And hence also the unique philosophical significance of natural science: All philosophical progress in the past has arisen out of scientific knowledge and the investigation of scientific problems. It is a very grave mistake — a mistake which was made for the first time during the last hundred years — to believe that the Arts and cultural sciences are in any way equivalent to natural science, or that they are, from the standpoint of philosophy, equally productive.”

The editors added a footnote to this passage:

“These sentences — as Schlick himself explained in detail in his lectures — are directed against views similar to those of Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936) as expressed in his book: Die Grenzen der naturwissenschaftlichen Begriffsbildung (Freiburg 1896).”

Schlick was in the thick of things in Vienna a century ago. He was a student of Max Planck, and a friend of Einstein and Hilbert. He wrote philosophical expositions of the theory of relativity and after Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus appeared he was instrumental in the Vienna Circle, which had it origins in discussions of Wittenstein’s work. Schlick was almost 20 years younger than Rickert, but he died young in the same year Rickert died when he was shot by a deranged student at this university, so we could say with some justification that Rickert and Schlick were philosophical contemporaries, though they belonged to different philosophical worlds. That Schlick wanted to define himself in opposition to Rickert is interesting, and tells us something about the scholarly milieu of Rickert’s work. (Schlick also discusses Rickert in his 1929 address “Philosophy and Natural Science” and he briefly criticizes Simmel on related grounds in his Preface to Waismann’s Logik, Sprache, Philosophie. Kritik.)

I wanted to start out with Schlick as a contrast to Rickert, as Rickert is usually mentioned only in conjunction with Dilthey and Windelband, who shared many of his methodological views, and whose work he continued and expanded. Rickert studied under Windelband, and he followed Windelband as professor of philosophy at Heidelberg. (Also, Heidegger was Rickert’ assistant for a time, and Heidegger wrote his habilitation thesis under Rickert.) In a recent episode on Wilhelm Windelband I discussed his distinction between the nomothetic or lawlike sciences, and idiographic or particularistic sciences. This distinction was subsequently taken up by other philosophers of history. Dilthey reacted against Windelband, while Rickert built upon Windelband’s distinction. Both were unsatisfied with the distinction as Windelband originally formulated it, but the distinction was definitely a stimulus to further thought.

This cluster of (neo-Kantian) thinkers is associated with ongoing efforts to formulate a rigorous method for history (and for the historical sciences more generally) distinct from the methods of the empirical sciences. This attempt to formulate a distinctive method for history is connected to the ancient problem of whether or not history is a science. Even if we answer in the affirmative, there follows the further question of what kind of science it is. If we hold that science is one and universal, then the idea of there being multiple forms of scientific method makes no sense at all. On the other hand, if we allow that there are many ways to pursue scientific knowledge, then this opens up the can of worms suggesting that science is not one, but many.

Into this mix of neo-Kantians and theorists of scientific methodology, we can also throw Max Weber. Weber was one of the founders of sociology, and while not a philosopher of history, Weber profoundly influenced both philosophy and history. His famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in particular has influenced interpretations of early modern history. A book-length study of Weber’s conception of History, Max Weber’s Vision of History: Ethics and Methods, by Guenther Roth and Wolfgang Schluchter concludes with this paragraph:

“Weber’s philosophy of history was pragmatic rather than pessimistic. Unless we save ourselves, nothing and nobody will save us. Historical knowledge, which comprises the levels of analysis discussed here, is necessary for self-clarification, for deciding what we want and where we want to go. But that knowledge cannot lead to the kind of science of society that would unlock the secrets of history and provide a master key to the future.”

So Weber, too, had something like a philosophy of history, and we shouldn’t be surprised by this since Weber read Rickert’s book The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science: A Logical Introduction to the Historical Sciences, which significantly influenced Weber. Guy Oakes in his introduction to this translation of Rickert’s book Weber has having read Rickert in 1902 and praising the book. Oakes also notes in his book Weber and Rickert: Concept Formation in the Cultural Sciences

the reliance of Weber on Rickert’s work:

“…much of the philosophical vocabulary of Weber’s methodological writings is borrowed from Rickert. The concepts of the irrationality of reality, the hiatus irrationalis between concept and reality, the historical individual, and value relevance, for example, are all drawn from Rickert’s work. In addition, Weber frequently relies upon lines of argument that seem to reproduce strategies employed in Rickert’s writings. Weber’s critique of positivism, his method of demarcating the cultural sciences from the natural sciences, his distinction between value relevance and value judgments, and his conception of methodology as a theory of concept formation all appear to be based on arguments that are more fully developed in Rickert’s work. Finally, when Weber judges that a systematic statement of his own position is necessary or when he sets out a position without developing the arguments required for its support, he regularly refers the reader to Rickert.”

Yet while Weber famously held that scientific knowledge is “value free”, Rickert can be understood as anticipating virtue epistemology as values are central to his exposition of historical knowledge. In the following passage Rickert shows how he can both affirm Weber’s conception of the natural sciences as value free and the historical sciences as being about values, by employing value itself as the distinction between two kinds of object of scientific knowledge:

“…values always attach to cultural objects. Therefore, we shall call them goods, in order to distinguish them as valuable entities from the values as such, which, considered in themselves, are not real at all and can be disregarded. Science does not conceive of the objects of nature as goods. On the contrary, it views them as devoid of value and without relevance to it. If we abstract every value from our conception of a cultural object, we can say that it thereby becomes the same as a mere object of nature or that it can be scientifically treated as such. The presence or absence of relevance to values can thus serve as a reliable criterion for distinguishing between two kinds of scientific objects. Indeed, in the interest of methodology, this is the only criterion we can employ here, because apart from the value attaching to it every real cultural phenomenon must also be capable of being regarded as connected with nature and even as a part of nature. It will be shown later to what extent relevance to values is the determining factor in the logical structure of the historical sciences that deal with cultural phenomena.” (From “Nature and Culture,” included in Science and History: A Critique of Positivist Epistemology)

Rickert’s book The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science: A Logical Introduction to the Historical Sciences, which is, so far, only available in an abridgement in its English language edition, is a tightly and continuously argued book. That means that there is much that can be learned from it, but also that it poses a kind of challenge. Rickert’s influence in Anglo-American philosophy of history is almost non-existent, and I think at least one reason for this is the challenge that the book presents. It’s easier just to ignore it than to take the trouble to refute it.

I’m not saying that no one could counter Rickert’s arguments, but despite Schlick’s explicit criticism of Rickert, which the editors of Schlick’s book said was more detailed in Schlick’s lectures, I don’t know of any detailed critique of Rickert in Anglophone philosophy of history. Louis O. Mink cites Rickert in passing, and offers a brusque criticism of the core ideas that Rickert developed, saying that historical uniqueness:

“…has… been the basis of attempts, notably by Windelband and Rickert, to define history as knowledge of the concrete and the particular rather than the abstract and general. But the proto-science view can cogently argue that this will not serve to distinguish history from science, because no two physical events are exactly identical either, and, moreover, a physical fact is just as concrete and particular as an historical fact.”

For Mink, proto-science is a body of knowledge that has not yet achieved scientific status, and he argues that history is a proto-science that has yet to conform to the paradigm of the natural sciences. In other words, history isn’t a different kind of science, only a body of knowledge that has not yet been made scientific. Thus Mink is aware of the issues raised by Rickert, but doesn’t feel any obligation to engage more deeply with Rickert’s argument.

There are a handful of English language books on philosophy of history that build on Rickert’s work (like Guy Oakes’ book mentioned previously), but I don’t find him cited often outside the circle of his direct influence. This is unfortunate, since Rickert has a lot to contribute to debates specific to the concerns of Anglophone philosophy of history. For example, Collingwood is one of the most influential English language philosopher’s of history, and a full generation prior to Collingwood, Rickert preemptively criticized one of the central themes of Collingwood, namely, that history is the reenactment of the thoughts of past historical actors. Pages 165 to 175 of the English translation of Rickert are a discussion of re-creation that is relevant to Collingwood’s conception of reenactment. Rickert has this to say:

“…as regards the meaning of the mental life of other persons, we may perhaps acquire direct access to the individuality of its nonreal meaning, but never to the individuality of its real existence.” (p. 164)

What does this mean for Collingwood? Is reenactment possible or impossible according to Rickert? Because Rickert’s book is one long argument, to appreciate the relevance of his remarks on re-creation to Collingwood we can’t take any one quote such as I have just given in isolation. A fuller exposition is necessary to get at Rickert’s conception of nonreal meaning, for example.

Rickert emphasizes that his is a logical inquiry into the nature of the concepts of natural science and history, though his logic is a philosophical logic focused on concepts.

“What is it that fixes the limits of concept formation in natural science, limits that, for logical or formal reasons, the natural sciences can never traverse? This is our first question, even though it need not remain our only question.” (p. 36)

The core of Rickert’s argument in The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science is already evident from the title of the book. The concepts of natural science are limited by the individual and the particular:

“We have access to the full content of reality only through the immediacy of life, never by means of the concepts of natural science. The circumstance that the word ‘reality’ can also be the name for the form that we ascribe to the immediately experienced, perceptual, and individual content is of no significance in this context. We designate as real the content that is both individual and also an object of sense perception. Thus it is clear that all the claims that could be made about the relations of natural scientific concept formation to concrete actuality and individuality must also hold true for its relationship to empirical reality itself. The more completely we develop our natural scientific theories and representations, the further we depart from reality as unique, perceptual, and individual…” (p. 39)

In order to formulate propositions in natural science, especially laws of nature, we must limit our concepts to what is generic:

“Suppose we want to know something about the uniqueness, distinctiveness, and individuality of the real. Then we cannot turn to a science for whose concepts the unique and individual configurations of the real event, as well as its perceptual configuration, sets a limit. On the contrary, if there is to be a representation of reality with reference to its uniqueness and individuality, a science is required that diverges logically from natural science in essential points concerning the form of its concept formation. From this point on, our task is to identify the logical structure of this science, to distinguish its mode of concept formation from that of every natural science, and thus to establish the principle for a logical articulation of the empirical sciences, a task directly linked with the demonstration of the limits of concept formation in natural science.” (p. 47)

The concepts necessary to history are to be found on the other side of this limitation on the concepts of natural science:

“When the concept is formed on the basis of a single individual reality, however, the historical concept includes precisely what distinguishes the different individuals from one another. Either it completely disregards what is common to them, or it retains this only insofar as that is indispensable to the definition of their individuality. Thus we meet a kind of conceptualization in which the content of science does not become increasingly remote from the individuality of reality, which was the case for the sort of simplification produced by concepts of nature. On the contrary, by its means the content of science is formed in such a way that it expresses the individuality — even if not the perceptuality — of empirical existence.” (p. 100)

But the concepts employed in history are not only individual and particular, they are also value-laden, which Rickert formulates in terms of teleology:

“Insofar as the unity of the historical individual is always based on a value relation, it can be called a teleological unity, and historical individuals can be called teleological individuals. This is connected with the consideration that the concept of purpose is conceived as the concept of a future good that is to be realized. In other words, it is linked with the concept of a value that is attached to it. In consequence, we generally call every way of thinking in which values play a decisive role ‘teleological.’ In that case, concept formation in history, which has to conform to this sort of teleological formation of individuals, can also be seen as teleological. Accordingly, concept formations in history can be distinguished from those of natural science as teleological concept formations.” (p. 101)

At this point we can see how surprising it is that Rickert influenced Weber, the great advocate of value-free science. For Rickert, the concepts employed by history are characterized by their value component, and this, as much as their uniqueness, individuality, and particularity, marks them out as being logically distinction from the concepts of natural science.

Rickert presents us with a picture of scientific inquiry as approaching the barrier of individuality from the side of natural science, and on the other side of this barrier we find the historical sciences. The totality of scientific inquiry, then, has this chasm between the two modes of inquiry proper to the natural sciences and the historical sciences. Do the nomothetic and the idiographic sciences meet seamlessly in the middle, like a piece of joinery? Or do they leave a gap, a hiatus irrationalis, between them? And, if they leave a gap, what would we find in that gap, and what kind concept formation would be necessary to make an inquiry into the point of transition from the natural to the historical sciences?