Heinrich Rickert

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
6 min readMay 26, 2023
Heinrich Rickert (25 May 1863–25 July 1936)

Today is the 160th 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.

I have had occasion to mention Rickert in several other profiles, including those of Windelband, Weber, and others. Rickert’s name comes up repeatedly in conjunction with those of Dilthey and Windelband because 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, but 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.

Guy Oakes in his book Weber and Rickert: Concept Formation in the Cultural Sciences notes 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)

An illuminating summary of the themes of Rickert’s main work can be found in Victor Kupriyano’s paper “Teleology as a Method of Historical Cognition in Rickert’s Philosophy”:

“The twofold aim Heinrich Rickert sets himself in his main work The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science is both to delimit naturalistic point of view pretending to universal methodological meaning for cognition and to identify the essence of historical sciences themselves; the first task implies the second one, as only after defining the limits of natural science we can find a place for history. Natural sciences, as Rickert puts it, suggest that their methods are universal and any scientific research can only prove its scientificity with the reference to the natural science. The approach is in the idea that scientificity is universal for all types of research, and it coincides with natural science. The only way to form historical investigation is to apply the approach common to all sciences and elaborated by naturalists in details to the specific subject of historical research. There is no difference in history and natural science except in their subjects; both history and natural science have common principles. For H. Rickert this was the result of extrapolation of the naturalistic worldview on all manifestations of life. It is well known that he considered this point of view to be fallacious and opposed it. The core of his argument lies in his theory of concept formation. He had found new type of concepts and based historical sciences on them. He characterized this type of concept formation as teleological. He wrote: ‘…we can characterize it (the unity of the historical individual)… as the teleological unity and individuals as teleological individuals. But as historical concept formation always has to be fixed to this teleological formation of individuals, we shall also call its principle teleological and shall distinguish historical concept formation from natural science one as of teleological concept formation’.”

In his book Rickert’s Relevance: The Ontological Nature And Epistemological Functions of Values, Anton C. Zijderveld explains how an agent transforms a causal relationship into a teleological relationship:

“The causal relationship is always conditional. A new component is introduced, however, when the will of the technician enters the relationship. He posits a certain effect as his desired aim or objective. That is, he connects the aim with values and transforms thereby the conditions into the means by which he can obtain his cherished aim. The causality of physics is then altered into a teleological relationship. Consequently, the means of realizing the aim acquire a normative meaning. After all, it is the human, evaluating will that alters causal effects into meaningful purposes, and causal conditions into teleological means which contain norms. However, physics itself does not contain such purposes, and is unable to provide moral norms.” (p. 73)

Thus, for Rickert, the objects of historical knowledge are value-laden and apprehended teleologically, and that differentiates the objects of historical knowledge from the objects of knowledge of empirical science.

Further Resources