Wilhelm Dilthey

Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833–01 October 1911)

Today is the 188th anniversary of the birth of Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833–01 October 1911), who was born on this date in 1833.

Dilthey was a major figure in the development of the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), but he is not well known in the Anglophone world as his books were slow to be translated into English and his work has never had the attention in the Anglophone world that it has had in Continental Europe. However, Dilthey’s conception of “lived experience” (Erlebnis gegeben) has become wildly successful in recent years, though few know that the concept has its origins on Dilthey. Princeton University Press has now published six volumes of Dilthey’s collected works, and Volume III, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, has much of his work on lived experience.

If one allows that there is a distinct branch of the sciences called the human sciences, different from both the social sciences and the natural sciences, then history will probably belong to the human sciences, though this taxonomy is not without its problems. One could plausibly classify anthropology as a human science, a social science, or a natural science, depending upon how anthropology is framed. This observation is interesting from a Copernican perspective, since anthropology is the most explicitly anthropocentric of the sciences, implying that all the sciences are anthropocentric to some extent, and that establishing truly Copernican sciences requires a special effort to negate our anthropocentric presuppositions.

Dilthey’s interpretation of Enlightenment historiography is interesting:

“The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which is reproached for being unhistorical, produced a new conception of history, which was conveyed in the brilliant historical masterpieces of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon. In these works, the view of the human race’s solidarity and progress spread its light over all peoples and ages. Now for the first time, universal history acquired a nexus drawn from empirical observation itself. This nexus was rational in that it connected all events in terms of ground and consequent, and critically superior in its rejection of any transcendence of given reality through otherworldly ideas. It was based on a completely unbiased application of historical criticism, which did not spare even the most sacred shrines of the past, and on a method of comparison that spanned all the stages of mankind.” (from “The Eighteenth Century and the Historical World,” 1901, in Selected Works Volume IV, Hermeneutics and the Study of History)

Dilthey here recognizes the unhistorical character of the Enlightenment, but he does not fault Enlightenment historiography of this account; for Dilthey’s the Enlightenment unhistorical treatment of history was a major milestone, and its willingness to “not spare even the most sacred shrines of the past” made it unbiased and universal. One could even call this a Copernican re-contextualization of history.

There is an interesting comparison of Dilthey and Collingwood in Wilhelm Dilthey, An Introduction, by H. A. Hodges, which is instructive in so far as both Dilthey and Collingwood were primarily philosophers of history:

“Both were interested in art, Collingwood more deeply and with better information. Both were interested in religion, though not as believers in any recognizable sense. Both deplored the neglect by philosophers of the logical and epistemological problems arising out of historical research. In discussions of lived experience and thought, of expression and understanding, they run close while remaining each himself. Both were concerned about the future of philosophy, and understood the challenge of the historical consciousness; Collingwood’s doctrine of metaphysics as a history of absolute presuppositions is conceived in the same relativistic spirit as Dilthey’s comparative Weltanschauungslehre. But Collingwood had violent objections to bringing philosophy and psychology too close together, whereas Dilthey welcomed their alliance and expected philosophy to become a kind of applied psychology. Dilthey also had a keener sense of the unity and interrelations of the various human studies, whereas Collingwood, like others in the idealist tradition, talks mainly about historiography. Collingwood writes the better literary style, his work is not too diffuse and each book is a finished unity, but it will probably be found that Dilthey has the broader horizon and the more sober judgment.” (p. 102)

In his Introduction to the Human Sciences Dilthey specifically devoted four chapters to a critique of philosophy of history — Chapter 14, Neither Philosophy of History nor Sociology Is Really a Science, Chapter 15, The Philosophy of History and Sociology Cannot Fulfill Their Tasks, Chapter 16, The Methods of the Philosophy of History and of Sociology Are Wrong, and Chapter 17, Philosophy of History and Sociology Do Not Recognize the Relationship of History as a Science to the Particular Social Sciences — though this is not a critique of the mere possibility of philosophy of history, but of how philosophy of history had gotten it wrong so far. Here is Dilthey’s own take on the proper way to do philosophy of history:

“The thinker who takes the historical world as his object must be firmly and directly in contact with the unmediated raw material of history and be master of all the historian’s methods. He must subject himself to the same law of struggling with the raw material as the historian. The operation of adding either psychological or metaphysical principles to material that has already been bound into an artistic whole by the eye and work of a historian — this operation will always remain futile. If we speak of a philosophy of history, that can only mean historical research which has a philosophical bent and makes use of philosophical resources.” (Introduction to the Human Sciences, p. 141)

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