Wilhelm Windelband

Wilhelm Windelband (11 May 1848–22 October 1915)

Today is the 174th anniversary of the birth of Wilhelm Windelband (11 May 1848–22 October 1915), who was born on this date in 1848 (a year sometimes referred to as the “Springtime of Nations” because of the many revolutions that took place in Europe).

The opening of Windelband’s A History of Philosophy he gives a gratifiying clear account of what philosophy is:

“By philosophy present usage understands the scientific treatment of the general questions relating to the universe and human life. Individual philosophers, according to the presuppositions with which they have entered upon their work, and the results which they have reached in it, have sought to change this indefinite idea common to all, into more precise definitions,’ which in part diverge so widely that the common element in the conception of the science may seem lost.”

Few philosophers today would use this definition, but it is sufficiently clear to orient us in relation to Windelband’s conception of what he was doing. Given that Windelband understood philosophy to be a scientific inquiry (what makes philosophy off from science — what we have come to call a demarcation criterion — is not the method of inquiry, but the generality of the questions so addressed), it is not surprising that his engagement with the philosophy of history would take seriously the question of whether history is a science.

This question was the occasion of Windelband’s distinction between nomothetic sciences and idiographic sciences (some writers also spell this “ideographic”):

“In their quest for knowledge of reality, the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is no-mothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case. Should we retain the customary expressions, then it can be said that the dichotomy at stake here concerns the distinction between the natural and the historical disciplines. However we must bear in mind that, in the methodological sense of this dichotomy, psychology falls unambiguously within the domain of the natural sciences.” (Wilhelm Windelband, Rectorial Address, 1894)

While Windelband distinguished the nomothetic and the idiographic, he did not argue that the two are exhaustively disjoint. The idiographic sciences, he argues, are dependent upon the nomological sciences:

“…general propositions are necessary at every stage of inquiry in the idiographic sciences. And these they can borrow only — with perfect legitimacy — from the nomothetic disciplines. Every causal explanation of any historical occurrence presupposes general ideas about the process of things on the whole. When historical proofs are reduced to their purely logical form, the ultimate premises will always include natural laws of events, in particular, laws of mental events or psychological processes. Consider someone who has no idea at all concerning how men in general think, feel, and desire. It would not only be impossible for him to comprehend individual happenings in order to acquire knowledge of events and processes. He would already have failed in the critical determination of historical facts. Under these conditions, of course, it is quite remarkable that the claims which the historical sciences make upon psychology are so undemandingly lenient. The notoriously incomplete formulations which the laws of mental life have been able to achieve thus far have never stood in the way of historians. By means of natural common sense, tact, and genial intuition, they have known quite enough in order to understand the heroes of history and their conduct. This fact provides material for serious reflection and makes it appear doubtful that the most recently projected mathematical-scientific conception of elementary psychological processes will make a significant contribution to our understanding of real human life.”

Of Windelband’s distinction Guy Oakes wrote:

“The famous dichotomy put forward for the first time in this lecture grounds the basic differences between the sciences in the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic methods. However the distinction between these methods is a consequence of an axiological dichotomy: the different values that are ascribed to two different cognitive interests. Nomothetic and idiographic knowledge, therefore, are constituted by reference to independent and irreducibly different values. In the first domain, value is ascribed to knowledge of the general properties of reality. In the second domain, value is ascribed to knowledge of its concrete and unique properties.”

Windelband’s distinction was, among other things, an attempted solution to the ancient problem of whether or not history is a science, strictly speaking. Windelband’s answer was that history is indeed a science, but it is a science of a particular kind, an idiographic science, and that is not the same kind of science as the natural sciences, which are nomothetic sciences.

Windelband’s approach to the problem of the scientificity of history was taken up by Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833–01 October 1911) and Heinrich Rickert (25 May 1863–25 July 1936), among others, both of whom made major contributions to the philosophy of history. Of Windelband Dilthey wrote:

“Windelband sees the natural sciences as aiming at laws and historical research as aiming at the well-articulated form. This is because historical consciousness appreciates the independent value of individual psychic life. But the appreciation of the individual and the description of the singular obviously shared by history and comparative psychology also require the comparison of similar cases and finally causal analysis directed at singularity, gradations, and affinities — all of this is inseparable from true history.” (Wilhelm Dilthey, Understanding the Human World, p. 225)

Thus, for Dilthey, Windelband’s idiographic methodology is a stage in historical thought, but “true history” must pass beyond the individual and the singular to comparisons and causal explanation. Windelband’s distinction, then, has its place, but it is not the whole of history.

Rickert made an interesting comparison between Ranke’s famous claim that history should simply tell how it really was and Windelband’s claim that history is idiographic:

“…Ranke’s desire for ‘objectivity’ was justified in the face of the arbitrary distortion of the facts or the interspersion of praise and blame in historical accounts. Attention had to be drawn to the necessity of respecting facts, especially in opposition to arbitrary historical interpretations. However, this does not mean that, as Ranke seems to have supposed, historical objectivity consists in a mere reproduction of the facts without any ordering principle of selection. There is just as much a problem, and just as little a solution to the problem, in the expression ‘as it really was,’ which appears in Ranke’s famous formula, as there is in saying, with Windelband, that the procedure of the historical sciences is ‘ideographic’.” (Heinrich Rickert, “History as a Cultural Science” included in Science and History: A Critique of Positivist Epistemology, p. 85)

Thus, for Rickert, Windelband’s distinction is a starting point to point history on a sound epistemological footing, but much remains to be done after one has made the distinction between the nomothetic and the idiographic. Dilthey and Rickert seem to be more-or-less on the same page in regard to Windelband’s distinction. No doubt both philosopher’s built upon Windelband’s work precisely because the distinction he made was intriguing, but not, on its own, able to resolve the scientific status of history.

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