Dilthey’s Philosophy

Dilthey’s Philosophy

June 28, 2021 Off By Felso

In his various writings on philosophy, history and the human sciences, Wilhelm Dilthey combines elements from both historicism and philosophy of life with an appreciation for the achievements of the natural sciences.

Historicism and philosophy of life come together in the belief that history is the key to understanding human life. Human individuals and societies can only be understood historically, so historical research and methods specific to that research are of paramount importance. Like philosophers of life, Dilthey thinks that the positivist’s attempt to apply the methods of the natural sciences to the study and understanding of human life inevitably ignores or distorts the essential aspects of human existence. However, criticism of the mechanistic and reifying implications of scientific reason by the Romantics and philosophers of life can easily turn into a purely subjective and ultimately empty protest. The sanctification of passion and will can even foster a potentially dangerous irrationalism.

Likewise, the speculative idealism of Hegelian reason, even opposed to the reductive rationalism of positivism, is dogmatic and ultimately untenable. Even in less rational variants of German idealism, the deification of the will can trigger tendencies similar to the irrational tendencies that inspire romanticism.

Dilthey never underestimates the rationality, objectivity and precision exhibited in natural science. Generally speaking, it seeks to do justice to the concerns of historicists, philosophers of life, and Romantics in an interpretation of history and the ‘human sciences’ (Geisteswissenschaften) capable of reconciling scientific objectivity with an approach that appreciates the integrity of human life.

Dilthey, as a faithful empiricist, then thinks that all knowledge is ultimately derived from experience. In this respect he was influenced by English philosophers such as Locke and Hume, and above all by Kant’s critical philosophy. He accepts the empiricist (or ‘epistemological’) view that all knowledge is based on ‘inner experience’ or ‘facts of consciousness’. But the approach of earlier empiricists neglected emotion and will, while placing great emphasis on intellectual or cognitive experience:

“Real blood does not flow through the veins of the knowing subject as constructed by Locke, Hume, and Kant; it is just a diluted fluid of the mind, only a thought process. Knowledge seems to derive concepts such as the external world, time, substance, and cause from perception, imagination, and thought. Historical and psychological studies of man as a whole have led me to explain knowledge and concepts of knowledge in terms of the powers of man as a being who desires, feels, and dreams.” Dilthey

The historical dimension of human experience, its ‘historicity’, is also a central aspect of what a positivist approach inevitably fails to grasp:

“For [for Dilthey] the present is not a prolonged moment, but a small, structured part of the flow in which immediate experience is always enriched by consciousness of the past and anticipation of the future. Therefore, each moment of life has a distinct meaning according to its place in the temporal sequence… This connection between the temporal structure and the categories of life makes man a historical being. Rickman

Even intellectual or cognitive experience, as a result of this situation, takes place in the irreducibly historical flux of human experience.

Dilthey’s purer interpretation of human experience suggests a resolution of the contradiction between romanticism, philosophy of life and idealism on the one hand, and positivism on the other. He hopes to provide a strong foundation for a science of man that can both do justice to the irreducible qualities of mind or life and aim at an objectivity and precision equal to that of the natural sciences.

To save the human sciences from the falsifying influence of positivism, Dilthey unveils a distinctive methodology with standards of objectivity in disciplines such as history, classical language and literary studies, anthropology, and psychology. ‘To give a foundation to the study of society and history, it is important to see the different ground of objectivity in the human sciences. Unlike the types of objects studied by astronomy, mechanics, or other physical sciences, human beings have both mental and physical properties and must therefore be studied differently. Because the defining characteristic of human experience is its historicity, historical knowledge is central to any understanding of the human sciences more generally. Recalling Kant’s famous critique of pure or theoretical reason, Dilthey defines his project as a critique of historical reason, aimed at drawing the boundaries of historical understanding and identifying its basic principles.

Dilthey defines two opposing approaches in the context of acquiring knowledge as ‘explanation’ (Erklüren) and ‘understanding’ (Versthen).